Australian drama


The Almighty Sometimes  

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Diagnosed with a severe mental illness as a child, Anna was prescribed a cocktail of pills. Now a young adult, she’s wondering how life might feel without them. But as she tries to move beyond the labels that have defined her, her mother feels compelled to intervene – threatening the fragile balance they have both fought so hard to maintain.

Winner of a Judges Award at the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting, Kendall Feaver’s The Almighty Sometimes premiered at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in February 2018. The play received the the UK Theatre Award for Best New Play at 2018.

Drink, Dance, Laugh and Lie

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

No one has recognised Reade Collins in the street for over a decade. Suddenly everyone seems to know who he is again – things are looking up. But there's a flip side to second-hand fame – and Reade discovers that there's more than one way of getting shafted. Drink, Dance, Laugh and Lie is a wildly entertaining look at the nature of celebrity.

Drink, Dance, Laugh and Lie premiered at the Bush Theatre, London, in 1999.

Gabriel (Adamson)

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

This is noisily Protestant England - the England of William and Mary's Glorious Revolution at the end of a century of civil strife. This is London in the 1690s, the monster city tamed into awe by our only Orpheus: Henry Purcell.

Monarchs, princes, prostitutes, wigmakers, composers, tapsters, musicians, transvestites and watermen jostle for attention in the teeming, unruly world of late seventeenth-century London, where enthralling stories both real and imagined merge and intersect.

Gabriel premiered at Shakespeare's Globe, London, in July 2013 with Alison Balsom, one of the world's finest trumpeters, performing the music of Purcell and Handel.

Madame Rubinstein  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Set against the glamorous skylines of 1950s Manhattan, world-leading cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein is locked in a power struggle with rivals Elizabeth Arden and Revlon.

From humble beginnings as a Polish-Jewish immigrant, this is the story behind one of the best-known faces in the world of beauty. But as her professional and family conflicts reach fever pitch, will the ghosts of a turbulent past topple one of the world's richest businesswomen?

Madame Rubinstein is a bright new comedy where the nails are painted and the gloves are off. Yet when the lipstick bleeds and the makeup fades, what is there left to hide behind?

Written by esteemed Australian playwright John Misto, this edition of the text was published to coincide with its 2017 run at the Park Theatre, London. 

Picnic At Hanging Rock

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Tom Wright’s stage adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, was first co-produced by Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, and Black Swan State Theatre Company, Perth, and first performed at Malthouse Theatre on 26 February 2016. The play received its European premiere at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh on 13 January 2017.

The play's action is narrated by five performers, 'Five Australian women', who are named in the published script after the actors who played them in the first production. They are struggling to solve the mystery at the heart of Joan Lindsay's original novel, which presents itself as the true story of the disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher one summer's day in 1900 while on a picnic expedition to Hanging Rock in Victoria. Euphoria and terror reverberate throughout the community, as the potential for history to repeat itself becomes nightmarishly real.

The premiere production was directed by Matthew Lutton with set and costume design by Zoë Atkinson. It was performed by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Arielle Gray, Amber McMahon, Elizabeth Nabben and Nikki Shiels.

Welcome Home, Captain Fox!

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

It's the legendary hot summer of 1959 and while the Cold War rages and America tunes into I Love Lucy, Captain Jack Fox – believed missing in action in the fields of France fifteen years before – is about to be reunited with his family in the Hamptons.

But is this really Jack Fox? And if it isn't, who is this man? And why are there twenty-two other families so intent on claiming him as their own?

A comedy of identity, lost and found, based on Jean Anouilh's 1937 play, Le Voyageur sans bagage, Anthony Weigh's Welcome Home, Captain Fox! premiered at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in February 2016.


Faber and Faber
Type: Text

— And your husband forgave you. But what did you do? Decided that forgiveness was offensive and walked out on your marriage. With nothing. Into nothing.
— Into everything, I think.

It's 1959. Robert leaves Ibsen's A Doll's House outraged by its attack on the sanctity of marriage; his wife Daisy dashes round to the stage door, in love with both Nora and the actress who plays her, thrilled by their promise of escape.

Daisy is at the crossroads. Her moral compass tells her to go one way, society the other. What she chooses to do next will have consequences not just for her and Robert, but for four couples who come after them over ninety years.

The truth is we have to give up parts of ourselves if we want to be with someone. And what if, before you know this, you run away from the wrong person?

Samuel Adamson's Wife premiered at Kiln Theatre, London, in May 2019.

The country’s first conventional theatre was opened in 1796 by an ex-convict, Robert Sideaway and closed two years later after a spate of robberies on the unattended homes of theatre patrons. None the less, from the 1820s onwards the several colonies of nineteenth-century Australia supported an increasing number of theatres and theatrical performances. Few of the 600 or so plays written and performed in their public houses, converted halls and purpose-built theatres between 1834 and 1914 have survived, but those that have witness a shift from theatre as a place of free and easy entertainment to the Georgian mode of comfort, respectability and increasing technical sophistication. American actors arrived with the rush for gold, the first of them in 1853. None was more influential than J. C. Williamson and Maggie Moore, who established what became known as ‘the Firm’ – an organization that dominated commercial theatre in Australia for 80 years. Williamson declared: ‘Australians will not have Australians on the stage.’ Others disagreed. During the 1870s and 1890s, the ‘golden age of melodrama’, writers such as George Darrell, Alfred Dampier, Garnet Walsh and Bland Holt confirmed and refined the stock of Australian characters: the bushman, the new chum, the girl of the bush and the loyal ‘mate’ – and the status of the local actor-manager.

At the start of the twentieth century Louis Esson, sometimes called the father of Australian theatre, perceived two countries, one in danger, the other dangerous. The end of that century saw the ‘illusion of theatre’ and the conventions of privileged spectatorship identified as ‘the primary logic’ in the construction of an historical process of ‘continually becoming’ Australian. It has even been suggested that the very sense of Australian community was fashioned in the first theatrical performance in Sydney in 1788, just months after the first settlement – or invasion – of the island continent. These are but two versions of history which struggle to account for the last 200 years of presence in a place which has for scores of thousands of years known and practised what Westerners call ‘culture’.

After just 100 years of British occupation; Esson’s dangerous Australia was a ‘settled’ place, peopled by opportunists for whom landscape meant real estate, silence signified consent and motion the mindless pursuit of the spoils of progress. The endangered country was a land of opportunity and mystery – radical in persuasion and sentiment, independent in speech, thought and action. These ideas continue to contribute to contested representations of ‘nation’. In a learning piece, prophetically entitled The Time is Not Yet Ripe (1912), Esson urged a species of anarchy upon hoped-for and future audiences, knowing full well that for the ‘settlers’, vastness, silence and stillness were perceived more as enemy than inspiration. They were happy to identify with the land through the homely and conventional characters of bucolic comedy and fable – with Dad and Mother Rudd and their sentimental, battling family in the popular play and film versions of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection (1912). They did not want to celebrate a place of contradictions, moods and caprices – less still a land which was at some fundamental level not theirs at all. For Esson, battling and struggle were not merely pioneer virtues, they were part of a much more complex state of being, both political and metaphysical.

New theorists and historians have framed the discussion somewhat differently in their evaluation of theatre’s role in remapping, restaging and questioning the colonial project in Australia. They talk of ‘counter-events’ and ‘quiet but significant little revolutions’ which have identified the making and changing of a culturally diverse and pluralist nation. The story of Australian theatre (not the Australian theatre) which follows recognizes and is influenced by both radical tendencies.

It was in response to such theatrical precedents that Esson co-founded the Pioneer Players (1922), a small ensemble dedicated solely to the production and promotion of plays written by Australians for Australians, performed in a way which avoided both the clichés of popular melodrama and the imported if well-meaning solemnities which dominated the repertory movement established in Melbourne in 1911 by Gregan McMahon – once called the Granville Barker of the Australian theatre.

For Esson, Australia was always ‘the new thing, the unknown’, terra Australia incognita. He defined the sense of excitement, quest, fear and struggle inherent in all great art as quintessentially Australian – thus Sophocles was an Australian, and Shakespeare. It was at once an ironic reflection on a new nation’s response to what was seen as an intimidating cultural void and a passionate exhortation to those brave enough to challenge the very notion of emptiness. The purpose was to unsettle and indeed subvert the self-comforting and habituated view of a supposedly innocent, honest, active and perpetually ‘youthful’ people. In their efforts at reform the Pioneers set the agenda for later generations: establish a company; declare an artistic philosophy; match theatre practice to politics; investigate the legends and assumptions of the past; develop an acting style; find a local voice and accent; experiment with form; admit influences but avoid models. In Esson’s case, the influences came principally from turn-of-the-century bohemian Romantics as well as advocates of working-class culture and literature such as short-story writer and poet Henry Lawson who wrote for the ‘bushman’s Bible’, the Bulletin newspaper, from the late 1880s. He also admired Yeats, Synge and the Abbey Theatre experiment in Dublin, and espoused an idiosyncratic socialism.

There were home-grown, contemporary theatrical encouragements for the Pioneers. In Adelaide, where he founded the Literary Theatre in 1908, Bryceson Treharne was advocating the establishment of theatre ensembles as an aid to the development of a national theatre. Melbourne’s William Moore promoted Australian Drama nights between 1909 and 1912. Arthur Adams, an early advocate and practitioner of ‘Australian’ playwriting, saw his works The Wasters (1910) and Mrs Pretty and the Premier (1913) performed and received with interest. Journalist Leon Brodzky encouraged the development of a reflexive drama through his Australian Theatre Society (1904) and in numerous articles. Most important of all, McMahon of the Melbourne Repertory Theatre presented the earliest of Esson’s plays (1910).

At the same time, the commercial theatre and the newly introduced medium of cinema (1896) were trading successfully on stereotypes taken from popular theatrical melodrama, and the repertory movement was competing for the loyalties and attention of the bourgeoisie. For a fledgling theatre of ideas, ‘mood’ and social conscience, to ignore the importance of lively traditions of popular and intellectual culture was to deny a variety of truths about Australia and Australians. Esson’s folk theatre, deliberately distanced from such traditions and practices, was hard put to make its presence felt. By 1926 dream turned to disillusionment and Esson quit the theatre along with his collaborators, Hilda Esson, Nette Palmer, Vance Palmer and Stewart Macky, leaving behind a handful of scripts to be revived half a century later. Many of these works, but by no means all, derived from the ‘bush’ genre of the 1890s, but most questioned bush mythology in some way even as they acknowledged it. For example, Esson’s plays The Woman Tamer (1910), Dead Timber (1911) and Mother and Son (1923) used role reversals to undermine masculinist assumptions and the supposedly subordinate and marginal place of women in such a culture, and revealed in the process a range of hitherto unexplored and exotic subcultures, types and environments.

Though Esson has been labelled ‘father’ of Australian theatre by patriarchal convention, neither theatrical nor sociological practice has offered an equivalent ascription to any of the many women who have contributed to and sustained that theatre. Yet one of the most impressive of all plays of the time, and one in sympathy with the aims of the Pioneers, was written by an influential and politicized woman, Katharine Susannah Prichard. The play was Brumby Innes. Written as a companion piece to Coonardoo, her novel of cattle-station life in the far north-west, it addressed issues of class, race, sexuality and environment with a frankness which prevented production until 1972 yet drew accolades as early as 1927. Prichard dared to reveal a brutality in her outback hero which profoundly questioned the preferred asexual, rough-diamond image of a man of the land. Moreover, she wrote honestly of domestic and racial entrapment, exploitation and rape, in a manner which exposed contradictory codes of behaviour at the heart of an apparently down-to-earth and straightforward society. Using the symbol of the wild horse – the brumby – she pursued with powerful dramatic logic the process of transformation of personality and psyche in an alien place and relationship. These conflicts, and the convolutions of time and the timeless, would also become a preoccupation of later playwrights, especially the generation of the 1970s which rediscovered Brumby Innes. Unlike the mood pieces favoured by Esson and Palmer, this work admitted a vast landscape and opened with the remarkable song, dance and ritual celebration of a corroboree – ascribed to the Ngaala-Warrngga speaking South Pandjima people – which serves as an encapsulation of the tensions which shape the whole.

After Prichard came a string of successful and important left-wing women writers, theatre directors and administrators, whose claim to influence through their practice is as great as Esson’s. This is certainly the case in the New Theatre movement of the 1930s which, in a sense, assumed the mantle forsaken by the Pioneers. While advocating an internationalist politics through its Melbourne and Sydney theatres in particular, the New Theatre advanced a national cause in its encouragement of local writers, actors, designers, technicians and directors. Its history is marked by classic left-wing productions like Waiting for Lefty (1936), but is equally notable for its topical, community-issue plays like The Thirteen Dead (1936), War on the Waterfront (1939) or Reedy River (1951), which celebrates the great Queensland shearers’ strike of 1891 in folk-ballad opera form. This play has been regularly produced throughout Australia and overseas, including a London showing by Unity Theatre. Prichard contributed, along with many left-wing artists, to New Theatre writing, ethics and aesthetics. From the 1930s to the radical 1960s and 1970s playwright-novelists of international standing such as Betty Roland, Dymphna Cusack and Frank Hardy have had their work produced alongside the revues, agitprops and issue plays penned by celebrated company members. These include Oriel Gray’s Lawson (1943) and The Torrents (1955), and Mona Brand’s Here Under Heaven (1948) and Barbara (1966). The New Theatres in Sydney and to a lesser extent Melbourne continue to survive, though the movement from which they take their names is long since past.

Roland wrote her classic The Touch of Silk (1928) seven years before the formation of the New and was, by 1935, already a significant and politically committed writer. Like Prichard and others, such as Henrietta Drake-Brockman in Men Without Wives (1944), she took as her principal theme the isolation of women in an alien environment. Whereas Prichard chose the remote north-west, Roland invoked the closed society of the country town. The play gathered together familiar figures from the bush tradition. Her stroke of genius was to add to this array a French war bride. Jeanne’s sense of dislocation and her ultimate capitulation to the stigma of ‘difference’ turned potential melodrama into a social tragedy in which personal and community catastrophe is linked to elemental forces of drought and flood. These in turn are connected to constricted ideas of love and fears of impotence. The ‘touch of silk’ defines cultural prejudice and misrepresentation in an Australian drama increasingly preoccupied with lost innocence and the trauma of personal disintegration. These writers were aware of the paradoxical characterization of the land as feminine, hard and fickle and of the ‘woman of the bush’ as the personification of unswerving constancy and maternal comfort. Tropes of barrenness, denial and betrayal in successive generations of plays have served to reinforce the contradictions. Contemporary women playwrights have consequently given much time to rewriting those views without denying the achievements of their predecessors. Elaine Ackworth’s Composing Venus (1995), for example, sheds new light on playing the past as present reality in the lives of three generations of country women in one family.

By the end of the 1930s images other than those of bush and sheep station had claimed the attention of a nation reshaped by war and Depression. The popular stage gave rise to an urban figure which defined an economically divided society. It was down at heel, shiny-arsed, overdressed in dark suit and spats and wore a painted, woebegone expression like a tragicomic mask beneath its fedora. This was an expression like no other part larrikin, part ‘lair’ and mischief-maker, part foolhardy skite. It belonged on the face of Mo, perhaps the most famous and enduring Australian clown figure apart from Barry Humphries’ archetypal and monstrous Edna Everage.

Mo, the alter ego of vaudeville Dutch-Jewish comedian Roy Rene, was the epitome of lost soul and lost innocence combined. He made an art form of innuendo and gave a rallying cry, half prayer and half oath, to the people of his generation and to those which were to follow: ‘Strike me lucky.’ Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, however, the belief in luck was repeatedly called into question by writers such as Palmer, George Landen Dann and Sydney Tomholt. Indeed, the ‘lucky country’ epithet was used later with some degree of irony, and contemporary playwrights have acknowledged this in their examination of the increasingly complex and uncertain dream worlds of their characters.

By the beginning of the Second World War the evolving Australian theatre had acquired some significant features: a call for a national theatre; a fascination with symbol and subversion; the courage to deal with sexuality, racism and xenophobia, and admit the fusion of landscape and personality; a social conscience; a taste for agitation and propaganda; a variety of responses to endemic isolation and loneliness; and a talent for masking, ‘turns’ and knockabout. There were, however, no permanent professional companies to explore any of the implications of such features. Musicals from America or companies such as the Old Vic from England, with their classical productions and ‘stars’, continued to be imported. This pattern was interrupted by the war, when home-grown musical comedy favourites like Gladys Moncrieff in Maid of the Mountains (1942) found a ready and enthusiastic public. Peace brought its own form of cultural reoccupation and Australians, with rare exception, returned to playing second fiddle to imported leads or went overseas to gain both experience and status in the eyes of home managements and public alike. Amateur or semi-professional little theatres provided the only alternative engagement and entertainment. After the beginning of public broadcasting in Australia in 1923, daytime radio actors helped to keep such theatres alive by night. Companies like Sydney’s Independent (1930), Melbourne’s Little Theatre (1930) and Perth’s Patch (1930) produced English standards, contemporary European plays and classics by turn and in the repertory fashion. When tight budgets permitted they presented local product, but there was no subsidy for such theatres nor any extensive, full-time and formal training for their artists until 1958, when the National Institute of Dramatic Art took its first students. In a sense, then, Australian theatre was still a scattering of writers, actors, directors and designers in search of each other and a receptive public.

The 1940s yielded a number of plays of increasing complexity. Three in particular brought new ideas and the techniques of poetic drama, documentary and expressionist-influenced design and characterization to the Australian stage. Two of the playwrights, Douglas Stewart and Sumner Locke Elliott, presented reworked images of folk heroes which challenged and at the same time confirmed their status and place in popular consciousness. In Ned Kelly (1942), Stewart attempted to unmask the celebrated bushranger and to differentiate between outlaw and outcast – between the living and the dead heart of a people. Locke Elliott, in Rusty Bugles (1947), sought to account for the effects of enforced isolation and inactivity on enlisted men imbued with a spirit of action and obligated to mateship. In both plays, characters struggled to find words and voice to match, or replace, deeds. Both investigated the implications of ritual and routine on the inner life of character and society. This fascination with ritual must be added to the list of features and influences which continue to shape contemporary Australian theatre, as must the preoccupation with the fragmented and fractured self.

Patrick White’s expressionist The Ham Funeral (1947) joined Ned Kelly and Rusty Bugles to look beyond accepted roles, uniforms and masks and to probe and articulate the subconscious. Like them, it unmanned the Australian theatre and prepared the way for new perceptions of the absurd and the sublime. It found logic in ambiguity and salvation in fragmentation, and dwelt on the process of coming to terms with substance, not image, in its personification of youth, will, lust and inspiration.

Each of these plays encountered difficulty in transition from script to stage, principally because there was no theatre movement dedicated to their presentation. Such works were dependent on the programming policies of the little, independent and repertory theatres. Ned Kelly was thus first taken up by the émigré director Dolia Ribush and a company assembled for the purpose; Rusty Bugles received its initial production at Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in Sydney; and The Ham Funeral was adopted by the Adelaide Theatre Guild as a cause célèbre.

It is a sign of their times that the plays were respectively considered unproduceable, unpatriotic and undesirable. Yet the challenges, censorship and discrimination which first greeted them gave much needed focus and direction to a proto-theatre in search of a place and a future. In time, the poetic turn of phrase, barrack-room language and grotesque but comic imagery were to become hallmarks of a ‘new wave’ tendency and style. Police and government interference in the presentation of Rusty Bugles was to be remembered 20 years later when actors in John Romeril’s agitprop piece Whatever Happened to Realism? (1969) and Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (1968) were brought to court. The decision of the board of the first Adelaide Festival of Arts (1960) to reject The Ham Funeral was recalled when White’s Signal Driver was presented as a feature of the 1984 Festival and with each of three subsequent premières and numerous revivals of White’s plays in that festival city.

Some historians, however, cite 1953 as the most significant year in the development of drama in Australia. That year saw the first professional legitimate repertory theatre, the Union Theatre Repertory Company (UTRC), established on the campus of Melbourne University and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, under British expatriate Hugh Hunt, set up to give financial assistance to the performing arts. Opinions are divided as to whether these events advanced or hindered the ‘Australian theatre’ cause. To understand this division, it must be remembered that Esson had dissociated himself from the repertory movement under McMahon’s leadership in Melbourne because it looked away from its society for artistic and stylistic inspiration. The UTRC (later called the Melborne Theatre Company), under John Sumner’s 35-year artistic leadership, was to face the same criticism in the debate over Australia’s right to cultural autonomy. Both McMahon and Sumner supported Australian work but did not commit to it as Esson had done. Sumner is credited with encouraging Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) and other artists and work thereafter but, like McMahon, he was also seen by regionalists and pro-nationalists as an appropriator rather than an innovator. It was argued that repertory directors’ interest lay elsewhere by definition: in the known and tried classics and their traditions, in certain contemporary British and American works, and above all in the box office.

The case against the reps in its simplest and least partisan form was that Australian artists would never develop a sense of their own significance or any creative momentum while they had to wait their turn. These artists were reputed to be great imitators, perhaps the best in the world. As such, they inevitably succeeded on terms other than their own. The prime example of this referred excellence had come in 1949 with Tyrone Guthrie’s fanciful and thoroughly colonial suggestion in response to a federal government request for advice that an Australian National Theatre Company should be established and trained in England, where many expatriate performers, such as Cyril Richard, Madge Elliott, John McCallum, Peter Finch, Coral Browne, Merle Oberon and Leo McKern, had found employment. It was reasoned that a national theatre should be proficient in the classics and trained accordingly. But an Australian theatre could not thrive, ultimately, by playing other people’s actions, speaking other people’s words in other people’s accents, moving to increasingly alien rhythms, responding subliminally to political, social and psychological influences which had second-hand meaning.

Paradoxically, the success of ‘The Doll’, both in Australia and overseas, presented a number of problems to any potential theatre movement, not the least of which was the expectation of like successes. In many ways ‘The Doll’ was an old fashioned well-made play, the type of play to which conservative audiences were accustomed. To those who argued for an Australian theatre of experiment in form as well as content the play was therefore only half satisfying, even though Lawler had pushed traditional and sentimental views of domestic relationships to breaking point, confined the outdoorsman, questioned mateship and broken the mould of the competent and long-suffering girlwoman. Lawler gave, to the generation of the 1950s, a clear image of collective crisis and personal nightmare which influenced much of what was to follow, but in a familiar and comfortable form.

Despite subsequent bids to break with a circumscribed past and attempts throughout the decade by writers like Gray, Cusack, Barbara Vernon, Richard Beynon, John Hepworth, Peter Kenna, Alan Seymour and Hal Porter to push home the sense of shock and bewilderment at the heart of Lawler’s revelations, many Australians continued to read in ‘The Doll’ a sentimental affirmation of old values and traditions – of ‘going forward looking back’, as one contemporary playwright has observed. They saw only a personal tragedy. They imagined reconciliation between characters and ignored the broader signs. This made the need for change more pressing and the chance of achieving it less assured. The play evokes complex reactions to the effect of 1950s consciousness on the Australian psyche, as Robyn Nevin’s outstanding 1996 touring production indicates.

Seymour, hard on the heels of Lawler, also stressed the end of a dream in his One Day of the Year (1960). In the belligerent assertion of middle-aged Alf Cook’s opening line, ‘I’m a bloody Australian and I’ll always stand up for bloody Australia,’ lay the seeds of betrayal of a radical tradition. A onetime principle of survival had become a statement of loss, bigotry and delusion. Seymour urged his audiences to re-think Australianness, not simply to react to jingoistic catch cries about Australians and Australia, and created a new-generation Australian to bear the brunt of the anger and insecurity which came with losing grip on past glories. The principal target for Alf’s rage is Hughie, his son, a working class boy with prospects. He is the first of the upwardly mobile, university-educated characters to appear on the modern Australian stage. Since that appearance, the culture has been dominated by the Hughie Cook generation.

Was reconciliation between generations and ideologies possible in ‘fair go’ Australia? What choices were to be made? These were questions writers of the late 1960s and early 1970s pursued in their plays through the torments of madness and self-deception and, by magic, beyond death itself. The Australian theatre movement itself was to become increasingly mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Theatre workers in all disciplines, shaped by the 1960s, formed the basis of what was called the New Wave of Australian drama: the alternative drama. The names of the writers became well known, particularly David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, Romeril, Buzo, Ron Blair, Barry Oakley, Michael Boddy, Dorothy Hewett, Alma de Groen, Bob Ellis and Rodney Milgate. Some of them worked beyond the theatre as public intellectuals. They attempted to free themselves of the residual influences of a tenacious ‘old’ Australia in plays such as Beware of Imitations (Oakley, 1973) and Last Day in Wooloomooloo (Blair, 1976). The theatres in which they worked have acquired their own folklore – Jane Street (1966), La MaMa (1967), The Pram Factory (1970), Nimrod (1970). The styles and working methods they espoused have provided a unique terminology and critical vocabulary: cartoon vaudeville; quasi-naturalism with absurdist overtones; imagism with a personal style of surrealism; bivouac theatre; pramocracy; monodrama; and so on. This was Australian theatre’s ‘shock of the new’. It was ‘rough, relevant and ribald’, as Hibberd put it. It was also eclectic, world-wise but aggressively local and regional in its reference and application.

It has been suggested that this surge of theatrical energy was part of a neo-nationalism which purportedly brought to power the first Labor government (1972) in 23 years. The party slogan was ‘It’s Time’. Those who reject chauvinist, nationalist imputations point to global factors such as the emergence of an influential left-wing youth movement and growth of a counterculture in the West, and the concurrent interest in non-Western cultural practices and forms. They acknowledge a resistance to postwar colonialism, brought into focus by Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, as a crucial factor in the renaissance of critical interest in expressions of Australian identity and identity politics. It was argued that new Australian theatre and film were far from parochial in application and relevance. They were in fact taking their legitimate place in a critique of a changing world – a world to be challenged, satirized and fantasized, not merely to be accepted and described.

There was debate, too, about the validity of the term ‘new wave’. Like ‘theatre of the absurd’, it was declared a critical convenience to permit the linking together of disparate forces. Certainly there were differences between Sydney-style new theatre and Melbourne’s equivalent. Yet the participants in this nationwide (not just eastern states) phenomenon seemed happy enough to share the title for political reasons in what was an ‘us and them’ struggle against establishment force and influence. Their particular targets were the large theatres like the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company and the flagship Australian Opera and Ballet Companies, which, after 1968 and the creation of the Australia Council for the Arts, received a major proportion of government subsidy. Privileged organizations and their supporters argued, in return, that an Australian theatre should satisfy the various needs of the existing public, not merely the predicates and prophecies of a left-wing, popularist minority campaigning for future generations. Between 1968 and the constitutional ‘coup’ – or dismissal – which brought down the Whitlam Labor government in 1975, the battle for minds and public money was engaged.

These years were crucial for the advocates of change as they worked past Lawler’s prophetic breakdown in relationships through crises of identity, location and mythology. They mocked the lucky streak and admitted fantasies of violence, humiliation and dislocation in absurd land-, sea- and street-scapes. In so doing they celebrated their right to a freedom of idiom, rhythm, tone, performance space and subject-matter. This marked a release from linguistic and behavioural constraints imposed by disapproving fathers and a laundered history. It also marked the first faltering steps toward the postmodern and a serious consideration of theory by Wal Cherry at the Emerald Hill Company (founded in Melbourne in 1962, growing out of Theatre 60). Stanislavsky, Brecht, Littlewood, Pinter, Beckett, Ionesco, Grotowski, Brook, Beck and Malina, Schumann and Schechner, as well as Shakespeare and Sophocles, were now grist to the mill of local invention. They too were now what Esson would have called ‘Australians’.

Plays such as Norm and Ahmed and Rooted (1969) by Buzo; The Legend of King O’Malley (1970) by Boddy and Ellis; Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous (1971); The Removalists (1971) and Don’s Party (1971) by Williamson; Dimboola (1969) and the outstanding A Stretch of the Imagination (1972) by Hibberd; and The Floating World (1974) by Romeril epitomized these times. So did the political agitation of Queensland’s Popular Theatre Troupe and the improvisatory experiments of the Performance Syndicate and Rex Cramphorn. Throughout the 1970s ‘experiment’ in Australian theatre became a sign of wider change, a means of political expression and a focus for community action. There was talk and growing evidence of women’s theatre, black theatre, community theatre, multicultural theatre, Theatre in Education, youth theatre, theatre of the deaf, bilingual theatre. Theatre spaces themselves became sites of protest. Sauce factories, shirt factories, pram factories, brothels and stables were converted and made over by designers like Peter Corrigan of the Australian Performing Group and Larry Eastwood at Nimrod. Their legacy exists in the work of later exponents such as Shaun Gurton, Jenny Tait and Stephen Curtis. Their inspiration derived from an earlier generation of painter-designers such as Desmonde Downing, Sydney Nolan and Wendy Dickson. Production, publication and debate increased – much of it to the rhythm of original music composed by Martin Friedl or Lorraine Milne, Sara de Jong, Carl Vine or Alan John.

In the Back Theatre at the Pram Factory the women of the influential Australian Performing Group devised and presented a defiant and entertaining And Betty Can Jump (1972) in response to the growing number of plays about blokes, mates and beer. Thus began a renewed process of feminization in Australian theatre which has aided and contextualized the work of writers like Jennifer Compton, Alma De Groen, Gillian Jones, Jill Shearer and Hannie Rayson, Joanna Murray-Smith, Tobsha Learner, Hilary Bell, Debra Oswald, Cherie Imlah, Samantha Bews and Tee O’Neill; companies such as Home Cooking, Just Wisteria, Legs on the Wall, Woman Action Theatre and the germinal Vitalstatistix; performer-directors Kerry Dwyer, Anna Volska, Robin Laurie, Gale Edwards, Margaret Davies, Ros Horin, Doreen Warburton, Christine Johnston, Mishline Yasmine Jammal and Rosealba Clemente; solo performer-writer-directors Robyn Archer, Evelyn Krape, Jenny Kemp, Virginia Baxter, Cathy Downes, Jean Kitson, Sue Ingleton and Leah Purcell; and executive producer Christine Westwood – to name but some of an ever-increasing number of women who continue to enhance and diversify the 1970s alternative tradition. The range of address and form is remarkable, from reclaiming and redefining inner as well as public space, through auto-performance and biography, cabaret and circus, community education and stand-up, to projects like Women in Theatre (1981–2) which tackled fundamental issues of representation and put complex and contested ideas about gender and power into action. Moreover, these readings have been extensively theorized by Peta Tait, Susan Pfisterer and Helen Gilbert.

In Redfern the National Black Theatre devised its first revue, Basically Black (1973), featuring Jack Charles and Bob Maza, and performed Robert Merritt’s landmark play The Cake Man (1974). Thereafter Jack Davis, Australia’s senior indigenous playwright, produced an outstanding trilogy of plays in his work with the Marli Biyol/Black Swan Company in Western Australia; Merritt has established the Eora cultural centre in inner-city Redfern; and Broome’s Jimmy Chi has written his inspirational musicals Bran Nue Dae (1990) and Corrugation Road (1996). Bryan Syron and Justine Saunders, in their direction, performance and promotion of indigenousarts, have inspired and supported two generations of playwrights, actor-entertainers, film-makers and media personalities like Kevin Gilbert, Tracy Moffatt, Ernie Dingo, Eva Johnson, Roger Bennett, Rachel Maza, Lydia Miller, Richard Walley, Rhoda Roberts, Wesley Enoch, Deborah Mailman and Martin Buzzacott. Indigenous artists are now making the most effective use of the theatre, dance and allied arts in Australia – witness the success of Bangara, Kooemba-Tolarra or Ilbijerri. For them there is a wealth of contemporary and traditional culture on which to draw, and urgent political and social agendas which encompass land, health, rights and race. Non-indigenous theatre workers and commercial film-makers are lending their support, as Andrew Ross has shown in his work with Jimmy Chi, and Nicholas Parsons and Bryan Brown in their respective productions of Dead Heart (1993; 1996).

from Michael Morley , The Continnum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).