28-07-22 Australia in 50 plays
*Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Justin Macdonnell (J), Julian Meyrick (JM)
S: I’ll steal Julian Schultz’s words to try and provide some context for tonight. The very notion of national identity has become the last refuge of marketers and scoundrels but everyone comes from somewhere and has, as the price of citizenship, an unstated obligation to try and make it a better place. The Uluru Statement from the Heart described this as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood and Julian argues that the theatre still has and it had in the past a special role in that mission or more succinctly, as Julian says, to read the plays of the nation is to read the nation.
Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this very special event, Australia in 50 Plays. My name is Stuart Baines and I'm the Director of Community Engagement at the National Library. I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respects to their elders past and present and through them to all the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
We are thrilled to have people watching tonight on the stream at home, whether that be on Facebook or YouTube. We’re also really thrilled for those of you who’ve made it into the theatre tonight. There’s lots of things to think about when we gather publicly at the moment, not least of which is the cold but certainly that’s not the most important so thank you for making that effort and that decision to come here tonight.
Julian Meyrick’s book is an insight – here it is for those of you on the stream – is an insight into the remarkable relationship between Australian drama and our identity. It examines 50 outstanding plays of diverse content and style that have appeared in the 120 years since federation and how they both reflect and shape who we are.
Julian is the National Library’s 2022 Kollsman’s Fellow for Research in Australian Literature and Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University. He is Literary Adviser for the Queensland Theatre, General Editor of Currency House, Press’ New Platform Paper Series and a board member of the Northern River Performing Arts. Not very busy at all.
He was Associate Director and Literary Adviser of Melbourne Theatre Company, 2002 to 2007 and Artistic Director at Kick House Theatre in 1989 to 1998. He has directed over 40 award-winning theatre productions, written the histories of five Australian theatre companies and published numerous articles on Australian arts and cultural policy including 90 plus pieces for The Conversation.
He was a founding member and Deputy Chair of Playwrighting Australia, 2004 to 2009 and a member of the Federal Government’s Creative Australian Advisory Group, 2008 to 2010. It’s quite the CV.
Justin Macdonnell has been employed in arts management producing and consultancy for over 40 years. In that time he has been Project Manager for the Australian Opera, General Manager of the State Opera of South Australia and Director of the National Opera of New Zealand. He’s also been Program Director of the Festival of Sydney and founding Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Arts Management.
As Principal of Macdonnell Promotions he was one of Australia’s leading arts managers, producers and consultants to both the public and private sectors and to literally scores of arts organisations here and abroad. From 1990 to 1999 he was Manager and Producer of Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, the company. From 2003 to 2007 Justin was Artistic Director of the Carnival Centre for the Performing Arts in Miami, USA. In 2008 he became Executive Director of the ANZ Arts Institute in January 2008 as well as – and I am not even sure if I’m going to pronounce this right – Marrugeku’s Strategic Planner. He continues to produce and promote the work, Marrugeku, nationally and worldwide. Please join me tonight in welcoming Professor Julian Meyrick and Justin Macdonnell to discuss Australia in 50 Plays.
J: Julian, I don’t know about you but I always feel quite exhausted just hearing my own biography.
JM: I get a bit weary too.
J: How did we get to fit all that in?
JM: We got older.
J: Ah. This is a wonderful book and I think - I hope that everybody who is working in the Australian theatre today or who indeed cares about Australia should read because it’s so much more than a conventional theatrical history or a literary appreciation or a catalogue of indeed 50 plays. I must say talking about it to various people since you published it the single most irritating thing about the whole business is that practically everyone I speak to says 50 Australian Plays.
JM: I know.
J: You have deliberately called it meaningfully Australia in 50 Plays and I’d like to start by just asking you can you just untangle those two for us because I think it’s vital in what you’ve done?
JM: Yeah well it’s absolutely crucial and perhaps I can do it personally rather than just historically, we’ll do it personally first. If I’m a bit woolly in the head it’s because two days ago I got off a plane from the UK where I was – I was there for a month and the reason that I was there was that I was attending my mother’s wake. So my mother died in November last year, it’s not a tragedy, she was 91 years old. She died in Sydney but half my family are in England and this is the first opportunity that we had to go back and celebrate her life.
My mother was Australian, very, very Australian and my father was British, very, very British and I am a product of that union. When I was born my mother, who worked in television in Australia, she was part of the Clive James’ generation that went and worked in commercial television, didn’t give up her passport, her Australian passport, and registered my birth in Australia House. So I was born an Australian but in Britain. For the first 25 years of my life I had an identity that I didn’t really fully understand that would come at me in Christmas presents and in my regular trips back to BAFTA which is the British Film Institute on the first Tuesday every month when it was Australian Film Night which was like an émigré gathering for all the Australians working in television.
I had a particular view, I suppose, of Australia and Australian culture that is a little bit like not meeting the person but going through their clothes, seeing the kinds of things that they wear and the furniture and you kind of go what are they like? Eventually I did come here and - but the business of coming here, to Australia, only deepened that mystery for me, it didn’t resolve it. I didn’t come here and go oh yeah, now I get it. I thought how has this country come to be the way that it is? I started asking a lot of my Australian friends and was like oh can you tell me this? Can you tell me that? They didn’t know. They didn’t have those answers.
So eventually and I think as an act of – let’s call it my first citizenship act – I went and did my PhD at university and I wrote the history of the Nimrod Theatre and I chose that theatre very specifically ‘cause I thought this will tell me what this country is really like, this will give me some insight into what Julianne Schultz calls the soul of the nation. It did give me a little bit but it also showed me how much I didn’t know. Since that time in the ‘90s I’ve tried to add to the stock of my knowledge in a way as part of a personal quest to understand what I think is a unique collective identity. Part of that uniqueness, a very important part of it, is expressed in its drama which is true also of British drama and American drama which are the other two bodies of work that I know reasonably well.
So that there is a very special connection for all sorts of artistic and social reasons between the plays that – stage plays that a country watches and its secret life, the life that it will never quite tell you in plain words because it can’t or because it won’t. So that’s why I wrote this book, I needed to step back and take the whole picture in ‘cause to tell the story of the Nimrod Theatre’s basically to look at a 15-year chunk between 1970 and 1985. Interestingly enough that book is really eight 15-year chunks stuck together and I didn’t choose that unit in advance, it just seems to be the way kind of bodies of work in the theatre operate which is kind of half a generation when you think about it, generation being sort of 30 years typically so this is a chunk of that.
So it’s a book that comes out of an extremely personal quest and that’s why it is not called 50 Australian Plays ‘cause that is not a quest, that is – as you rightly say that is a title in a catalogue. But the moment you reverse it, you make it transitive, you make it something that you do. You read the plays in order to explore the idea of nationhood and then you use the idea of nationhood in order to illuminate the plays.
J: Nevertheless time is very important in this, isn’t it?
J: You’ve set it as you say in a series of episodes on the one hand which would seem to dissect that century pretty well but on the other hand there is an enormous flow from one to the other, there’s an extraordinary – and I must say to my reading absolutely surprising continuity, repetition, characters, ideas and what you said a moment ago, secrets that progressively emerge and then sink again from one generation to the next. Am I reading that right?
JM: Absolutely right. I mean the continuity of it as a body of work is kind of like a miracle, it is certainly a revelation and it was certainly a revelation to me when I wrote the book ‘cause I wasn’t sitting in my kitchen going oh all these things fit together like Lego bricks. I was just kind of going oh let’s have a look. Given the enormous trauma of the 20th century, and we can come back to that ‘cause I think that that’s a key issue. Nobody ever thinks of the 20th century as anything other than over but if you talk to a historian, and I suppose I’m one of those, most of them will kind of go no, it’s not over, not by a long chalk because the reverberations of it continue to play out.
But given that extraordinary – the extraordinary heterogeneity of the century that different things that it’s filled with then in some way like an arc of arrow, the preoccupations of Australian drama continue over that 120 years, not necessarily in a pure form, they transpose a little bit but nevertheless they cohere to an astonishing degree. So just to give you one kind of quick example of that, I reckon about half those plays if not maybe even more are all either talking about re-creating or in some way processing the history of the country. It’s like the first thing that a playwright does when they want to talk about what’s happening now is they find something in the past to talk about so that this – it’s like a stitching, knit one, pearl one, as they go forward they also go back.
One of the most beautiful quotes in the book, not from me but from the indigenous artist, Gordon Bennett – I remember seeing this at the Brisbane Gallery, at Queensland Gallery in a Gordon Bennett exhibition, just a huge white canvas with the black words written in the middle of it, no future without a past. That dynamic of going forward and going back at the same time is something that all of these plays in their difficult ways do.
J: One of the things that seems to me that they constantly revisit, whether they be indigenous or settler works, is trauma.
J: There is a constant – more than any other national body in English of plays that I can think of is the revisiting of – again I say, pick up on your word, secret – trauma that is often secret, trauma that is often buried and it can be collective, community, national or it can be individual, reflective of something bigger. I found that really revelatory, I’ve got to say, because I’d certainly never picked up any of those bits and I kept on going back and thinking did I read that correctly in the previous chapter? The thread was there.
JM: If you rock back on your heels it’s like those dreadful 3D pictures that I could never see in the newspaper where you had to squint and look backwards and then suddenly it would be a dolphin leaping over a sun or -
J: [unclear] 15:25 in the tree.
JM: Exactly and for me it was always just a kind of smear. But when you do step back with the plays you rock back a little bit, you can see – well you can see the trauma and that is a very kind of elastic word. It describes certain – well natural disasters for a start so there’s a fair number of those in the play, bushfires and droughts and so forth, manmade disasters like the depression and war, psychological [desuetude] 16:02 of one kind of another, isolation and then political events.
I think – what I think now, and I didn’t quite express this in the book ‘cause in many ways it came out of the book but I think it’s a good way of understanding Australian culture and particularly its drama as a version of the three-body problem. So I don’t know if anybody’s got a maths brain but if you have three bodies that rotate around each other then their orbits are not stable, you can’t predict them. The three bodies are first nations culture which has been here for thousands of years, the white settlement of Australia which was violent and then the successive waves of migration.
In the plays these all interact together and in an unstable way and I think that that particular interaction is unique and it lends Australian drama a very particular hue, a very particular tenor and register of address.
J: Just changing the topic a little bit, one of the things that equally astounded me was the sheer volume of material, the sheer volume of theatrical activity there was in past ages. I mean at one stage I think you quote another writer on the subject – just in the period 1914 to 1918, there was something like 350 plays produced in Melbourne alone of which 200 were being produced for the first time. That was a staggering statistic and I mean I thought this can’t possibly be true but clearly it is.
J: I mean that is just simply remarkable. I mean if you sat that down in one of the major European or even north American cities of that age you would think wow, that’s a lot. If you said 350 plays were produced in New York between 1914 and 1918 that itself would be an astonishing thing to hear, that it was in Australia in Melbourne at that time is staggering. Remember the years, this is in the middle of the – this is the first world war. We’re always inclined to think that in times of war history stops and while we focus on the big events but in 1914 to 1918 all of that other activity – now Australia was not invaded, we were not close to the theatres of war and so we had that distance. But nevertheless that event, that war, that event also went on to impact profoundly on the way we saw ourselves. Or if I can put this gently, the way we have invented to see ourselves.
JM: Yes. I mean I’m not – I’m obviously not – I’m not a military historian and I'm not a traditional historian in the sense of being across every single detail of the periods that I talk about so I’m a crumber as the AFL would say like I come in and pick up what I need. But I was lucky enough -
J: As someone from a rugby world I have no idea what that meant.
JM: Oh I’ll explain it to you afterwards, Justin, ‘cause it’s extremely important that you know.
J: So they keep telling me.
JM: Yeah. But I was lucky enough ‘cause I wrote the book during COVID and I found out that Stuart McIntyre lived around the corner from me in Brunswick so he was within my 5K radius and I could go ‘round and visit him and tell him what I was doing and try and impress him and he wasn’t really very impressed. But he did encourage me and then he gave me a copy of his Shorter History of Australia [unclear] 20:32 he said no, you’re using the wrong edition, I will give you the right edition which he did.
So I was able to use that book and use Manning Clark as well plus the other bits and pieces that I know in order to make some rudimentary and hopefully robust arguments or guesses about what’s going on in the nation at the broadest level. You don’t have to be too discerning to see that out of world war one in particular with Bean on the one hand and Murdoch on the other something like a proto-typical Australian character is being constructed which henceforth will be a point of address in Australian drama critically, almost constantly from the moment that it's put up, this laconic, brave -
J: Very surface character.
J: Lots of external physical activity but not a great emotional inner life.
JM: Absolutely and the drama, dramatists, playwrights go straight for it like an iron filing to a magnet in order to spin it, ironise, it, undermine it, see what the truth behind is so you get a – the beginning of what I call in the book the development of a zoology of types. You’ve just mentioned one and then there are a few more and that also becomes something that the playwrights share across this extraordinary century so it’s not just the narratives or the stories that get passed on or the themes that get passed on or the preoccupations, it’s also the characters themselves, the types of characters recur again and again slightly differently but always slightly the same.
J: Very often the women who were damaged in that process as well are recurring types in it, whether physically damaged or emotionally confined, it seemed to me.
I greatly enjoyed the broader historical and global context that you provide as well as the national context even when I don’t always agree with your conclusions but I wondered how important it was for you in writing the book to be able to draw upon that political – your political, economic background rather than approach it from an entirely literary or theatrical position.
JM: I should explain, my father was so appalled by the idea that I wanted to go into the theatre that he insisted that I study politics and economics at university which I did and I really enjoyed it, I really, really liked it and it didn’t stop me going into the theatre afterwards. When I finished my last economics exam I thought that’s it, I never have to do another bit of economics ever, ever again and then of course the moment I got into the theatre I was confronted with all sorts of policy and political questions that meant that that education was actually quite useful. It’s useful to give a bit of context to some of the plays.
JM: There is a kind of guide to it in a way which is the history that’s in the book is kind of the history that I imagine is in the minds of the audience when they view a play so I’m not really trying to sort of tell anybody anything new, I’m just reminding people of what people knew when they first watched the play. More importantly, and this is the key bit, what they didn’t know and couldn’t know so that when you look at the first play in that book on our selection with is the Steele Rudd stories or –
J: One of the most enduring ever Australian plays.
JM: Beautiful play. Actually George Whaley directed it.
J: Indeed he did. He wrote it, in fact.
JM: Rewrote, well version of. I think that play’s been rewritten so many times -
JM: - it will bear any number of reinterpretations but also the time is not yet right. [Louis Essen’s] 25:15 I think vastly underrated play. Those two plays which were produced in 1912, anybody who saw them, anybody who did them had no idea what was coming next, they had no idea that 20,000 people were going to die in the first few hours of the day in the Somme in 1916 or that there was going to be a worldwide depression or Fascism or the second world war or the atom bomb. All of that awaited them like a nightmare around the corner and yet those are things that we can’t unknow. So we’re kind of – in a way we’re trapped. It’s funny because when you live a life you tend to assume perhaps unconsciously that as you go in this world and you get older and the world around you comes with you, you think we know more, we know more and more about more and more ‘cause we’re so jolly, jolly clever.
But actually that may not be the case, it may be that in a way – I wouldn’t say this is to put it provocatively - our vision has been corrupted but in a way that terrible events have happened to us have made us a certain way. It may be that when we look back at audiences another time and we try and understand the historical events of those times, that what we need to do is not so much kind of acquire new knowledge as rediscover a certain kind of innocence or perspective. So I'm sure any historian would say this, that when you are looking at a particular period, and perhaps the plays of a particular period are a good example of this, you have to listen very, very carefully. So the little bits of history in there are really my attempt to shut myself up and just have a listen to what is actually going on.
J: Interestingly those two plays set in that same period are so – have such wildly different backgrounds. One’s set in a very sophisticated Melbourne, almost upper-class milieu. On the other hand on our selection speaking for itself. But we’re inclined to think that looking back with a long look back, that anything set outside of urban Australia at that time had a kind of Jindyworobak feel about it whereas the Steele Rudd play is in itself also very sophisticated -
JM: Oh my god, absolutely.
J: - rural living at that alternative to the Melbourne society which is about modernity and looking forward and critiquing society then. These people critiquing society in a rural setting but with entirely different parameters as it were. I found the juxtaposing of those really remarkable.
JM: Oh it’s fascinating because in many ways The Time Is Not Yet Ripe which is set in the political class and there’s a kind of Deakin figure in it -
J: And suffragettes.
JM: And suffragettes -
J: All in those movements on the day.
JM: Yeah, all of those kinds of things and yet when it comes down to it the politics sort of disappears out the door because he’s more interested in the marriages and who loves who whereas Steele Rudd which – on our selection is full of gags, basically but ends with – not only ends with, is infused with this [paean] 28:51 to democratic Australia. When you read the play and then you consider that I think - I think I'm right. I’ve said this a few times, I'm pretty sure I’m right about this – in the 12 years that that play was continually being revived roughly 25% of the Australian population saw that play. So that is an extraordinary proportion seeing and hearing that message.
J: The politics of that play are so much more real than the politics of The Time Is Not Yet Ripe.
JM: Yeah. There’s a wonderful speech at the end of the first half – I don’t know if it’s the end of that one, I can never remember, where Dad Rudd who is a selector has lost everything, absolutely everything so it’s classic ha, ha, ha, ha, bonk like you’ve just been laughing your way and then suddenly the villain of the piece has robbed Dad Rudd and the family of absolutely everything. He’s got this wonderful speech where he kind of goes I will endure. So they pop this amazing political speech in the mouth of a working class character in a play that is basically a laugh out loud comedy until the politics starts to infuse the drama right through the second half and that makes it such a great mix because you’re kind of laughing your way into democracy.
J: And why not? At one point you write, every character in a play steps on stage twice, once as a singular individual, once as a representative of a type, and you referred to types earlier this evening. The notion of types frequently recurs in your treatment of the plays. But would you say that is more characteristic of Australian drama than that of the other English-speaking dramas we’ve talked about? The other national traditions of drama.
JM: Yeah, that’s a very interesting, interesting question and perhaps the most profound, much more profound I think than making a difference between Australian stories and British stories because character, if we understand that in the broadest extension, not just characters and realistic drama but personas in other kind of weirder dramas, that those – that function within a play is the thing that harvests and keeps the feelings and this secret life that we’ve been talking about.
JM: So when I say a character steps onto stage twice I’m not saying anything particularly clever, all I’m saying is that when you watch a play you – Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Barney and Roo comes on, you see - simultaneously you see two men with individual personalities and then you kind of see cane workers of a certain era. Your brain automatically does that double map and I’m tempted to say if we didn’t do that double mapping we’d never argue about plays. But we argue endlessly about them because we talk about their meaning and what they represented and what we often mean is what is the relationship between this singular life that characters in a play lead and what it is that they represent?
So that representative function is where - from a historical point of view is where the meat on the bone is. You can look at that representative function and go okay, this tells you something about how the wider society around it think because it – these are in some way typifications of traits or preoccupations or personalities that in – that the society feels are meaningful and rich in some ways. There’s a swathe of them so I do a little kind of pen portrait in the book where I kind of go on the one hand free spirits, on the other hand oppressive tyrants. One of the most interesting things is that some of the characters who are on the tyrannical end are the most compelling and attractive. So it’s not always the case that the nice people and the people that your heart goes out to, sometimes it’s the most difficult that actually suck you in.
J: One of the things that strikes me, and I don’t recall that you made a big play of this if you’ll pardon the expression, and that is the way in which playwrights, certainly in more recent times carrying on from the types issues, have tended in moments of stress, and I mean big stress uncovering the secret, revealing the trauma, to resort to comedy, to default to comedy, one might almost say, rather than I would have thought in other national dramas, if I can put it like that, to continue to resolve the tragedy.
We - and it’s also very apparent in Australian film, that there’s a sense in which there is almost a running away from those realities. Is that -
JM: You might be being a little harsh.
JM: But it may be because of the way drama as it were has been sold to Australian audiences. So you mentioned that the high production rate, that this is a country that’s always gone to the theatre, they’ve gone to the theatre a lot and most of it was pretty average, quite frankly. In that sense Australian – what I call theatre in Australia as opposed to Australian theatre was the most successful branch culture in the history of theatre. J C Williams and a few other producers just had a huge conveyor belt, bringing all kinds of west end [pat] 35:26 to Australia or doing versions of it here.
So the kind of – the sense of culture with a capital C then becomes Shakespeare et al, not the kinds of things you laugh at, the things that you sit up straight. I can remember Sir Ian McKellen coming out a few years ago with Waiting for Godot and being in the theatre with people who – Melbourne’s great and good who were there for a really great night of culture.
J: Cultural experience.
JM: Oh my god, it was like sitting through maths class, the play started and everyone was shuffling and trying to kind of relate to it as best they could and then of course it was finished and everyone’s, marvellous, absolutely marvellous, incredible. I was like oh you bloody liars, you were looking at your phones, couldn’t wait to get out and have a drink. You were kind of thinking where are the jokes but who could blame you? That’s kind of culture with a capital C that you’ve had forced down your throat.
So I think in a way possibly the humour in Australian plays is just a way of letting you know or letting the audience know that this is not part of a transaction, that you don’t – it’s okay – you don’t have to kind of sit up straight like you’re taking your medicine, you can just sit there and have a laugh and then ease into it -
JM: Exactly. So I think that’s not always the case, there are times where the punch is pulled and you could argue, and indeed I have argued ‘though not in this book, that the tragic form is missing in Australia drama in the way, the proper way that it should be. But I think for the plays in this book at least humour is a very – has been a useful cultural retrenchment tool and a way of just signalling to an audience, this isn’t culture with a capital C, this is fun with a small F and that word fun starts to come back into Australian theatre bigtime from about the 1950s onwards.
J: Yes, indeed. I think this is probably -
JM: Oh my god -
J: - my last question roughly. So while our playwrights seem in your reading to have been very adept at unearthing the past I wonder how prescient they have been in your view? I was struck by that in A Property Of The Clan, especially in the light of recent revelations, the character in it – this is a play by Nick Enwright about a – well built around a rape case if you like in Newcastle some time ago. One of the characters in it, Rachel, says the line, until we think it is me, in other words that we can neglect or we can overlook or we can push aside experiences like that provided they happen to somebody else. So it is – and of course one was inevitably reminded, and I hate to raise the name in this town, of Scomo’s account of the conversation with his wife which was the other side of – the flipside of that coin if you like.
That struck me as enormously prescient of Nick in that play but also how you talked earlier about they weren’t to know what was coming and of course they weren’t to know what was coming, no-one in 1912 could have known any of the things that were coming. If anything they would not have expected a war of that scale ever again at that moment. But how in general, how prescient do you think this body of work suggests they have been?
JM: I think in answering that question in a way – it illuminates for me the very heart of the book and the thing that I’m going to spend my life probably unsuccessfully trying to persuade Australians this is the case. Drama is a form of enquiry, it’s a type of knowledge. It’s not a kind of box in which we put pretty things to entertain ourselves. It is a space in which we can uniquely explore a series of problems that belong properly to it. When people sometimes say oh what kind of problems end up in drama? I say the kind that nobody else wants. So when Nick wrote that play – he wrote it in 1991, I think after the dreadful case – he wrote it as – I call it in the book a [unclear] 40:56 which is [unclear]’s 40:56 term for a learning play so it’s a play for youth, it’s designed to be done to schools in order to illuminate problems in the way young men behave with young women.
The problems arrive in drama early and they are teased out in a very particular set of circumstances where unlike Q and A or the Rupert Murdoch media it’s not just sitting around and people talking about their opinions, they are actively explored in human consequences to produce – and I love this word ‘cause I think it’s such an important word – what the ancient Greeks called phronesis which was practical wisdom. So this is judgment of a – intellectual kind married to experience of a human kind and that’s what theatre can get at. Its prescience is really a result I think of its early arrival in some of these problems. It’s not that playwrights are predictors of what’s going to happen next – well certainly they’re not any better than anybody else – but playwrighting is like flypaper, it’s incredibly sensitive to what people are trying to hide. It is the job of playwrights and of drama more broadly to talk about those things. That’s uncomfortable but it is a job and it is a job we should respect and ultimately we should value.
J: I was saying to Julian the other day that – I’ve always been very suspicious of claims that people make about how art influences people, the effect it has on audiences, whatever art form and in particular the claim that somehow art is good for you like muesli, it is of itself a good thing and improves people and I’ve never personally bought that argument. I was reminded that some years ago I saw – I don’t know how many of you have ever seen the BBC program, Hard Talk, on television. It’s basically a fairly aggressive journalist grilling somebody and on this occasion the journalist was interviewing Jonathan Miller, the British – late British theatre director, operator director about the subject of what does theatre do to people? Miller, who was amongst other things also a neuroscientist, said, the only claim I would make for the theatre is that people would leave a performance having thought differently about something than they did before. I think the learning, the power of it to teach or the learning we gained from it is the very stuff of what you have talked about in this book and what makes it to be such an important contribution to the literature about Australian theatre and indeed world theatre.
So on a personal note, Julian, may I say, I haven’t read absolutely everything you’ve ever written but this is the best thing that you’ve written. I’m glad and I think it must be nice that the last thing you wrote is the best thing [unclear] 44:48. Yeah, it is.
JM: Well you’re only as good as your latest show.
J: Absolutely so thank you for that.
JM: Thank you.
S: Thank you to you both, that was fascinating and I think certainly for me and hopefully those people watching on the stream and here tonight that this discussion and the book which you can buy -
J: Go and buy it.
S: - helps you – helps us all think differently about who we are and nationhood and how we construct that idea of us. I think it’s fantastic. Ladies and gentlemen, can you please join me in thanking Julian and Justin.
S: Now we do have time for some questions. For the benefit of the stream and anyone using the hearing loop can you put your hand up and we've got microphones coming around and just wait ‘til the microphone gets to you before you ask your question. Oh that’s better, I can see you all now.
JM: This is where you get to ask me awkward questions about plays that I’ve left out or forgotten or got the details wrong so you can put me on the spot.
A: Hi, my name’s Alex. First of all I quite enjoyed seeing Ian McKellen and Roger Rees in Waiting for Godot so -
A: There we go. Just in relation to what you were saying I actually wanted to ask what plays surprised you in terms of what you included and then what they revealed about the Australian character or story.
A: Thank you.
JM: I think that – I’ll talk about a year that surprised me which is 1942 so like most people, I think, the default narrative of Australian theatre is that it begins in 1944 with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and that is such bollocks, absolutely not the case. 1942, it produces five – I think four or five plays, I think I'm right. Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly, Dymphna Cusack’s Morning Sacrifice, Charles Landen’s Dann Fountains Beyond, and Lady in Danger by Max Afford so four of them. They are all different, they are all major in their different ways. They all have a place within the drama that is to come, they all reach out so – I think I make this remark, that if you want to understand the place of Stephen Sewell you have to understand Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly because it’s the same voice of doom.
So I think - and I wasn’t looking for that, I was just like most people kind of heading towards 1955 and then kind of going oh my god, there’s this whole other country in 1942. What’s so extraordinary about 1942 is that historically speaking it’s a terrible year for Australia, it’s a year of fear, it’s a year of deprivation, it’s – well John Curtin in particular, the Prime Minister, of grinding anxiety about whether he can get the troops back in time to engage the Pacific, the war in the Pacific. So Australia’s down and struggling and yet it is also one of its richest and most creative periods.
A: At the end of the book you have a call to action which is about putting on the national repertoire, put these plays on. Can you speak more about that and I suppose – because sometimes – yeah, can you speak more about that and also then the idea of an afterlife of a play so by that call to action do you think all these plays have an afterlife?
JM: Oh totally, absolutely. I was on the ABC radio this afternoon and the lady who was interviewing me said oh you know what’s the best play? I said it’s the wrong question and then she said oh okay well what’s the most influential one? I said again no, it just doesn’t work like that. That’s like saying what’s the best note on a piano like I don’t get it. The repertoire is not a ladder in which you have – I mean how many cherry orchards do you want to see in your life? I once went through the mental exercise of trying to work out how many Three Sisters I’d seen like just adding them all up together, all the Sisters. I think it got to about 30 and I was like oh please, enough with Moscow. So even a great play, once every 10 years, thanks very much. So what are you doing the rest of the time?
When I was the Literary Manager at Melbourne Theatre Company and having to kind of help program the seasons I would look at what American companies and British companies were doing and roughly it was a third, a third, a third. Roughly it was about a third new work, a third classics, broadly defined, and then the other third was up for grabs. In Britain and America that third was occupied by reviving their own national dramas, they just did it as a matter of course but we don’t do it as a matter of course, for us it’s this big, big thing. So in my first year as Literary Manager at the Melbourne Theatre Company which is 2002 I went to my Artistic Director, Simon Phillips, and said The Golden Age by Louis Nowra is ready for restaging now and yet it still took Australia until 2015 to get that play on. That is too long and that was a sitter and I used to bitch about it with other literary managers and they would go yeah, absolutely.
So I could sit down now on the – I would say on the back of a fag packet but we don’t smoke anymore – on the back of a beer coaster and write down six plays that you should have in the repertoire like now. But in order to do that we all need a different attitude towards the past and we need to sort of stop thinking perhaps that we have nothing to gain by going back whereas in fact I’m with Gordon Bennett, the only way we can go forward is if we’re also going back at the same time. So we just kind of need to do it and to read it and to know that we have to do it and to take the pledge of doing it.
J: I could add my little commercial in here and say that a very big obstacle to that happening is the constant pressure from funding agencies for companies to be doing brand new work and not doing revivals. It is a huge problem, they’re just not counted in anyone’s assessment on what funded organisations should do and it’s inexorable, the pressure on them.
JM: Yeah and I think you can take it from me because I’m a director of new work so if I say revivals are important you know I mean it.
S: Just the one in the middle there. While the mic comes to you I’ve got [unclear] 52:36. I’m going to ask you a question. Before, you said there were 350 plays – correct me if that figure is wrong – 350 plays developed in Melbourne in 1914 and 1918. I would assume that –
S: - some of them were about – staged, yeah – some of them were about our wartime experience. Are those plays in that period reflective of what we see as the Anzac myth or the Anzac story now or are they quite different?
JM: Who knows? You’re guessing ‘cause you’re looking into the – you're opening the oven door at the time that it’s all being cooked so I quote a bit of Keith Murdoch’s letter in the book and I read the whole letter, it’s online and I find it a disturbing letter because it’s not a letter that is connected to the reality of war. My grandfather was in the Tank Corps during world war one and my wife’s father – my wife’s grandfather was a stretcher-bearer in both Gallipoli and later on the western front and we often talk about whether our grandfathers met, whether that was possible. You know I grew up thinking and indeed knowing that world war one was a horror, unmitigated horror and so I find Keith Murdoch and Bean’s portrayal of world war one disturbing. That’s all I say in the book, I don’t go any further than that but in my heart I think it is a misrepresentation of the suffering of that conflict.
A: I think [unclear] 54:24. Last night we attended the first ever recording, full recording of the Changi Songbook, The Flowers of War project as did here in Canberra and I think what astounded us there was I think Chris Leighton’s – the talk there said that during Changi times there was something like 300 shows put on. Many of them were play musicals and they’ve never been revived, often because of opposition to the wrong message of Changi that some people thought were coming across in those musicals. So I suppose my follow-up question is what is the difference between the value of a quality – producing a play that has high quality and these plays which probably weren’t high quality but of some national importance.
JM: Yeah, it’s a very interesting question and I do talk a little bit about it in the book in the sense that I fess up and go drama is two forms welded together, one is literary, you write it down which is why drama comes into existence with the invention of writing, basically and the other is live performance. I used to say rather cheekily that theatre is an art form in which the recitation of the complete works of Plato can be less interesting than somebody with their bottom painted yellow. There’s just a sort of theatrical side to theatre that means that even something that is from a literary point of view a piece of flimflam can be a great night out. In the book there’s a kind of narrative that kind of goes at the beginning, which is in the melodrama era, they were sort of on speaking terms although J C Williams had never read a play in his life, really then they parted company and if you look at Australian theatre in the first 50 years of the 20th century you’ve got Australian plays with playwrights with writers with a capital W writing then and you’ve got kind of what we would call theatrical devices in another corner.
How you revive that body of work is a very interesting question because in order to capture that you need to have something of the period that made sense of it in the first place. So I suspect that the reason that the Changi Songbook event worked, and I know that – I know the person who put it together very well indeed, that one of the reasons that it worked is because it is also a little bit of a history lesson so that you get the songs but you also get a bit of the context. Actually there’s a lesson there for how we revive our other kinds of drama which is like oh okay, it’s not just enough to do them straight, you actually have to kind of get a sense of okay, this is the tenor of the period. So if you're looking at particularly kind of pre – if you’re taking on our selection, for example, or The Time Is Not Yet Ripe, how do we recapture that sense of innocence? Or if we’re looking at Ned Kelly which was written in the middle of a war how do you capture that sense of pressure? So I haven’t answered your question directly, I’ve just said these are two kingdoms with no border, on the one hand, the literary kingdom and on the other hand, the yellow bottom kingdom.
S: I didn’t think I’d hear a painted yellow bottom tonight but it’s interesting. Can everyone please join me once again in thanking our guests tonight?
S: For those of you particularly on the stream here is the book if we can zoom in on that book. It is available at our bookshop so for everyone in the theatre tonight please go upstairs and buy a copy. For those on the stream or watching on YouTube who are now smashing their keyboards and tipping over their monitors don’t despair, we have an online store where you can buy the book as well. Our galleries will be open tonight and Julian has kindly offered to sign some of those books up in the foyer tonight. Thank you once again, everybody, for coming along and thank you for your time.
JM: Thank you.
End of recording
In a discussion facilitated by Justin Macdonnell, Julian Meyrick talks about his latest book, Australia in 50 Plays, with reference to our exhibition, On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts. Australia in 50 Plays is Meyrick's account of the remarkable relationship between our national drama and our national life, examining 50 outstanding plays of diverse content and style that have appeared in the 120 years since Federation.