There are many fine books about Australian drama, but Australia in 50 Plays is a book for Australian drama as well. In essence, it takes the country’s history since Federation in 1901, and reads this into fifty plays, while simultaneously reading the plays into the events, issues, zeitgeists and crises that have confronted Australians over that tumultuous 120 year stretch.
Two points emerge very clearly when you look at Australian drama in this way. The first is how closely it is related to the pulse of the country’s changing outlook, what federation journalist, and founder of the first company dedicated to Australian drama, Leon Brodsky, called ‘our national life’. Sometimes Australian drama reflects that outlook, sometimes it challenges it, or runs ahead of it. There’s nothing mechanical or predictable about the relationship, and the record is there to show an extraordinarily complex and lively marriage that has only grown more so as the years have passed, and one century has given way to another.
The second point runs deeper. In the book I call drama ‘a mode of inquiry’ and put it on the same level as academic research, public interest journalism and political debate. This is a profound provocation for a country that sees its culture firmly as a matter of ‘personal preference’ and ignores, downplays or dismisses its claim on our collective attention. Or, to put it more directly, it’s truth claims.
When you write a book making the case for drama as a mode of inquiry, and argue that it deals not only with artistic representations of the world but with truths of a particular kind, then you have to show, in detail, how individual plays do this. No one who writes about research, journalism or political debate has to demonstrate their fundamental value. It’s a given. They may not live up to the ideals we have of them, but as a means of discovering more about the world, and actioning those discoveries, we accept their importance as self-evident.
This is not the case with drama, even though is a form that is around us. On every stage and screen, in every new technological format, drama makes itself felt. Computer games recycle ancient Greek myths and legends; films adapt Shakespeare’s plots and characters; the expressions of drama are forever changing. But the essence of a drama has remained a constant for over 2,500 years—a form that asks us not just to listen to a story, but to be in a story, to see, feel and understand the characters and the action close-up. A form that gives us an experience of the world, not just an account of it. What a gift! In the book, I ask
What makes drama such a bewitching form? It remains for me a deeply mysterious question, almost divine. Yet quintessentially human too. Drama’s charged domains, however abstract or surreal, are always a version of our own, an experiment with reality or the construction of a space where reality can be something other than it appears. The live stage is at once pulpit, speaker’s corner, confessional, dinner table, dreamscape, poetic reverie, prophetic vision and memory box. Everything we are, drama is also. Everything we fear, love, desire, detest and hope for, drama does too. It is the immediate artistic incarnation of the compounded predicaments of our shared, human existence.
Australia in 50 Plays was conceived, researched, drafted and published entirely during the 2020–22 global pandemic. It is a strange thing to write about Australian drama at a time when its flow reduced to a trickle, and often stopped altogether. At the start of 2021, I was remounting one of my own theatre shows for a national tour that had been twice cancelled in 2020. Almost immediately, Covid forced rehearsals online. A few weeks later, we lost our Brisbane dates when south Queensland went into a snap lockdown. In retrospect, we were lucky, given the havoc the Delta variant was shortly to unleash, that we got to perform at all.
Australia in 50 Plays tells a big story. The first chapters go from the easy, breezy charm of pre-war Federation theatre (Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe), through the concealed trauma of 1920s and 1930s bush plays (Betty Roland’s The Touch of Silk, Henriette Drake-Brockman’s Men Without Wives), to the crackling irony of the playwrights of the 1940s (Dymphna Cusack’s Morning Sacrifice, George Dann’s Fountains Beyond, Douglas Stewart’s Ned Kelly). I then extend my critical review to perhaps better-known mid-century realist Australian plays (Sumner Locke-Elliot’s Rusty Bugles, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll) and an increasingly influential poetic drama (Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul).
The latter chapters show these plays link to the revolutionary irruption of New Wave drama in the 1970s (Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis’s Legend of King O’Malley, Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous, Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination), and the darker mood of Australian dramatists in the deindustrialisation and social dislocation of the 1980s and 90s (Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing, Katharine Thomson’s Diving for Pearls, Nick Enright’s Blackrock). I also cover the extraordinary flowering of First Nations drama (Robert Merritt’s The Cake Man, Pauline Harrison’s Stolen, Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead) and go up to the current pandemic asking what recent plays reveal about Australia’s changing views and values (Patricia Cornelius’s Shit, Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, S. Shakthidharan’s Counting and Cracking, Glace Chase’s Triple X), and how these express—and shape—our sense of nationhood and common life.
Typically, Australian plays are catalogued according to their differences, separated into airtight historical periods, genres, and political views. I present them as an internally-connected, collective achievement, showing how Australian drama grows as a unified corpus. The features and devices Australian plays share across time—the ones they inherit from the past, and those they gift to the future – are a vital binding agent for our drama as a living artistic legacy. I read different plays into each other, sometimes ones that have never been compared before. In this way we can see that drama is an artform not only capable of reflecting the major debates of our times, but of actively leading them.
The fifty plays I discuss are only a small fraction of a dazzling constellation of creative effort that exists as a whole body of work and should be appreciated as such. And it is as a whole body of work that Australian drama is a consummate mode of inquiry into our national life. In my conclusion, I say,
My argument is simple, and runs through this book like the red thread that in Chinese folklore brings true lovers together: the concept of the nation is key to the shared rights and duties of Australians of all backgrounds, faiths, classes, genders and ages, and the quality of our national life is key to our sense of nationhood. In turn, this relies on the breadth, depth and imaginative capacity of our national culture, a vital component of which is our national drama.
In writing Australia in 50 Plays, I draw on three decades of personal experience as a director of Australian drama, an historian of Australian culture and an analyst of Australian politics to show how 120 years of Australian plays have helped form our sense of shared identity. As this identity has evolved under the pressures of world war, economic disruption, changing patterns of migration, and changing core beliefs—particularly towards migrants, the status of women, and the place of First Nations history and culture—Australian drama has shown itself to be a unique and powerful instrument of self-understanding.
I have written this book for anyone who ever wondered why a play they have just seen continues to haunt them so strongly afterwards. I tell the story of Australian drama as a progressive history of creative effort—of a building upon the legacy of the past into the potential of the future––because that’s how playwriting as a practical craft evolves. I have tried to write an accessible account: a book to be read, not quoted from.
It is a love letter to Australian drama, and while it is full of critical observations about Australia’s lackluster post-colonial history, it ultimately affirms the great democratic values on which the federated nation was founded in 1901, ones to which we are still held to account by Australian dramatists today.
BOOK REVIEW: Australia in 50 Plays by Julian Meyrick, Currency Press, 2022
Any notion that Julian Meyrick’s splendid book Australia in 50 Plays is a history of Australian drama is swiftly dispelled by Meyrick in his Introduction: ‘it is about the history of the nation seen through the lens of some of its plays’.
Accordingly, fifty plays written and staged since Federation have been chosen from the Australian drama repertoire after an intense selection process. To ensure varied social, political and cultural representation from an assembled long list of one hundred and twenty plays, Meyrick applied a ‘tri-dimensional professional/cultural/political rubric’. Criteria for assessing the final shortlisted plays included suitability for their future repetition and interpretation and gender balance. There are no one-off dramatic events, few adaptations, and no plays that Meyrick has personally developed or directed.
Meyrick’s impressively broad qualifications in politics, economics, research and the performing arts, his obvious passion for theatre and conversational style writing voice, combine to make an enjoyable, informative, thought-provoking read. A reflection on Australia’s early performance history includes First Nations People and acknowledgement of the later ‘extraordinary flowering of Indigenous drama in Australia’ over the past twenty-five years.
Rather than categorize the selected plays into their respective genres, Meyrick’s method is to read different plays into each other and into those of earlier periods. He cleverly entwines fifty unique Australian plays written over the past one hundred and twenty years, all varying in content, era-authentic settings and voices, with an observational, often entertaining, chronological overview of the history, politics, culture and economics of Australia’s development as a nation.
The diverse literary smorgasbord of selected Australian plays commences with the early 20th century comedies On Our Selection by Steele Rudd and Louis Esson’s The Time is Ripe. Both plays premiered in 1912, and their contrasting styles, settings and social class of characters reveal insight into Australian rural working class and city upper class life at the time. To avoid giving too much away, but also to whet readerly appetites, this review will mention just a few more of the fifty plays Meyrick uses as a mode of enquiry into collective aspects of Australian life: Brumby Innes (1929), Ned Kelly (1944), The One Day of the Year (1960), Diving For Pearls (1990) and Life After George (2000).
In the final chapter, Meyrick acknowledges the large body of works in Australian drama between 2006 and 2020, and for this period has chosen eight plays with varied authors. Similar to the selected early 20th century plays, the two most recent works reveal a balanced insight into contemporary Australian life, with their contrasting styles, setting and culture. There is Counting and Cracking (2019) the four-generational Australian family story about a Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant family by S. Shakthidharan with Eamon Flack, and Triple X (2020) written by transwoman playwright Glace Chase, which tells of a love story between a New York investment banker and a transgender performance artiste.
If Australia’s development as a nation since Federation has been incremental, so has the publication of books seriously documenting Australian writers and their plays. Leslie Rees writes of the first known attempt to compile a list of local playwrights by W.H. Waters in Harry Emmet’s Theatrical Holiday Book. Published in Melbourne in 1885, sixty-two authors were included, averaging two or three titles apiece, covering a range of twenty years. A London publication, The Dramatic Year Book of 1892, featured a large Australian section, with the anonymous correspondent declaring: ‘There is perhaps no country in the world, where the drama had made such rapid strides and has attained such high standard in so short a period as Australasia.’
Since Federation, significant reference publications documenting Australian drama include Leslie Rees’ two-volume work The History of Australian Drama (1973 and 1978), in which the plays have been selected for their contribution culturally and socially to ‘the emergence of an Australian Idea.’ Companion to Theatre in Australia (1995) edited by Philip Parsons with Victoria Chance, presents a comprehensive reference book presented in an encyclopaedic format, covering theatre in Australia in all its forms since 1788.
In the 21st century, Julian Meyrick brings a new perspective to the history of Australian drama, having discovered after many years of research that Australian theatre history is situated in ‘a broader cultural narrative’. This led to the investigation of other art forms and influences. There is, however, a notable absence of reference to ‘amateur’ theatre in the book. This is surprising, because the early 20th century amateur actor contributed to Australian drama by performing in locally written plays rejected by commercial theatre. Since the 1850s, it is historically documented that hundreds of amateur theatre companies have contributed to their communities by presenting theatre in regional and urban Australia, including donating box-office takings to patriotic causes during two world wars. The terms ‘Repertory’, ‘non-commercial’, ‘Little’, ‘pro-am’ and ‘alternative’ theatre are used in the book to describe early Australian theatre, as well as professional. Perhaps the business-like term ‘non-commercial’ refers to the amateur theatrical arts sector. On the other hand, maybe the term ‘amateur’, meaning ‘for love’ and historically accurate, still needs to overcome a ‘cultural cringe’.
The first two selected plays in the book were written and staged during a time of hope and optimism for most Australians, when uniting the six states strengthened a sense of nationhood. The final two plays emerged at a time when Australian theatre mostly stopped in the 2020-2022 global pandemic. The book itself was admirably conceived, researched, drafted and published during the same pandemic, and coincides with the 50th anniversary of Australian publisher Currency Press.
Congratulations to Julian Meyrick on contributing a new, historically valuable Australian theatre reference book. Australia in 50 Plays also achieves Meyrick’s aim to ‘bring Australian drama into proper consideration of questions concerning the life of the nation. Seeing drama as one of the sinews of public debate on significant issues facing Australia.’
In Meyrick’s words: ‘To study the plays of the nation is to study the nation’.
Julian Meyrick, Australia in 50 Plays, Currency Press, Strawberry Hills, NSW, 2022
Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama, A History of Australian Drama: Vol. 1 from the 1830s to the late 1960s, Angus & Robertson, Australia, 1973
Leslie Rees, Australian Drama in the 1970s, A History of Australian Drama Vol. II: A Historical and Critical Survey, Angus & Robertson, 1978
Philip Parsons, General Editor with Victoria Chance, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Australia, 1995
Cheryl Threadgold, In the Name of Theatre: the history, culture and voices of amateur theatre in Victoria, Published by Cheryl Threadgold, Australia, 2020