Australian plays: how to persuade a nation to question its own soul?

Onstage at the JC Williamson Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1935. Are we treating our playwrights any better than we did then? Wikimedia Commons

Australian plays: how to persuade a nation to question its own soul?

Onstage at the JC Williamson Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1935. Are we treating our playwrights any better than we did then? Wikimedia Commons

This is a long-read essay, the fourth in a series on playwriting and drama by Julian Meyrick. Read Part one here, Part two here, and Part three here.

Telling the story of playwriting in four articles is like trying to fit an elephant into a bodystocking. Go to any library and browse the drama shelf. The variety of plays in even a modest collection is mind-blowing. Add film and TV scripts into the mix and the range expands further.

So making generalisations about playwriting invites “what-about-ism”.

Say “Australian drama has done poorly since Federation”, for example, and you’ll get a barrage of counter-examples. What about Katharine Susan Pritchard’s Brumby Innes (1927)? Or Sumner Locke-Elliot’s Rusty Bugles (1948)? Or Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955)?

What about the plays of Patrick White, Dorothy Hewett, David Williamson, John Romeril, Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Joanna Murray-Smith, Patricia Cornelius and so on?

There is no doubt that Australia has produced, and continues to produce, exceptional playwrights. But in judging a nation’s drama it is not the exceptions that count.

It is the quality of its next-best plays that is the crucial indicator, for three reasons. First, because exceptional drama is rare, even for exceptional playwrights. Second, because exceptional drama cannot be routinely manufactured, only allowed for. Third, because exceptional drama comes from the general culture and it is the health of this that determines how many exceptional plays there will be.

Buying a better car won’t buy you better traffic. What matters is not the commanding heights of playwriting but the state of the sector overall.

What we know about Australian drama

Perhaps the first thing to say about the history of Australian drama is how thin it is.

After Gough Whitlam doubled the federal arts budget in 1973, the number of Australian plays produced increased, but sporadically, and with ongoing debate about their place and value. What other country of comparable wealth and education has looked on its own drama in the same contingent way as Australia? As if it were an optional extra – like a second national anthem or free kerbside parking?

The second thing to observe is how fuddled the understanding of playwriting remains in our over-connected, under-reflective country; how it is too often framed as a quill-pen skill in comparison with visual, digi-media and choreographic technologies.

Not everyone thinks like this. But it is undoubtedly true that in recent years playwriting has been defined outside notions of art-form innovation. This was signalled by the decision of the Australia Council in 2009 to provide Theatre Board assessors with just a five-page extract of all submitted scripts in grant applications.

When a country stops reading its plays, it stops relating to its playwrights. And while the Council’s decision was motivated by important strategic concerns – to give equal weight to hybrid art projects that mainstream companies were unlikely to support – it has had fateful consequences.

It also echoes a past pattern of chronic mismanagement. This has been well-chronicled by historians such as Leslie Rees, Peter Fitzpatrick, Peter Holloway, Michelle Arrow, and John McCallum. Their accounts vary in particulars but not in general thrust. Fitzpatrick calls Australian drama “a history of beginnings”, so often has it been cast back into a pool of primal neglect.

The fragility of our drama

What makes the position of Australian playwriting so fragile?

Partly, economics. Australia has a sizeable population, but it is geographically dispersed, making it difficult for plays to reach a national audience. Touring circuits exist, but costs are high, and drama that goes on the road has to have broad appeal, or a small cast, or both.

To boot, there is a lack of national thinking around playwright development, the fact that states’ interests determine the style and level of support in different parts of the country. The level of cooperation between Australian theatre companies on a production level is good, and has been since 1988, the year the last English director of a state theatre, Alan Edwards of the Queensland Theatre Company, retired. The level of cooperation in respect of playwright development is virtually nil.

But economics and industry structure are not the whole story. The history of Australian playwriting is punctuated by instances of savage rejection that raise questions about whether the country understands the role of drama per se.

The case of Patrick White

The best example – and there are many to choose from – is Patrick White. His first four plays – The Ham Funeral, Season at Sarsaparilla, A Cheery Soul and Night on Bald Mountain – were produced in the early 1960s.

Each was a bitter struggle. Two were rejected by the Adelaide Festival, one nearly sent the Melbourne Theatre Company broke. Examining White’s correspondence last year I was blown away by the general ill-will towards his “modern” plays with their multiple storylines and changing locations.

A published letter in Theatregoer (3/1, March 1963:7) from a “Mrs Queensland” about The Ham Funeral – now regarded as one the great works in the Australian drama canon – gives the typical adverse reaction:

One scene forced several women to leave the theatre. It made me queasy in the stomach, and utterly disgusted. The rest of the play was long-winded, unintelligible and boring […]

One must like this rubbish, it seems, to be deemed “cultured”. Nor has this play been the only one thrust, during the past few years, on a long-suffering public. Most Australian plays we have had to endure professionally […] have been of the same calibre. Usually incomprehensible […] with sex in its crudest form, and violence predominating.

Despite statements otherwise, such plays have been a failure from an audience point of view, and also financially. Yet they continued to be produced. Why? One can only conclude that some power behind all this wants Australian theatregoers to dislike their own drama, and so demand overseas imports.

What caused this hostility, which also reflects a lack of understanding about how drama “works”?

A major reason was the dominance of JC Williamson, one of the most successful theatre businesses in entertainment history. At one point, after its merger with the Tait brothers in 1920, “the Firm” owned most of the theatres, cinemas and music halls in Australia, as well as controlling what went into them.

For more than a hundred years it programmed largely commercial fare, lightweight and crowd-pleasing.

JC Williamson Theatre production, 1936. Sam Hood/Wikimedia Commons

There is no Australian equivalent to Ireland’s Abbey Theatre or the UK’s Royal Court (the nearest thing are the doomed Pioneer Players). No foundational playwrights comparable to Henrik Ibsen, WB Yeats or George Bernard Shaw. While overseas, playwriting was progressing in form and function, in Australia it remained an anodyne tinsel-wrapped import, valued for spectacle, profit, and cultural cachet.

Playwriting occupies a weak position in Australian culture because its historical role is not to be good, but to be acceptable. The commercial theatre ethos that went unchallenged for so long bequeathed it a legacy of timidity, superficiality and bosh.

And this legacy dies very, very, hard.

When I came to Australian in 1987 I saw three shows in my first month: Michael Gow’s Europe, Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age and a performance piece by Wollongong’s Swamp Art.

I had lived in the UK, Germany and the US – three diverse theatre cultures. Yet I had seen nothing like this work, which reflected a unique sensibility. I had no word to describe what that was, so I thought it simply “Australian”.

I started talking about what I had seen, what had got me so excited. But I soon discovered there was no common understanding of these plays’ value, no agreement about where they fitted in, what an “Australian” sensibility meant, or how it expressed itself in drama.

I could fill a book with my experiences since then of Australia’s mishandling of playwrights, its overweening under-confidence in respect of its own drama. It has repeatedly struck me that our playwrights are hobbled at the deepest level by a collective expectation their work should reflect what most people already think, that they should create a drama of confirmation.

Australia may be a country capable of dealing with challenge, criticism and conflict. But it does not particularly want these qualities in its plays.

What is lost by this self-defeating attitude? How to persuade a nation to accept the questioning of its own soul? For this is the source and substance of all true drama, the reason for the public attention it elicits.

In these four articles, I have tried to show the intellectual and emotional depth of playwriting. It is a technology as elegant as any mathematical formula, as insightful as any social theory, as mysterious as any philosophical conundrum.

Because drama surrounds us from the day we become aware of the world to day we depart it, we forget what a miracle it is, what an unmatched vehicle for the transmission of complex human experience.

Shakespeare was a great playwright because he discerned the greatness of the art form at his disposal, and exploited it to the full. When such a process of discovery is entrained, a society is not simply consuming drama as an entertainment product. It is relating to it as a means of self-understanding.

How often have we witnessed on stage, TV or in the cinema, moments when we think “that is just so”, when the truth of the world is given to us in profound, accessible miniature? There are things that can only be found in drama. There are stories, characters, images, problems, ideas, feelings, that only drama can “transluminate”, in the peculiar term of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

Now that Australia has lost its monocular cultural views, it must renovate its crabbed attitude to drama – an attitude that keeps it in wilful ignorance of playwriting as a technology – and let its dramatists speak their mind, so it can know its mind. It must let go of the view that playscripts are akin to Biedermeier furniture and recognise that dramatic writing is integral to innovation in the three keys mediums of theatre, film and television.

It must recognise that now it is a modern country it needs a modern attitude to drama. And central to the health of this is the role of the playwright.


This is a long-read essay, the fourth in a series on playwriting and drama by Julian Meyrick. Read Part one here, Part two here, and Part three here.