Beyond Sorry: colonial oppression on Australian stages

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is a key example of post-Apology theatre. AAP Image/Heidrun Löhr

Theatrical journeys into Australia’s colonial history have often been rather grim affairs. Over the last 30 years or so, some of country’s most eminent playwrights – Louis Nowra, Andrew Bovell, Stephen Sewell, and Katherine Thomson among others – have created works in which the physical and psychological frontiers of settlement resemble grisly warzones of colonial oppression. So where are we now, in terms of our non-Indigenous drama?

It has been nearly seven years since Kevin Rudd delivered his apology to Indigenous Australians in 2008. It was a key moment in Australian postcolonial relations, and before it many settler descendent Australians expressed intense feelings of shame and remorse. As a result, the apology came to be framed as a kind of catharsis, as if some form of forgiveness might be bestowed on non-Indigenous people who felt compelled to say “sorry”.

The current political climate around Indigenous affairs appears to directly contradict that lost desire for exculpation that so animated non-Indigenous Australians to ask for forgiveness less than a decade ago.

Against a hostile backdrop of regular protest marches, the Abbott government’s plans to cut funding to remote communities, the half-billion dollar cuts to Indigenous services, the still decade-wide gap in life expectancy and soaring Indigenous incarceration rates, that utopian dream of a “united nation” now appears distant.

In 2015 the question lingers: where has our sympathy and recognition gone?

In considering that question from a non-Indigenous perspective, urban studies scholar Jane M. Jacobs has argued that:

the drive to create an “on record” apology is proof of a settler subject actively transforming him or herself from “colonialist” into that fantasised subject of the postcolonial nation.

Surveying the contemporary political scene, what exactly constitutes this “fantasised” non-Indigenous identity remains woefully unclear and is still the subject of much progressive and conservative debate.

Jacobs goes on to suggest that in hindsight the motivation behind the Apology might not have been exclusively about healing the misery of The Stolen Generation, but rather the desire of those settler Australians to seek “absolution for past sins”.

For contemporary non-Indigenous Australians, this lingering “bad faith” occupies a strange place in our national psyche – it exists somewhere between a desperately desired concept of forgiveness and the dire political reality of current Indigenous policy. This complex problem has been the subject of several recent Australian plays that explore the darker recesses of the non-Indigenous ego.

Colonialism onstage

The use of on-stage tropes to represent colonial oppression has been written about extensively by many scholars in my field of Theatre Studies. The over-arching theme is that non-Indigenous playwrights appear consumed by the desire to exhume, revise, critique or, perhaps, correct a national narrative in which colonial violence, massacre and dispossession has remained concealed in official accounts of history.

Together their works can be read as a response to what WEH Stanner in 1968 infamously called “The Great Australian Silence”. To counter this forgetting, many non-indigenous Australians took up the mantle of responsibility and supported the move towards a formalised Reconciliation program way back in 1991.

In particular, many non-Indigenous Australian playwrights throughout the 1980s, 90s and early 00s made concerted efforts to challenge the traditional narratives.

If one were to reduce this theme to a single, exemplifying theatrical gesture, a prime candidate would be the closing moments of Andrew Bovell’s 2001 Gothic melodrama Holy Day.

A young Indigenous woman delivers a soliloquy describing the massacre of an Aboriginal family group on the colonial frontier. She reaches the final, graphic details before uttering the haunting proclamation that “[t]his is our history”. It read then, and still does, as a haunting accusation. It becomes more visceral when we learn our speaker has her tongue brutally excised to ensure she is forever silent.

Holy Day opened at the height of the so-called “History Wars” and the play wore its pejorative black armband with political and artistic defiance. But that was nearly 15 years ago. A lot has happened since.

More recently Bovell has eerily repeated those terrible, closing minutes of Holy Day in his critically acclaimed 2013 adaptation of Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. The play similarly concludes with the horrific details of a massacre.

Although the two plays are similar, the most glaring difference between these two nightmarish visions of settlement is a strange, entangled sense of “knowing”.

A contemporary audience already knows how the story ends. What played as a stark revelation in 2001 is re-played as a precise, vile reminder in 2013. The frontier of Holy Day is an imagined place – a distinct yet open allegory for all those un-memorialised colonial battlefields that historian Henry Reynolds wrote about in his 2013 study, The Forgotten War.

The Secret River locates its violence exactly – on “the Hawkesbury River between September 1813 and April 1814”. The massacre is a known piece of knowledge that, in its explicitness, seems to declare that ignorance is now wilful disavowal. For Bovell, there is no silence this time. Instead, the final image is of the white protagonist – William Thornhill – building his picket fence, demarcating his piece of earth on what is now unmistakably stolen land.

Both Holy Day and The Secret River can be classified as Australian Gothic theatre. Although the genre is more traditionally associated with literature and film, the last half-decade has seen more and more playwrights return to the genre’s moribund sheen and language of ghosts.

So much so that theatre scholar and playwright Stephen Carleton is convinced the Australian theatre is currently experiencing a “boom” in Gothic playwriting.

Guilt and the Gothic

As the Apology languishes in near-history, a body of new Gothic plays has explored the darker recesses of the non-Indigenous psyche. Although very different in form, content and aesthetic, they are all willing to explore White Australia’s guilt.

Angela Betzien has found an audience across the country with her play The Dark Room (2009). It is a nightmarish commentary on the Northern Territory Intervention into remote communities. Similarly, there has been critical acclaim for fringe efforts such as Jackie Smith’s melancholic vision of settler womanhood and patriarchy in The Flood (2012).

Andrew McGahan and Shaun Charles’ adaptation of The White Earth (2009) reinvents the traditional Gothic melodrama in order to challenge notions of non-Indigenous “belonging” and sacredness.

This trend looks backwards too with the Malthouse Theatre’s new take on two Australian Gothic classics – Stephen Sewell’s Hate (2012) and Matthew Lutton’s reimagining of Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain (2014). These productions are but a few examples of the mounting body of evidence that supports Carleton’s claim that the Gothic has returned as a force in Australian theatre.

The Gothic in these plays offers no solutions to our anxiety surrounding home and belonging. Nor does it have an obligation to. Each of these plays serve as a haunting reminder to their diverse core audiences that our efforts to reconcile Australia’s dark history may not be as settled as we wished for back in 2008. They reiterate that saying sorry was not enough.

Instead, we are painfully reminded that an imagined absolution, though comforting, can be as concealing as apathy, racism and ignorance. Each playwright mentioned here dramatises these complicated anxieties in the most aggressive and confronting theatrical language at their disposal – the Gothic.