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Helen Garner on stage in Betty Can Jump at The Pram Factory in 1972. Photo courtesy of the Betty Can Jump collective

Friday essay: ‘with men I feel like a very sharp, glittering blade’ – when 5 liberated women spoke the truth

There’s a climactic scene in Helen Garner’s third and latest diary where she describes tipping a box of her then husband’s cigars into a pot of soup, picking up a pair of scissors, slashing a straw hat that belongs to his lover and stuffing the pieces in his “ugly black suede shoes.” In her husband’s study she finds his latest manuscript:

I wrench the cap off his Mont Blanc fountain pen and stab the proof copy with the nib, gripping the pen in my fist like a dagger. I stab and stab, I press and screw and grind.

This scene of kitchen sink carnage comes after days of diary entries where Garner – the great observer of the smallest details – carries on blind (wilfully? self-protectively?) to what is staring her reader in the face: a novelist husband who is spinning fictional stories both to her and to his lover. It’s a cathartic moment for everyone. As if Garner had called her readers inside the bladder of a dark balloon, blown it up as taut as it could stretch, and then finally punctured the sides so fresh air can come screaming in. We can breathe again.

Something else struck me as I read this scene, which takes place in the mid-1990s: how Garner’s words echoed another scene about men and knives and stabbing she wrote and performed almost 25 years earlier, in 1972.

With men I feel like a very sharp, glittering blade that’s only partly out of its sheath.

It glitters and glitters.

They don’t see it, but I don’t dare to show that blade, to come right out of the sheath, because I’m afraid of how fierce and joyful it will be to stab – and stab – and stab. So I don’t show it, I hold it, somehow I hold it back, but it’s there, glittering.

These lines are from a group-devised woman’s play, called Betty Can Jump, staged at Carlton’s experimental Pram Factory theatre in that year. A friend of Garner’s from university, Kerry Dwyer, was one of the founders of a theatre company based at the Pram Factory, the Australian Performing Group (APG).

Dwyer organised women from the APG, together with those from the Carlton Women’s Liberation Group, who were meeting in Garner’s share house, to build sets, make costumes and run the front of house while Garner and four other women – Claire Dobbin, Evelyn Krape, Yvonne Marini and Jude Kuring – workshopped scenes under Dwywer’s direction.

In closed workshops in the Pram’s back theatre, the cast explored how they felt as women, using consciousness-raising techniques from women’s liberation, and physical exercises and improvisations adapted from avant-garde theatre groups.

The Pram Factory, circa 1970. Lloyd Carrick

As I read and reread many of Garner’s books recently, I started seeing knives and blades everywhere. Nora, the narrator of Garner’s 1977 novel Monkey Grip, describes how, after a perfunctory encounter with her careless lover Javo, she grabs a bowie knife and fantasises about “plunging it into the famous handsome picture of him in Cinema Papers”.

In another entry in Garner’s latest diary, Garner offers up to her father her most recent book. He criticises her author photo (it made her “look old”), then he takes a blade he is holding, turns the book on its cover, and demonstrates how to sharpen a knife against a stone.

I started to notice, too, other objects that keep reappearing in Garner’s work. She frequently introduces characters by describing their shoes, for example, like actors in a play walking on stage.

The diary scene where Garner stuffs her husband’s shoes with the remnants of a slashed hat brings these repeating objects together. The scene also vividly dramatises one of Garner’s other great concerns: the conflict between love and passion and individual freedom.

‘It glitters and glitters.’ Photo courtesy of the Betty Can Jump collective

‘Who will bring in a cup of tea?’

In the Carlton world Garner inhabited in the 1970s – an inner-city Melbourne community of actors and artists and activists – jealousy and possessiveness was frowned upon while open free relationships were encouraged writes Ponch Hawkes, a photographer who documented the Pram Factory world.

In Monkey Grip, as Garner’s fictional surrogate Nora visits the Tower household that adjoined the Pram’s theatre and office space and the share households of her inner-city community, she constantly steels herself for the possibility of seeing her lover Javo emerge from another woman’s bedroom.

People, Hawkes writes of this time, “couldn’t say they were very hurt, or act hurt [when they] had to see you the next day, or the same day, in the hall.” They had to “wear it”.

For many who were part of Australia’s social and cultural revolutions of the early 1970s – especially the denizens of the inner-city bohemia like Garner and her friends – the women’s movement and sexual liberation were so entwined they could not be understood separately.

In 1971 and 1972, Garner and Dwyer and the women rehearsing at the Pram Factory were developing a critique of the traditional, heterosexual, nuclear household. They were influenced by their reading of books such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, The Female Eunuch, in which Germaine Greer argued the liberation of individual women had to begin with their sexual liberation (and satisfaction), and feminist journals and books from overseas – including the Boston Women’s Health Collective’s Our Bodies, Ourselves, a pamphlet urging women to understand their bodies, explore their sexual desires and control their reproductive lives.

Helen wrote another monologue for Betty Can Jump called “What is a woman?”.

You want me to mother you, you want to worship me and make a goddess of me but I disgust you, you loathe me because of the dark wetness of my most secret place …

You expect me to find meaning in my household tasks, my hands in water and children’s shit, my back bent in your service, my mind flabby from constant distractions, but when I interrupt your recital of the day’s woes or try to speak of my daily frustration or pleasure I must hear my work dismissed as trivia, and my concern for my children called an obsession.

Pram Factory poster (created by Micky Allan). Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

Twenty-five years after Garner performed this monologue, Garner’s diary entries from the 1990s describe her then husband dismissing her anxieties, making light of her worries, and calling her concerns trivial.

She leaves the house each morning to accommodate his demands for complete solitude while he works. She returns home in the evenings from her own writing labours, with food and hours left in her day to cook for the both of them.

He, a novelist, belittles her non-fiction writing as a lower-order craft. And he criticises her close relationship with her daughter and extended family.

Garner’s life during this period eerily echoes the one her good friend Micky Allan – a painter who created the sets and slides that formed the backdrop to Betty Can Jump – had lived quarter of a century earlier.

Allan attended her first consciousness-raising meeting in Melbourne the day she had split with her husband, a talented artist but someone whose ideas about men and women’s roles were formed in the 1950s.

When I visited her in 2018, Allan told me the story of their time sharing a flat, earlier in London, where she rose early and left in snowy weather to work as a relief teacher, leaving their home to her husband and his art.

I had a little cupboard off the kitchen which was my studio, and he took over our living room as his. When I came home in the afternoon, I couldn’t get in without him making a big fuss about having to move a giant painting blocking the door.

He had asked her why she needed to paint: “If you’re painting too, who will bring in the cup of tea?”


Read more: Friday essay: The Female Eunuch at 50, Germaine Greer's fearless, feminist masterpiece


A reaction to frustrations

Betty Can Jump is named after a 1951 children’s reader produced by the Victorian Education Department in which a boy called John plays with his truck and dog, and Betty plays with a toy pram and her cat. The play was a reaction to frustrations the women were feeling in their personal and professional lives. Helen was feeling left out and lonely while her husband Bill spent more and more time at the Pram Factory. Kerry, newly pregnant, was feeling increasingly sidelined in the the APG.

Kerry Dwyer recalls the day she stormed out of rehearsals for the APG’s first Pram Factory show, Marvellous Melbourne. It was meant to be a group-created show, but she was enraged at the way the men in the APG dominated the production. While the Marvellous Melbourne cast included equal numbers of women and men, scenes “arrived in the rehearsal room with five parts for men, none for women [or] seven parts for men, one for a woman”. Why are women in the theatre considered incapable of writing? she fumed. Or directing? Why is female culture not respected and nurtured?

The women spent five months devising Betty. One man attended the first planning meeting, bringing a couple of plays he’d written. The women asked him to join the large circle for general discussions, but instead he stormed around the edge shouting: “Damnitall! I don’t know how you are going to achieve anything at all if you won’t accept help and advice from us”.

The rehearsal room was then closed to men – until they realised they needed an actor to play the male roles. So Perth actor Vic Marsh was invited to take part.

In the opening scene, Marsh whips the women, who play convicts emerging from a ship’s hold. The cast re-enact riots in early female factories, and tell stories about suffragists Louisa Lawson and Vida Goldstein and other women who had been largely ignored by an Anglo, male history. They also deliver intimate monologues written during rehearsal exercises, where each cast member has to complete the phrase “As a woman I feel like …”

Helen delivers her scene where feels like a sharp, glittering knife.

Evelyn feels like a cushion plumped up and sat in.

Yvonne feels like a mouth filled with laughing gas.

The lights go out and the cast talk about their bodies and blood and sex and rape. In another scene, the cast don jockstraps and fake penises and mock ocker men drinking at a pub. (Ockers featured in many plays written by APG men.)

A scene from Betty Can Jump. Photo courtesy of the Betty Can Jump collective

This was the first play of the 1970s women’s liberation movement, part of an extraordinary period of social change. In just a few short years, a generation of women led a transformation of our social and cultural life. It’s easy to forget just how different the early 70s were: there were still separate columns in the paper advertising jobs for “women and girls” and “men and boys”. Many public bars still banned women. Not one of the 125 electorates across the country was represented in Canberra by a woman.

As I researched the play and these times, however, I thought about that other definition of revolution: a movement around a circle. I saw how feminism so often keeps rehearsing and staging the same battles. There is a scene in Betty, acted in the dark, where a character taunts a woman: “Got the rags on, have you?”. Fifty years on, I found myself talking to teachers recently about a group of primary school boys allegedly harassing girls with “jokes” about rape, and taunts about being “on their periods”.

These circlings are not unconnected, I thought, to the way in which we forget, or repress our history. Both individually and collectively.

For a long time, my image of the Pram Factory had centred on the male playwrights David Williamson and Jack Hibberd and actors Graeme Blundell and Bruce Spence. Don’s Party and boozing ocker men.


Read more: The Great Australian Plays: Williamson, Hibberd and the better angels of our country's nature


Kerry Dwyer in 1972 - just as Betty Can Jump’s season was ending and she was about to give birth. Photo courtesy of Kerry Dwyer.

I discovered the stories of women at the APG in the archives at the State Library of NSW, where Dwyer had deposited her production diaries – her own diary, with notes of rehearsals and descriptions of the cast, as well as Garner’s production diary, with stage directions and script notes in a neat pink slanted cursive script.

Dwyer’s archive also contained interviews she conducted with cast members and with Micky Allan and the play’s researcher, Laurel Frank.

Just as I hadn’t known about the history of women’s theatre at the Pram, Frank and another woman, Kay Hamilton, had turned to archives – at the State Library of Victoria, and the NSW Mitchell Library – to discover stories of colonial women’s settler history. The researched Female Factories, stories of auctions where convict women were sold off, they researched politicians and women’s rights activists such as Vida Goldstein and Caroline Chisholm. The play’s focus is on non-Indigenous women, something that might seem a glaring oversight to contemporary readers, but Kerry tells me:

We were not so much blind to the lives of Indigenous women, it was more that we were catching up with ourselves.

A huge success

In 1972, after a shaky preview night of their women’s show – Garner, in an account of the play she wrote in 1972 for the journal Dissent, recalled thinking the APG men watching the show were “stony-faced” – Betty Can Jump turned out to be a huge success.

Women who saw the show laughed and cried, performances sold out, the four-week season was extended for two more weeks. While not all of the APG members praised the play – Hibberd called it “mawkish and sentimental” – the Pram Factory shows did slowly being to change.

The play was a huge success. Photo courtesy of the Betty Can Jump collective

The company began exploring women’s issues in plays and appointing women directors. Although the APG always styled itself as a radically democratic organisation, more emphasis began to be placed on what was often described by left political groups in the 1970s as “shitwork”, such as taking minutes and cleaning toilets and kitchens.

APG minutes show the group organised childcare for mothers performing in shows. In 1974, the Melbourne Women’s Theatre Group moved into the Pram, and they would stage dozens of women’s shows over the next four years. Theatre critic Suzanne Spunner wrote that in 1978 in Melbourne, “Everywhere you turned it seems there were plays by and about women wrote”, listing women’s shows at La Mama, Russell Street theatre, the Comedy Theatre and at the Pram Factory.

Revolutions

When I interviewed Garner about the time she made Betty Can Jump and these revolutionary years (Helen was active in the abortion rights movement, and women in the Betty collective ran through Moratorium marches doing street theatre dressed up as Viet Cong), she described the sensation of discovering women’s liberation as an epiphany.

I felt as if I’d been underwater for my whole life. And now for the first time, I’d stuck my head out of the water and taken a breath … looking around and thinking: ‘Now I get it. Now I get why my life is such a mess and why I’ve been so unhappy and wrecked everything’.

She also thought it would be easy to change.

Once I got the sort of basic gist of feminism – or women’s liberation as it was called then – I thought, ‘Oh, now I understand everything, and everything’s going to change, because all we have to do is just say to men: “This is what’s the matter, and if we could just do this, and if you could just do that” …’ And I really thought that was going happen.

She now reflects, in the context of MeToo:

Some things might change, but there’s stuff about men and sex and women that are just not amenable to social control, and never will be.

In Garner’s latest diary, as her third marriage disintegrates, she laments some lack in her that makes her a failure at marriage. But when she documents the failure of heterosexual marriage and monogamy in her diaries, they don’t read to me as proof of her own personal flaws, but rather as proof of a systemic flaw in the heterosexual, nuclear set-up. As a vindication of the 1970s ideal of the Pram communalism and the collective ideal (if not always the practice) of women’s liberation.

Garner was already known for her brilliant letters before she was cast in Betty Can Jump, Dwyer has noted, but the play was the first time she wrote for a public audience. Dobbin described the way she took on a role that was akin to a dramaturge, someone who could “take big ideas and reduce them to a human personal scale”. Garner wrote some of the play’s most affecting and effective scenes. The collective experience, and the visceral responses of audiences, was an important part of her development as a writer.

When Dwyer emailed me to apologise for her messy archives (they were, in fact, a goldmine of material that left me constantly amazed at her prescience in keeping them), I thought about how it can take more than a lifetime for us as women to shake off our proclivity for apology.

And I realised, when I recently began meeting on Sundays with a group of women from my neighbourhood – a visual artist, a filmmaker and children’s author, two musicians, a teacher, a journalist and a public communications expert – that we were reinventing the consciousness-raising circle.

Betty Can Jump was never performed again. Dwyer described it to me a “pastiche” that would be difficult to reproduce. “It was a very complex show. There were slides, there were puppets. We just flung everything at it […] It was a very, very dense show.”

Although Dwyer tells me “not very much of [the script] was written down”, when I comb through the APG archives at the State Library of Victoria, I find a stapled document that appears to be a near-complete script for the play.

Still, unlike books, theatre is an ephemeral art form. Just as the story of women at the Pram Factory has been overshadowed by the story of men, the story of the collectively created plays and short films and bands that were part of the cultural renaissance of the women’s liberation movement, has not been well recorded. There is no star author to help sustain their afterlife in our historical memory.

But understanding our history, and our patterns – individually, collectively, historically – seems to me a pre-condition for escaping the revolutions that take us around in circles, and into the kind of revolutions that take us somewhere else.

This essay contains edited extracts from Staging a Revolution: When Betty Rocked the Pram (Upswell Publishing).

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