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My first contact with Jack’s plays was as an early teenager, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, when I was taken to a production of A Stretch of the Imagination in Canberra that I guess very few people saw, Canberra being Canberra, but it left an indelible mark on me. The actor’s name was John Cuffe – a legend amongst us Canberrans - who I remember was very highly regarded as an interpreter of Beckett. Knowing what I know now, it is not surprising that his Monk O’Neill, truly a blood relation of any of the great Beckettians, should have made such an impact on me. Of course it went way over my head, but I remember the atmosphere of it so clearly; I remember how it looked and sounded and, as I search back through my memory banks I even feel as if I can remember how it smelled.  

Tom Healey in conversation with Jack Hibberd and Evelyn Krape

This is a great mark of Jack’s writing. He works so vividly on the senses even while, at first glance, so much of it appears as witty and flippant. In play after play as I read through his remarkable catalogue, there are characters who are in so much pain, who are drawn so viscerally that you really do feel as though you could smell or touch them, even if you feel that they might give you a vicious back-hand if you tried.

       

As I read through his remarkable catalogue, there are characters who are drawn so viscerally that you really do feel as though you could smell or touch them, even if you feel that they might give you a vicious back-hand if you tried

The legends of that fecund and vibrant seed-bed that bred Jack’s play writing, the Australian Performing Group (APG) (often referred to as The Pram Factory, or just The Pram) are, to say the least, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. There are so many tales of holes drilled in spoons, legendary arguments, ideological splits, spectacular successes and equally spectacular fiascos. It’s intoxicating to one, like me, who was too young to be there, but who has worked with so many of the people who created those legends (made more intoxicating by the fact that their individual accounts never quite match up). The group of artists at the centre of this collective is a roll-call of eminent Australian artists: Graeme Blundell, Margaret Cameron, Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, David Williamson, Evelyn Krape, Tony Taylor, Barry Dickins, John Romeril, Jane Clifton, Lindy Davies… and so many more. There was an outpouring of work of all kinds, much of which has never and can never be captured for posterity, but in this collection you will find a few genuine gems from this period. Even though there are at least as many plays collected here that post-date the APG, it is apposite I think to remember that Jack’s career as a playwright, like so many others of this time, was started amongst this remarkable collective. The history of theatre in Australia and internationally, is water-marked by such apparently spontaneous ‘movements’. Who could imagine Simon Stone without The Hayloft Project, John Bell without Nimrod, Stephen Sewell without Belvoir Street, Declan Greene without Sisters Grimm, Joanna Murray-Smith and Hannie Rayson without Playbox?

 

Notwithstanding his relationship to the APG, Jack’s plays remain as seminal texts in the Australian playwriting landscape. His reinventions of vaudeville and Theatre of the Absurd, his nods to the great writers and thinkers of the twentieth century theatre like Brecht, Beckett and Artaud, but principally his extraordinarily singular voice have given us such wonderful and iconic works as Dimboola, A Toast to Melba, The Les Darcy Show and of course A Stretch of the Imagination. There are so many more, and this of course is the purpose of a retrospective such as this. For those of us who love and respect history, we live in egregious times. Remembering, learning from and celebrating what has come before is a fundamental cornerstone of an intelligent and civilized nation, not to mention the only way we keep the flame of exploration alive. Jack has truly blazed a trail – indeed continues to blaze it – with his courage, his originality and his iconoclastic approach to ‘the rules’. His work is passionate, joyful and on occasion incredibly bleak, but it is all driven by a vision that is fiercely human and, somewhat at odds with the general take on his work, intensely warm and empathic.

 

In a forum a few years ago which centred on the ‘New Wave’ of playwrights that blossomed and exploded in the late 60’s and early 70’s of which Jack (amongst others like David Williamson, Louis Nowra, Dorothy Hewett, Alma de Groen, Stephen Sewell, John Romeril et al) is a part, somebody - and from memory it was Max Gillies - made the observation that it is entirely correct to draw a direct comparison between this playwrighting movement and the Australian Modernist Movement (the Angry Penguins) in visual art in the 1940’s. Just as the Modernists dragged Australian painting firmly into the avant-garde, so the ‘New Wave’ playwrights did the same for Australian theatre. Hibberd’s standing as an artist of significance most certainly ranks with the likes of Boyd, Nolan, Hester and Tucker, as do all of the playwrights listed above.

 

Hibberd’s body of work is a loud, joyful and brilliant noise; a journey that is still underway, and a legacy of enormous value to all of us who love art. It is an enormous pleasure and a matter of great pride that we have these wonderful plays in our collection and I commend them, in their entirety, to you.

  

Tom Healey,
Literary Manager