STORY OF THE RED MOUNTAINS by Ben Ellis
Tom Healey on the latest release from Red Door
|click here to find out more||Ben Ellis|
Story of the Red Mountains was commissioned by Jane Bodie as the (then) Head of Writing for Performance at NIDA. In a visionary step for the institution and all of its students, NIDA took the decision several years ago to commission a series of plays, especially intended to be performed, designed and produced by their graduates. This initiative has left us with a suite of plays in addition to Red Mountains including Bodie’s own Hinterland and Stephen Sewell’s Kandahar Gate (stay tuned, I am on the hunt for both of these texts).
As a playwright, Ellis is as unapologetically political as he is tender. If I had to identify a unifying theme in Ellis’ writing, I would say that his preoccupation is the visceral living of politics. Where many playwrights choose the corridors of power as a site to examine politics, Ellis chooses to focus on its impact on the domestic; on those who receive and are forced to live out the decisions, rather than on those who make them.
In his dystopian epic Falling Petals, three school kids are trying to escape a country town in panicked lockdown. In These People, his themes of immigration and detention are refracted through the bourgeois obsessions of a white, middle-class family. And here in Story of the Red Mountains, a group of suburban Australians – and members of the Australian Communist Party – assemble on the 22nd September, 1951: the night of Prime Minister Menzies’ historic referendum over the continued existence of the Communist Party. Already, even in these broad architectural terms, Ellis has identified an exquisite irony; the fate of the Communist Party is to be decided by ‘the people’, in whom this Chapter of communists has little faith: It is 1951, Menzies’ conservative government was then enormously popular (and destined to remain in power for another twenty-one years), the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings (before which Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller were famously called to testify, and upon which Miller’s The Crucible is based) were heating up in America, and the paranoia about the world-wide spread of the communist threat (“reds under the bed”) had a powerful grip in the minds of many.
In a beautifully understated nod to Williamson’s Don’s Party, this is a gathering whose outcome depends on a political result – only this time the expected outcome is armed insurrection. Throughout the text, Ellis creates wonderful and comic tension between the domestic aspects of the situation (a radio that refuses to work, and catering that is – to some – suspiciously foreign) and a genuinely epic underbelly. The presenting (and historically accurate) trigger of the play is the idea that a government felt that it had the right to ban an ideological movement. Ellis wrote Story of the Red Mountains in 2012, and in the three years since then this theme has gathered more and more currency. What is a democracy if it cannot (or will not) afford its participants freedom of thought and expression? One of the truly tough ideas that this play explores is the consequence of free speech and political opinion. As Liz argues:
Don’t fool yourself, comrade Thomas. Progress is made throughout revolutionary history via blood. That’s why, when we sing The Red Flag, we sing of the deepest red and our martyred dead.
For the most part, the Communist ideals and activities expressed in Story of the Red Mountains are benign – ideologically committed and revolutionary in spirit, not seeking to murder or destroy others. However, this play is set on a fault-line, on a moment in Australia’s history where freedom of expression was genuinely and openly under threat. Ellis’ metaphor, couched in light, comic and eccentric character-based comedy hovers gently, but insistently in the background: an Australia that is seemingly nice and seemingly reasonable, but will not sustain disagreement. In the wake of the Australian government’s recent hard-line views on immigration and detention, the metaphor seems both timely and apposite.
Like Melissa Reeves’ The Spook (also concerned with the Communist Party of Australia) Story of the Red Mountains evokes nostalgia in its audience. Many of the jokes in both trade on the memory of appliances now forgotten, clothing and social mores long-abandoned, and a sense of naiveté as the harsh light of contemporary understanding floods the dimly-lit parlors and living rooms of the past. These characters cannot know what we know, and therefore they seem comical, even childlike in their convictions and beliefs. In both plays, this sense of dislocation, this juxtaposition is the point for a contemporary audience. ‘Look at us’, both plays seem to say, ‘we once believed this, we once thought this was the truth’. The salient point of this juxtaposition between the past and the present is a Foucauldian paradox: we cannot ever know what is true – we can only know that ‘the truth’ is in a constant state of change, but we can (as philosopher George Santayana famously remarked) avoid becoming condemned to repeat the past by remembering it.
In some senses, Ellis as a playwright is a master of disguise, or at least sleight-of-hand. His style shifts almost imperceptibly through satire, drama, light comedy and farce, a quality (in my view) essential to great writing. Even though his plays are sharply critical, they contain, as I mentioned at the outset, a great tenderness. Story of the Red Mountains is an elegiac, bittersweet love letter to a nation about which he feels, at least in part, a sense of ambiguity. As with all love letters, it is charged with insatiable curiosity, a certain amount of pain, and an irresistible magnetism. And like all great love letters it is, finally, utterly personal: a document of his soul.
Tom Healey, November 2015
AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager and curator of its Red Door imprint
|Tom Healey in conversation with Ben Ellis|