The Australian Bad Play
Jana Perković weighs in on the pitfalls of Australian playwriting
An AustralianPlays.org series of guest essays
|EDIT: A section of this article has been taken down. It contained a quote from an unpublished play that was used without the playwright's express permission. This was a serious omission on our part and for that we apologise. AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager, Tom Healey, has provided a statement about this, along with a response to the feedback generated by this article.|
Apocalypse stories in which the plot centres around romantic triangles and suburban drug-taking. Four-handers in which none of the characters talk to each other. 'Issue' plays in which current political events are lightly fictionalised, their very existence meant to be the heart of the drama. Or: recent creative-writing graduate departs for a year of backpacking and reality; the drama hovers gently between 'loss of Australian innocence' and reportage, not quite hitting either note. Working-class people die of abortion, drug use, broken-homeness and living in outer suburbs. Arts worker returns home and spends the entire play in subtext-laden silence at the family table. Four people sit in the evocative Australian landscape and talk about art. Four people in the big city talk about politics. Three or four teenagers talk like teenagers do: no plot.
I'd like to introduce you to Australian bad plays. All of them, however disparate they may seem, have failed in the same way – the Australian way. Plays of this kind appear on dozens of Australian stages every week between Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon. And at the end of each one, the audience comes out of the theatre saying to each other, politely, but without conviction: "Well, that was interesting, wasn't it?" And the choice of timid non-commitment instead of passionate rage expressed here, outside of our half-dozen hypothetical theatres, is only another instance of the rhetorical substitution of niceness for truth that had happened inside. The failure of the Australian play is the same as the failure of the Australian dinner conversation, television discussions, and public debates. Not all Australian plays, dinner conversations, and public debates fail in their purpose; but when they do, they fail similarly.
The Australian bad play is invisible, yet omnipresent. It does not get produced, critically interpreted, studied, archived, published, does not enter curricula. Australian theatre tries to forget its bad plays quickly, not unlike the way Australian society tries to forget its lesser historic episodes. And yet the bad play is constantly written, as anyone who reads widely across the contemporary Australian dramatic production knows. I easily average about thirty a year: the gentle suburban apocalypses; the four-handers about art; the working-class people whose interior world is made up entirely of their socio-economic index; the teenagers.
One reason they are written is that playwrights do not know how many of them are written each year, and immediately discarded. The bad play does not publicly fail enough for the playwrights to know that they are not writing a one-off experiment in formless insubstance, but adding to a resounding chorus. The first aim of this essay is to provide that information.
|"The bad play does not publicly fail enough for the playwrights to know that they are not writing a one-off experiment in formless insubstance, but adding to a resounding chorus. The first aim of this essay is to provide that information."|
The second aim, however, is to look at the bad play seriously, as an important cultural artefact. There may be an international Pantheon in which all great world plays hang out together, but bad plays of each culture fail parochially. The Australian bad play (from now on: ABP) is unmistakably specific, and, for this reason alone, it merits analysis. It tells us something about who we are. If we want to talk about Australian drama, we may well start empirically, with its failures.
Anyone who reads widely across the contemporary dramatic text production in Australia quickly starts noticing the patterns. Like the Habsburgs with their protruding jaws, ABPs are recognisable by their distinct anatomy, which could be reduced to the following:
Do not be fooled by the attempts of these plays to pass off as other, more exciting material. They could be set in a war zone, in the past, in another country; and they are set in the average Australian suburb as often as they are set in an abstract, poetic space. Superficially, they may seem to cross genre boundaries: they may come cloaked in apocalypse, politics, coming-of-age, or history. What makes this seemingly disparate mass of written work into a family of relatives is not their superficial subject matter, or setting, not even their shared badness, or the absence of all joys that dramatic writing can provide – but the kind of flaw they exhibit. They all combine unwise plotting to no discernible goal, undemonstrable stage action, thin characterisation and uninteresting dialogue, to achieve an unmistakably Australian-flavoured dramatic failure.
None of these flaws are by themselves fatal. Many good plays exhibit one or two. On their own, each may be a sign of an aesthetic sensibility, but each weakens the dramatic effect a bit, and, contracted all at once, they are terminal.
Let us look at the four fundamental characteristics of the ABPs.
First, there is no clear central narrative. There are often multiple overlapping storylines (usually two, but sometimes three, even four). An artist is having a personal crisis in contemporary Australia while a nurse in World War II is falling in love with a Nazi soldier. An ANZAC is fighting in Europe while a woman in Australia is dying of tuberculosis. An abused woman, a Jihadist Australian, a drag queen and a nun live separate lives. Four people cruise a supermarket without meeting. Their stories are parallel, rather than complementary. Characters regroup from scene to scene, brushing elbows with plenty of others, but no protagonist emerges. Each scene lacks clear link to the previous because the focus must shift between various narrative threads. What keeps all of these (many, many) characters together is as unclear as why we should care. Due to the disproportionate importance of serial television on feeding our playwrights and developing our national narrative, we may call this, unkindly, the dramaturgy of soap opera.
The problem here is not so much the quantity, but the lack of narrative focus. In another version of this problem, the play may have only one dramatic narrative, and its course may still be obstructed by digressions, its emotional force diluted by insistence on detail, and its dramatic tension constantly broken up with very short scenes. This, too, is the dramaturgy of soap opera, and appears integral to the Australian dramatic canon. Hannie Rayson's Hotel Sorrento, for example, builds its two acts with 22 and 19 scenes, respectively. Louis Nowra's Golden Age has 13 and 18. Since these are not works of Shakespearian length, the sheer number indicates that dramatic situations in these scenes have no time to breathe (for comparison, the entire Summer of the Seventeenth Doll consists of five scenes across three acts). But that is not all: the tendency is to end the scene immediately after the conflict has finally been articulated, instead of letting it grow – as if the existence of conflict is dramatic enough. Half of all scenes in the Act Two of Hotel Sorrento (10 out of 19) end that way, with utterances such as: “oh, stop it...”; “we all know that...”; or “I don't actually think that's the point.” (One almost expects that the play was unconsciously scripted with commercial breaks in mind.) But this is not merely the dramaturgy of soap opera. It is the dramaturgy of conflict evasion. It is the unwillingness to see what may actually be at a bottom of the disagreement. It is exactly the same discursive gesture as when Tony Jones, chairing the Q & A, says: “I'm gonna draw a line under it. It is time to move on. Next question!” The purpose of the many meandering narratives in the ABP is to distract us from the unwillingness of the playwright to dig to the bottom of any one of them.
Second, immediate dramatic (stage) action is avoided. Theatre, unlike film, cannot easily show events: landscape, weather events, ageing, change over time, travel in space, battles, even physical fights, are hard to stage naturalistically. To counter that, naturalistic drama, which relies heavily on dialogue to create conflict, integrally depends on performative speech: statements that do not describe reality, but make it. Statements such as “I promise,” “I swear,” “I love you,” “Not guilty,” “I take you as my wedded husband,” “You may sit down.” These are performative statements because they do not describe reality (they are not true or false), they literally make reality (they become true once they are spoken). It is not a coincidence that naturalistic drama often depicts situations in which language has a highly performative function: social rituals, courtrooms, public speeches, romance. This is how theatre shows action on stage, without recourse to large casts of extras, explosions or car chases.
However, ABP – even as naturalistic drama – tends to avoid this kind of speech. The characters will engage in one or more of the following: poetic monologues; descriptions of actions and scenes; overlapping or parallel interior monologues. The action tends to be narrated, rather than performed through language. Again, the problem cuts across genre boundaries. Whereas in a poetic play two characters may spend the entire time facing the audience, delivering two overlapping monologues, in naturalistic drama they might carefully alternate between inconsequential niceties and strangely inappropriate monologues. Either way, what is avoided is the confrontation of two voices on stage.
The absence of dramatic action on stage is often countered with an exciting mass of things otherwise going on in this world: instead of plot, a lot of fabula. There may be murders, child abuse, war, end of the world, etc. – but they are all happening offstage, as an external frill, without direct consequence on the action. Hence why these plays may be set in exotic and eventful settings – and still be incredibly boring. (The examples are too many to list. Sometimes it seems that every Australian playwright has written at least one play in which two people, trapped in a shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster or world war, have a vague and uncommitted romance.)
When we watch theatre, the thing we see is the dynamic between two bodies on stage (we rarely see a relationship of more than two characters at once, even in plays with large casts). We see them want things from each other, give, take, attack, defend, debate, discuss, move closer or farther. It is through their interaction that the entire dramatic world is created. Everything extrinsic to their relationship is, in a sense, not in the play. The world of the play (naturalistic plays in particular) only exists inasmuch as it is invoked and implicated in an interpersonal conflict. It does not matter if a romance is had in a spaceship or in Glen Iris: we are watching a romance.
Third, the dramatic climax happens roughly in the right place in Freytag's dramatic triangle, but has not arisen organically, thanks to the above-listed tactics, which have stifled the development of any dramatic complication. In simple words, there needs to be a climax without there having been a story. So, the climax happens, but is tacked on, mechanical, either predictable or entirely unbelievable. In the worst case, the world ends, or the war begins, or there is a car accident, or an abortion, or a rape, or a terrorist attack, Hiroshima, 9/11, 7/7, everyone turns to zombies, or someone dies for no particular reason. In perhaps the most high profile offense, Andrew Bovell brings out paedophilia at the end of When The Rain Stops Falling. This structure, essentially farcical, is probably why Australian playwrights write better farces, on average, than any other genre of play. When Benedict Hardie's Delectable Shelter ends with the sudden introduction of a new religion based on 1980s pop music, or when Joanna Murray-Smith kills off the protagonist of The Female of the Species, our intelligence is not insulted, because the form is meant to be implausible, the story unbalanced.
If, on the other hand, the playwright has decided that the flattening of the dramatic triangle calls for a soft, gentle climax, the play may culminate in something as lukewarm as someone getting angry at someone else, and even such anger is often not clearly related to the dramatic narrative, however rudimentary. Other soft peaks include: revelation of an event from many years past, that in no way affects the stage relationships (e.g., it is revealed that the two main characters had a relationship in the past); a purely symbolic action, without dramatic consequence (e.g., putting flowers on a grave); or a slip into metaphor. These are plays that end with characters making amends, trying to start again, going on a trip, forgiving. They feel coherent, but as light and inconsequential as a low-fat meal.
In a hybrid solution, a big climax and a soft peak go hand in hand: large historical events culminate in the background, while the interpersonal relationship in the foreground resolves into anxious heartbreak / last-minute declaration of obvious love / strong language.
Four, the above-listed anger and/or dying are employed mechanically to produce the effect of drama, because the substance has not arisen organically within the characters. In film, this problem is usually referred to as “character did not change.”
The dramatic narrative is driven by the changing dynamic between two people: therefore, the narrative path that a play has travelled can be easily gauged by the psychological space the character has traversed between the beginning and the end of the play. If they are not in a significantly different state, the plot has not progressed.
This is the meaning behind that famous statement that there is no such thing as a character. The dramatic character does not exist outside of the dramatic situation, just like a real person does not have a personality in abstract, but one built through experiences. (A criminal psychiatrist once told me: “The only difference between a murderer and you and me is that the murderer has already killed someone.”) A human being becomes one through the decisions they make, the way they respond to circumstances. In order for a dramatic character to emerge, they have to be forced to make such decisions. The bigger the decisions, the more they become legible humans. This is ordinarily called putting characters through hell, and is a necessary act of violence. If the playwright allows their characters to exist in a world in which nothing happens to them, they remain character embryos. Putting characters through hell never occurs in the ABP, which refuses to give them transformative, character-building challenges. It exerts only gentle pressure. Relationships may crack, but are rarely pushed through significant transformation. As a result, no personal journeys are completed; few are even embarked upon.
|"Putting characters through hell never occurs in the ABP, which refuses to give them transformative, character-building challenges. It exerts only gentle pressure."|
One significant reason why characters do not change is because relationships are rarely actualised through dialogue, which tends towards meaningless niceties, opaque small talk - all tension between characters reduced to a hope that there is subtext – and other offenders identified above. Boundaries between characters do not shift through dialogue of this kind. Conversely, even in naturalistic drama, characters in Australian bad plays have a curious habit of spending much of their stage time in constant deep introspection, from which they narrate their psychological state as if it exists as a solid fact, independent of situation (as if we all already knew if we were murderers or not). In such a world, characters arrive on stage as fully formed, immutable facts, never transforming or self-actualising through dramatic conflict. As a result, we do not know who these people are when they arrive, or who they become as they leave. Their interior world remains opaque to us. We do not know what moves them, what differentiates them. They remain, as I wrote earlier, without ideas, emotions, or desires.
Dramatic characters are moved by their emotions (Phaedra's love), desires (Richard III) and ideas (Antigone's idea of justice, or Hamlet's of murder). If they lack this interior apparatus, a mind of their own, they remain like puppets on stage, surrendered to plot and circumstance. All change can only manifest superficially: someone dies, changes job, leaves. If, however, there is also no plot, then there is no play.
The ABPs exist as a collective phenomenon, a vast, silent, hidden, rarely staged, repressed unconscious of the Australian good play. Like any unconscious, the pool of bad plays is many times wider and deeper than that of good plays. Tens and hundreds of them bumble along, passed around from one disappointed reader to the next. Everyone knows they are not very good. But, like the average Australian suburban house, they are all so similarly, intangibly bad, that it is impossible to single any one of them for individual critique. They need to be tackled as a phenomenon.
What sets the ABP apart from bad plays of other nationalities is a failure that is total, not partial: failure of character, plot, theme and style simultaneously. The ABP is both formally unadventurous and structurally unsound. Like an obnoxious person, the ABP talks and talks, without ever saying anything interesting.
Worryingly, this is to a large extent intentional. Robin Boyd made the definitive pronouncement on the Australian vernacular aesthetics in 1960: “The basis of the Australian ugliness is an unwillingness to be committed on the level of ideas.” The key is commitment. A poor work of art is often characterised by an overzealous sacrifice of sound form for a personal obsession (in an immature, unruly author), or, conversely, of passion for a rigid formula (for example, in Hollywood). The ABP, however, is marked by an almost total lack of commitment: to an overarching principle, a maddening idea, pursuit of an interesting situation, or intellectual quandary. The impulse for creation of these plays is often impossible to find, as if the playwright wanted to hide any trace of personal investment in these works, as if it were an embarrassing weakness.
It is terribly tempting, at this point, to try to tackle the forces that shape the aesthetic phenomenon that is the ABP: its total failure to tell a coherent story, from beginning to end, by recourse to interpersonal conflict; and its seeming lack of interest in doing so.
The first, I think, is obvious: total ignorance of the principles of dramatic form, and its socio-political heritage.
Australian theatre is Western theatre and the dramatic text at its heart is a highly specific form, a product of socio-historical forces. Western/European drama as we know it, largely defined by mimesis of reality (in its most extreme form called naturalism), arose in Elizabethan England, was refined in 17th-century France through an interpretive reading of Aristotle's Poetics, and was stabilised in the classical period of the 19th century. At the centre of its universe – a bourgeois, humanist, atheistic universe – it puts an ordinary individual, subjected to social forces. Refracting the forces of this universe through the fate of the individual, it seeks to create an artistic mirror for ourselves. This is the theatre of an individual who is a social and political subject, who acts, who makes decisions based on their own personal ethics, who pursues their desires, ideas and emotions – because that defines them, not ancestry, belonging to a social group, or worshipping a god. At its heart is a dramatic conflict between characters, which unfolds through dialogue and interpersonal communication. Everything external to the dramatic world is largely excluded (including the playwright and the spectators). Time, place and action are coherent and continuous.
Every departure from the well-made play in the Western theatre is an intervention not only into form, but into the socio-political philosophy that the form represents. They were not random experiments. The waves of rebellion since the 19th century – be they in dramatic writing (epic theatre, absurdism), poetics of performance (dance theatre, visual theatre), or philosophy of staging (director's theatre) – have all been a rebellion against, but also a conversation with, the bourgeois drama. Postdramatic theatre is not pre-dramatic, nor non-dramatic. Every principle they have broken, they have broken knowingly, and with a goal in mind.
The failures of ABP are predominantly failures to respect the form of the classic bourgeois theatre. They are not knowing experiments with form. Experimentation can only happen if one knows what one is experimenting with. The Australian playwright does not learn the principles governing drama, and so does not break them intentionally. Unlike in continental Europe, where dramatists tend to graduate in three- and four-year courses in dramaturgy, learning the history, canon and structuring principles of Western drama, the Australian playwright is usually an autodidact. As is the Australian dramaturge, director, literary manager, and anyone else who may come in touch with a ramshackle play in need of repair. Our playwrights, even our famous playwrights, are wildly uneven in their output, because they lack solid knowledge of the structuring principles and the poetic canon of their own medium. Our criticism and scholarship does not fill that gap. Every successful work is received as an enigma: instead of being analysed for quality, it is usually praised for being good and Australian at the same time, as if this wins some unstated argument. Analysis is not applied retrospectively either: the few Australian plays that enter the canon are not discussed for form and style, but for issue and Australianness. Distinctions are not made between plays that are artistically important, and those of historical significance. Experimentation is condemned or celebrated a priori. Analysis is often limited to wars of personal taste.
|"Every successful work is received as an enigma: instead of being analysed for quality, it is usually praised for being good and Australian at the same time, as if this wins some unstated argument."|
As a result, the Australian playwright does not learn that formal and stylistic choices have a heritage, a history, a politic: that the Australian drama of the 1950s-1970s converses with American and British working-class naturalism of the time. They do not learn about the shared philosophical underpinnings of the absurdism of Beckett, Ionesco, Camus and Sartre. The brutality of in-yer-face plays of Ravenhill and Kane is not understood as socio-political metaphor; the spatio-temporal extravagancies of Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker are not situated as attempts to represent an increasingly complex world in its political consequence. The Australian playwright can read these plays and see them staged, but they seem to filter into Australian playwriting merely as a catalogue of disconnected tricks and effects, to be applied at random. The substance that ties them together is missing. They are applied as signs of contemporariness, of currency. More often, this information does not even arrive. Without training, Australian playwrights learn about their own form incidentally and unsystematically, often left to their own devices (and not helped by the geographical isolation of the continent).
Without this context, the Australian playwright confuses rules of structure for cliché, and poor dramaturgical engineering for experimentation. They dismiss the principles of dramaturgy as too schematic, too soulless, too Hollywood. Instead, they experiment without having mastered the craft. Too often, in doing so, they cut corners, justifying omission with artistic liberty. They embark on a series of shoddy substitutions, each magnifying the problem. In the worst ABPs, the playwright, having refused to let their character develop through dialogue, tries to make up the absence of character through plot. Not knowing the rules of dramatic structure, they try to make plot by having a lot of fabula. Since situation on its own does not create an engaging dramatic narrative, they try to drum up meaning by cloaking everything in issue. If that does not work, symbolism will be sprinkled over. And thus we get scores of play texts that are purportedly 'about' something: urban alienation, Australian identity, the role of art in the world, teenagers. A play of this sort is essentially unfixable. It has become a sprawling, muddled blob, its structural bones veneered over with so many shiny finishes, and camouflaged with so many protruding features that, like a good Australian suburban house, it has become very hard to see what it is made up of – and rather impolite to ask.
This is a failure of our teaching institutions, and of dramaturgical departments, to bring some order into the playwriting. Teaching the rules would not automatically bring about genius, but it would lift the average and create fiercer competition. It would not ban experimentation, but facilitate it. Without understanding the rules, formal experimentation is an anxious, terrifying business. It is why naturalism is still the dominant force in the Australian playwriting – it seems more understandable, more like life, more like television.
Autodidacticism explains most of the overarching structural problems of the Australian bad play, apart from the last, the fundamental: the failure to develop character.
This flaw is all the more interesting for being universally present in all Australian narrative arts. In his major overview of the problems with the Australian film scripts, the most commonly repeated problem cited by Lynden Barber's interlocutors was that of underdeveloped character: lacking characterisation, lacking motivation, no problems for characters, characters that do not grow or evolve, not getting deep into their character, not putting them through hell. The people in the ABP, just like in the Australian bad film and the Australian bad novel, are not people enough to hold the narrative together.
This is often, somewhat obliquely, blamed on the uneventfulness of Australia ('nothing exciting happens here to write about'), and youth of its culture ('we are such a young country!'). Well, nothing much happens in the UK, Germany, or Japan either, yet all produce, on average, better bad plays. And, while being slightly older cultures, they do not concern themselves very much with things older than about 100 years, well within reach of Australian cultural memory.
At the heart of this problem, I propose, is something related, but different: a culturally specific fear of self-expression. It stems from, and feeds back into, the dominant mode of communication in the really-existing Australian society.
Drama moves through communication, and naturally follows and mimics the way language is used in real life, between real people. It does not have to be entirely naturalistic, but it has to be realistic – it has to correspond with the linguistic and mental patterns that the audience encounters, understands, and repeats.
If you listen carefully, you will notice that Australians primarily use language not for communication, but to avoid having to communicate. The Australian English, spoken and written, relies heavily on formulas and linguistic presets (“How's it going?”, “Oh, not too bad. You?”) for much longer into any given conversation and into any given relationship than in other languages I know. Similarly to the patterns of Japanese language, the aim seems to be to avoid having to reveal any personal ideas, emotions or desires. Instead, it values inaccuracy, dishonesty, and superficiality. Many conversations with strangers are so non-committal that they could be pre-recorded. People are often visibly startled when confronted by an attempt at non-scripted interaction without a long lead, and direct, straightforward people are socially marked as volatile, difficult matter. Notice the way the word 'sorry' is applied in a variety of contexts to quickly close a potential conflict (e.g., when someone steps on your foot), but only very rarely for its dictionary purpose (to start a conversation about fault and guilt).
Furthermore, Australia is a conflict-avoidant society, in which communication may not include open conflict, not even only verbally. Indeed, even emotions that may lead to conflict, predominantly anger and sadness, are taboo. Expressing such an emotion is perceived as a problem in itself, not merely a reflection of another problem, and is very strongly sanctioned. As a result, the ordinary Australian learns very quickly that the allowed part of the emotional spectrum runs from 'I am so blessed' to 'I shouldn't complain.' Even between friends, an expression of sadness or anger must be quickly closed with a deflection (“...but it will all be fine.”) or shame so deep that it is more merciful for everyone to pretend nothing happened.
|"Australia is a conflict-avoidant society, in which communication may not include open conflict, not even only verbally. Indeed, even emotions that may lead to conflict, predominantly anger and sadness, are taboo."|
In a social reality in which sadness and anger may not be spoken about to others, not even to oneself (because they are never alright), most Australians, I propose, will spend most of their lives hiding them, not just from each other, even from themselves. There is no socially condoned way of feeling anger and sadness. They are so taboo that most people literally cannot be witness to their own anger and sadness, and will let them out, most of the time, only totally inebriated or enraged. Emotion expressed that way comes out so twisted and tortured, wrapped in guilt, shame and de-inhibitors of the former (alcohol and complete blinded rage), that the expression becomes an unreliable mirror of the emotion behind. One moves from mild right-wing grumbling to a Cronulla riot, so to speak. And then back to the dinner party, at which we do not like to talk about such things. What was the Cronulla riot about? As a society, we never really wanted to know.
If the Australian people do not talk on the level of the lounge room, they also do not talk on the level of society. I know more about how Germans feel about politics, the future, capitalism and, say, heterosexuality, than Australians – not just because Germans I know like to discuss these topics but because their media, from youth magazines to public TV, discuss them endlessly. Australian media does not – not beyond election polls and shock stories. And so, as a result of our great national silence, I will propose – bravely and unempirically – we do not know how our fellow countrymen really feel about almost anything. In a silent society, it is hard for an average person, without a research career, to know what problems bother people, what makes them happy, are their lives improving or worsening, and so on. Apart from aggregated statistics and awareness of one's closest peer group, in a non-complaining society it is hard to develop an awareness of societal ills. And, since so much time is spent policing one's own emotions, since one does not have much experience with witnessing emotion, I propose – bravely and unempirically – that the Australian playwright does not really know what other people might be feeling at any given moment. Thematically, therefore, the Australian playwright does not have much material to write about, other than the very generic (Holocaust / suicide / end of the world / white middle-class suburban repression) or the very specific (my friends and I).
The overarching rhetorical principle in Australian English is the substitution of niceness for truth. The Australian bad play is always nice, but uncommitted to truth. The audience will not attack it later, but be nice about it, even to the point where they will themselves be unsure whether they liked it or not. And what will be lost, in this exchange, will be the possibility of real communication of something – be it emotion, desire or idea – from one to the other. It is often suggested that this inexpressiveness it a good thing, a valuable thing, because it is specific to Australia – but for every person that believes it, another five will profess not to read Australian novels, not to watch Australian films, not to believe in Australian playwrights. The niceness is always only on the surface.
To correct the misdiagnosis: the problem is not that Australia is a 'young' country, or that its everyday life is uneventful, but that it is a profoundly undemonstrative society, that its public life is untheatrical, and that it is uninterested in telling truthful stories. This brings us to the very heart of what it means to be a country that never had a revolution, an independence movement – that never had to have a vision of itself, because it has never had to emancipate itself from stories others have told about it. Colonialism is fundamentally a question of story-telling: to be culturally sovereign is to be the protagonist of one's own story, one's own national narrative. The absence of that overarching story means that each Australian play, be it good or not, floats alone, unsupported by any shared reality.
If ignorance of structure and history hurts experimental work, the Great Australian Silence corrodes naturalism.
The naturalistic form that we know from Ibsen and Chekhov – in which an everyday situation creates an interpersonal conflict, through which the psychological, political, social and philosophical issues of our time are brought into sharp relief – only works inasmuch as it can present an everyday, interpersonal conflict which is legible, complex, and recognisably real. In the really-existing Australian social life, such conflicts are taboo. Even if the Australian dramatist is familiar enough with interpersonal conflict to invent one on stage, and even if they have a complex internal logic, they do not relate to the Australian everyday life.
The naturalistic conflict in Australian playwriting is a hard wrangle to wrangle. The dialogue will slip out of confrontation like quicksilver. Where the well-made play is wrought, it is always by stealth or deceit or tremendous effort. The playwright needs to corner the characters into an impossible situation from which they cannot escape, and keep them there for a long time (like David Williamson does in The Removalists, one of the rare Australian naturalistic plays to put characters through hell). Characters will still try to escape, shelter their inner world by being silent, or tacit, or poetic, or superficially introspective, or, in rare cases, intellectualising. The pressure needs to be high, the playwright merciless. When they succeed, it is worth noting. Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour does it through unrelenting focus: the play simply does not stop interrogating its four characters about the infidelity at the centre of the play. Stephen Sewell's The Blind Giant is Dancing does it by casting extroverted, emotional and articulate characters, and following them as they attack each other like wild animals. These are exceptions to the rule: very few Australian naturalistic plays are any good.
The ones that work employ quite careful strategies to go around the inability of their Australian characters to naturally create conflict through dialogue. Two strategies, in particular, are worth mentioning. In the first, the inability to communicate is emphasised, creating extremely heavy theatre, without hope, without catharsis. Excellent contemporary examples are Tom Holloway's Red Sky Morning (three depressed family members cannot communicate) and And No More Shall We Part (husband is helping his wife euthanise, and neither is allowing the other to talk about how much it hurts them). This is the dramaturgy of anxiety and conflict avoidance, and it may feel purifying, or exhausting.
The second is radical naturalistic adaptation, in which a naturalistic canonical play is re-written as a contemporary naturalistic piece in Australian English vernacular – or, rather, a conversational, naturalistic piece is imbued with logic and meaning by being linked to a known classic. This is the approach of The Hayloft Project, Simon Stone, and Anne-Louise Sarks. It combines an extreme, pre-given plot with conversational dialogue. But it usually works, because the plot, however preposterous, has accumulated respect and gravitas, while nothing psychologically revealing needs to happen on stage. The need to develop dramatic conflict through dialogue is deflected by the fact that everyone already knows what the conflict is. It uses someone else's story, which may have no relation to contemporary life, to allow characters to behave "Australianely" on stage, and avoid being terribly boring. The flimsy detail is rescued by the solid, heritage structure.
There is also verbatim theatre, which we may conditionally call naturalistic. Verbatim excuses itself from the requirements of the dramatic structure, plot and character by professing Importance of Issue and Faithfulness to Material. The end result is often similar to an ABP, but criticism may not apply.
However, the most successful strategies Australian dramatic writing has for expressing itself through the communication patterns of an inexpressive society are disregarding requirements of the well-made naturalist play altogether.
Here is the tactic of the poetic play, image- and sound-driven, allegorical. Dorothy Hewett in The Chapel Perilous foregrounds the (somewhat abstract) conflict between the protagonist and society through the use of chorus, song, and heightened language. Lally Katz, particularly in her early works (The Eisteddfod, Lally Katz and the Mysteries of the Volcano, The Black Swan of Trespass), develops a soft, twee, suburban absurdism, in which the sexual and emotional repression of her protagonists transmogrifies into cute, but distressingly out-of-place referents. In Triangle, Glyn Roberts resolves the repression of his two characters with a hallucinatory second narrative with vampires. The poetic play is as old as theatre itself, and its 20th-century canon includes Gertrude Stein, Antonin Artaud, Robert Wilson, as well as the absurdism of Ionesco and Beckett, and the Russian Oberiu – none very well known in Australia. And its domestic traditions – from vaudeville to circus – have been excised from the respectable theatre history. When purged of the boulevard, however, if it is timid about its own raw subconscious, the poetic play immediately becomes the second most common genre of Australian bad play: the Poetic Monologue with Moody Lighting and no Dramatic Conflict (PMMLNDC).
Another, less commonly employed way out of the problem is through quotation and genre: the postmodern play. Employing incongruous genre conventions and tropes, it buries the boring Australian everyday communication behind the over-the-top mannerisms of TV and pop culture. This is FPEIDBAIUSSTHNPR on steroids: the narrative goes wild, the characters completely disappear in convention, becoming pure mouthpieces of pop culture. On stage we have not so much people, as people as they are on reality TV, in tabloids, while giving speeches, as icons and divas who only exist within the dreamland of their own music videos or films, or while interviewed outside the rehab clinic. They speak in the language of spectacle – and their own theatre history is equally venerable, including Piscator, the entire dramatic post-modern, Elfriede Jelinek, Rene Pollesch. This is the approach of Declan Greene and Sisters Grimm, of I'm Trying To Kiss You, of Black Lung. At its best, it is drama that reveals the subconscious of everyday reality, intelligent and politically subversive. At its worst – if the dramatist does not understand the relationship between the pop-cultural fantasy and the here-and-now – they quickly become flat, dead, sycophantic, trapped in a world of artifice nobody cares about.
These two modes are the only frequently appearing, non-naturalistic modes in contemporary Australian playwriting. There seems to be a strong cultural bias against considering them 'proper,' legitimate Australian drama. But overall, this approach seems to produce more good Australian plays than naturalism – perhaps because domestic popular theatre has a longer tradition of circus, vaudeville and commercial theatre than of bourgeois drama. Naturalism may be an unfortunate cultural transplant, driven more by the need for our theatre to appear 'proper' than any audience demand. The knowledge of bourgeois drama is not there. The bourgeois theatre history is not there. The bourgeoisie is not there, either. The colonial subject is not the independent human agent of the bourgeois drama. If naturalism fits uneasily in the Australian drama, it may be because its socio-political circumstances never happened.
As it may have become obvious, I spend entirely too much time thinking about the Australian bad play, its quirks, tics, and bad habits. It occurs to me, after so many years of reading bad play after bad play, that the public debate never quite puts the finger where it should. We argue about adaptation versus original writing, about not enough funding and programming, about bad playwrights getting all the jobs. In reality, Australian theatre does not train playwrights to be good. It discovers them when they already are good, and then does not know how to challenge them and let them grow. Our avoidance of conflict, our need to be nice, hampers us from discussing the qualities and flaws in our dramatic canon: by doing so, we teach our young playwrights to read Hotel Sorrento for theme, but not for structure; to read The Blind Giant is Dancing for dialogue, but not for plotting. Our dramatic production is extremely uneven, because, like all autodidacts, we like to think there is nothing to learn at school. And our public debate is stupid. We should discuss adaptation, but only as an exercise that teaches young playwrights about structure and theme. We should discuss generations, but only if we are ready to analyse formal and stylistic progression.
|"In reality, Australian theatre does not train playwrights to be good. It discovers them when they already are good, and then does not know how to challenge them and let them grow."|
Finally, we need to be honest about the mutual dependency of the national discourse on theatre, and theatre on the national discourse. Australian artists may justly feel unsupported in their efforts to tell stories: the need to tell a national myth only comes with independence, with emancipation, and Australia still has a queen. But it works both ways. It’s the stories that artists tell that make a nation become aware of itself. Louis Nowra said: “Naturalism is a creation of the middle class.” Non-naturalism may be the creation of the national imaginary. Both are important.
The flaws of the Australian bad play cannot be reduced to writing quality, our playwrights are not bad writers. Their problem is not in the act of writing, but in the act of structuring a question into dramatic form, and then building a world for this question, in a way that makes senses, seduces, and convinces. A seduced spectator will never come out of the theatre and say, "Well, that was interesting, wasn't it?"
I sometimes wonder what would happen if Australian playwrights whipped their ABPs into drama that speaks of something other than silence. I suspect that terrifying things would come out: violence, hatred, selfishness, ugliness behind all that niceness. Genocide would need to be acknowledged, multiple generations of trauma could no longer hide behind “...but it will all be fine.” It would be frightening, the way every trauma is frightening when it is remembered. But the nation cannot grow up until that happens.
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Jana Perković is a performance and dance writer, dramaturg and urbanist. Her work focuses on the intersection between urban policy and arts, immersive design and performance practice, and geographical theories. She teaches at Victorian College of the Arts, and in Melbourne School of Design, at University of Melbourne.
Her writing on performance has appeared, among others, in The Guardian, RealTime, Exeunt Magazine, Dancehouse Diary, Crikey. She has been the Literary Manager for MKA Theatre of New Writing since 2012. She also sits on the Green Room board for Hybrid and Alternative Performance, Puppetry and Circus (HAPPC), and is a member of Artistic Counsel for Malthouse Theatre.
For more in this series, visit AustralianPlays.org/state-of-play