In an isolated hut in the countryside, a young woman wakes from a drug-induced sleep to discover that she is dressed in a nineteenth-century smock. She soon finds another young woman in the same condition, and both are forced to submit to the shaving of their heads. It is contemporary Australia: kookaburras cackle outside. Are they in a prison, or a religious cult, or – as one of their fellow inmates suggests – inside a reality television show? It emerges that the ten young women living in the camp are modern-day media criminals condemned for making public the sexual transgressions of prominent men – as the mistress of a politician, the sexual conduit for a football team's bonding, or the victims of harassment by important businessmen, coaches, or clergymen. One has suffered in the army, another been abused and abandoned on a cruise ship. Despite their shaven heads, lack of make-up, and strange costumes, they vaguely recognise each other from the media flurry.
Charlotte Wood takes a clever idea – the transformation of media and community responses to women's protests about (and sometimes willing participation in) sexual misbehaviour into retribution through physical humiliation and deprivation. She draws attention to the hypocrisy behind the fear of young women's sexuality, and the way that some public figures deny responsibility for 'that woman' and their own sexual misdemeanours. Yolanda and Verla, the two protagonists, must struggle to survive in the old shearers' quarters of a station in the outback. At the beginning of the novel, in summer, the place appears desolate, but by autumn they begin to find resources in themselves and in the countryside that give them hope.
Twenty-five years ago, John Bell undertook to create an Australian theatre company devoted to Shakespeare, a travelling repertory company that would give wide access to this wonderful legacy of our language. It harked back to a time when Shakespeare mattered so much to Australians that an actor could make a name performing Shakespeare rather than appearing in Hollywood films. At Belvoir you can see some of the other members of Bell’s generation, including his wife, Anna Volska, working their charm in Matthew Whittet’s sweet piece of nostalgia, Seventeen.
Bell’s company, though, has never been reliable in delivering memorable, or even good, productions of Shakespeare. There have been some triumphs – an early The Merchant of Venice in a tent, a beautiful Antony and Cleopatra, a confronting Troilus and Cressida –and over the years the company has offered us some of Shakespeare’s lesser-known and, dare it be said, less accomplished plays. There have been difficult financial as well as artistic times; Bell’s persistence must be admired. Now, he has announced his retirement from the company as actor, director, and co-manager. Last month, I went along to see Bell’s last acting performance for the company as Jacques in As You Like It, only to be disappointed by the crudity and clumsiness of Peter Evans’s production. I feared that Bell’s finale as director of The Tempest might not be a fitting end to his extraordinary project.
The Tempest is, of course, the perfect play for a farewell to the stage. The director’s program notes insist that the play was not Shakespeare’s last hurrah, but its magical fantasy and Prospero’s final laying aside of his secret arts invite us to read it that way. Not that this will be Bell’s last gasp: next year he will direct Carmen for Opera Australia.
Blessedly, this production of the play leaves all the tricks to the stagecraft. It makes no attempt to read post-colonialism or post-structuralism or theories of oppression into Shakespeare’s work. There are no 1950s cocktail dresses, no island in the Whitsundays, nor a recognisably indigenous Caliban: this is a straightforward production that concentrates on the magic and the poetry. The stage is minimally dressed: a raised platform in lilypad shape to mimic an island, some glistening side curtains that fly out and roll across the stage in the storm, while a few layers of flimsier stuff at the back assist the entrance of ethereal spirits. Lightning flashes and thunder do the rest of the work for the storm, while a length of heavy rope is all that is needed to link the mariners on a foundering ship; later it serves as Caliban’s chains.
The Tempest contains no drama of character to engage actors in introverted monologues. How then to avoid it seeming like a poetry recitation or pageant? At the beginning, Prospero’s long exposition of the backstory to Miranda can slow things down; here it is assisted by the various participants in his demise appearing to mime their roles in his abandonment on the island; the story moves along at a good pace. Matthew Backer’s Ariel may seem rather substantial at first, but his beautiful singing and the choreography as he shadows other characters help us to believe in his ethereality and possible invisibility to all but the audience and Prospero. Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is rough around the edges but hardly monstrous or frightening. The production emphasises their contrast of the spiritual and the earthy and allows the audience to hear the similarity in their calls for freedom.
‘Blessedly, this production of the play leaves all the tricks to the stagecraft’
Whenever the formality of the play’s romance threatens to slow it down or Brian Lipson’s Prospero begins to tire, Stefano (Hazem Shammas) and Trinculo (Arky Michael) bounce onstage, energising it with their slapstick antics. Their ostensible roles as butler and servant disappear under their clown costumes, and they are transformed into pantomime dames in their efforts to mimic the aristocracy. They are irresistibly funny, so that when these actors double as the treacherous Antonio and Sebastian we are inclined, like Prospero, to forgive their crimes. Eloise Winestock as Miranda and Felix Gentle as Ferdinand manage their limited roles as the lovers well enough, though Winestock tries too hard to find things to do. By contrast, Robert Alexander demonstrates a relaxed clarity of delivery as Gonzalo.
This is a production which demonstrates what can be achieved with traditional theatrical skills and simple stage effects. We are allowed to hear the play’s poetry and come to our own conclusions about its meaning. Every character craves freedom, though they all have different notions of what it means – returning home, being a king, getting married, serving a different master, or just being idle, as Gonzalo suggests. Ariel’s song ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’ invokes the freedom of imagination and fantasy, and this production offers us freedom from everyday reality for a little while – the enchantment of a delightful theatrical performance.
From the opening pages of Mireille Juchau’s new novel, The World Without Us, we know we are in the hands of a poetic writer in control of language and ready to invest every sentence with resonant detail. In this scene, two of the central characters encounter each other at a river above a waterfall:
Now the water was strung with reflected clouds, and the canopy, backlit, was dark as the earth. This world, two hundred and fifty above sea-level, inverted. The river beyond his reckoning. It seemed as cryptic as the woman readying herself to swim in it.
Like her brilliant earlier novel, Burning In (2007), this novel addresses the grief of several characters who have lost family members, and it offers language and art as partial consolation. In this case, climate change and the destruction of nature seem to echo the personal concerns of the characters, and the likeness of the novel’s cover to that of James Bradley’s more future-centred Clade (2015) suggests that it may be an addition to the growing number of fictions warning us about a damaged future. Bee hives figure on both covers – and within both novels the decline of bee populations serves as a symptom of the crisis in nature.
Early success is no guarantee of a book’s continued availability or circulation. Some major and/or once-fashionable authors recede from public consciousness, and in some cases go out of print. We invited some writers and critics to identity novelists who they feel should be better known.
Helen de Guerry Simpson was a successful novelist, poet, playwright, broadcaster, and musician. She left Australia at the age of sixteen but returned for visits. Several of her books were set partially or fully in Australia, including the acclaimed historical novel Under Capricorn (1937), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1949. For me, her most remarkable novel is Boomerang (1932), which is quintessentially Australian in its ironic voice and its wry dramatisation of such things as Catholic–Protestant rivalries, small-town prejudices, and parochialism. Full of surprises, it develops into a sweeping blend of family history, fiction, and romance set from the 1780s to World War I, and ends with the narrator discovering love in the most unlikely circumstances, amid the desolate battlefields of the Somme. If only for its brilliant use of the boomerang metaphor, this novel and its author should be better remembered.
Naming a single novelist whom I think should be better known is extremely difficult, but I will go out on a limb: Joseph Furphy (or should that be Tom Collins?). Furphy’s Such Is Life (1903) is an erudite, extremely funny, and rollicking read. Gabrielle Carey attends a Finnegans Wake reading group; Helen Garner attends one on Virgil. Such Is Life would come to all its vibrant, baffling, hilarious glory in such a setting. At the very least it deserves to be read aloud. Furphy described the novel as ‘temper democratic; bias, offensively Australian’. He wears his literary learning lightly, his opinions less so. Shakespeare, Sterne, Zola, the Bible, and the English monarchy sit alongside a cross-dressing Australian shepherd, lost children, bullockies, and drovers’ dogs. Sectarian, class, and gendered tensions, philosophical musings, and tales of lost love, all find voice under the stars out on the Riverina. Excised chapters of the original manuscript were redrafted and published as Rigby’s Romance (1946) and Buln-buln and the Brolga (1948). Such Is Life may not be the easiest read, but I will always be grateful that I was introduced to the novels of Joseph Furphy.
Tony Morphett, best known as a television writer and author of young adult fiction, in 1969 wrote a remarkable novel titled Thorskald, about an Australian artist, whose life is unfolded from multiple points of view. It is beautifully constructed, with luscious descriptions of painting, the art-making process, and Australian bohemia of the 1950s and 1960s. I loved it when I first read it in my mid-teens. It has been out of print for many years, and Morphett himself does not list it on his website.
As the literatures of the mid-twentieth century became increasingly urbanised and internationalised, George Mackay Brown, through illness and shyness, lived a local life in the independent and dramatic weather of the Orkney Islands. His fiction and poetry are a freakish reticulation of historical and elemental voices, rife with the luminosity and high jinks of the Scandinavian sagas, as well as the social exposure of contemporary island life.
Brown suffered from what Auden called topophilia – or place-love. After a brief foray at university in Edinburgh, he returned to the Orkneys and stayed put. The islands had been his first book and now they became his creative foundry. As his work won acclaim, many writers made the pilgrimage to see him, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney among them. They found a generous man whose body of work seems more relevant than ever in our hyper-connective yet disconnected world.
Henry James believed that Sinister Street (1913–14) was the most remarkable book written by a young author in his lifetime, and its author, Compton Mackenzie, the most promising English novelist of his generation. Scott Fitzgerald ‘idolised’ the novel; Ford Madox Ford thought it ‘possibly a work of real genius’; and the young George Orwell read it with surreptitious admiration – the sexual scenes were considered strong stuff – at his preparatory school. When I first encountered this huge, prolix, but extremely readable work more than fifty years ago (while at Magdalen College, Oxford, where the central chapters of the novel are set), it was still a popular Penguin title, and Mackenzie himself a prominent figure in the British literary landscape. These days the novel, like its author, is barely known. A brilliant television adaptation – the last was by Ray Lawler in 1969 – might help to revive its fortunes.
Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children is perhaps the most brilliant achievement in Australian literature, but it has had a hard life since its publication in 1940. It suffered a trans-Pacific displacement of setting from Sydney to Washington, DC. And it has suffered from the chronic and, as ever, unacknowledged doubt that something as brilliant could come from a woman. Women are not expected to be as chillingly clever as Stead is, as warm and funny, as stupendously, miraculously verbal. They are not expected to have the broad view as well as the narrow, the deft control of plot. Nor, to be fair, are most men – apart from Tolstoy. Yet here we have a book that matches Tolstoy in ambition and greatness – and concomitant grand messiness.
W. Somerset Maugham’s work is still in print, but this once-popular writer is no longer fashionable or much read. He is thought to be too middle-class, too in thrall to empire, too British. He is all these things, but he’s so much more.
The structure, pace, and narrative force of Maugham’s short stories are the work of a master. He is a consummate storyteller, whether in short or long form. Of Human Bondage (1915) is perhaps the best novel of obsessive love ever written. Cakes and Ale (1930), with its insider’s portrayal of literary fame and envy, is a gem. The Razor’s Edge (1944) is a subtle yet complex story of a privileged young man in search of spiritual meaning. His notebooks and The Summing Up (1938) are essential reading for all writers.
Maugham’s fiction is timeless with its focus on enduring human concerns like love, desire, prejudice, the powerlessness of childhood, and the situation of women. He merits his metre of shelf in my library.
Elizabeth Bowen’s The House in Paris, first published in 1935, casts an immediate spell. Every moment of the book is lived intensely. The scale is extremely small, which magnifies the impact. Two children, previously unknown to one another, spend a single day in a house in Paris. Their paths cross in transit to other destinations. The subtlety and vividness of portraiture is astonishing. Even the simplest sentences are fraught with meaning. ‘He noted her nearness without noticing her.’ The nine-year-old boy and the eleven-year-old girl assert themselves in each other’s company with forensic good manners. Heart-stoppingly aware of vulnerability, they ward off their fears and hopes alike. Elizabeth Bowen reveals the self-awareness of all her characters with penetrating subtlety and (in some cases) savage wit. The tone and tension are perfectly sustained.
When I was a teenager it was possible to buy a copy of Lee Harding’s 1979 young adult novel Displaced Person in every opportunity shop between Melbourne and Brisbane. I know, because I often bought a copy somewhere along the highway on our annual Christmas road trips. Now, it is rarer than hens’ teeth, and even my own copies have vanished, which seems fitting, given that the book, a short novel adapted from an even shorter story, is about a young man who gradually fades from the real world into a grey, underlying realm of overlooked or forgotten objects and people. Harding won the 1980 Australian Children’s Book of the Year for this strange, inventive, remorseless and touching novel, which I have found unforgettable. Decades later, whenever I misplace something, I unfailingly think of it as having dropped into Harding’s ‘lost moment of time’.
Barbara Hanrahan (1939–91) deserves election to the class of writers-whom-we-must-preserve. Adelaide-born and raised, she made her suburb of Thebarton the special territory of her first novel, The Scent of Eucalyptus (1973). In this astonishing book it is the minute and the hidden, the modest and the particular, that compose the dense life-world of a child growing in the presence of her mother, grandmother, and great-aunt (afflicted with Down syndrome). What does this child see? The hair in her grandmother’s nostril, her mother grunting into stockings, the frog-like eyes and snout of her aunt, which make her feel ashamed, grasshoppers, pleated skirts, handkerchiefs folded into triangles ... She has a fear of the dark and the outdoor lavatory. She knows and sees everything. Here, preserved in fastidious and undiscriminating detail is an entire era: feminine, vernacular, almost absurdly specific. No other first novel in Australia has ever matched this one.
There is no mystery about the fiction of Dal Stivens fading into obscurity. He published hundreds of short stories but only three novels, years apart, and the most consistent feature of his work is an ironic, comic, sometimes whimsical attitude. Though Jimmy Brockett: Portrait of a Notable Australian (1951) is currently in print in the SUP Classics series, the more postmodern A Horse of Air (1970) seems to have disappeared from library shelves. At least one of his short stories (usually the unrepresentative ‘The Pepper Tree’) can be found in most Australian short story anthologies, but his short fables were labelled ‘tall stories’ in an old tradition, before magical realism became fashionable. I recommend Jimmy Brockett for its ambiguous and entertaining depiction of an enduring Australian type, and A Horse of Air for its intimations that postmodernist play could exist in advance of its official label.
The name Francis Stuart is rarely heard in contemporary literary discussion. As the author of about twenty-four novels, he represents a solid reading challenge. But at least three of this daunting output are worth resurrecting: The Pillar of Cloud (1948), Redemption (1949), and Black List, Section H (1971). Of these, the autobiographical Black List is stunning. Married to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, combative friend of Colm Tóibín, encouraged though also corrosively criticised by W.B. Yeats, resident in Berlin from 1940 to 1945, sometime IRA functionary, briefly an admirer of Hitler, Stuart had plenty of extraordinary autobiography to rework. Encountering Black List, which Tóibín says ‘arose from something darkly and deeply rooted in his psyche – the need to betray and be seen to betray’, was like reading 1984 or Crime and Punishment for the first time. Once you began, you plunged compulsively on, preferably nonstop.
Twenty-seven years ago, when it was first published, it would have seemed inconceivable that Australian readers might within a generation need to be reminded of the luminous qualities of Rodney Hall’s novel Captivity Captive, yet the book has long been out of print. My esteemed predecessor Helen Daniel would have thundered at the thought.
There are hammer-blows in Hall’s novel – three of them. In this and in its poeticism, Captivity Captive seems our most Faulknerian novel, and as with Faulkner we learn from every sentence, while shuddering away from some of them. The book might have been written in a day – one inspired day. Veronica Brady, in a brilliant review for ABR (9/88), remarked that this short book ‘ranges through heaven, hell and purgatory’. She concluded: ‘This, then, is a generous novel. But it is one which demands an equal generosity from its readers, heart-work as well as head-work.’
Novels of this stature come along once a decade, at most. We neglect them – patronise them – at our peril.
The fiction of Thea Astley was undergoing an eclipse from public consciousness, as often happens in the immediate aftermath of a writer’s death, when Karen Lamb’s biography, Inventing Her Own Weather (UQP), appeared this year (read Kerryn Goldsworthy's review of it here). It is to be hoped that this event will prompt people to read or re-read Astley’s innovative novels, especially the major later works Beachmasters, It’s Raining in Mango, The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow, and Drylands. In these powerful fables of colonialism and its aftermaths, Astley’s darkly comic sensibility, working through her witty metaphorical language and shifting narrative voices, makes you laugh and gasp with horror simultaneously – and see life in Australia today with fresh eyes.
J.G. Ballard said of James Hamilton-Paterson that ‘strangeness lifts off his pages like a rare perfume’. A poet, novelist, travel writer, satirist, and foreign correspondent who lives between Austria, Tuscany and (until recent years) The Philippines, Hamilton-Paterson is the kind of true eccentric Bruce Chatwin spent many fruitful decades impersonating. His novel Gerontius (1989), which followed Edward Elgar on his 1923 trip on the Amazon, won fans such as Michael Ondaatje, while Barry Humphries observed of the prose in Hamilton-Paterson’s novel Griefwork (1993), about the relationship between a botanist and glasshouse keeper, that it was ‘writing with a capital W’.
Hamilton-Paterson’s more recent trilogy of waspish black comedies, starting with Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), almost threatened to make him known to a wider audience. But he is too diffuse in his gifts for that, and too bloody-minded in his independence. There is no work by Hamilton-Paterson that does not have some tincture of pure music in it. Nor is there any work that doesn’t face full-square the Conradian horror and wonder of the world.
Late in 2013, the Griffin Theatre in Sydney revived John Romeril’s The Floating World as its annual production of an Australian classic. The play is now forty years old, and unfamiliar to contemporary audiences who would have been lucky to see its first performances in the tiny Pram Factory in 1974 or any of the handful of intervening performances of the play. By all accounts, that first production was an extraordinary experience with the audience seated on deckchairs inside a chicken wire compound shaped like a ship. That audience would have been familiar with the Australian Performing Group’s experiments and, no doubt, expected to see a play that unsettled them a little, while making a political point.
In Griffin’s even tinier Stables Theatre there was no room for chicken wire and deckchairs, nor much in the way of stage props for this play set on the 1974 Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise to Japan. The audience sat close to the stage, almost touching the performers. We were not quite able to imagine ourselves as fellow-passengers on the cruise ship, but we were close enough to share the emotional charge of the performers as the play progressed. Romeril’s work was unfamiliar to most of the audience and the shock of Les Harding’s shift from xenophobic buffoon to a suffering war victim was palpable. Many people wondered out loud how such a powerful play could have lain unperformed for so long. The production won the Sydney Theatre Awards for best direction (Sam Strong) and actor (Peter Kowitz) of 2013, though only a few thousand people could have squeezed into the Stables or the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta to see it.
Romeril was one of the most politically committed members of the Australian Performing Group, and his plays always make some kind of political point, both through subject matter and performance style. He is still committed to a ‘democratic’ theatre ideal where the production team are collaborators with the writer. Denise Varney notes that the director of the original production, Lindzee Smith, and the designer, Peter Corrigan, had worked with radical theatre groups in New York and San Francisco. Their production adopted some of Brecht’s alienation techniques to undermine audience identification with the characters in the play, by putting young actors into middle-aged parts and a woman in the waiter parts, and by shifting from realist moments to scenes of artificial theatrical excess, including songs and poetry. The theory is that this ‘anti-naturalism’ prevents the audience sympathising or identifying too much with any individual character, ensuring that they never lose sight of the fact that they are watching a performance.
In the Stables production, the audience was so close to the actors that no amount of role-sharing or caricature or vaudeville japes could distance us from the awareness that human individuals were in front of us. On the page, Irene and Les Harding may seem like cut-out stereotypes of suburban Australian vulgarity but in the Stables theatre they appeared to be people, played convincingly by Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz. Unlike the actors in the original production – Bruce Spence, who played Les, was only twenty-nine at the time – these two were about the age of the characters, striking down one of the barriers to naturalist ‘identification’. In 1974 Irene’s malapropisms may have made her a derisive figure of fun, but they have now become associated with the broad comedy of ‘Kath and Kim’, much-loved on Australian television. Les’s obscene jokes wander close to those of Les Patterson, who was invented by Barry Humphries in the year of the play’s first production. There can be no claims of mutual influence – these writers and comics were exaggerating a phenomenon that Australian audiences continue to recognise and enjoy. All of them were also working in the popular traditions of the Australian vaudeville stage; the jokes are as old as the hills (as Romeril makes clear in the play). Nevertheless, it seemed as if the 2013 audiences’ familiarity with Kath & Kim, and Les Patterson, predisposed them to like Les and Irene and to enjoy their humour.
‘By all accounts, that first production was an extraordinary experience with the audience seated on deckchairs inside a chicken wire compound shaped like a ship’
Reading the script, though, you are likely to find the exchanges between Les and Irene sexist and a little brutal. Some of the critical responses to the play see a failed marriage, counting Irene’s obtuseness as reprehensible as Les’s drunken sexism. In performance, it can be seen as the affectionate bickering of a long marriage between an ignorant but kind woman, and a more experienced and vigorous man who knows that he has missed out on the privileges given to others, such as the Englishman Robinson. We (with Irene) also discover that he has endured unspeakable suffering as a slave on the Thai–Burma railroad. As Les moves further into his war memories, his exchanges with Irene become more aggressive, moving from teasing comments to references to Irene’s ‘horrible-looking face’ or Irene’s retaliation that Les is ‘slumped over your grog like some metho drinker at the Methodist Mission’.
If Les’s jokes and jingles are mainly obscene, they do, at least, express something of his energy and suppressed anger at the postwar status quo, in which men who suffered during the war watch powerless as Australian business opportunism makes their bloody struggle with the Japanese something best forgotten. Like Sir Les Patterson, Les has a vitality that expresses a raucous refusal of authority and a resistance to respectability that he invites the audience to share. There may be a little snobbishness in our laughter at Irene’s misunderstandings, but we probably enjoy Les’s affronts to politeness.
Our discomfort comes with his apparent racism. Yet Les hardly says a racist word – it is Irene who mouths all the standard prejudices against Pakistani doctors or ‘Muslins’. Though he grumbles about travelling to Japan, he defends himself to the imaginary McLeod who accuses him of scabbing on his dead mates: ‘It’s dead and buried, all that. I mean it’s a different world we live in today.’ He makes no direct comment on the Japanese until after one of his delusional moments, when the waiter plays one of the Japanese guards of his imagination. When he calls the waiter ‘a yellow-bellied dwarf’ and a ‘dirty mongrel dingo bastard’, even Robinson understands that he is suffering some kind of breakdown.
The audience picks up early that they are experiencing the cruise through the distorted imagination of Les. We share his ‘dream’ of McLeod and hear his memories of the war, though the moment when he counts off the numbers in Japanese during the emergency drill brings a shocked realisation that he has lost the division between reality and memory. From then on, we are experiencing both Les’s interior world and the external world of the cruise ship. In the Talent Night scene both worlds come together in confusion as McLeod appears as the back half of the camel. From then on, Les’s nightmare overwhelms reality as the play moves towards his almost unbearable final monologue.
With his shifts of mood from boisterous anti-authoritarianism to drunken loutishness to quivering psychosis, Les must be one of the most difficult parts for an actor to play. But the role of the Comic is almost as difficult, as he must hold together our sense of being on a ship and participate in Les’s fantasies as the play progresses. The Comic’s jokes are wince-inducing, sinking to a bathetic level of crudity. None of them are funny, as he bullies the passengers (and the audience) with increasing belligerence. Somehow the actor must deliver his cheesy lines too fast for an audience to fully comprehend how dismal they are. He must have something of the razzmatazz of the old time vaudevillean while bringing cruelty to bear, as he is transformed into one of Les’s tormentors. He is crucial to the pace and mood of the play.
‘Like Sir Les Patterson, Les has a vitality that expresses a raucous refusal of authority and a resistance to respectability that he invites the audience to share’
From Les’s first vomit over the side of the ship all of the humour in the play seems to reference bodily functions. Early in the play Les matches Robinson’s ‘Arab piece in Cairo’ with ‘I slipped a geisha what was left of my length and she said shagging me was like making love to a bird cage’, setting the play’s uncomfortable balance between obscene wit and horror. The limericks and rhymes about penises and livers, the stage business with the pissing camel – all insist on the fallibility of the human body. On the page, it may seem relentless and unfunny but in the hands of talented actors the audience is likely to find itself laughing against its better judgement. We are being set up, though, for the barrage of images of physical collapse that make up Les’s memories of his time in the camps. Any comic aspects of bodily incontinence are overturned in a litany of disease, savagery and disgust. The audience must listen in horror as Les details the deaths and destruction of the young men who were his companions:
Beriberi. Slows you down. Swells you up. My toes stuck out like purple teats on a goat’s udder. Slosh slosh. When they saw me coming, the Nip guards’d draw a cross on the ground. You’ll be dead tomorrow. Ashita mati mati. Up your arses, you lumps of lard. The beriberi fluids sloshing round my chest cavity. Legs like purple balloons. Chest like a milk-can rattling on the back of a truck. They’d mime a man drowning. Up your arses, you lumps of lard.
Romeril delivers us a lesson in Australian history in a vernacular poetry that is rhythmic and relentless.
The Currency edition of the script presents the play in the context of Australian xenophobia, with essays on Australian nationalism, attitudes to the ‘Yellow Peril’ and the history of the Thai–Burma railway, and Katharine Brisbane’s introduction to the play as ‘a study of xenophobia’. In the 1970s, some commentators saw the play itself as xenophobic in its airing of common Australian prejudices about the generalised ‘Asian’ and its reminder of the horrors inflicted by Japanese jailers on their prisoners of war. Romeril felt the need to write an afterword protesting his liking for the Japanese, and he has reiterated this defence in his blogs for the Griffin production, noting the influence of Japanese Noh theatre on the ghost scene, and citing the play’s brief reference to the way Japanese guards were also victims of a brutal hierarchy.
Forty years on and a few financial crises later, the Japanese are no longer the focus of our economic fears and they are clearly our allies in most world affairs. Romeril visits Japan regularly, and in 1995 there was a Japanese production of the play in Japanese which toured to Melbourne. The Griffin production included the Japanese actor, Shingo Usami, playing the waiter and the Japanese guard, another step towards ‘naturalising’ the production. This had an unexpected and disturbing effect because, in the scene where the waiter becomes the Japanese tormenter, it was difficult not to wonder what Usami thought of the play.
Discussions of the 2013 production focused on its representation of post-traumatic stress disorder, marvelling at the accuracy of its portrayal of Les’s symptoms. That perspective, too, can reduce it to an easily accepted ‘message’. It is so much more than a study of Australian xenophobia or an individual’s psychiatric condition. It is an exhilarating theatrical experience, in which audiences’ sympathies and expectations are undermined as they are forced to endure, with Les Harding, his memories of dreadful suffering. We have to question our prejudices as Les Harding shows us that a man can be an objectionable and ridiculous old fart and still deserve our sympathy as the victim of inhuman torture.
The play puts complex questions about the past in front of us – how should we remember the wrongs of history, how much of it should we forget in the interests of the future? It also reminds us that war does not only exist in its moment, but leaves a lengthy trail of destruction behind it. There is no comfort in the play’s ending, no scenes of Irene lovingly ministering to her sick husband, or of other characters acknowledging his distress. Harry’s commentary tells us that Les will be consigned to Larundel, the mental asylum in Melbourne.
We are likely to leave the theatre emotionally shaken, disturbed by the shifts in our sympathies and, if we still have personal memories of World War II veterans, a little chastened. The play doesn’t resolve its various parts for us: the war and the camps happened, Australians can be vulgar morons towards foreigners, especially Asians, and a mentally ill man can be packed away out of sight.
The director of the Griffin production, Sam Strong, commented in an interview that the play was ‘way too big’ for the Stables theatre. It certainly deserves a bigger space and greater audiences, and many more productions with energetic actors, young and old, of whatever race and gender. I’d like to see it in one of the Carriageworks theatres in Sydney, where the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch worked so well a few years ago. But it should also find a place in the repertoire of the state theatre companies who produce Beckett so regularly. Romeril is our Beckett – just as poetic and tough-minded. I wonder whether he would let a production scrap the dippy birds, cut Harry’s introduction and commentary in the last scene, and maybe let Les wear a fancy dress costume that merely suggested the Second AIF – these elements of the play seem unnecessarily directive for contemporary audiences. But no one would want to lose the essential quality of this ‘unruly masterpiece’, its energy, its mix of elements, its humour and humanity, and the sheer excess of its ideas.
Hutchinson, Garrie. ‘The Floating World: Unruly Masterpiece’ (1975), in Contemporary Australian Drama: Perspectives since 1955 edited by Peter Holloway, Currency Press, 1981.
Romeril, John. The Floating World. Revised edition, Currency Press, 1982.
Romeril, John. ‘Wrong Way Go Back’, Griffin Theatre Company blog.
Varney, Denise. ‘Political Lessons of the New Wave: Romeril’s The Floating World.’ Double Dialogues, 11, 2009.
‘Inside The Floating World’, ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in The Floating World’ and ‘The Floating World with Sam Strong’. Three video interviews about the Griffin Theatre Company's production of The Floating World.
Christos Tsiolkas has established himself as a fiction writer to be reckoned with, especially since the publication of the explosive Dead Europe (2005) and the bestselling The Slap (2008). His latest novel, Barracuda (2013), marked a return to the adolescent anger and simpler naturalism of his early work. So his new volume of stories, Merciless Gods, may offer some help in understanding the trajectory of his career and his changing interests.
Among the early stories found here, ‘Civil War’, first collected in the Picador New Writing anthology for 1995, still carries an impact. The story’s narrator is hitching his way to Sydney across the Nullarbor Plain, listening to the racist remarks of the truck drivers he meets and recalling his brief sexual encounter in Perth with a young Aboriginal drug addict. The Civil War of the title is anticipated by the truck drivers who are arming in preparation for a massacre of Aboriginal people. The story moves into a slightly surreal world – has the drug-addicted narrator imagined the extremism of the truckies, just as he mistook a kangaroo on the road for an Aboriginal man? Tsiolkas confronts us with the logical consequence of violent racial hatred, and it stays with the young man like a bad dream after he arrives in Sydney. Curiously, the story begins with the line: ‘After drugs there is only God.’ The narrator is searching for ‘some intimation of spirit’, like a character from a David Malouf or Patrick White novel, but nothing beats heroin.
‘Tsiolkas confronts us with the logical consequence of violent racial hatred’
Young male characters narrate other stories, relying on the present tense for a sense of immediacy in the conventional Kerouac manner. ‘Saturn Return’ has two young men travelling to Sydney to visit the dying father of the narrator’s friend. Both young men have been to university, but they see themselves as poor: ‘Being poor means you have to break the law.’ It is a badge of honour and a justification for drug-dealing. Yet the story reveals a tenderness as it considers the dying days of the father and ponders the meaning of his life. ‘Hung Phat!’ follows its narrator’s relationship with a school friend, a girl this time, who becomes a film-maker. In ‘Jessica Lange in Frances’, the narrator has his first homosexual experience surrounded by the noise, smells, and detritus of inner-city life.
Though Tsiolkas is obviously clever and observant, this kind of material can become predictable, and the more recent stories show him creating more mature and varied characters, the kind of people who feature in The Slap. The title story’s narrator tells us about an evening ‘many years ago’ when a group of young Melbourne professionals, masquerading as friends, share a dinner to farewell a member of the group. Their complacency is disrupted by a storytelling game that leads one guest to claim that he once cut off a boy’s hand in Turkey. The incident may not have happened, but the manner of its telling strips the pretence of friendship from the group. It is not only what you tell, but how you tell it.
Other stories also focus on middle-class professionals moving towards middle age, their only unconventionality being their predominantly homosexual relationships. Yet they retain some of the adolescent anger that marks so many of Tsiolkas’s younger characters. They are the kind of people who get ‘the shits’ at unresponsive servants in New York, or mouth obscenities when their plane is delayed in Cairo. Impatient, bad-tempered, foul-mouthed, they are people to be avoided in whatever real life they might inhabit. They represent the worst of the new generation of well-heeled, well-educated Australians who are making their mark in the world. They could so easily be the subjects of satire, but Tsiolkas never mocks them. He holds to a discipline of sympathy with his characters, no matter how repellent they may be, and restricts his own verbal range to the limits of their vocabularies. It is a serious inhibition for a writer to accept, as it reduces so much of his fiction to the platitudes and obscenities of shallow characters.
In his early work, this appeared to be a political position – where the writer insists on identifying with alienated characters, portraying their perspective on the petit bourgeois world of suburban Australia. Tsiolkas seemed to identify with young gay men trying to live outside the society they believed had rejected them. Most of the characters in his later fiction have accommodated themselves to professional success, but Tsiolkas refrains from venting the criticism and moral disgust that he invites from his readers. He also denies himself the possibilities of wit and humour.
‘Tsiolkas’s deliberate confining of himself to the inarticulate, frequently obscene language of his characters often renders his writing banal and dangerously close to self-parody’
Tsiolkas’s deliberate confining of himself to the inarticulate, frequently obscene language of his characters often renders his writing banal and dangerously close to self-parody. At the same time, he raises the issue of language in several stories here. In ‘Sticks and Stones’ and ‘Tourists’, women characters protest at the racist and abusive language of their men. These are small and pointless gestures in a fictional world where language (and thinking) operate on the crudest level. Racial respect can hardly exist where there is no respect for language at all.
The particular possibilities of verbal language dominate the three final stories, titled ‘Porn’ 1, 2, and 3, where the filming of pornography is described in explicit detail, draining it of erotic force. Once again, Tsiolkas exhibits the discipline of a naturalist. He refuses to acknowledge any world beyond the physical and looks hard at sexual transgression without moral comment. In its way, this is admirable, but it makes for a severely confined literary art.
Susan Lever reviews Merciless Gods, a new collection of short stories by Christos Tsiolkas, and concludes that, though admirable, the work amounts to confined literary art.
Forty years ago next Christmas, a cyclone devastated Australia’s northernmost city, Darwin. It is a disaster still clear in the living memory of most Australians over fifty, but it also belongs to the past, the time before we had become aware of climate change. At the time, it was the kind of natural disaster to be expected in summer in the Top End, even if its festive timing appeared ominous in some mysterious way. There have been government reports, memoirs, books, and documentaries about Cyclone Tracy. Forty years appears long enough for an event to become history, but the cyclone has not yet become integrated into a significant national narrative.
Sophie Cunningham suggests that Cyclone Tracy does have a message for contemporary Australians, who should expect more of these devastating weather events as the seas increase their temperature. She writes that her main motivation in writing about the cyclone ‘is the fact that the human race is transforming the land, the seas and the weather’. The recent hurricanes of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly those assaults on the world’s most affluent nation, Katrina and Sandy (as Cunningham explains, cyclones belong to the Southern Hemisphere, hurricanes to the Northern one), certainly confront any complacency about the capacity of modern cities to resist extreme weather events. Darwin’s cyclone provides an Australian example, and a relatively small-scale comparison with these more devastating recent catastrophes.
Australia was colonised in the period of modernity, with the Industrial Revolution driving much of its development and a belief in improving technology and political progress underlying its public institutions. The society may have been modern but its culture, in particular its art and literature, has borne the recurrent charge of backwardness. The centres of innovation in twentieth-century art have been elsewhere, in the cosmopolitan cities of Europe or the United States of America, so that Australian critics and artists have carried a sense that to be distant from the centre also means to be behind the times. The gap between Australian modernity and its artistic partner and antagonist, modernism, has obsessed many Australian critics over the years; it is as if Australian art somehow ought to match the society’s technological progress as a matter of national pride.
In his introduction to this selection of prose engagements with the world, Robert Manne tells us he was looking for the ‘presence of a distinctive voice’ as a sign of what he calls a good essay. Some of these pieces are conventional essays, but others are memoirs, newspaper columns, sketches, ‘true’ stories – there’s even a speech and an article from Manne’s own Festschrift. Never mind the definitions, what Manne has gathered is an informative, thoroughly enjoyable collection of writing to stimulate our reflections on the past year and our concerns for the future.
Telling Stories is a great brick of a book full of diverting bits and pieces about Australian culture over the past seventy-seven years. It is hugely entertaining – a sort of QIin book form, with seventy-nine authors offering their brief observations on aspects of Australian cultural life. No one will read it cover to cover: it’s the sort of book you can leave about the house for anyone to pick up and amuse herself with for fifteen minutes or so. They can jump from titbits about rock music, or children’s novels, films or poetry, or serious pieces on the slow movement towards understanding Australia’s Aboriginal heritage. The editors suggest it is ‘a twenty-first century cabinet of curiosities’. By and large, it creates an optimistic, even celebratory, account of the experience of Australian life in the twentieth century.