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Sep 15, 2009

The play’s the thing missing from the PEN anthology

The great, the good and my good friend Peter Craven have already weighed in on the issue of "progressive inclusion" of indigenous writing in the new Macquarie Australian lit anthology. But the omission of drama is the real scandal.

The great, the good and my good friend Peter Craven have already weighed in on the issue of “progressive inclusion” of indigenous writing in the new Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. Though Craven will not make any new friends by defining all those who disagree with him as “confused”, he’s mostly right — too much ephemera has been included, while indigenous writers pursuing literary forms have been left out. It’s all got an embarrassing early ’90s feel, like watching someone in a Miller shirt do the macarena.

But an equally remarkable failure is in the representation of drama. Though one is going to dance on a few friends’ corns here, it has to be said that in this respect the anthology is a disgrace, an expression of a barely disguised lack of interest in the form by prose-and-poetry-centric editors. Indeed, there appears to be no specific editor with substantial drama experience (except, to a limited degree, Anita Heiss), a pretty grievous omission in an anthology.

OK, drama-wise, as a civilisation, we haven’t exactly punched anything near our weight. But this anathemology’s selection is ridiculous. The first glaring error is the excerpt that represents David Williamson, a bit from Emerald City, a play concocted long after the tall man’s fires had dimmed. I suspect even Williamson would be embarrassed that he is not represented to the world by the energy, drive and wit of Don’s Party, Stork, or The Club.

The second omission is all three of the other leading playwrights of the 70s — Jack Hibberd, Alex Buzo and John Romeril — and the slightly later contribution of Stephen Sewell and Alma de Groen. OK, not everyone can be included, but to not have an excerpt of Stretch of the Imagination or other Hibberd is just wrong from wrongtown. The play has been done by a dozen of the country’s leading actors and directors, and countless lesser lights — and each new interpretation has added new dimensions to it. Theatre, in this respect, has a more verifiable quality-control than prose or poetry — if it is a literary, ambitious piece, and people keep bloody doing it, then it has become, de facto, part of our literature.

Furthermore, the selections that are there — Louis Nowra, Michael Gow and Hannie Rayson — though worthy in themselves, are formally, structurally realist works, whatever surreal bells and whistles they add. To read this anthology, you’d think that we never had a decade or so of wildly inventive modernist theatre through the 1970s — a theatre that put content and form together in a distinctively Australian way — before a frequently dull realism re-descended (and the omission of TV and movie scripts, while letters and speeches are included, is another matter entirely).

One can’t help but look at the formally safe, polite, mildly fey drama selections and feel there is an active bias here by editors against a wilder, more energetic drama that nevertheless reads well on the page (better, in Hibberd’s case, than just about all the selections here) — and that also frequently channels a larrikin, masculinist language that captures Australian s-xism, rather than trying to dust over it. Consciously or otherwise, I wonder if the editors have allowed their personal distaste to distort their assessment of quality, durability and influence.

BONUS: selected articles of mine will now feature a Mark Day (“what is he on about?”) version, so burnt-out tabloid hacks superannuated into a media column can get the benefit of my wisdom:

MARK DAY VERSION: Some ladies and a gentleman or two made a big book of stuff you’ll never read. Some of us thought some of the stuff they put in wasn’t as good as some of the other stuff they could have put in. A “book” is like a newspaper with a spine, i.e., not like the newspaper you write for.

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19 thoughts on “The play’s the thing missing from the PEN anthology

  1. Alison Croggon

    I’d already noticed that lack. Though I guess I would. Leaving out Hibberd, Romeril and Buzo altogether is frankly bizarre. Good to see Hewett is there, but no inclusion of any of White’s plays, which would seem necessary if you were to be serious about including drama. I’d say similar things about the selection of Nowra’s work as you’ve said about Williamson’s – why Radiance over plays like Inner Voices, Inside the Island or Visions? Then you start thinking about people like Barry Dickins, or Peter Kenna, or Richard Beynon… If you’re going to include oddities like Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe, why not some of Dymphna Cusack’s drama, who is definitely more interesting? Etc etc.

    The contemporary selections are worse, just this side of non-existent, with some glaring omissions. No playwrights have been born here, it seems, after 1957. Obviously plays have a way to go before they’re considered anything but an afterthought in literature.

  2. paddy

    Well Guy, the “Mark Day version” is definitely a keeper. 🙂

  3. Kerryn Goldsworthy

    From the person mainly responsible for what Guy is so robustly critiquing here, a mild ‘ouch’ and a few responses:

    (1) The editors and certainly the education advisers hoped the book would be widely used in schools and all of us are realists, so there was some reluctance to include too many gratuitous f-bombs, c-bombs and otherwise R-rated content. (Guy, have you read Stretch lately? Fark. Also, it can’t be comprehensibly extracted-from; believe me, I tried. See below.)

    (2) Plays are written to be performed, watched and listened to, and it was agreed very early on by the editors that knocking out too much writing meant for the page in order to make more room for writing meant for the stage would be counterproductive.

    (3) Almost everyone who has seen fit to weigh into this debate thus far has concentrated on writers’ names and ‘best ofs’ at the expense of of actual subject matter, themes and content. (The Williamson extract, for example, dramatises the ‘Sydney v Melbourne’ thing very concisely, as well as typifying his particular range of characters and conflicts.)

    But the anthology was not meant to be a pantheon, or a football team, or a ‘Best Ofs’ list, or a museum, though almost everyone who has commented on it so far seems to be taking it for granted that it’s supposed to be at least one of those things. It is mainly meant to (a) offer readers not necessarily familiar with Australian lit a broad overview of a 200-year scene, and (b) function as a sampler that will send people off to find out more about a particular writer or publication or period or event, or to look for more work by a writer they like. The cultural significance and richness of content was at least as important, or more important, to the editors in than the tiresome, celebrity-culture-driven ‘who’s in and who’s out’ approach, which has concentrated almost entirely on living writers and on the last 50 years — less than a quarter of the period covered by the book — and matters much more to the writers and their friends than to the punters, students and international readers we hope will use this book.

    4) All commentators so far have completely ignored the importance, and the difficulty, of making shapely, satisfying extracts from novels and plays: extracts that work on their own as a comprehensible and non-frustrating piece of writing, and do not take up so much space that three other writers will have to be left out. Many plays, in particular, simply resist all such efforts. The oeuvres of most of the playwrights Guy mentions were trawled through for many hours, searching in vain for a workable extract that wasn’t too long, wasn’t excessively obscene, and would make sense if read on its own.

    5) Much if not most of the rationale for inclusions in the anthology is mentioned/discussed/explained in one or other of the various introductory essays, with which almost no reviewer or commentator, with a couple of honourable exceptions, has thus far engaged at all.

    The Mark Day version can say what it likes; I think the fact that a number of people clearly feel passionately about Australian lit and are saying so in the public sphere is a pretty reliable indicator that it matters.

  4. Alison Croggon

    Hi Kerryn, with respect the names I mentioned are hardly products of celebrity culture or fashion (Peter Kenna? Richard Beynon?!) Which is why I stayed away from a rather rich field of younger writers. And most certainly none of them are “friends” of mine. They are indeed dramatists from the past half century, which is, for various reasons, surely where the bulk of dramatic creativity is concentrated here. All of them are dramatists who, in an anthology which purports to give a broad overview or to act as a sampler of the range and quality of Australian literature, and which includes drama as part of that literature, should be at least considered as no-brainer inclusions.

    And yes, I note the difficulty of extracting. However, just as a test I flicked through Kenna’s A Hard God, and almost at once found a monologue that could be extracted as neatly as a hard-boiled egg from its shell. It’s not much more difficult, I would think, than extracting from novels, and there’s certainly a much more representative sampling of prose in the anthology.

    What you say here is (or ought to be) highly disputable, and perhaps goes to the core of what the problem is: “Plays are written to be performed, watched and listened to, and it was agreed very early on by the editors that knocking out too much writing meant for the page in order to make more room for writing meant for the stage would be counterproductive”. It’s hard to read this is anything but a statement that plays are not proper examples of literary art. Yes, there are plays that don’t read well on the page, but they tend to be plays that also don’t work well on the stage. The very best plays are always works of literary distinction. There has often been a problem in Australian play writing because of this too-easy idea that works for performance are not aspects of literary art, but that’s another and complex question.

  5. meski

    Kerryn, have you heard the language that kids use? It would make a navvy blush. But in this day of eBooks, what’s stopping others from producing alt anthologies?

  6. Kerryn Goldsworthy

    Alison, the reference to ‘celebrity culture’ — which wasn’t aimed at your comment, btw — was not a literal one, nothing to do with particular people but rather an attempt to understand the overwhelming focus, in all of the commentary on the anthology so far both online and off, on ‘who’ rather than ‘what’ is and is not in the anthology. What I meant was that the preoccupations of celebrity culture (individual presence, name as brand, A-lists and B-lists, etc etc) permeate all our thinking whether we like it or not.

  7. james mcdonald

    So Kerryn do you mean it’s intended as a bit of a representative sample rather than a selection of the best?

  8. Kerryn Goldsworthy

    James, that begs the question of what the “best” is. As can be seen even just from this discussion, that’s an ongoing matter of debate. Everyone has different ideas about what good writing is. Again, I recommend reading the General Introduction, which I’m told will be put up at the anthology’s website tomorrow, and if it is I’ll post a link to it.

  9. Alison Croggon

    Hi Kerryn – it’s hard to see how discussion around an anthology – which is by its nature necessarily selective, highlighting some things as important and others as, by definition, not – it’s hard to see how you can avoid it. I do think you’re on a hiding to nothing with something called an “anthology of Australian literature”. As a poet, I’ve seen an awful lot of “who’s/who’s out” stuff trotted out every time an anthology launches, and I confess that it generally bores me. But no matter what one’s tastes or leanings, there is a real problem with the representation of drama, and I wonder if it might have been better to leave it out altogether.

  10. deccles

    Kerryn you’ve got to be joking if you believe that you can’t extract from a play, novel etc to give a sense of the work. If you HONESTY believe that you are not fit to claim to be an editor. It sounds like Reader’s Digest abridged version of Australian Literature. Your argument seems to be more around the politically correct version of Australian literature you’d like to see in schools.

    Try asking anybody even Mark Day to finish this sentence ‘To be or not be …’ Plays are written to be performed’? What an elitist w@nkfest. I’ll save my money.