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Stage

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.

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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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