In late May in The Weekend Australian, Rosemary Neill lit a fire that still seems to be burning. There have been various breakouts since then, each fuelled slightly differently. On Saturday, The Weekend Australian fanned more flames, publishing letters by director Aubrey Mellor and playwright Peter Fleming (alarmingly headlined “Can Ralph Myers be taken seriously?“) and, in print, reporting on playwright David Steven’s dissatisfaction with how Australian playwrights are treated on a recent forum at National Institute of Dramatic Art, chaired by playwright Stephen Sewell, titled “Rolling in Their Graves — Working with the text of a dead author“. Roland Barthes, of course, famously argued “The Death of the Author” in a 1968 essay. He died in 1980.
This “debate” — and I use the inverted commas with purpose — has had unusual longevity. The framing has often been poor: auteur v author; director v playwright; adaptations v new plays; Simon Stone v Australian playwrights; Ralph Myers v the baby boomers. But the misleading binaries have not diminished passions. One wonders what truly lurks below.
The Australian theatre has had these kinds of debates many times before. To offer just one example: when Louis Nowra and Stephen Sewell were in their so-called “internationalist” phase in the late 1970s and early ’80s — writing plays NOT set in Australia — many thought they were not properly contributing to the development of Australian theatrical culture and, more bizarrely, that their works were not truly “new Australian plays”. That argument is now plainly silly. This current debate feels, in some ways, like a cousin to that old one.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
There are some basic questions here that, I think, find simple answers. Let me attempt to gaze through the bushfire haze.
Should we have adaptations of classics plays? Of course. For thousands of years, adaptations have been one of the Western theatre’s lifebloods. The Greeks started it. The torch they lit stills flares brilliantly, throwing light on our relationship with time and taste. Writers and directors have fruitfully adapted classics, to the delight or distaste of audiences, for longer than the Athens Fire Brigade has been in existence.
Are these adaptations rightly called “new Australian works”? Sometimes. I think Stone’s acclaimed play at Belvoir St, The Wild Duck (pictured), very far removed from Ibsen’s play of the same name, was a new Australian play and a very good one. The War of the Roses, an often radical rearrangement of Shakespeare by Benedict Andrews and Tom Wright, was a great Australian production, but was it a “new Australian work” in the way we commonly understand that phrase? No, and no one claimed it was. Sometimes, though, the question can border on the unreasonable. Jane Howard, writing for Guardian Australia, gets a little too close to calling Eamon’s Flack excellent production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America a new Australian work, simply because, to her, the production speaks with an Australian sense of humour.
“I think some of our theatres have lost the intellectual and cultural capacity to best nurture plays and playwrights into full dramatic life.”
Are these adaptations being credited appropriately? Not all the time. To pick on poor Simon Stone once again, I think he should have called his play something other than The Wild Duck when he (rightly, I think) took the top writing credit. Patrick Marber, when he reframed Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) in an English country house in July 1945, and took top writing credit, had the right mind to call his new English play After Miss Julie. As Mellor pointed out in The Oz, when Tennessee Williams wrote his version of Chekhov’s Seagull, and took top credit, he called it The Notebook of Trigorin. It’s just common sense. It’s perfectly fine to take an out-of-copyright author’s work and to wring it into something genuinely new which you then call your own — theatre artists have been doing that since the Greeks. But it’s good we can be respectful of our ancestors, give them due credit, and not dupe audiences into thinking the orange is an apple.
Are these adaptations crowding out new plays? This has been the clarion contention, but I haven’t seen a scrap of evidence. It might well be that there are fewer new Australian plays being produced, but it’s not at all clear that this is attributable to a perceived new penchant for adaptations.
Are Australian playwrights getting a rough time at the moment? I suspect so. I think there has been a diminishing respect for playwrights in recent years. Lately, I’ve heard far too many alarming stories from level-headed playwrights to think differently. Some stories have been shocking. I think some of our theatres have lost the intellectual and cultural capacity to best nurture plays and playwrights into full dramatic life. Some of the literary departments in our theatres are poorly staffed and sometimes inadequately trained. And even if there is adequate capacity, there is often a disconnect between that work and those who make the programming decisions. Too often, we have the playwright as simple content provider, hurriedly assessed and easily dismissed.
The Australian theatre, as a whole, has always had to fight hard to enjoy a thriving playwriting culture, but it feels to me the time has come for another round of sensible and mature focus.
While the current bushfires might not produce a playwriting phoenix, rising in plumage in golds and purples and reds, it might produce, I hope, some deeper thinking and action. I hope the Australian theatre can, collectively and distinctively, find even richer ways to express our stories exercising all of the full and fertile means available to the contemporary imagination, which includes the playwright’s voice. It’s what audiences and artists expect.
*This article was edited from a blog post at Carving In Snow