Anti-Colonial Voices? Non-British Accents and the National Authentication of Shakespeare in Australia in the 1970s

Article excerpt

Besides, Sir, what entitles Sheridan to fix the pronunciation of English? He has, in the first place, the disadvantage of being an Irishman; and if he says he will fix it after the example of the best company, why they differ among themselves.

Johnson to Boswell, Saturday 28 March 17721

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The idea of an Australian 'accent'' became, not for the first time, a topic for anxious comment in the context of the Australian-USA Free Trade Agreement negotiations in 2003-04. An email, 'It's Bloody UnAustralian!' circulated widely among entertainment sector workers, sought signatures for an e-petition to the Prime Minister, and quoted the Australia Council's Jennifer Bott in pleading for a consideration of the effect of such an agreement on 'the livelihoods of Australian artists' and 'the cultural identity of the nation'. ? hate the thought of our children growing up with American accents', added the email's author, Tija Lodens.3

Such defences of an implicitly singular and allegedly culturally fundamental manner of speech have a long history in Australia, dating back to the early colonial period and the aggressively local sub-cultural dialects of the cabbage-tree mobs,4 but continue to be a powerful discursive weapon in the early twenty-first century. At one extreme, 'the' Australian accent can become in argument the fundamental and essential marker of a national identity, as in the example above and in the outrage in the media in June 2001 following the then Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir's satirical references to, and mimicking of, 'Slrine'.5 However, at about the same time, another attempt to define and defend national values suggested vocal accent was a superficial aspect of Australianness. The then Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Jonathan Shier, attacked the use of Australian participants, speech and settings in the localised television show Big Brother as a token attempt to conceal that programme's foreign origins: 'The only contribution that Australian TV has added is to refilm it with an Australian accent.'6

This approach, in which the manner of speaking is positioned as the least important element of 'making it national',7 also has a long history. Interestingly, as the first and third examples above suggest, we can speculate that while actors have tended to insist on the importance of 'their' accents in the staging and screening of texts described as 'national', others in the entertainment industries - notably writers and other producers of original concept material - are more likely to see character, narrative and structure as core. The summoning of either discourse, and the value judgment behind each, depends in part, of course, on whose jobs are perceived to be threatened. Big Brother creates employment for Australian on-screen talent (presenters) and technicians, but only quota-protected television drama also employs screen writers and script editors.

From the above we can discern three ways in which spoken language is used within value systems charged with nationalist ideology, all of which rest on beliefs about cultural authenticity. At the simplest level, there is the assertion that a nation has the right to develop, preserve and maintain a singular, unique and defining accent - without significant variation, or one with approved hegemonic dominance - and that this is fundamental to important cultural differences between that nation and others. The two elaborations of this belief in a singular national voice spring from the alleged lack of authenticity in cases of mimicry and when Australian accents themselves are used to give pseudo-authenticity to non-Australian material.8 The first is seen most directly when a non-Australian tries to speak in broad Strine, particularly in parody, as presented in the 2006 television advertisement for Berri Australian Fresh orange juice, featuring American soap actor Ronn Moss in a Man from Snowy River-esque role. …