Upstaged: Australian Women Dramatists in the Limelight at Last

Article excerpt

Michelle Arrow, Upstaged: Australian Women Dramatists in the Limelight at Last (Strawberry Hills, NSW: Pluto and Currency, 2002)

The title of this scholarly, informative and entertaining book contains the ironic nub of the problem she addresses. The writers whose careers she illuminates have certainly been upstaged: as much by the nationalist creationism of the so-called new wave as by the 'usefulness' of so much of their own writing. But I wonder, can they really be said to be 'in the limelight at last' while the plays they wrote continue to receive so little actual production attention?

The day I started reading Upstaged I received in the mail an invitation to a reading by Val Kirwan - the Diva of a theatrical movement I have long wanted to label 'Melbourne Surrealism'. The accompanying publicity material described Kirwan as the first woman playwright to have her work produced at La Mama and I was struck again by the fact that, in spite of her long history with that theatre - a production a year for at least seven years from the late seventies into the eighties -her influence on Melbourne performance traditions could be said to be as overshadowed by Jean-Pierre Mignon and Anthill in the hagiography of the eighties as Oriel Gray was eclipsed by the mordant masculinism of Ray Lawlcr's The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in the historical legend of the beginning of Australian theatre in the fifties. Such an irony is only compounded by the fact that the production of "The Doll' that lifted that play onto the highest shelf in the brief canon of Australian dramatic literature was Mignon's post-modern production for Anthill. Kirwan's insouciant surrealism, her freewheeling, apparently improvisatory writing style and the drama and beauty of the theatrical image-making she managed in the tiny confines of La Mama had an impact on a generation of Melbourne theatre-makers far greater than her place in the historical and critical literature of the period would suggest, but at least her plays were produced, some of them even more than once.

The women playwrights Arrow discusses in Upstaged have, she argues, been written out of history for every conceivable reason - their cheerful feminism (Oriel Gray) and their leftist politics (Mona Brand and Catherine Duncan); their capacity to earn a living from their craft through the new and popular media of radio and later television (Gwen Meredith, Oriel Gray and Mary Wilton). But the overwhelming evidence for their continuing obscurity is the depressingly patchy record of their production histories. Arrow, perhaps wisely in a book that describes her playwrights as in the limelight at last, chooses not to include any ordered list or statistics of productions of the plays discussed. This is made more noticeable by the comprehensive excellence of the appendices she docs include. There are brief biographies of all the playwrights in addition to the select bibliography of primary and secondary sources. It may be that since hers is essentially a cultural history of the women dramatists of the period rather than a theatre history per se, she did not consider such statistics relevant or she may have chosen not to spell out the pathetic production histories of most of the plays she discusses in order not to confront the crushing picture such figures would reveal.

Reading Arrow's engaging account of these women and their work, I remain puzzled not simply by the scarcity of critical writing on their work - pace Carolyn Pickett's and Susan Pfisterer's admirable account of the same period in Playing with Ideas - but by the fact that even as they are being written into literary and cultural history they continue to be ignored or passed over for productions not only on main stages but on any stages.

The reasons are in fact not far to seek and have less to do with the fact that the playwrights in question are women than they do with the fact that then as now, actual production opportunities for new writing were relatively scarce. …