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. Arrow describes in detail the haphazard fortunes of plays that win competitions like that of the Playwrights Advisory Board which awarded equal first place to Oriel Gray and Ray Lawler. Cash prizes were usually the outcome - not productions of the plays. Even in the case of The Doll, Hugh Hunt's Elizabethan Theatre Trust was only reluctantly pushed into supporting a production by John Sumner.
The New Theatres in Melbourne and Sydney with their specific left-wing agendas were the exception rather than the rule in providing production houses from the thirties up to the late sixties with an interest in nurturing playwrights. A large part of the success of the so-called New Wave playwrights like Williamson, Hibberd and Romeril was directly attributable to their close engagement with the 'actors' theatres' in which their work was produced. Why those writers were so successful in claiming an era as their own, and in some ways driving out of the canon playwrights whose success at the time was equal to theirs but whose self-identification was less aggressively nationalistic and totalising in effect, is another story emerging from increasingly nuanced and diverse accounts of other theatres of the recent past (Meyrick on Nimrod, casey on Nindethana, Tail on feminist theatre in the eighties).
Arrow begins by contrasting the fates of the joint winners of the Playwrights' Advisory Board competition of 1955 - Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Oriel Gray's The Torrents: how the Doll premiered in Melbourne in November 1955 and almost immediately became the icon of a new Australian National theatre that expunged all predecessors in the cultural imaginary of several generations of theatre workers and historians. The Torrents on the other hand was not produced until the Adelaide New Theatre look it on in 1957. Since that production it has been done twice more - once in Sydney in the sixties and again in Adelaide in 1996, directed by Marion Potts. AusStage also lists a musical entitled A Bit O'Petticoat, produced in Hobart in 1984, as based on The Torrents. By contrast AusStage lists seventy-four separate entries for the Doll. Arrow says the play is 'as progressive in its theatrical presentation of female independence and employment in a male domain as the Doll is nostalgic in its yearning for youthful national virility and bush masculinity'(25).
In Chapter Two she argues that for women to earn their living as writers and playwrights, and more particularly as writers for radio drama, had the effect of devaluing their work by contrast with that of 'transcendent beings'; to borrow, as Arrow does, Drusilla Modjeska's designation of the artists (novelists on the whole) whose work is above mere financial remuneration. Even as they are being devalued in some circles for earning a living at their craft/art, they arc depicted in the popular press as wives and mothers whose interesting 'hobby' is writing - even Ruth Park, who went to such pains to conceal her poverty from her editors, was not immune and the newspaper description of Henrietta Drake-Brockman as 'a thoroughly domesticated young woman and a charming hostess rather than a writer' (62) is as breath-taking as it is breathless.
Chapter Three focuses on the avenues open to playwrights - the rise of the non-professional little theatre movement - Doris Fitton's Independent Theatre and the New Theatres in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in which several women playwrights, including Oriel Gray and Mona Brand, found artistically congenial company and production opportunities. Women playwrights had a reasonably high success rate in the various playwrighting competitions that arose in the thirties and forties and reached their apogee with the Playwrights' Advisory Board and the success of Ray Lawlcr's play in 1955. Arrow goes on to draw out the significance of publication to playwrights with so few opportunities for production - though this was even more true for males than females in the period under discussion here. Arrow uses Kerry Kilner's statistical analysis of play publishing to demonstrate that this circumstance is reversed after the arrival of the New Wave (94). So while 55 per cent of scripts published between 1946 and 1955 were written by women, only 32 per cent of published play scripts between 1986 and 1996 were by women even though three times more scripts were published overall. This is in spite of an upsurge in feminist plays and productions in the period.
Next she turns her attention to women's prolific writing for the new media of radio and then television. Here women could earn a precarious living from their writing but she shows us how strenuous and unforgiving was the workload and how little credited - though writer's names appeared on the title pages of the scripts, they were not announced on air. Writers generally received no residuals for repeat broadcasts and had not much leverage in negotiating fees, as Gwen Meredith's frequent correspondence on the subject attests.
The last section of the book is devoted to political playwrights and particularly those who worked closely with the developing New Theatre movement especially in Sydney. Here the cumulative effect of Arrow's structure starts to really impact on the reader. Not only are these women working within a living theatre culture that is artistically and politically vigorous but the theatre they made feels more vividly present here than elsewhere in the book. Mona Brand is the key figure here as Oriel Gray was in the earlier discussion of a nationalist theatre. The diversity of styles Brand employed, from the 'Somerset Maugham atmosphere' (179) of Here Under Heaven to the collaborative 'total theatre' approach of On Stage Vietnam; the ugliness and the silliness of her ASIO profile; and the sheer volume and commitment of her output make her the natural centre of the chapter and, in a way, the fulcrum of the whole book. Hers are the plays, Arrow argues convincingly, that underpinned what came next even if her influence was unacknowledged.
Theatre history, like other histories, frequently goes to the winners, but Michelle Arrow's loving, good-humoured account of the women playwrights who would never have thought of themselves as losers is timely in the complications it adds to our picture of the recent theatrical past, that has until now been dominated by the bully boys of the New Wave.
Meredith Rogers is a lecturer in the Theatre and Drama program at La Trobe University.…