Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Ethics of Writing Performance from the Archive: The Case of Georgiana Molloy

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

The Ethics of Writing Performance from the Archive: The Case of Georgiana Molloy

Article excerpt

It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them.

E.H. Carr1

Historian Greg Dening writes of history as performance. In his book Performances, he considers the limits of knowledge, claiming:

we cannot describe the past independently of our knowing it, any more than we can describe the present independently of our knowing it. And, knowing it, we create it, we textualise it. That is the circle, hermeneutic if you like, of our human being.2

In the light of Dening' s statement, I would like to reconsider my own exploration of the Australian colonial archive in writing for performance. My point of departure is a performative lecture, 77»e More I Study Nature: Georgiana Molloy and the Code of Modernity, that I wrote as part of a larger creative work - a play, as yet unproduced, called Orchids and Insects. In die performative lecture, I follow the life story of Georgiana Molloy (1805-43), an early settler of Western Australia, and ask my reader - or audience - to consider the codes of knowledge and behaviour that we in the twenty- first century might have inherited from our colonial predecessors.3 My research journey led me to reflect upon the kind of stories we draw from me past, so that we might know ourselves in the present, and die role performance might play in this. I consider die choices we make about me stories mat we as a culture celebrate and also, as I was to discover, me stories mat we repress.

The ethical dimension of writing performance from history - or perhaps, writing history in performance - is explored by Judith Butler in Precarious Life. Butler claims mat there is a 'line mat circumscribes what is speakable . . . what is to be mourned publicly and what is to be effaced from me public record'.4 Those unnamed people who are not 'viable speaking subjects', as she calls mem, lead lives that lie beyond me public sphere. They are me dispossessed, the faceless, innumerable poor, the destitute, me stateless, me disenfranchised, me homeless, the sick and unwanted. These less privileged humans endure what Butler defines as 'ungrievable lives'.5 Drawing the line between those considered worthy of public grief and those considered unworthy, she says, is a way 'of establishing whose lives will count as lives and whose deaths will count as deaths. Our capacity to feel and apprehend hangs in the balance.'6 This action, this drawing a line around what is speakable and what is not, figured strongly for me when, through my research, I stumbled upon a big story that had been left outside of the Australian historical picture. That omission led me to consider the power that stories have to reflect and, just as importantly, to deflect versions of ourselves and our shared past. It also threw into relief the responsibilities that storytellers have not to seal Dening's hermeneutic circle but to keep asking questions as they seek to further their knowing.

Georgiana MoUoy: a contemporary heroine

My performative lecture uses sources from the historical archive in order to tell a story. The project began with excerpts of letters written by Georgiana MoUoy, a well-known figure from colonial Western Australia.7 In the lecture, I recount and embody the experience of Georgiana, aged twenty-four, as she arrives in 1830 in Fremantle, Western Australia, with her husband, Captain John Molloy - late of the Napoleonic Wars and, notably, the Battle of Waterloo. My performance spans the twelve short years of her colonial existence, during which time this remarkable early settler makes a name and a life for herself collecting specimens of indigenous flora around the Blackwood River and later the Vasse. Under the kind but remote guidance of Dr James Mangles, a government horticulturalist based in London, she sends packages of indigenous flora back to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, to be named and collated within the Linnaean system of plant taxonomy. …

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