Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Your History: Manning Clark's History of Australia and the End of the New Wave

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Your History: Manning Clark's History of Australia and the End of the New Wave

Article excerpt


'Ned's is a bitch legend - wrong from the start - but Australia's in it - yes; something of a country where only eagles are fit to travel the skies, and men like eagles to ride it.' According to historian Manning Clark, these lines, spoken by the actor playing Joe Byrne in a production of Donald Stewart's Ned Kelly at the University of Melbourne in 1944,'started me off on a great journey'.1 Forty years later, his compliment to the theatre was returned by Tim Robertson and Don Watson in their project to adapt Clark's massive, six-volume A History of Australia2 ('History') for the stage.

Conceived in a Carlton wine bar some time in 19833 and culminating in a seven-week season at Melbourne's iconic Princess Theatre in January and February 1988, the proposal to theatricalise Clark's sprawling account of the 'civilisation' of the Australian continent was nothing if not bold. An equally bold early decision was to elevate the figure of'Manning Clark' to the status of protagonist, alongside the characters peopling his 'History', with wife Dymphna in tow. Described as 'a unique notion' in a letter from Watson to Clark seeking his approval,4 and later hailed as 'a masterstroke' by Peter Fitzpatrick,5 this personalisation of an already prominent authorial voice ensured that responses to the stage presentation would inevitably be coloured by attitudes to Clark himself - master of grand historical narrative, standard-bearer of a muscular democratic nationalism and the subject of intense right-wing anathema.

How far did the increasingly partisan controversy over Clark's status as a historian and his standing as a public commentator affect the general public's response to Manning Clark's History of Australia: The Musical (History) when it was presented as a major element in the celebrations for the Bicentenary of European settlement in Australia?

The production certainly came in for its share of invective from the Murdoch press, and Melbourne's Sun Herald in particular. Attendance figures also fell well short of its creators' hopes, ensuring that this 'world première'professional season was also its last. The reported loss of approximately $1.5 million ranks as among Australia's biggest in domestic theatre production, and yet even this figure fails to account for the investment, including government and other funding, expended in the long years of its gestation. As Fitzpatrick points out, History has generated its own mythology, with both its champions and denigrators attributing this commercial failure almost entirely to its status as a bellwether for the 'history wars' of the 1990s.7 In this article, I want to test the 'bitch legend' of this History, to look at other factors in its development and presentation that I would argue contributed as much, if not more, to the final result.

This is not a conventional performance analysis. The published script is available online, together with an earlier draft from Robertson's own files.8 He and director John Bell9 have provided personal accounts of the writing and rehearsal process respectively. Fitzpatrick's thorough and sympathetic survey of the stage production also details much of the contemporary critical response. I invite interested readers to consult these sources, and to draw their own conclusions as to artistic merit. Rather, I want to look at History in its cultural and economic context, to understand events in the production process and the logic behind decisions made by the production team.

History can be seen, I would argue, both as an apotheosis of the New Wave of Australian theatre that began in the 1960s, and as a marker of its end. The Australian Performing Group (APG) had disbanded before the project's inception, but interpersonal networks, direct organisational inheritance and the cultural and political dispositions of key members of the creative team all mark History as the last stand of a once heroic alliance between Australian theatre-makers and the 'old' intellectual and political left, around a particular brand of nationalist historical narrative. …

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