Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Patrick White and Aesthetic Modernism in Mid-Century Australia

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Patrick White and Aesthetic Modernism in Mid-Century Australia

Article excerpt

The question of aesthetic modernism and its moorings in a number of social, economic, political and sexual configurations and imaginings around space, time and technological progress is at the centre of a resurgent interest in modernism and modernity over the last two decades. Interest in aesthetic modernism as a mode of critique aimed at conservative tides in culture, politics and the economy gains new relevance in the context of contemporary Australia. This article considers the Australian context in which one of the foremost proponents of aesthetic modernism in drama is Patrick White. We begin by examining the continuing relevance ofWhite's drama by discussing the key modernist tropes that operate transversally across two of his plays, The Ham Funeral and Signal Driver. White's critique of postwar Australian culture forms the central tenet of his modernist playwriting aesthetics. It is further articulated in a 1958 provocation, in which he refers to Australian modernity as being embedded in anti-intellectualism, 'the march of material ugliness' and 'the exaltation of the average'.' In this article, we argue that White's modernist drama chronicles twentieth-century social, economic and political formations of nation, and its effects on subjectivity and interpersonal relations. His plays pose a number of challenges to a twentieth-century configuration of nation, to the ideals of modernity that helped to shape it, and these continue into the twenty-first century. We propose that to re-examine modernist aesthetics in Australian drama reconnects us with smart and pleasurable ways of staging and rebutting rampant modernity as a mode of social, sexual and artistic governance that remains uncannily pertinent today.

AESTHETIC MODERNISM IN THEATRE AND DRAMA

Aesthetic modernism in theatre is historically associated with the creative innovations and new technologies developed in the modernist period from early to mid-twentieth century and most particularly with Adolphe Appia, Gordan Craig, Enrico Prampolini, El Lissitsky and others. In this sense, aesthetic modernism refers to the shift from naturalist to expressionist, symbolist and surrealist staging; modern costume, atmospheric music and lighting effects; and the incorporation of modernist artworks and designs. In drama, there was a new frankness with modern themes of gender and sexuality, social alienation, industrialisation, nihilism and the degradation of nature (Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Wedekind); techniques of montage, collage, symbolism, minimalism (Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett); and poetics (T.S. Eliot, Stein, Yeats). Aesthetic modernism in Theatre Studies is associated with the study of formalism and the stylistic innovations of expressionist drama, theatre of cruelty, epic theatre and the theatre of the absurd. The opposition - considered endemic to these forms - to bourgeois culture and politics conjures aesthetic modernism (however undeserving) as a mode of critical distance, non-conformity, secularism and the left; but also of ambiguity, sleight of hand and dazzling complexity.

Veronica Kelly's work on modernist aesthetics within the context of post-Federation Australian theatre is especially significant for re-assessing and reclaiming the embodied perspectives that performance affords contem- porary studies of global cosmopolitanism and the positioning of'Anglo', Antipodean formations of aesthetic modernism within it.2 The correlation between stage design and aesthetic modernism is raised in a recent article by Miranda Heckenberg, who takes us to Patrick White by tracing the rhetoric of modernist minimalism on to contemporary Australian stage practice that includes the designs for White's plays in performance.3

Nonetheless, the question of aesthetic modernism in Australian theatre and drama is often eclipsed by the international focus of modernist studies. In the context of Australian Theatre Studies, Louis Esson's Pioneer Players, the New Theatre movement, and many semi-professional and amateur ensembles gesture towards modernism as a style and modern drama as a genre, yet the question of modern Australian drama and the aesthetic modernism it formulates struggles to reach the surface of modernist studies. …

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