Vol. 23 No. 1-2, 2002



This volume, the first of a new "Dramaturgies: Texts, Cultures and Performances" series edited by Marc Maufort, has much to recommend it to students and teachers of post-colonial drama in Australia and Canada. Its twenty-two essays (ten on Australian drama, nine on Canadian, and three comparative) by a number of well-known critics are, for the most part, strongly written, with solid scholarship and clear appeal; together, they offer many important and insightful reflections, syntheses, and suggestions for additional research. (It is puzzling to me, though, that the editors have tacked on an Appendix, which features an interview with Aboriginal playwright John Harding. Their rationalization – that they are giving the last word not to critics but to playwrights – is insufficient. And why is there then no interview with a Canadian playwright?)

In his brief Introduction to the text, which attempts to justify why the dramatic literature of these two countries should be brought together,Maufort stresses that both Australia and Canada have become progressively more multicultural; as a result, both face "contentious internal polarities between First Nations aborigines, various marginal ethnic groups and the mainstream" (1). As the editor of a previous anthology titled Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama (1995), Maufort notes that Canadian and Australian playwrights and critics differ from Americans in their approaches. Whereas the latter view the "problematics of cultural pluralism within the enduring myth of the American Dream" (or nightmare, in the case of ethnic minorities and aboriginals), Canadian and Australian playwrights regard marginality as a site of contestation, where it is "possible to express a resistance against the legacy of Empire," often through what critics such as Homi Bhaba term "subversive mimicry" (2).

Maufort also writes that both countries have achieved international recognition in the area of fiction; but in singling out David Malouf from Australia and Michael Ondaatje from Canada, he overlooks a major difference between the two national literatures. Australian fiction continues to be male-dominated, whereas Canada's long and vital women's literary tradition has given rise to such award-winning writers as Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, and Mavis Gallant. Moreover, when Maufort suggests both Australian and Canadian dramas "came of age" during the 1960s and 1970s, he again slights women. Leaving aside that none of the playwrights he mentions – David French and George Walker in Canada; Louis Nowra, David Williamson, and Jack Hibberd in Australia – were writing in the 1960s, it would have been more appropriate had he given credit to the Canadian playwright/ actor/(artistic)director/theatre manager Sharon Pollock, who has not only produced dozens of plays (more than French and Walker combined), but has also won the Governor-General's award twice, a feat neither Walker nor French can claim. And surely Dorothy Hewett was a driving force in Australian theatre from the 1970s onwards.

In this volume, Maufort and his co-editor Frances Bellarsi suggest that they are employing a cross-cultural method of investigation common to post-colonial studies. Rather than erasing differences within and between post-colonial cultures, they attempt to shed light on both the diversity and unity of the postcolonial experience (2-3), and thus demonstrate "the strong interrelation between different types of 'marginality' – gender, class, ethnicity, and aboriginality" (3). But according to this anthology, Australian playwrights appear to be producing and performing far more innovative and experimental dramas than their Canadian counterparts. Helen Thomson's informative and cogently argued essay, "Aboriginal Women's Staged Autobiography," for example, introduces a number of brave new works: Jane Harrison's Stolen; Deborah Mailman's The Seven Stages of Grieving (with Wesley Enoch); Leah Purcell's Box the Pony (with Scott Rankin);Deborah Cheetham's White Baptist Abba Fan; and Ningali Langford's Ningali. Representing the most marginalized of all social groups in Australia, these women have recently created and performed autobiographical shows that document their experiences as victims of the Stolen Generation. Like their predecessors Sally Morgan and Ruby Langford, these women playwrights challenge the official versions of Australian history which erased members of their race and sex. However, in publicly performing their works, the playwrights not only become empowered by "talking back" (as bell hooks has it); their challenge is "empowered by the vital dynamics governing audience and performer relationships" (23). Thomson further notes that while the search for the mother permeates these works, Thumbul, one of two recent plays by the film star Tom E. Lewis, chronicles his search for his white father. Thomson's essay concludes with Leah Purcell's good-natured quoting of a racial slur by populist politician Pauline Hanson, former leader of the One Nation Party, the first of many references to this racist demagogue in the anthology.

Other essays highlight recent innovations in Australian theatre performance. In "Queer Circus Bodies in Rock `n'Roll Circus' The Dark and Club Swing's Razor Baby," Peta Tait stresses the extent to which Australian performers have developed an international reputation for innovation in new circus and physical theatre based on circus skills (115). As Tait notes, however, extracting meaning from plays where no one speaks – audiences must "read" the action of non-verbal bodies – can be a complex process. In her exquisitely detailed examination of the costuming, lighting, staging, and action of these thrilling and often dangerous productions, Tait reaches the conclusion that "strong female bodies doing violent acts undermine ideas of the social dominance of male physicality, and erotic play combined with physical risks overturns social beliefs about the physical limitations of female bodies" (124).

In "Fear and Desire Under the Big Sky: Brink Visual Theatre and the Post-colonial Australian Landscape," Paul Makeham argues that landscape remains "the most complex figurative system deployed in constructions of Australianness" (144). In order to work out this national preoccupation, the Visual Theatre company Brink has been conducting its own investigations into Australian history and geography, and then performing their high-risk dramas at "spectacular site-specific" places such as abandoned docks or thirty-metre-high cliff faces around Brisbane, Queensland. Makeham concludes that these plays, which explore "problems of alienation and integration in a landscape which is simultaneously feared and desired" (152), open up an important cultural space which facilitates the interrogation of such contentious and unresolved issues such as "reconciliation, republicanism and environmental politics" (152).

As inventive as these plays and performances sound, however, the ones I would most like to have seen (and participated in) are those Tom Burvill discusses in "Urban Theatre Projects: Re-siting Marginal Communities in Outer Western Sydney." Because these large suburban areas have been stigmatized as "obscure and frightening areas on the margins of culture" (139), Urban Theatre Projects has aimed to turn them into "arrays of vital centers" which allow the voices of marginalized communities to be heard. Plays such as Speed Street and Subtopia are large-scale outdoor communal performances; Track Work transported spectators/participants on the trains and to the stations of the main western commuter railway lines, along the way treating them to mini-drama, choir singing, story-telling, and dance performances.

In comparison to these creative and invigorating stagings in Australia, the plays discussed in the Canadian section seem downright stodgy. This may be because, as Anne Nothof argues in "Canadian 'Ethnic' Theatre: Fracturing the Mosaic," the "comfortable myth" of the cultural mosaic is an imaginative construct that reifies the Canadian self-concept of tolerance, freedom, and diversity (193). Canadians, she writes, tend to tolerate diversity and distinctiveness only when there are no subversive or threatening implications. Indeed, several essays seem to support her position. In "From Twisted History: Reading Angelique," Alan Filewod argues that Lorena Gale's Angelique, a play about the fact of African slavery in the Canadian colonies, is one of the "most remarkable and important plays staged in Canada in the late 1990s" (279), but it is rarely performed because it is too "unsettling to those raised in the dominant myth of liberal multiculturalism, and its theatrical history signals alarms about the inability of Canadian theatre culture to accept radical revisioning" (279). Similarly, in "Defying Category: Re/Viewing John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes," Robert Wallace notes that Herbert's autobiographical play (1967), which focuses on homosexuality and imprisonment, has been performed around the world to great acclaim but neglected in Canada ever since its initial full-scale production in 1975.

The Canadian section also offers two essays on playwrights Judith Thompson and George F.Walker. In "Crackwalking: Judith Thompson's Marginal Characters," Robert Nunn points out that Thompson's characters – the physically and mentally challenged, the working class, members of racial and sexual minorities – are "marginal" figures. Reid Gilbert asserts in "Escaping the 'Savage Slot': Interpellation and Transgression in George F. Walker's Suburban Hotel," that those in Walker's fast-paced urban-action plays interrogate "the largely unconscious fears of bourgeois theatre spectators about the tenuous control they maintain on their own subjectivity and about that of subjects over whom they hold imperial sway" (326). Nonetheless, both of these long-established playwrights' works are commercially viable and performed regularly in mainstream theatres across the country. Thus, aside from Robert Appleford's essay on Native Canadian performances, little in the anthology suggests that there is much innovative, daring, or imaginative work being performed in Canadian theatre today. But I have certainly "sighted"many experimental works which take up issues of marginality: the sassy Ronnie Burkett, undoubtedly the most innovative puppeteer in the world, recently performed Happy, the last of his Memory Dress Trilogy, in my hometown of Calgary, and the local theatre group One Yellow Rabbit continues to delight audiences with their original, inventive dramas.

But perhaps my criticisms are too hasty: hopefully, Maufort's new anthology Crucible of Cultures: Anglophone Drama at the Dawn of a New Millennium (2002), the fourth volume in the Dramaturgies series, provides a more accurate representation of the state of theatre in Canada today.