How Australian is it?

Gibbon observes that in the Arabian book par excellence, in the Koran, there are no camels; I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.
Jorge Luis Borges1

Deep in the DNA of imagination – in what Jorge Luis Borges called ‘the voluntary dream which is artistic creation’2 – it makes little sense to define art by nationality. That assumes that nationality is the primary marker by which human beings know themselves, fencing the endlessly multiple possibilities of being into a marquee defined by political, historical and geographical boundaries. More problematically, the notion of national identity inevitably dances with nationalism, which itself contains an abiding anxiety about purity, a fear of alien infection symbolised by the language of border protection and quarantine. Nationalistic cultures express a desire for a single, legible identity that is fundamentally hostile to the fluid exchange that is the primal soup of art.

All the same, for simple ease of reference, we generalise in nationalities all the time. Depending on how national identities are defined, doing so needn’t be limiting or even explicitly nationalist, although it always carries an undertow of darker possibility. Defining something as Australian immediately raises the possibility that something else might be unAustralian, or not Australian enough. This response might appear to be the property of the Australian Right, but in truth this self-conscious scanning of Australianness – of what it means to be authentically us – is a constant and anxious theme through Australian art and literature. There is, for example, the annual wrangle around the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Turn to Australian theatre, and it sometimes seems that we have argued about little else but nationalism. The history of Australian theatre is almost impossible to discuss without referring to this debate: nationalism has been, at many crucial points, the very condition of our theatre’s existence. From the consciously nationalist project of Louis Esson – itself influenced by the radically nationalist Irish theatre of Yeats and Synge – to the 1970s New Wave push, which launched playwrights such as David Williamson, John Romeril, Dorothy Hewett and Jack Hibberd, ‘make it Australian’ has been a by-word of our local theatre.

At the same time, this Australian identity has been bitterly contested. In the 1970s, Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre Company rose and foundered on the dream of a national theatre.3 In its latter days, the Australian Performing Group was riven by arguments between the so-called ‘localists’ and the ‘internationalists’ who situated their work in a consciously global context, ‘presenting important new works by major overseas writers to balance the national concerns of the Australian Performing Group’.4

This argument has continued into the new millennium, when the question of what constitutes an Australian theatre has shifted and splintered yet again. In the late 1990s, a generation of theatre makers raised under the banner of ‘make it Australian’ reacted against what they perceived as its restrictive focus, and turned their faces elsewhere. They challenged not only the local nationalist rhetoric, a mainstay of alternative theatre through the 1970s and 1980s, but the Anglocentric main stages that took their cues primarily from the West End and Broadway. In the process of this complex and often contradictory transformation, Australian theatre has become one of the most diverse and interesting in the Anglo world.

Nationalist rhetoric in the theatre has always centred on the question of writing: we have traditionally measured ‘Australian content’ by counting the number of Australian writers at work in the theatre. One of the complications of theatre is that it is much more than a literary art: its creative practitioners are also performers, directors, and scenic, sound and lighting designers. Does a Greek tragedy count as Australian theatre if it is adapted, directed, designed and performed by Australians? Such questions can arouse deep passions: a couple of years ago, I was part of a fierce argument about whether Barrie Kosky’s The Tell-Tale Heart – an adaptation of Poe’s short story that was a sell-out hit at the 2008 Melbourne International Arts Festival – was Australian enough to qualify for a local theatre award. Although it was directed and adapted by an Australian, it was performed by a Viennese actor; the production itself was originally from Vienna, although it was translated and re-staged in Melbourne by the Malthouse Theatre, with input by local designers. At the time, I was surprised that the question was asked: surely Australian art is that made by Australian artists, and the authenticity of its provenance is a question for former times? Although in this case the argument formed as a generational division – old-school nationalism versus new-school internationalism – it’s by no means a closed question.

In fact, the vexed issue of national identity and its attendant nationalist ideology has never gone away: a present climate of internationalism in our theatre doesn’t so much dominate as stand out in relief against a wider culture that in general remains strongly focused on the task of reflecting ‘what it means to be Australian’. At its worst, this expresses itself in the parochial, xenophobic and colonial. Yet, at the same time, appeals to our national identity remain a chief trope of Australian culture in all its forms; the unique Australianness of our art has always been the major selling point of government bodies such as the Australia Council and is inevitably part of a larger nationalist project, however loosely defined.

After a decade during which our theatre reacted against defining itself through Australian nationalism, there are signs that the pendulum might be swinging back. The phrase ‘Australian stories’ is turning up again, recurring regularly in discussions about Australian playwriting and, unsurprisingly in an industry dominated by the US, the Australian film industry. In May this year, the Sydney Morning Herald commented on the lack of ‘Australian stories’ presented on Sydney stages, reporting that only 18 per cent of plays presented between 2001 and 2006 were by Australian writers. ‘Our stages,’ said NSW arts minister Virginia Judge, ‘are basically pleading for more Australian content.’5

The plea reflects a sense of embattlement among performance writers who often feel, for a variety of reasons, that they are excluded from the cultural conversation. The recent resurgence of appeals to identity might also perversely reflect the decade-long dominance of the conservative Howard government, which saw a surge of nationalism of a kind that had previously seemed foreign to traditional ideas of being Australian (even in its more patriotic moments, the Australian sense of irony has meant that as a nation we have never been especially prone to flag waving). This new nationalism was consolidated, rather than challenged, when the Rudd Labor government was elected in 2007. Indeed, with a softer, user-friendly ALP in power, perhaps nationalism has become respectable again.

Consider our most prominent recent opera – Brett Dean and Amanda Holden’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel Bliss, which Opera Australia premiered at the Sydney Opera House in March this year and which was broadcast on ABC television. It notably features a libretto peppered with Australian slang, Ocker accents and salty language. This perhaps accounts for its universally rapturous reception: it appeals directly to nationalist sentiment. Audiences saw an opera – a famously elitist, Eurocentric artform – unashamedly performing our Australianness for us. If the language of Bliss functions rather like the Aussie flags on a backpacker’s luggage, so much the better: this production will head off to the Edinburgh Festival and Hamburg State Opera later this year, proudly proclaiming its local authenticity, recolonising the colonisers. Whether Bliss survives the transition remains to be seen; I confess I am sceptical.

Interestingly, there’s an old-fashioned, even quaint, air about the opera’s self-conscious Ockerisms that reveals how profound the shifts in our theatrical culture have been in the past decade. In particular, Bliss reworks a recognisable performance of our national identity through idiomatic representation, a trope which is still most commonly recognised as ‘Australian’. In the 1970s, the most popular icon of Australia’s newborn ‘radical nationalism’ was the figure of Barry McKenzie. The films The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972) and Barry McKenzie Holds His Own (1974) were among the first fully funded by the newly created Australian Film Development Corporation. The second film even featured a cameo appearance by Gough Whitlam himself. As Anne Pender comments, ‘Clearly Whitlam’s version of the new nationalism was brash and confident enough to embrace the eccentricities and vulgarities of this theatrical Australian abroad. Yet it was a highly ambivalent nationalism.’6

Barry McKenzie’s mocking Strine was a slap in the face to the British Empire, in the same way that later Crocodile Dundee placed the Ocker Australian in New York. Both McKenzie and Dundee are profoundly colonial figures, embodying what Anne Pender calls the ‘mythical Australian’, the ‘larrikin’. This figure dominated Australian New Wave theatre in the 1970s in characters like David Williamson’s Colley in Don’s Party or even Jack Hibberd’s Monk O’Neill: brash, foul-mouthed, irreverent and, above all, white and male.

The Australian language as she is actually spoken has always been more complicated than these colourful caricatures. ‘Australian English is a regional variety of the English language,’ wrote Paul McGillick and D J O’Hearn in a 1984 reflection on Australian theatrical language. ‘It has its own peculiarities of pronunciation, vocabulary, idiom and syntax. Isolating those peculiarities, however, can be difficult. Certainly, the Australian accent is very obvious. But in what other senses is Australian English distinctive?’ Pointing out that formal distinctions are not helpful – aside from idiom, Australian English doesn’t differ much from ‘standard’ English – they argued that much Australian stage and television writing of the time was ‘parodistic and caricatured’, forming ‘the language of people (including Australians) trying to act the part of Australians’.7

At its best – for instance, in Hibberd’s Stretch of the Imagination, John Romeril’s The Floating World, Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla or Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin – this investigation of Australian idiom injected a primarily literary language with vernacular intelligence and power. And while this energy rose on the surge of confident cultural nationalism that brought Whitlam to power, the mythologising of the ‘larrikin’ as the quintessentially Australian figure obscures several other important cultural currents. Notably, there’s the emergence of Indigenous performance, with plays such as Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae or the poetic naturalism of Jack Davis’ No Sugar; and there’s the impact of feminism, which powered the work of artists such as Robyn Archer and Sue Ingleton. And while White exploited the vernacular as much as any playwright, he was seldom seen as part of this tide of Australian theatre: he was perceived more as a suspiciously European aesthete, and until recently his modernist drama was regarded as a curiosity in the genealogy of Australian theatre.

Forty years on, the theatrical landscape has changed radically, with some of these undercurrents coming to the fore, and explicit nationalism of the kind advocated by critic Katharine Brisbane – theatre that will ‘live up to, speak out about, what being Australian means’8 – being folded into a more complex view of what Australian theatre might be. For Brisbane, the very notion of Australian theatre means a reflection and questioning of Australian identity. I don’t intend to reduce her complex vision to a simplistic larrikin cliché – it was never that – but very often, and especially after the energies of the New Wave ran down in the 1980s, this consciously nationalistic project became a sclerotic ideology in which the notion of Australianness became a good in itself, irrespective of its quality. In this frame, boundaries are fiercely policed. Indigenous writer/director Wesley Enoch’s brilliant Black Medea, which rewrote the Greek tragedy Medea as a drama of Black Australia, provoked some (white) commentators to claim that by appropriating classical Greek drama, Enoch was over-reaching himself: for them, Indigenous theatre, in defiance of Indigenous experience, should remain enclosed as a pure anthropological artefact.

Something similar can occur with the vexed question of Australian theatre. It’s a common complaint of much recent main stage theatre that it is not properly ‘Australian’: a writer such as Tom Wright, for instance, is better known for adaptations of Ovid, Shakespeare, Euripides and so on than he is for creating ‘Australian stories’. One question is whether that makes Wright any less Australian: the French don’t consider Racine less French, even though his most famous plays stole from Euripides and Sophocles. It might also be asked why these stories can’t be, themselves, reflections of Australian experience.

Over the past decade, the influence of directors such as Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews and Michael Kantor – all deeply influenced by European, rather than British or American, theatre – has been the most obvious sign of a profound cultural realignment. They are the most prominent of a new breed of Australian theatre artists, a dazzlingly diverse bunch who situate themselves unselfconsciously in a context of contemporary international performance that reaches from America to Europe to Asia. Andrews and Kosky have close relationships with contemporary German theatre, and work as often (or these days, more often) in Europe than in Australia. For example, Andrews is currently directing Measure for Measure for Belvoir St in Sydney, but he returns to Europe to direct King Lear for the National Theatre of Iceland in Reykjavik in December, and from next year Kosky will be based in Berlin as chief director at the Komische Oper.

It was no accident that, after artistic director Michael Kantor and executive producer Stephen Armstrong refashioned the moribund Playbox into the Malthouse theatre in 2004, their first production was White’s The Ham Funeral: it signalled an intention for change, a picking up of different threads. Kantor sought to redefine the idea of Australian content, throwing out the all-Australian agenda of Playbox in favour of a mix of local and international plays, and touring local work to bring it to an international audience. The most successful example is the Malthouse/Belvoir St production of Ionesco’s Exit the King, directed like Bliss by Neil Armfield, which won Geoffrey Rush a Tony in its acclaimed New York season. And, as a producer, Kantor has been – along with the Sydney Theatre Company under Robyn Nevin – one of the strongest Australian supporters of Kosky and Andrews.

Kantor has also been a major player in bringing dance into the purview of theatre, plugging into the thriving Melbourne contemporary dance scene to program dance as part of the Malthouse season. His 2003 collaboration with choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek, Tense Dave, brilliantly melded the artforms and went on to New York in 2005 to win the prestigious Bessie Award for Outstanding Creation. Although they are very different directors, Andrews, Kosky and Kantor are favourite whipping boys of those implacably opposed to what is characterised as ‘director-led’, ‘internationalist’ theatre.

Then there’s the case of Daniel Keene, who although he is among the most awarded of Australian playwrights – he has won the NSW Premier’s Award for drama alone three times – remains better known overseas than he is here. His poetic realism leaps strongly from Australian vernacular, but refuses the idiomatic, which perhaps accounts for its European success. Based in Melbourne, Keene is one of the most produced and widely lauded contemporary playwrights in France, with more than fifty productions on major French stages and countless national tours in the past decade.

This peripatetic approach is as true of small independent artists as it is of the big name successes. To take a few examples among many, Geelong’s Back to Back, a company which works with disabled performers, has made a formidable international reputation with successful tours of Small Metal Objects and Food Court; Ranters Theatre tours regularly in Europe; innovative director Daniel Schlusser works between Berlin and Melbourne; Stuck Pigs Squealing – which produced Lally Katz’s early plays – headed to New York to work with Richard Foreman’s Incubator project and perform at the New York Fringe; La Mama and Aphids recently had a hit in Denmark with Cynthia Troupe’s Beckettian Care Instructions. And it trickles all the way down to the countless individual writers, designers, performers and directors who pack their bags and head overseas, to hone their skills with theatre companies elsewhere. The difference between now and the famous exodus of the 1960s is that these artists don’t, on the whole, become expatriates: even the most successful still work in Australia, and many remain based here.

As much as internal changes, this reflects the impact of globalisation; the internet and easy travel do much, even with such an implacably local art as theatre, to overcome the tyranny of distance. A result has been a broadening of theatrical practice and aesthetic, which has stimulated a theatre culture of fascinating diversity that is attracting enthusiastic audiences at all levels. Independent shows commonly sell out without a single review, which demonstrates there is a plugged-in, informed audience for this work.

This is a theatre in which the focus is as much on performance and design (sound, scenic and lighting) as it is on text; but there is no shortage of new writing, which ranges from the suburban surreal of writers such as Lally Katz or Declan Greene, to the stylised vernacular of Angus Cerini in plays such as Wretch. Interestingly, one of the side effects of this renaissance has been the rethinking of naturalism as a theatrical form, with Hoy Polloy’s starkly powerful production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool last year, floogle’s 2008 production of Adelaide writer Duncan Graham’s Ollie and the Minotaur, or Gary Abraham’s almost old-fashioned return to literary drama in his powerful James Baldwin adaptation Acts of Deceit, staged at La Mama earlier this year. Meanwhile, young theatre companies such as My Darling Patricia, The Rabble, Hayloft Theatre Project or the anarchic Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm are invigorating the form with a focus on theatre’s relationship to its audience.

Few of these artists seem especially concerned with their Australian identity, reaching easily to a plethora of cultural influences to make their work. But all this work is, in ways which are very difficult to define, immediately identifiable as Australian. Some common characteristics of this extremely diverse theatre which occur to me are: a colloquial energy that animates performance; a high standard of design and production, especially in sound culture; a healthy disregard for aesthetic categories; a direct and robust intelligence.

To rephrase Borges: being Australian is either an inescapable act of fate – and in that case we shall be so in all events – or it is a mere affectation, a mask. The best of our contemporary theatre has dropped the mask. In the volatile performing arts, it’s difficult to forecast what will happen next; it’s possible that this renaissance, which has animated Australian stages for the past five years, will simply lose energy and peter out. It certainly has its detractors. But perhaps the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and our theatre has grown past the need to merely perform its national identity.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Labyrinths, Penguin Modern Classics, London, 1979.
  2. ibid.
  3. Julian Meyrick, See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave, Currency Press, Sydney, 2002.
  4. Gabrielle Wolf, Make It Australian, Currency Press, Sydney, 2008.
  5. Kelly Lane, ‘Little Room for Australian Stories on Sydeny Stages’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2010, , viewed 31 July 2010.
  6. Anne Pender, ‘The Mythical Australian: Barry Humphries, Gough Whitlam and “New Nationalism”’, Australian Journal of Politics
    and History
    , vol. 51, no. 1, 2005.
  7. Paul McGillick and D J O’Hearn, ‘Australian Language and Australian Theatre’, Meanjin,
    vol. 43, no. 1, 1984.
  8. Katharine Brisbane, Not Wrong – Just Different: Observations on the Rise of Contemporary Australian Theatre, Currency Press, Sydney, 2005.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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