The Legend and the Loneliness: A Discussion of the Australian Myth

In an attempt to get some kind of an appraisal of the present direction of Australian creative work – or of an important section of it – Overland brought together in March a group of writers and others to discuss the contemporary variants of the Australian myth or legend.

The discussion was tape-recorded and subsequently transcribed and edited. If readers feel the experiment a success we may repeat it with different subjects and participants and perhaps in different cities. Details of those taking part will be found in a separate panel.

Participants in this discussion were:

Albert Tucker, 47, Australian painter who has been overseas for a number of years but is now living in Melbourne. Represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum (New Y ork), as well as in all Australian galleries.

Tim Burstall, 34, film producer and former public servant. Lives at Eltham (Vic.) where he scripted and directed the production of “The Prize”, a recent award-winning film for children. He is also responsible for a series of short art films, including “The Black Man and his Bride” (based on the paintings of A rthur Boyd), “The Gold Diggers’ Ballad” (based on the work of S. T. Gill), and “Dance of the Angels” (John Perceval’s ceramic figures). Burstall is currently preparing for a feature-length production on the Ned Kelly theme, to be called “Man in Iron”.

David Martin, 46, poet and novelist, living . in Melbourne, and author of “The Stones of· Bombay”, “Tiger Bay”, “The Shoes Men Walk In” and other books. His new novel, “The Young Wife”, is to be published shortly by Macmillan.

Phillip Adams, 22, is TV Manager of a Melbourne advertising agency.

Stephen Murray-Smith, 39, is Editor of Overland and is doing research in educational history.

Overland desires to express appreciation to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Mann, who made tech- nical facilities available for the recording of this discussion, and to Miss Jan Richardson for the transcription.

MURRAY-SMITH: About fifteen years ago the left-wing writers in Australia started to con- cern themselves with problems of national images. I think we helped to create certain legends, even i! they didn’t always very successfully get up on their feet and walk. It’s natural, then, that we should be interested that a new Australian legend is being created today. Does anyone deny tl).at in art, in film and in literature there’s a new kind of spiritualisation of the elements of the Australian

story-another attempt to typify its essence?

BURSTALL: What’s happening today is differ-ent. Fifteen years ago the left was peddling a
political legend: the Australian tradition was a left-wing tradition, the Australian heroes were left-wing heroes. This is why it looks so thread bare these days. The legend a Patrick White or a Sidney Nolan is trying to create is different because it’s approached from a much more individual standpoint, despite the latching onto national characteristics like the barren desert.

TUCKER: The “legend”, if we have to use that word, started last century, not fifteen years ago. It’s now getting more definitive, taking on a more precise shape.

MARTIN: What developments there are at the moment express themselves mainly in painting; there is no great shift as yet in literature. But we should remember that we live in an era of powerful nationalism, everywhere in the world, and the phenomenon appeared in Australia during and after the war just as it appeared everywhere else. Although the Australian Left didn’t invent this movement for its own purposes, it’s still true to say-with certain reservations-that the folk

image of all nations is a “left” one: the archetyp~s in which people recognise themselves are anti- authoritarian and rebellious ones. But what Pat- rick White and Randolph Stow and such writers are doing now is different and newer than this.

BURSTALL: It doesn’t matter that only a hand- ful of writers are doing this: the important thing is that they are the most influential. Patrick W~ite is head and shoulders above any other Australian writer of the day. There is still a sort of left-wing establishment, and traces of it can be seen in Overland, but it’s on the way out. As for the “left- wing” folk heroes, this is just palpably untrue. Both Henry V. and Ivan the Terrible were folk heroes of a sort. Punch is a folk hero-and about the most fascist kind of sadist I’ve ever seen!

MARTIN: We actually have two legends going different ways. First we have the return to Law- son, the bush legend and all that sort of thing: I admit there has been a lot of phony stuff gomg on there but it expresses something pretty real. And on the other hand we have the new image of Australia the new vision of, a harsh, bare, hot continent, in’ which an Aboriginal ghost !s walking. Perhaps both of them make the Australian legend. But which are we discussing?

ADAMS: There’s nothing “left” in the new wave of the legend: the Eureka Stockade has been replaced by Ned Kelly.

TUCKER: Let’s lose that word “left”. It side- tracks the whole business of trying to analyse the legend or myth, which are difficult enough words to analyse anyhow.


ADAMS: Can we pose the question this way? Why has the new legend chosen the outback and the archetypes of Ned Kelly, Arthur Boyd’s “Black Man and his Bride” paintings, Albert Tucker’s “Antipodean Heads”, Roo in “The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”, the various hero images that emerge even in “Voss” or “To the Islands”? Why is this new hero, cropping up in theatre, literature and art, an outback hero?

TUCKER: Because it’s our most powerful single pre-existing image. It’s a geographic image mark- ing the great point of departure from the inherited and nostalgic images left over from Europe.

ADAMS: And yet these heroes mean very little to most Australians.

BURSTALL: Nonsense. You’re trying to suggest that the average Australian is the lawn-mowing suburbanite. Of course he is, statistically-but does he conceive of himself in these terms? Are his dreams of that sort? This is just the mistake that was made fifteen years sigo-to think that stories should be about “men at work”, that labor- relations were the secret of everything. But most great literature has been written around people making love, or other “remote” topics. What does Lawler do in “The Seventeenth Doll”? He asks: “What are the dreams of the Australian?” They’re things like being married and yet having no responsibility, just going out, having a boozeup, going to the races, pulling out of society. And Lawler demonstrates how shallow and hollow this is.

MURRAY -SMITH: How does this relate to your own work-to this film you’re making on Ned Kelly? BURSTALL: Of course I want to make a good :film but films have to be made within certain con;entions, and the convention that I choose for

this purpose is the western. Now the difference between “High Noon” or “Shane” on the one hand, and Ned Kelly on the other, is interesting. In the classical American western, you have one strong man-the bloke who finally rights all the wrongs. Kelly, and probably Australia too, is like a western in reverse. You have a law-abiding town and Kelly and his lawless band moving in. Yet he appeals to us all. Why? I think it’s got something to do with the enormous conformity that oppresses us in this country, the sort of reason we back someone like Simmons when we read about him in the paper.

MARTIN: This shows that the “new” vision of the Patrick Whites is not so new after all. It’s significant that, despite the Communists’ cries for portrayal of the Australian city, it was only when they went to the bush that they produced some- thing that the public clearly wanted. Dick Dia- mond’s musical “Reedy River”, •Noel Counihan’s paintings on Eureka-there are plenty of examples. In all of this there is a search for what is Aus- tralia-Australian in the sense that the rest of the world hasn’t got it. The new developments simply give a new tum to an old screw. There is something holding together the Jindyworobaks, the post-war left-wingers and realist writers, and the new imagists of the Whitechapel exhibition.

TUCKER: There hasn’t been as much running away from the suburban image as David Martin suggests. Vassilieff was painting Fitzroy in the thirties, and in the early forties Bergner was painting Carlton and Nolan St. Kilda. There are other examples in other States, and I myself produced a whole batch purely based on the suburbs.

MARTIN: Yes, you all painted the romantic inner suburb with the big hospital walls and the pubs on the corners.

TUCKER: No, no, it was more an expressionist thing-we were being strongly influenced by European work at this stage.

ADAMS: Kramer in “The Wild Ones” made a film with an almost identical intellectual motive to that which Tim Burstall is making on Ned Kelly. Marlon Brando on his motor-bike creates havoc in a law-abiding town and emerges as the hero. You don’t have to have a Ned Kelly to make this point. Are you just using him for the expedient o:f overseas interest?

BURSTALL: It’s not just that. There are also all kinds of poetic and imaginative features in the Kelly story. There’s the fairy-tale magic of the annor. There’s the death-and-transfiguration end- ing at the burning pub-it’s interesting how the public imagination has completely altered what really happened at the pub, so that most people would tell you that what happened was that “Joe Bryne was shot, the other two were burnt alive in the pub, and Ned struggled out firing at the troopers”. The way the public mind has altered this story and improved its dramatic quality is at least as interesting as the actual story itself.


MARTIN: Yes, you are searching not so much for reality as for drama, and so is Patrick White. Look at the traditional view of the Australian farmer as a footloose individual with no attach- ment to the soil-a man who’ll shift out a hundred miles further at the drop of a hat. How different from the European peasant! But along comes Patrick White and says that that’s only half the truth. He has anoth”er look at this farmer (like the others, he still avoids the towns) and he finds that, after all, he is not so different from the universal peasant. He’s not full of talk: he’s tongue-tied. He may be very lonely. White is trying to universalise the old character. This is Dad and Dave on the psychoanalyst’s couch, but it’s still Dad and Dave.

TUCKER: He’s using specific events to build universal archetypes where the drama can be played out.

MURRA Y -SMITH: Now we are getting closer to it. But first let me say that Tim Burstall needn’t be as scathing about the post-war Left as he appears to be: what Tim is doing now owes some- thing to the fact that the Left sustained the legend, and he should recognise this. Secondly, it’s just not good enough to say we want this legend because it provides us with something different, and that we go to the bush to find this because our cities are the same as cities anywhere. Barnard Elder- shaw were saying this thirty years ago, and if this is the only reason we’re still doing it, we haven’t come very far. The reason why Tucker is painting like Tucker, that Burstall is making his films, that Martin is writing things which mark a develop- ment of his’ previous work, is that so many of us feel the need to push out the boundaries of creative experience. We feel a deep dissatisfaction with our psychological understanding of our society, our place in it, with the support and security it can give us. Not all the old formulas work any longer. This has often happened in history, and several times in Australian history. In catching up with the truth about ourselves .many people are going to be shown something of the truth about them- selves; in fact we’re all going to be changed and disturbed, and people don’t like being changed and disturbed.

BURSTALL: Martin’s earlier point about drama is relevant. One of the points about Australian life which was violated by the left-wingers is simply that there is very little drama in it: even less than in England. And the great achievements haven’t been within a dramatic mode. The enormous talent of a Patrick White is related to the fact that he’s been able to unearth and trace all sorts of things happening under the surface of Australian life. He’s been able to dig out those social tensions, probably more disguised here than anywhere else in the world, because of the myth of the place being classless. That’s why I like the idea of pro- grams like Rex Rienits’ “The Stormy Petrel” on TV-the idea of going back to out early history to see the relationship of authority and the community in the act of being defined. This should help us to interpret it now.

MARTIN: Tim is getting near to it. He’s shift- ing the emphasis from the writer or the painter to the people. The Australian as I see him is traditionally afaid of tragedy. He’s the most easily- embarrassed human being in the Anglo-Saxon world, and that’s saying something. Strong emotion in drama or art takes his breath away: he can’t live with it. This is partly because the tough struggle with the environment didn’t favor intro- spection. But in the twelve years I’ve been here I’ve seen a change begin. Our painters, our writers, our dramatists no longer will allow us to look away from ourselves. Patrick White may not be an Australian Joyce, but he tries to find the very big conflicts-men struggle with God, with them- selves-the inner tragedy rather than the outer tragedy. What amuses me, though, is that, while there is an apparent dissimilarity of scene and subject between the old and the new wave, there is much that is very similar: two different kinds of dramatisation, of romanticism. Burstall, w ho denounces the pseudo-realism of the Left, at the same time makes , a film still presenting Kelly as a conventional folk hero.


BURSTALL: I’m not interested in the leftish notion that Kelly was right and the police wrong, nor in Douglas Stewart’s broken-backed kind of view that Kelly was a sort of half-fascist. Neither view comes to grips with the essential idea of an outsider doomed from the start, a reject. Why this is profound and related to us all is that the deepest fear everyone has in Australia is the fear of not conforming.

TUCKER: I think that myths develop when we use some specific circumstance to trigger off an archetypal drama in the human soul. In doing this we try to supersede human limitations because the possibilities of transcending our human condi- tion depend on this. We can only reach universals by the complete realisation of a particular thing. This is where White has kept the issue clear-in universalising it he’s purified the Australian story.

MURRAY-SMITH: And you are trying to do the same?·

TUCKER: Yes, this is my drive. Until I left Australia at 32 I couldn’t be bothered with the bush. It was a background I took for granted and all the things I did were on the urban level. After several years the feeling of continuous alienation in foreign communities shaped the Australian back- ground for me. It was then I felt I could make these big generalisations about Australia and get them working against each other. I couldn’t have done this in Australia, because one is simply suffocated under the data of Australian life.

MURRA Y -SMITH: What sort of generalisations, what sort of images, emerged?

TUCKER: With me they were visual images, emerging in an almost completely abstract way. I developed an acute feeling for dry, harsh texture, and then also for a different tonal and color scale. I became conscious that in Australia we have a different light, and that the dry air and the lack of moisture weathers things differently and gives them a different surface. I wa”‘s” left with sensations full of gum-tree trunks, of rotted gum, of eroded rock, of just simply earth images. These are the things I started with. Later, when human shapes became associated with them, they had to be rudimentary, archetypal ones which mixed in with the landscape–where land images more or less consumed, devoured the human element.

ADAMS: This loneliness of the figure and the landscape is all very well, but most of us only experience it on an occasional holiday.

BURSTALL: But aren’t you aware of this in Bourke Street, or the outer suburbs? These wide streets give me more sense of aridness than the desert. John Brack’s outer suburban landscapes,

Drysdale’s paintings-they suggest that one is only faintly human. And as far as cities go, most Aus- tralians, though they may be city-dwellers, don’t lead the lives of city-dwellers. One-third of our houses are self-built. Everyone conceives of him- self as a broken-down pioneer of some sort.

ADAMS: Why pander to this, as the American TV industry does, with its incredible density of westerns?

BURSTALL: Because art is about people’s insides

as well as their outsides.
MURRA Y -SMITH: What makes some of the more

traditionally-minded of us, or biassed, or back- ward, a little bit uneasy is just this question of ambiguity. So much can be taken so many ways that one begins to wonder eventually whether they really mean anything much at all.

BURSTALL: In other words, art is hard. So is life.

TUCKER: The problem of ambiguity comes from a lack of scholarship. We need more of it here, more complexity. ·

MARTIN: The Australian is particularly dis- turbed by ambiguity, Stephen, more than the Frenchman or the Belgian. It’s very good to upset him.

MURRAY-SMITH: But surely, at a time when. the ordinary man is feeling less and less capable of determining, or even understanding, anything, art should be more than a reflection of this? On the contrary, shouldn’t it help man under- stand things better by understanding himself better?

BURSTALL: Well, this art certainly won’t :::-aise production figures in the Urals, and I think it’s ludicrous to expect it.

Overland Editors

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