As part of the South Australian History Festival that has been running throughout May, there is a truly fascinating exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide – Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales. This a celebration of the compelling majestic power and beauty of whales.
Part of this exhibition is devoted to the history of ‘whaling’, past and present. Hunting whales, despite its current ‘politically incorrect’ status, was and still is part of human history. Why hunt whales? Many people today, including myself, would find such a thing truly repulsive – and it is! Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the brutality of ‘whaling’, this exhibition captures the fascination, dependence upon and respect for whales by a number of human groups and tribes, some of which continue to hunt whales today. This includes a few modern indigenous tribes in places such as Indonesia and Greenland, as well as past ‘western’ commercial whaling that inspired artists and writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I am most certainly not defending the hunting of whales and ‘whaling’, nonetheless, there is a fascinating mystery, a kind of ‘romanticism’ about ‘whaling’ that is part of past and modern human history. Why? Neither I nor this exhibition has an answer, yet it does exist and is a conundrum – which is partly why this exhibition is so fascinating and well worth a visit. Furthermore, it is a part of South Australian history as Port Adelaide once was a trading centre for commercial whaling in the now distant past. This may be uncomfortable for many who think it should be buried beneath the veneer of the niceness of modern ‘political correctness’ – nonetheless, it remains an historical fact. This exhibition challenges as well as informs without being gory and horrific, adding to its overall impressive value.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons why a visit to the South Australian Maritime Museum is worthwhile. There are numerous artefacts from the past that are fascinating. This includes a series of ‘figureheads’ that once stood proudly at the prow of sailing ships – a lost art form in itself.
Looking through a window, any window, is to gaze on a number of possibilities – some good, some bad. Stepping through that window, by choice or by force, means engagement – some good, some bad. Either way, it is a journey – from the scourging of a past life to a re-birth, a re-awakening, and a re-discovery of self-worth. This was my journey over the past several years, represented and exemplified by the following photographs.
Through a Window: Inneston, Innes National Park, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia
Everyone faces, at least at one point in their life, an experience that wipes away a past life. This can be quite painful and devastating, combined with feeling like one is going through a ritualistic cleansing – a scourging of fire and water.
Prologue: The Scourging of Flaming Waters – Fountain, Brisbane, Queensland
ACT 1: RE-BIRTH & RE-AWAKENING
After the scourging comes the re-birth and re-awakening. We greet the new day with a smile in the hope of better life.
Re-Awakening: Sunrise – Maslin Beach, South Australia
We look around our immediate environment and notice the ruination. Feelings of being confined and trapped complement a sense of isolation.
Re-Awakening: Isolation – Port Willunga, South Australia
We rise to face the day. Gazing into what seems vast as well as beautiful there is the juxtaposition of various figures and positions that reflect our current sense of self.
Re-Awakening: Moon, Sky, Sea, Sand, Rock – Maslin Beach, South Australia
ACT 2: SOLACE
We need to accept what was and move forward to what may be. In order to do that we must seek solace; to calm, to nurture and re-nourish, to be inspired and to re-invent. This place of solace can be nature, a place of religious worship, and in art galleries. In all cases, it is a source of spiritual solace as well as slowly but steadily re-connecting with a living world.
Solace: Nature – Dancing Trees – Murdoch Walk, Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Spiritual – St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Art – National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
ACT 3: INSPIRATION
In these places of solace, there is always the possibility of being inspired by something – such as a work of art. Emerging from these places, hopefully re-nourished, you are more open to the wonders and beauty that surrounds you on the street.
In Adelaide, there is wonderful ‘Street Art’, which is often breathtaking in beauty as well as scale. This includes the first work of ‘Public (Street) Art’ in Adelaide, which is a statue, a copy of Canova’s ‘Venus’. It was first unveiled in 1892, and caused a minor scandal due to its nudity and conservative tastes and morals of the time. It shows the goddess Venus stepping from a bath and being surprised; by what or by whom is up to the imagination of the gazer.
In the contemporary ‘Street Art’ of Adelaide there are numerous other re-imagings of a modern ‘Venus’, which can be found down laneways, and even in car parks, such as this one by Adelaide Street Artist Jimmy.C.
Inspiration: Canova’s ‘Venus’ – North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia; Jimmy.C’s ‘Venus’ – Rundle Street, Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia
ACT 4: RE-INVENTING
From the nurturing honeyed waters of solace and inspiration, the re-invention of self begins.
Re-Inventing: Honeyed Waters – Fountain, Martin Place, Sydney, New South Wales
Re-invention means re-engaging, and the realization that there really is, as Shakespeare’s says, ‘a world elsewhere’. There are multiple worlds, none of them perfect, in which one can find inspiration, hope, and adventure. Looking out, not in, moving forward by accepting the past and the present for what it is…and the next journey begins.
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temples, Indien, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Cow & Temples, Bagan, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Fisherman, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temple Entrance, Bagan, Myanmar
EPILOGUE: The New Self
Photography was a major source of re-invention for me. After the devastation and sense of isolation and abandonment, I discovered a means to release a dormant creativity. I thank the various people involved in helping me to re-invent my fractured self in a way that I never knew could be possible.
The New Self: Portrait – Sie and I
‘Never Stop Believing’ and continue ‘Making the Ordinary “Extraordinary”
THE RISE OF THE AUSTRALIAN ACTOR: George Coppin (1819-1906)
George Selth Coppin (1819-1906) has been called “the father of Australian theatre” (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 1939). Whilst this may be disputed, nonetheless, George Coppin was one of the prime movers in establishing a professional theatre in Australia in the mid-colonial period. In many ways, he could be called 19th Century Australia’s ‘greatest showman’. As Sally O’Neill states, ‘Undoubtedly his enterprise was irrepressible; the business of entertainment suited his talents but, more important, he had an ingrained love of the theatre. He acted to make money but he found a stage in many other spheres.’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
George Coppin was born 8 April 1819 in Steyning, Sussex, England. His father, George Selth Coppin, was the son of a clergyman who gave up his medical studies to become an actor, and subsequently was disowned by his family. Hence, George Coppin was born into a theatrical family and started performing (with his sister) from the age of six. From 1835 he was working in the English provinces and at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he established himself as ‘first low comedian’. It was also in Dublin he met Maria Watkins Burroughs, nine years his senior, and they lived together from 1842-1848, Maria accompanying Coppin on first adventures overseas.
In 1842 George and Maria decided to leave the UK, with a choice between the USA and Australia. On a toss of a coin, they decided on Australia and arrived in Sydney 10 March 1843. From this point and for the next fifty years Coppin’s fortunes were like a rollercoaster, going from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’ several times. He worked in Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide, either as an actor-manager, or hotel owner. He created a number of theatres and hotels, including the Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, and the Semaphore Hotel, which gave the Adelaide suburb its name. It was also in Adelaide, in 1848, that Maria died.
In 1851, after going ‘bust’ again, he left for the Victorian goldfields, and whilst he did not find gold, nonetheless, he earned a considerable amount performing for the gold diggers. In 1853 he returned to Adelaide, paid off his creditors, and returned to England. He worked successfully in London and the provinces, and it was whilst working in Birmingham he met Gustavus Brooke (1818-1866), one of the leading British tragedians of the time. He engaged Brooke for an Australian tour and had a pre-fabricated ‘Iron Theatre’, specially built for the tour. In a way, Coppin’s ‘Iron Theatre’ prefigured popular ‘pop-up’ theatres in the 21st Century.
This marks the beginning of ‘international’ actors touring Australia. Whilst there had been a number of English and American actors touring Australia, the Coppin-Brooke partnership truly marks the successful touring of Australia by internationally renowned actors. These included Gustavus Brooke, Joseph Jefferson, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, and Maggie Moore and J. C. Williamson.
From 1858 Coppin also established a political career that lasted off-and-on until 1895. Time and space does not allow for any elaboration on Coppin’s political career, other than stating that it was relatively successful and he was a valued member of the respective Victorian parliaments and legislative committees on which he sat. It is, however, in his ‘off’ political years that Coppin furthered Australian theatre. This included acquiring the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which unfortunately was burnt to the ground in 1872. As the Theatre Royal was uninsured Coppin went ‘bust’ again. Nonetheless, he formed a committee and rebuilt the Theatre Royal. It was in this period that he also performed in the USA where he met J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore, and in 1881 engaged them to perform in Australia.
Suffering from gout from 1868, Coppin announced his retirement from the stage; an announcement he kept making for next twenty-odd years. He embarked on numerous ‘farewell’ tours in Australia and other British colonies but did not give up the theatre until the mid-1880s. His later years were mainly concerned with his political career, as well as developing the Victorian seaside suburb of Sorrento, where he lived with his family. In 1855 Coppin had married Harriet Hilsden, Gustavus Brooke’s widowed sister-in-law. Harriet died in 1859, and subsequently, Coppin married one of her daughters from her first marriage, Lucy Hilsden, in 1861. Coppin had three children from his first marriage, three daughters, and seven children from his second marriage, two sons and five daughters. Except for one daughter from his first marriage, Lucy and the other children survived him when Coppin died in 1906.
This brief sketch doesn’t really do justice to the incredible life of George Coppin. As an actor, he specialized in ‘low comedy’, but was also successful in ‘classical’ works, such as Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Bob Acres in Sheridan’s The Rivals, Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Launcelot Gobbo in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The contemporary Australian critic James Smith described Coppin’s talent and ability to successfully portray “the ponderous stolidity and impenetrable stupidity of certain types of humanity—the voice, the gait, the movements, the expression of the actor’s features, were all in perfect harmony with the mental and moral idiosyncrasies of the person he represented, so that the man himself stood before you a living reality”. This suggests that there was an acute sense of observation of real life, and a kind of early ‘naturalism’ in Coppin’s characters, albeit in essentially heightened comic roles. This is complemented by his theatre-manager-director insistence on ‘correct costuming’ for his characters and productions (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
As well as building theatres, including the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, establishing new methods of advertising shows, and bringing international artists to Australia, Coppin also helped to establish copyright legislation for playwrights in Australia and was one of the first to advocate for a ‘school of acting to develop Australian acting’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
Coppin also advocated and brought camels to explore the interior Australia, some of the camels that Coppin imported were on the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition (1860-61). Whilst owner and manager of the Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, he arranged for the first aerial balloon ascent over Melbourne and helped to introduce English thrushes and white swans to Australia. This is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the truly remarkable George Coppin.
This series of post is about the identity of the Australian actor. It is partly based on recent public lectures I recently delivered at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra.
Currently, many Australian actors enjoy considerable national and international acclaim and success; however, whilst generally unknown and unacknowledged this has always been the case, from the colonial period to present day. Former posts have been about The Genesis of the Australian Actor, focusing on the convict performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer in 1789, and how many features of that performance have their resonance in the modern world and instrumental in the formulation of the character and identity of the Australian actor. This series is focused on highlighting some of the most exceptional 19th and early 20th Century Australian actors who achieved national and international success and played a significant part in the forming of the Australian actor. Due to time and space, this is highly selective and only gives a hint at the diverse and extraordinary range of Australian actors and their respective careers.
Shakespeare wrote that actors enact the abstract and brief chronicles of the times (Hamlet). Whilst this is true it also relates to other crucial aspects about actors and acting. Relatively, no actor is remembered beyond his and her own times, unless they achieve an iconic status that reaches beyond a particular career. This series is partly designed to draw attention to the great but now largely forgotten Australian actors of the past. Why should we care? T. S. Eliot was once challenged by a young student with this question – Why should we study people from the past when we know so much more than they did? ‘Exactly,’ replied Eliot,’ and they are what we know.’
Acting is a highly emotional art form, attracting and triggering strong responses. We often talk about actors in highly emotional terms – “I love that actor” – “I hate that actor” etc. Whilst there may be a number of reasons for responses, one is that a particular actor triggers and sparks an individuals imagination and others do not. This involves the appeal (or not) of a particular on-stage (or on-screen) persona, their unique artistic identity. This can be defined by examining three particular areas:
TALENT – is what the actor is blessed with. It can be very difficult to define, as Constantine Stanislavsky stated, but we know it when we see it. Generalizing, an actor may have a great talent for comedy, or drama, and if particularly talented can do both. The most versatile actor is what in Musical Theatre terms is called the triple threat. This is the actor who can Sing, Dance and Act – such as Hugh Jackman. What is remarkable about the Australian actor is that many of them, past and current, enjoy this particular talent.
TECHNIQUE – is associated with skills. Just as there are many different types of actors, so too are there numerous techniques that assist the actor to unlock creativity when inspiration fails. In the US the so-called ‘method’ and its derivatives are naturalistically based and is something in which the American actor excels. All the contemporary Australian actors who have found success in the US and UK essentially have a technique and skills that complement this.
TEMPERAMENT – this is associated with particular stories and characters in which the particular actor is interested and excels, and in which complements their unique talent and technique. Subsequently, it is closely associated with a public persona – on-stage and off-stage – and is what we generally come to expect from a particular actor. This may be ‘personality’ based, in that it is essentially just one persona, or is ‘transformational’ and has radical variations. In US terms, is the actor a ‘movie star’ or an ‘actor’? They can also be both – such as Nicole Kidman. The question is – does the actor remain within a particular genre or ‘personality’, or does the actor work in numerous genres, aiming for ‘transformation’ – like Nicole Kidman.
As previously stated time and Space does not permit for me to go into great detail about the great Australian acting pioneers. There are, however, a number that I wish to highlight, who in many ways encapsulate and represent the evolution of the Australian actor throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century. These are – Eliza Winstanley, George Coppin, J. C. Williamson, Maggie Moore, Nellie Stewart and Oscar Ashe. All these actors were triple threats (and more), and all enjoyed national and international acclaim and success.
ELIZA WINSTANLEY [O’FLAHERTY] (1818-1892)
Eliza Winstanley has the distinction of being the first Australian actor to achieve international success. She was the first Australian actress to appear and have a successful career in the UK and USA.
Eliza Winstanley was born in England in 1818 and emigrated with her family to Australia in 1833. Her father, William Winstanley, was a scene painter and decorator at Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal, the first successful professional theatre in Sydney, and it was here that she made her professional debut in 1834. She married the actor-musician-writer Henry Charles O’Flaherty in 1841 and henceforward acted under her married name – Mrs. Eliza O’Flaherty. With her husband, she also worked as a theatre manager, primarily at the Olympic Theatre in Sydney. Along with another female Australian theatre pioneer, Anne Clarke (c. 1806-1847), Eliza Winstanley brought a new level of respectability and social acceptance of actors into the growing cities of Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart.
Despite beginning in the operatic and musical theatre it soon became apparent that her particular talent and skills lay in the world of classical theatre and popular melodrama.The melodramas were of the blood-soaked horror kind, such as Madeline the Maniac, the title suggestive of the extreme emotional characters in which she excelled. She was the first to appear on the Australian stage as Shakespeare’s Desdemona in Othello, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as scoring considerable success as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
Hal Porter in his Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (1965) cites critical responses to ‘this tall, dark-eyed, lively, comely, and intelligent girl. With her “agreeable form”, “rich voice”, “graceful deportment”, and countenance susceptible to strong expression”, she quickly became Sydney’s favourite actress.’ She also attracted negative responses – ‘Miss Winstanley is too affected and making improper use of the letter “h” ‘, and “if she had not displayed such a wish to be in heroics she would have succeeded better’.
Eliza Winstanley’s bold theatrical and personal temperament is suggested by two incidents. In 1840, whilst she and her sister Anne were walking home after performing they were accosted by a group of young men who wore ‘cabbage tree hats’ as a symbol that they were ‘native’ born. The Winstanley girls were regarded as English and not ‘native’ born, and subsequently were seen as inferior. Previously they had been heckled numerous times with profanities whilst performing on-stage. This night a young teenager called Charles Davis threw his ‘cabbage tree hat’ at Anne Winstanley’s feet, which Eliza Winstanley then kicked out of the way. Davis then threatened to kick them ‘for attempting to tread on the cabbage tree’. When this came before the authorities Davis changed his story, stating that he would have kicked them ‘if they were not women’. This incident was reported in the Sydney Monitor (1 January 1841) and was also dramatized for the Sydney stage by Henry Charles O’Flaherty, in a number of sketches – Thespis in Austalia: or The Stage in Danger – in which O’Flaherty appeared as ‘Knight of the Fiddle, and Champion of the fair Eliza’, stroking ‘the place where his beard should be’ and claiming that he received a black-eye in the incident. This was followed by a poem The Battle of the Cabbage Tree, which was a satiric parody of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It is possible that these dramatic pieces were part of O’Flaherty’s wooing of Eliza Winstanley as they were married the following month on 6 February 1841. (Australian Plays for the Colonies 1834-1899. Ed. Richard Fotheringham. University of Queensland Press. 2006. 49-50).
Another example of her independent spirit and temperament is the minor scandal she caused in 1842 when she appeared as Richard III in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Whilst it was not uncommon for women to play male roles in the early Australian theatre, mainly out of necessity, nonetheless, for many contemporaries, this was far too audacious for the times.
In 1846 she and her husband went to England, and after appearing with a number of provincial theatre companies she made her successful London debut at the Princess Theatre, London. In 1848 she also successfully toured the USA. She was the first Australian actress to appear and achieve success in the London and New York theatre. Back in London in 1850 she played leading roles with Charles Kean’s company at the Princess Theatre, establishing herself as one of London’s most popular and successful actresses of the time.
This success was due not only to her particular talent, skill, and temperament but also to the changing theatre scene in London. After considerable pressure, the 1843 Theatre Act dissolved the previous 200 years old monopoly of Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and the Haymarket theatres, subsequently allowing for more than 20 new theatres in London. One of these was Charles Kean’s Princess Theatre. Furthermore, the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert loved Kean’s epic productions of Shakespeare so much that they had a permanent box at the Princess Theatre. As Hal Porter states, Kean’s productions were ‘tastefully opulent, archaeologically correct to the minutest detail, with hundreds of supernumeraries including horses and hounds, spectacular scenery, and hand-picked casts in which Eliza Winstanley shone’. (Porter. 25).
In 1848 Queen Victoria revived the staging of a Royal Command Performance at Windsor Castle by invited companies. For Eliza Winstanley this led to another ‘Australian first’. Eliza Winstanley was the first Australian actress to take part in a Royal Command Performance; playing for the benefit of the young Queen Victoria and the royal family the role of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals. She subsequently appeared in many other Royal Command performances; as well as touring extensively throughout the UK and the rest of the world. As Hal Porter states, ‘Possessed of inexhaustible vitality, without which no actress in that age of body-breaking stage labour and grisly traveling facilities could survive, she toured widely: Melbourne, Hobart, Launceston – playing the Cape as she came out, and Canada as she returned – France, Germany, Italy, and even Russia. enacting the Shakespearian roles by which she had earned her fame.’ (Porter. 25).
In 1865, at the age of 47 years old, she retired from the stage and took up writing, successfully publishing over the next 15 years 33 novels, as well as her own autobiography Shifting Scenes in Theatrical Life (1864). Significantly, most of her novels were set in Australia, including For Her Natural Life: A Tale of 1830 (1876), which was her ‘proto-feminist’ re-working of Marcus Clarke’s popular convict novel For the Term of His Natural Life (1870-72).
In 1880 Eliza Winstanely (O’Flaherty) she returned to Australia. After initially staying with her sister Anne in Geelong, she moved to Sydney, where she died of ‘diabetes and exhaustion’ in a house on Clarence Street December 2, 1882. She is buried in Waverly Cemetery, right next to Henry Lawson.
Eliza Winstanley [O’Flaherty] was quite an extraordinary actress, person, and pioneer. What is significant is not only her wide and diverse and internationally successful career but also what her artistic identity represents in regard to the character of the Australian actress. Independent, intelligent, strong, determined, expressive, bold, and, as Hal Porter stated, possessed of an inexhaustible vitality. Such characteristics could equally apply to many, and many of those are modern Australian actresses – but Eliza Winstanley was the first.
This article is a continuation of the series devoted to ‘neglected plays.
PHILOCTETES (409 BCE) by Sophocles
Sophocles’ Philoctetes was first performed at the City Dionysia festival in ancient Athen in 409 BCE, winning first prize in the annual competition devoted to drama. It has subsequently had a rather chequered existence, nonetheless, is still regularly performed in Europe and the USA – but not in Australia.
It is a ‘war play’ dealing with the character of Philoctetes and the ownership of a master weapon – Heracles’ Bow and Arrows – that is needed to end the Trojan War. At the time when Sophocles wrote Philoctetes and it was first performed Athens was entering the final years of the decades long and exhausting Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Whilst achieving a number of military successes and the suppression of a couple of rebellions, nonetheless, Athens and the so-called Athenian League were also facing considerable international problems and defeats, particularly by the Persians as well as the ever increasing power of Carthage and the Carthaginians. Philoctetes may be considered a ‘war play’ but it is also a moral and ethical drama involving ‘keeping the peace’. Furthermore, it shows how in times of war a problematic person of value may be discarded and abandoned for the sake of personal ambition in the guise of action for the ‘greater good’. This hypocritical lie and deceit is exposed and denounced – but only after a long period of time, which is a lesson in itself – and only by someone who has the ethical and moral courage to stand up to the force of the majority.
Whilst the classical Greek mythic characters may occasionally reappear from time to time, sometimes in a Disney film, or referenced in a Marvel Comic blockbuster, or in a modern adaptation with a ‘modern’ twist, very rarely do we see in Australia see a fully mounted professional production of a classical Greek play. Recently, I raised this issue and was met with various responses ranging from complete ignorance to these vitally important plays being now considered ‘irrelevant’.
Putting aside their importance to contemporary Freudian analysis, there are a couple of these plays that hold a significant place in Australian theatre history. This includes Euripides’ Medea (431 BCE) and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BCE). Medea was a big international success for Australian actors Dame Judith Anderson and Zoe Caldwell; Oedipus Rex was directed by Tyrone Guthrie for Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company in the 1960s and was a landmark production not only for Guthrie, but also for the fledgling Old Tote Theatre Company.
There have been subsequent re-workings and adaptations of these plays, and others, but nothing like these productions of the original works. Why? Who knows – irrelevance is too stupid to contemplate. It may be that, like others in this series of ‘neglected plays’, it is combination of factors, including not having the actors and directors who have the talent, skill, nor interest in scaling these challenging heights of great theatre. Also, it may be that Philoctetes does not conform with contemporary perception (mis-perceptions) of classical Greek drama, in that it is neither a classical tragedy nor a comedy. Like Euripides’ Alcestis (438 BCE) due to this perceived non-conformity to so-called classical rules, it has been labelled a ‘problem play’. However, it isn’t really a ‘problem’; it is what it is, and like Alcestis has a relatively happy ending. It is only a ‘problem’ if one refuses to accept the relative optimism of the ending. If labels are needed then Philoctetes, as well as Alcestis, could be regarded as prefiguring a future form of drama, particularly in 17th Century Jacobean London, that will be identified as ‘tragi-comedy’ – a dramatic narrative that has all the hallmarks and characteristics of classical tragedy, yet has a fortuitous classical comedy ending.
The classical Greek plays that are possibly known would probably include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Electra and Antigone, and Euripides’ Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Bacchae, and maybe Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. I think it highly unlikely that Sophocles’ extraordinary Philoctetes is known at all. Nonetheless, Philoctetes is still performed in Europe and the USA, including productions by the U.K.’s Cheek by Jowl theatre companies, and performed readings such as the annual Theatre of War series to military and civilian communities in the US and Europe.
Rather than being regarded as irrelevant and old-fashioned Philoctetes is seen by some, including me, as highly pertinent and apt for the modern world. Why?
Because Philoctetes is about the possession of the weapon – the master weapon to end all wars; or in this case the end of the Trojan War.
Philoctetes was a Greek warrior who held a special place amongst the Greeks as a great archer. He was one of the original suitors for the hand of Helen, but more importantly, due to assisting Heracles he was given Heracles powerful Bow and Arrows. Philoctetes was amongst the original members of the Greek army that went to Troy. However, on the journey to Troy Philoctetes was bitten by a snake, which gave him great pain as well as causing a hideous stench. So bad was the smell that it resulted in Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, and the rest of the Greek army abandoning Philoctetes on the lonely and deserted island of Lemnos. Now, ten years later, due to a prophesy by Helenus, son of King Priam of Troy that stated the Greeks needed Philoctetes and Heracles’ Bow and Arrows to win the Trojan War, Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of the late Achilles, have come to Lemnos. Odysseus, knowing how much Philoctetes hates him and the Greeks, persuades the young and honorable Neoptolemus to trick Philoctetes and gain his trust by claiming that, like Philoctetes, Neoptolemus also hates Odysseus. Whilst initially very reluctant Neoptolemus agrees, gains Philoctetes trust and subsequently is given Heracles’ powerful weapon. Whilst Philoctetes goes through a bout of extreme pain, Neoptolemus suffers from guilt and decides to return the weapon to Philoctetes. Odysseus reappears and tries to prevent this. However, Neoptolemus refuses and after numerous threats Odysseus leaves. Neoptolemus tries to persuade Philoctetes to return with him to Troy with the weapon under his own free will. Philoctetes refuses, but suddenly Heracles appears from the heavens and tells Philoctetes to go with Neoptolemus to Troy, with the Bow and Arrows, where he will be cured and help win the war for the Greeks. Philoctetes agrees and he and Neoptolemus leave, bound for Troy.
That, in a nutshell, is the basic story of Sophocles’ play; there are other versions of the Philoctetes story, including plays by Aeschylus and Euripides that are now lost. Furthermore, Sophocles’ play has attracted a number of modern poets – my favourite being by the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, Seamus Heaney’s The Cure At Troy: A version of Sophocle’s Philoctetes (1990).
Why did the Philoctetes story hold such an important place in ancient Greece, and why does it still hold, in certain quarters, such strong appeal? Whilst there may be some differences in the various versions, nonetheless, it is the importance and the possession of the weapon, Heracles’ Bow and Arrows, which remains the primary symbolic feature of all the versions. The actual weapon, it’s power etc, is not discussed – just desired. It is the moral and ethical debates debate about ownership and possession of this weapon, gained by either deceit and subterfuge or honourable means that is actually the main drama in Sophocles’ play. Sophocles places great emphasis on the ethical and moral dilemma facing Neoptolemus. He is driven to deceit for ‘god and country’ matters by Odysseus, for the sake of the Greek army etc, but he knows that this is wrong, hence his change of heart. He offers kindness, respect and honour to the old man, Philoctetes, and is justly rewarded. It is clear that Sophocles social and political message is on the side of honour, as exemplified by Neoptolemus. Sadly, this type of hero is not generally found in modern drama, except in the Marvel Comic films. Contemporary tastes tend to favour the anti-heroes, such as the WOLF OF WALL STREET, or other such dubious characters, more in the mould of Odysseus. Maybe I’m wrong, but as George Miller noted in his review of 100 years of Australian cinema, the modern ‘dreaming’ has become more ‘toxic’. It is notable that in Australian drama we do tend to have more of villains than heroes – poor box office? Perhaps – but as the popularity of the Marvel Comic film heroes suggest we still need our heroes.
This article on Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d is a continuation of the series devoted to ‘neglected’ plays.
Of all the ‘neglected’ plays so far discussed Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682) is by the far the best – it is truly one of the great English tragedies. Extremely popular as well as controversial, and with a performance history that spans centuries, it is somewhat bizarre that this brilliant play has relatively dropped out of fashion. There have been the occasional revivals and reinventions, notably the National Theatre Company’s in 1984 and the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre Company’s in 2003, but nothing like the enormous popularity and frequency that it previously enjoyed.
I first was introduced to Venice Preserv’d whilst a young directing student at The Drama Centre, London. I was assigned the play by Christopher Fettes to work with a student designer from the Motley Design Course, under the auspices and guidance of Glen Byam Shaw (1904-1986) and Margaret (‘Percy’) Harris (1904-2000) no less. Amazing when I think back on it. Furthermore, it was through working on Venice Preserv’d with the students and teachers at the Motley Design Course that I discovered the work of Edward Gordon Craig who had done numerous stage design concepts for the play. Looking at more modern stage designs for Venice Preserv’d it is interesting noticing Craig’s great influence.
I have no idea why Christopher gave me this play – maybe he knew that I would love it. He was right – I did – and still do. Of the plays that still sit on my ‘I wish’ list Venice Preserv’d and Lope de Vega’s Fuenteojveuna are definitely the top two. This says a great deal about me and my particular tastes; namely that I like political theatre that has function in dealing with social injustice and crimes against humanity. It gives a ‘purpose to playing’.
Set in Venice in the late 17th Century Venice Preserv’d is a play about love, death, friendship and betrayal. It is a highly political play involving intrigue, rebellion, corruption and deceit, encapsulated by its subtitle – Venice Preserv’d, or A Plot Discovered. Whilst possible inspired by the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, nonetheless, at the time it was first produced in 1685 it was seen as an attack on the despised royalist government of the recently deceased Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (1621-83). The elderly, scurrilous and decadent Venetian Senator, Antonio, was regarded as a satiric portrait of Shaftesbury. Antonio’s scenes with the courtesan Aquiliana, with his constant referring to his ‘Nicky-Nacky’, whilst hilariously funny also caused controversy, especially considering that ‘Nicky Nacky’ was contemporary slang for a woman’s genitalia. Furthermore, a century later, in 1795, performances of Venice Preserv’d at Richard Brinsely Sheridan‘s Drury Lane Theatre, featuring John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons, were involved in notorious ‘theatre riots’ and other disturbances in the wake of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. The play was seen as ‘disgraceful to public morals, and so inimical to order and government’. The play continued to provoke strong reactions – an American production was banned in 1798, and there were further public demonstrations when the play was revived in 1809 and again in 1848, the year of numerous riots and rebellions throughout Europe.
Maybe this is why Venice Preserv’d is no longer often performed – it has the potential to excite heated and demonstrative passions. We have, overall, as audiences, become too passive. The popular drive is for harmless and diverting ‘entertainment’, hence the universal popularity and international success of musicals such as The Lion King, Wicked and Matilda. However, there are ‘political’ and ‘satiric’ musicals as well, exemplified by Hamilton and The Book of Mormon. The political and satiric message, however, has been filtered through comedy, making and criticism seemingly palpable and acceptable to modern audiences. Venice Preserv’d is something completely different. For a start, for centuries many of the respective audiences knew the play, often quoting from it, and/or saying lines along with the actors as they performed the play.
Venice Preserv’d has a very large cast of characters, which would make any theatre company’s General Manager, HR, and Board, gulp in fear and apprehension. Nonetheless, how thrilling it could be if done well. I have only ever been in one incident that could be called a ‘theatre riot’; when an audience erupts in fury and anger at what is being presented on stage. This was, for me, years ago when Sydney’s Old Tote Theatre Company did a production of Edward Bond’s Lear, where the blinding of Gloucester was so realistic and gory that most of the audience stood up, shouted and left in disgust. I remember I lent over to my naturally concerned mother and said, ‘We’re not going!’. Haha.
Essentially, Venice Preserv’d involves four young people, Jaffier and his newly married wife Belvidera, Jaffier’s revolutionary friend Pierre, and Aquilina, a courtesan in love with Pierre. Due to his scandalous marriage to Belvidera, a Senator’s daughter, Jaffier finds himself and Belvidera ostracised and impoverished, with little sympathy from Belvidera’s autocratic father, Senator Pruili. In despair Jaffier seeks consolation from his dear friend Pierre, and subsequently becomes involved in a plot by Pierre and his fellow conspirators to overthrow the Venetian Senate. The price for Jaffier’s involvement and silence is for Belvidera to be made hostage by the conspirators. The price for his silence is that Belvidera must be held as a hostage. Jaffier agrees and makes a sacred vow to assist the conspiracy and conspirators. Meanwhile, Pierre has his own personal problems. He loves the beautiful courtesan Aquilina, but she has as a client the corrupt old Senator, Antonio. Aquilina loathes Antonio and loves Pierre, but she will not give up her financial independence. She is suspicious and concerned, however, about Pierre and his secretiveness – she suspects the worst – and she is right.
Belvidera is held hostage by one of the conspirators, Renault, who attempts to rape her. Unsuccessful, he vows revenge. Belvidera is desperate. She confesses to Jaffier who is outraged and is persuaded by Belvidera to go to Venetian Senate and reveal the conspiracy, betraying his friend Pierre. Jaffier agrees and informs the Senate, being given a promise that he, Belvidera and Pierre will not be harmed. The Senate, however, breaks its promise and all the conspirators are condemned to death. Feeling the depths of guilt and dishonour, Jaffier threatens to kill Belvidera unless she can persuade her father not to execute Pierre and his co-conspirators. Meanwhile, Aquilina is doing her best to save Pierre in her dealings with Antonio. Belvidera, however, is successful – but the pardon arrives too late. Jaffier visits Pierre in his cell to beg forgiveness from his friend. Pierre forgives him but asks if Jaffier will kill him so that he does not suffer an ignoble public death. On the scaffold, Jaffier stabs and kills Pierre, and then kills himself in atonement. In the final scene, the insane Belvidera sees the ghosts of Jaffier and Pierre rise from the dead and subsequently dies of grief, guilt and shame.
Full on stuff, eh? It is! Despite the 3.5hrs length of the play (another potential drawback for modern productions) the play moves along at a hectic and fast pace. In his assessment of the 2003 Glasgow Citizen’s production The Guardian theatre critic, Mark Fisher wrote ‘so speedy and intense are the exchanges that they leave no space for distraction; all that matters is the passion of the moment’.
For centuries Venice Preserv’d held equal status with the most popular and esteemed plays by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Thomas Otway (1652-85) did not benefit from the success of his play, nor of his other success The Orphan (1680). Otway fell in love with Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713), for whom he wrote most of his main female characters, including Belvidera. Mrs Barry, however, did not return his love, preferring the advantageous attention of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-80). Tragically, Thomas Otway died in abject poverty. There is an apocryphal story about his death first noted by the actor Theophilus Cibber (son of Colley Cibber) in his Lives of the Poets. The destitute and starving Otway was begging near Tower Hill. When he received a guinea from a passing stranger he rushed to the nearest baker, and due to his haste in eating choked on his first bite and died.
Part of the reason why Venice Preserv’d enjoyed its long popularity is due to the fantastic roles and the opportunities they offer to great actors. Some of the greatest English speaking actors have performed successfully in this play. The original cast included Thomas Betterton (1635-1710) as Jaffier and Elizabeth Barry as Belvidera, and their respective success in these roles, which they played for many years, greatly assisted in establishing the plays celebrated status.
In the 18th Century the play was so popular that audience members knew respective speeches by heart, just like today some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches are known (e.g. ‘To be or not to be”). James Quin (1693-1766), David Garrick (1717-79) and later John Philip Kemble (1757-1823) respectively played Jaffier for many years. Susanna Maria Cibber (1714-76) and Sarah Siddons (1755-1823) scored big hits playing Belvidera. In many ways Sarah Siddons‘ Belvidera became the centre of the play and a major reason for its continued popularity. Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera took on full responsibility for the fates of Jaffier and Pierre. How Sarah Siddon’s performed the final scene in which Belvidera goes mad and dies was recorded in 1808 – ‘her ravings, wild, terrible, desperate, were rendered more awful and impressive by the strong exertions in which her mind struggled from time to time to recover its balance and the evanescent glimpse of reason which glimmered doubtfully through the darkness of the soul’. When Sarah Siddon’s Belvidera died, ‘the terrible agonies of her death closed a representation of suffering nature almost too real and too dreadful to be borne’.
In the 19th Century Eliza O’Neill (1791-1872) and Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) respectively scored considerable success as Belvidera. Audiences rose to their feet and cheered Eliza O’Neill’s Belvidera’s death scene. Fanny Kemble wrote that she that she was so overwhelmed by Belvidera that she had to be stopped from rushing screaming from the theatre (bit O.T.T. maybe). Edmund Kean (1787-1833) and Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) were also notable Jaffier’s in respective productions of Venice Preserv’d.
In the 20th Century Jaffier has been played by John Gielgud (1953), Alan Bates (1969), John Castle (1970) and Michael Pennington (1984). Belvidera has been played by Cathleen Nesbit (1920), Barbara Leigh Hunt (1970) and Jane Lapotaire (1984). Pierre has been played by Paul Schofield (1953), Julian Glover (1970) and Ian McKellen (1984). Notable Aquilina’s include Dame Edith Evans (1920) and Stephanie Beecham (1984).
This relatively small list of past great actors hints at another reason why Venice Preserv’d is now somewhat ‘neglected’ and unknown – it no longer attracts the contemporary ‘star’ actor; and yet this, the ‘star’ actor is what is needed for this play to work. The is partly due to the heightened emotions and passions that the respective roles require. Reducing these down to mere naturalism is not enough. The so-called ‘truth’ of the play does not lay with modern notions of naturalistic truth; the play has it’s own truth, for which is remains uncertain as to whether or not modern actors can match.
Whilst the characters may be something out of synch and/or out of reach of most modern actors, the theme and subject matter of Venice Preserv’d remain universal. It’s revolutionary political force against decedent authoritarian control is still extremely relevant. Furthermore, as evident in the relatively few productions in the 20th Century, the relationships, sexual, sensual and romantic, have been placed under post-20th Century psychoanalysis with startling results. For example, there is the sadomasochistic- masochistic aspect of the respective relationships, which may be a product of and comment on living in such a decadent world. Furthermore, the friendship between Jaffier and Pierre is more like a modern-day passionate ‘bro-mance’, equally as intense and romantic as Jaffier’s relationship with Belvidera.
I hope this rather lengthy post will encourage you to read Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. It is just one representative of what could be called ‘Restoration Tragedy’, complementing the more well known genre of ‘Restoration Comedy’. It does not sit alone – there are many other such wonderful tragedies, including John Dryden’s All for Love (1677) and John Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731). Furthermore, they complement other great tragedies of the times that are also relatively ‘neglected’ in Australian theatre (at least), such as Jean Racine’s, Andromache (1667), Britannicus (1669), and Phedra (1677). It can only be hoped that someone somewhere (including myself) will produce these ‘neglected’ classics and great plays, such as Thomas Otway’s magnificent Venice Preserv’d.
This is a continuation of the series involving ‘neglected’ plays.
MARY ELIZABETH BRADDON (1835-1915) was a popular Victorian novelist, her most acclaimed and successful work being the ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Initially published in serial form, the novel proved so popular that it was almost immediately adapted for the stage. There were a number of adaption, however, the most lasting and performed one was by the comedian Colin Henry Hazelwood (1823-1875); an irony in itself.
It was subsequently produced many times throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century – and then – disappeared from popular view. It was further adapted for ‘silent film’ in 1912, 1915, and 1920, Sadly, the 1915 version starring ‘the vamp’ Theda Bara, the most notorious and popular femme fatale of the early silent film era, has been lost. Perhaps the last big success it had in the theatre was in 1930 when Tyrone Guthrie directed it with Dame Flora Robson as Lady Audley.
There are a number of fascinating things about Lady Audley’s Secret, not least its theatrical history and influence but also a rather fine connection to Australian history. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s elder brother, Edward Braddon (1829-1904), immigrated to Australia in 1845 and eventually became Premier of Tasmania from 1894-99, and was a Member of the First Australian Parliament. The suburb of Brandon in the Australian Capital Territory, and the Tasmanian electorate of Braddon are named after Sir Edward Braddon. However, our story lays with his sister and the ‘sensation’ of Lady Audley’s Secret.
Sensation fiction in novels and plays was the most popular genre in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. The three novels that best represent this are Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859-60), Ellen Woods’ East Lynne (1861), and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) also fall into this genre. Many of the sensation novels of this time were subsequently adapted for the theatre and later film, even musicals.
The definition of this genre is that the story involves the uncovering of a secret, and is a deliberate mixture of romance and realism often involving murder, adultery, greed, forgery, blackmail, corruption, revenge, and madness. They are works of sheer melodrama. This is not something that can easily be dismissed as not matter how sensational the secret and action may be, invariably they are set within a relatively domestic world. The question of personal and social identity rises to the front, questioning individual and the world’s morals, ethics and actions. Invariably a kind of moral universe eventually exerts itself, with good triumphing over evil. One of the best essays on sensation fiction is John Ruskin’s Fiction – Fair and Foul.
Furthermore, sensation drama, in theatre, film and television has been relatively and consistently present from the 1860s to today. Wonderful examples include Patrick Hamilton’s Rope (1929), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film of the same name, Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (1935). Adding to these personal favourites, which are also now somewhat ‘neglected’ plays, is Reginald Denham’s and Edward Percy’s Ladies in Retirement (1940), which Charles Vidor turned into a film in 1941 with ida Lupino.
As with all the works cited in this series of ‘neglected’ plays, if you are seeking new acting scenes in which to work on you will find some pretty fabulous ones in these plays. The fact that we still love sensation drama can be seen in popular crime detective dramas, as well as in the modern musical versions The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Woman in White.
Very often this type of drama is based on a real-life event, adding to the complexity of the ‘identity’ issue, almost as if we need the incident to be dramatised in order to understand it. This is exemplified by Rope, which was inspired by the real-life murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, as well as Lady Audley’s Secret, which was inspired by the life of child murderer Constance Kent (1844-1944). Issues of gender and class division and madness played a significant role in the Constance Kent case, as they do in Lady Audley’s Secret. This is exemplified by the last lines spoken by Lady Audley in the play – ‘Aye – Aye (laughs wildly) Mad, mad, that is the word. I feel it here (Places her hands over her temples)’.
Is Lady Audley mad? Or is she simply a cold-blooded psychopath? Or is she a type of proto-feminist character, a lowly female member of the Working Class, battling for upward social mobility against domineering men? She has been seen as all of these in subsequent analysis and re-inventions of the novel, play, and story. She certainly prefigures the ‘woman-with-a-past’ characters in the subsequent ‘problem plays’ in the late 19th Century, exemplified by Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray (1893) [see previous article].
However, she also belongs to the much older theatrical heritage of the femme fatale character in drama, which stretches as far back to ancient times with Helen of Troy and her sister Clytemnestra, as well as Medea and Phaedra. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Alexander Dumas’s Lady deWinter in The Three Musketeers , and Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler are femme fatales, and modern times the femme fatale has been wonderfully portrayed a number of times by Glenn Close, in Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liasons (1988). Aspects of Lady Audley can also be seen in Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder’s brilliant Double Indemnity (1944) and Lana Turner’s Cora Smith in Tay Garnett’s terrific The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). I’d even add Ann Downs in Joseph Kramm’s Pulitzer Prize winning play The Shrike (1952), and Shirley Stoller’s Martha Beck in Leonard Kastle’s ‘cult classic’ The Honeymoon Killers (1970), which Francois Truffaut called his ‘favourite American film’ (check it out), and, of course, Sharon Stone’s stunning Catherine Tramell in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).
One distinguishing characteristic of these characters, as well as Lady Audley, is that invariably they are ‘blondes’, or ‘redheads’. I have no idea why ‘blonde’ and ‘red-headed women have been associated with the femme fatale, but it stands as a rather curious essentially masculine construction and projection. Not only do you get the beautiful ‘Blonde Venus’ there is also the ‘Blonde Vampire’.
I’m actually not too sure where the femme fatale sits today. She and sensation drama is certainly still present, exemplified by the upcoming revival in London of the musical version of The Woman in White. It would seem that she primarily belongs in the world of gothic fantasy and horror, exemplified by Rachelle Lefevre’s Victoria Sutherland in the Twilight film series.
However, the modern femme fatale may not be the personification of pure evil that she once was, such as Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Feminism has largely had an influence in diluting and reducing the evil power and nature of the modern femme fatale. This is highly apparent in Disney’s Maleficent (2014) in which the classic evil witch, although wonderfully played by Angelina Jollie, is given a relatively predictable ‘back story’ that makes her subsequent actions ‘understandable’ due to be the victim of male domination. This romanticised reduction concerns me a little, as it does with male villains, such as the vampire, as it seems to suggest that real evil, real evil people, male and female, don’t really exists, and that everyone and all evil actions are relatively ‘understandable’ – they are actually ‘nice’ people underneath all this. Rubbish. Real evil, real evil people, male and female, do exits, and their actions rather than being ‘understandable’ are repugnant, destructive, and – well – evil – and should be denounced. The potential danger of hypocrisy, and the gullibility of accepting ‘wolves in sheep clothing’ is remarkably pronounced; not all people are ‘understandable’ or ‘nice’.
However, the above characters cited above are not really those that sit within the genre of sensation drama. As previously stated, and in reference to Lady Audley, sensation drama and the femme fatale really exists within a relatively domestic setting and not in the world of fantasy. This makes the modern femme fatale figure particularly dangerous. I am, however, hard put to find modern examples; although arguably Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in the US TV series House of Cards (2013-2017) falls into the femme fatale archetype. As does Nurse Ratched in Dale Wasserman’s continuing popular play adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963). Furthermore, whilst Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth may remain the most ever-present femme fatale I doubt very much if we will ever see again Ann Downs in Leonard Kastle’s The Shrike, or Lady Audley in Lady Audley’s Secret. Nonetheless, you can always read and see these works, and the femme fatale remains, in various forms, a vital archetype in modern and classical drama – long may she reign.
This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943).
Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.
It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.
At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.
The play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear World, which starred Angela Lansbury.
Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka, Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.
Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.
The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.
It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.
Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.
With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.
Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.
It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.
The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.
One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.
Cooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.
Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.
I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy Cook a Pot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.
As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez, and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.
Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.