Review: two recent histories of Australian theatre

Bernadette Brennan compares two recent histories of Australian theatre: Michelle Arrow’s Upstaged: Australian women dramatists in the limelight at last, and Julian Meyrick’s See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave.

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In June 1997, Joyce Morgan wrote in the Weekend Australian Review that David Williamson’s mother was a ‘frustrated thespian … who would have been happy on the stage … But at that period in Australia’s development there was no home-grown theatre.’ Michelle Arrow, historian and author of Upstaged: Australian women dramatists in the limelight at last, reports this comment with alarm and a certain incredulity. As Upstaged testifies, not only was there a vibrant Australian theatre scene in the central decades of the twentieth century, it was a scene in which many Australian women playwrights found outlets for their work. Upstaged inscribes the lives, the social and political concerns, and the plays of a significant number of largely forgotten women into the narrative of Australian drama.

Arrow’s cast of playwrights includes, among others, Oriel Gray, Mona Brand, Catherine Duncan (whose seductive photograph graces the cover), Dymphna Cusack, Betty Roland, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Henrietta Drake-Brockman and Gwen Meredith. Many of these women were on the far left of politics and involved in the radical New Theatre. By virtue of their gender and political persuasions they were doubly marginalised. Much of their writing has been dismissed as either propaganda or ephemera. Upstaged examines the reasons for this dismissal. It not only celebrates the importance of these works – the morally-driven stage plays, the popular radio serials, the musicals and the agitprop sketches performed outside factory gates – it also celebrates the fact that these women were able to make a living through their craft.

Arrow acknowledges the ‘fun’ she had researching this book, a sense of fun conveyed by her lively and engaging narrative voice. At one point she states: ‘There is a story I heard about the Melbourne New Theatre…The story may not be entirely true, but, putting aside the historian’s usual demands for evidence, I’m going to tell it anyway, because it’s a good story’(193). And it is. Upstaged is also a good story but it is a story informed by a perceptive intelligence and supported by considerable scholarly research. Included is an appendix which covers the biographical details of twenty-four women, their major career achievements and a list of their plays, 34 pages of notes, and a select bibliography which goes beyond published texts and articles to include interviews, playscripts, manuscripts, and unpublished papers and theses.

In focussing on women playwrights between 1928 and 1968, Upstaged covers similar territory to that explored by Susan Pfisterer and Carolyn Pickett in their Playing With Ideas: Australian Women Playwrights from the Suffragettes to the Sixties (Currency, 1999). A significant difference between these texts, however, is that as an historian rather than a literary critic, Arrow offers a cultural history of these women’s lives and interests (the inclusion of lesser-known radio and political playwrights bears this out) and not, for the most part, a literary study of their texts. As such this text positions itself somewhere between literary criticism and history. It does not fit neatly into the prescribed categories of either. Nor, Arrow would argue, is it meant to do so. She revels in history’s ‘potential for disorder’, noting that ‘[p]eople cannot be put into compartments in historical writing, any more than they can be in life. The writing lives of the women of this study were not compartmentalized into orderly categories of political writing, popular writing or stage writing. The boundaries were blurred, each of the various writing modes informed the other’ (7). This narrative is richer for that blurring.

Julian Meyrick’s See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave offers a history of the Nimrod Theatre and the culture of experimentation and energy in Australian drama into which it was born. The book’s focus begins at the chronological point where Arrow’s study concludes: 1970 and the advent of the (male-dominated) New Wave theatre. Meyrick takes the 1970 productions of The Legend of King O’Malley, Hair and Oedipus Rex as the starting point for his discussion of the ‘uniqueness’ of Nimrod and the New Wave. He seeks to broaden the historical scope of this discussion by setting it within the parameters of the national theatre debate. The ‘elitist’ Anglo generation, with their concern for ‘standards’, is found wanting in comparison with the then-emergent ‘popularist’, nationalistic New Wave artists.

Meyrick examines the aggressively nationalistic demands of playwrights such as Williamson, Buzo, Hibberd and Blair who called, at this time, for an Australian theatre that connected readily with Australian audiences. The theatrical scene in inner Sydney in 1970 embraced enthusiasm, enterprise and rebellion. It raged against censorship and believed that drama could offer a powerful challenge to society’s established mores. Meyrick suggests a neat syllogism through which to read and understand Nimrod’s history and agenda, a syllogism that goes to the heart of New Wave Theatre: Theatre –> Politics –> the World. In the early years ‘politics’ was at times displaced by ‘sex’ and ‘fun’, but by the 1980s it was replaced with ‘conflict’.

See How It Runs traces meticulously the rise of Nimrod from its humble beginnings in the Kings Cross Theatre(which Ken Horler rented for $17 per week) through its financially and artistically successful years at Surry Hills to its move to, and eventual demise at, the Seymour Centre in 1985. The playwrights, directors, actors, producers and theatre staff discussed read like a who’s who of Australian drama. For the most part Meyrick handles deftly the balance between academic discourse and more general historical narrative. At times, however, the text entertains theoretical discussions more suited to a doctoral thesis. Meyrick spent nine years researching and writing this history. The depth of his scholarship is obvious. Chapter nine, titled ‘Figuring Nimrod’, offers extensive quantitative data in order, he writes, to flesh out the story of the company. The three appendices chart the Nimrod seasons from 1970-1985, the attendances for those seasons and a detailed chronology of the theatre. Also included are thirteen pages of notes and a valuable bibliography.

As is the case with Upstaged, it is the human dimension of this history that gives it warmth and interest. Readers will enjoy the intrigue of the behind the scenes political machinations, internal feuds and financial mismanagement at Nimrod. The most powerful writing in this book, however, deals with the personal and professional relationships between John Bell, Ken Horler and Richard Wherrett. Meyrick’s perceptive and sensitive treatment of Horler’s departure from Nimrod in 1979 is both gripping and moving. Taken together these texts offer much valuable insight into nearly sixty years of Australian theatre history.


Bernadette Brennan lectures in Australian Literature at the University of Sydney. Her publications include work on Francis Webb’s poetry, Brian Castro’s fiction and stolen generations narratives.

Michelle Arrow’s Upstaged: Australian women dramatists in the limelight at last was published by Pluto Press in conjunction with Currency Press in 2002 and Julian Meyrick’s See How It Runs: Nimrod and the New Wave is also from Currency Press, 2002.

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