Australian Theatre, Modernism and Patrick White: Governing Culture

Australian Theatre, Modernism and Patrick White: Governing Culture

by Denise Varney, Sandra D'Urso


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'Australian Theatre, Modernism and Patrick White' details the rejection of two Patrick White plays by the Adelaide Festival of Arts in Australia in the early 1960s. In 1961 the board of governors rejected a proposal to include the world premiere of White's first major play 'The Ham Funeral' for the 1962 festival. In 1963 it rejected a proposal to premiere a subsequent play 'Night on Bald Mountain' for the 1964 festival. These two rejections were taken up in the press where the former was referred to as the 'affaire "Ham Funeral"' and the latter was greeted as 'here we go again'. 'Australian Theatre, Modernism and Patrick White' documents the scandal that followed the board's rejections of White's plays, especially as it acted against the advice of its own drama committee and artistic director on both occasions.

Denise Varney and Sandra D'Urso analyze the two events by drawing on the performative behaviour of the board of governors to focus on the question of governance. They shed new light on the cultural politics that surrounded the rejections, arguing that it represents an instance of executive governance of cultural production, in this case theatre and performance. The governing body was a self-appointed private board comprising wealthy men, who were representative of an Adelaide establishment made up of business, farming, newspaper and military interests.

The central argument of 'Australian Theatre, Modernism and Patrick White' is that aesthetic modernism in theatre and drama struggled to achieve visibility and acceptability, and was perceived as a threat to the norms and values of early to mid-twentieth-century Australia. The authors argue that when modern drama entered the stage, its preference for aesthetic experimentation over commercial considerations challenged regimes of value based on the popular appeal of musicals, touring productions and overseas imports. The resistance to that prevailing theatre culture and the provocation of Patrick White's plays provide a prime example of Australia in transition between its colonial heritage and modern future. The 1960s set the scene for the confrontation between modernist experimentation and arts governance, and between aesthetic and commercial values.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783088355
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 09/15/2018
Series: Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance Series , #1
Pages: 130
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Denise Varney is professor of theatre studies and co-director of the Australian Centre in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She publishes on Australian theatre, feminist and women’s theatre, theatrical modernism, and theatre and ecology.

Sandra D’Urso holds a PhD in performance studies and is currently a researcher at the Australian Centre in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. D’Urso has published in the areas of theatre and politics, performance art in the twenty-first century, Australian aesthetic modernism and the plays of Patrick White, as well as in contemporary Australian poetry.

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The rejections of The Ham Funeral and Night on Bald Mountain by the Adelaide Festival's Board of Governors were not random events but were linked to structures of governance and a presumption of sovereignty. Although the Board was not a statutory or corporate body, the Adelaide Festival's Board of Governors and committees held regular meetings and kept formal and, at times, extensive minutes. Members of the Board and committees and Festival staff communicated to the outside world through written correspondence, press releases and Festival advertising and programs. This archive allows us to reconstruct key events in Australian cultural history and address the critical questions they raise about the confrontation of a colonial culture with the emergent dynamic of modernism in the post-war period.

The Archives

To sit in the quiet of the reading rooms at the National Library of Australia, the State Library of South Australia and Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide is to enter the archive. The documents we seek, scan, decipher and read cover only a short period from 1959 to 1964, and while we hone in on the details of dates, names and decision making with regards to the rejection of the two plays by Patrick White, we read for broader patterns, trends and styles of governance. We are aware of hierarchies of power and authority in the language of the last century and of boards and committees made up exclusively of white, wealthy, older, socially well connected men, of the kind who are, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous words, born to rule. The minutes of meetings, correspondence and newspaper columns – while allowing for the inevitable gaps in the recorded information – lead us to the view that the Board of Governors took a censorious stance not just towards White but also to Australian drama more broadly. At its second meeting on 5 May 1959, the newly formed Board reported that 'arrangements are in hand to select a new Australian Play', but noted that if one was not available, then 'an overseas play by a modern author not previously performed in Australia' would be acceptable. This arrangement played into the 'cultural cringe', which the critic A. A. Phillips described in the 1950s as 'the assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article'.

For Jacques Derrida, the archive is not only the place where public office or government records are kept, but it also houses the history of how 'men and gods command', making it the place where authority and social order are enshrined. These principles are not 'easy to archive', and the records and documents 'deliver them to us in indirect ways'. Hence, we read and encounter principles and practices that are not described in the printed word but are enacted within them, leaving impressions or trails in signatures, language usage and even grammar. The past reveals itself to the present by means of the critical, historical and theoretical techniques at our disposal. In this, we are assisted by the writings of Derrida, as noted, and also Michel Foucault on governance and Carl Schmitt on sovereignty. In addition, we refer to the studies of Peter Coleman regarding censorship, and Deana Heath and Nicole Moore on purity, censorship and regulation in the Australian context.

To read the letters informing White that the Governors had determined there would not be Festival productions of The Ham Funeral or Night on Bald Mountain is to return to a past when a few privileged and moneyed citizens exercised cultural authority over arts and literature, as with other aspects of Australian life. We go back in time to post-war Australia, where democratic values such as transparency, consultation and process have not yet entered the language of governance, management or communication.

The writer of the first letter of rejection concerning The Ham Funeral was the Chief Executive Officer of the 1962 Festival, Charles Wicks. He wrote, 'It is with sincere regret that I am writing to notify you that the question of having a production of your play "The Ham Funeral" in the 1962 Festival programme is not to be pursued further' due to its 'lack of box office appeal' (Figure 1.1). Wicks's letter has a formality that suggests the loss of face the Chief Executive Officer suffers on behalf of the Festival. The hanging phrase 'the question of having a production of your play' produces in the contemporary reader what Bertolt Brecht might describe as the jarring effect of historicization, offering us a distanced, less naturalized, view of the past. What sparks this effect are the impressions left by the syntax, the use of the passive voice, the rise in expectation and its sudden fall, followed by the proposition that it was all about a 'lack of box office appeal'. Wicks hints at a power struggle within the Festival: the 'question of having a production' will not be pursued. The words imply that discussion had been cut off by an unspecified power. These gestic affects, or attitudinal markers, help to uncover the Festival's historical secrets – the documents including official minutes of meetings and private correspondence lead the way.

As Derrida writes of the archive, it is both a place where original private or unseen documents are held, and a place where the documents are held under a kind of 'house arrest', held captive before the gaze and the interpretation of others. Archives are now more than ever a treasure trove of items to be digitally scanned and photographed by the modern researcher. Maryanne Dever, mindful of Derrida's notion of 'archive fever', offers an insight suggesting that 'archival research, like collaboration, relies on encounters, as well as the need to discover linkages and to test the limits and modes of history making'. The archives speak to each other and respond in different ways to the passing of time. The Festival archives held in the State Library of South Australia and the University of Adelaide archives that house the University's Theatre Guild collection, for example, reveal the increasing animosity between town and gown. The story of the Adelaide Festival's Board of Governors, The Ham Funeral and Night on Bald Mountain follows a sequence of acts in which documents are removed from storage and brought into the light of day, making the transition from private to public or, to cite Derrida again, evoking the 'relations of the secret and the nonsecret'. The archive and its collection mean that the events in Adelaide between 1959 and 1964 are built not around the great figure of the writer, White, or his supporters, but around the structures that produce the rejections at key historical moments and that resurface in our discussion of the place of art in contemporary society, which we take up in Chapter 4.

Not Censoring, Rejecting

The structure for the rejection of The Ham Funeral and Night on Bald Mountain was set up in the early stages of preparation for the inaugural 1960 Festival. The active exclusion of an Australian play was enacted as a struggle between the Board and the Executive Committee on the one hand, and the Drama Committee comprised of artists and arts administrators on the other. The Drama Committee was caught in a not so invisible structure in which it answered to the first two in the Festival's organizational hierarchy. Its composition was also determined by the Governors so that it frequently found itself divided in opinion, giving rise to conflicting Majority and Minority Reports. For the first but not the last time, the Drama Committee provided Majority and Minority Reports over a proposal to include Gabriel Lawson's The Beast in View and Alan Seymour's The One Day of the Year as the Australian plays in the inaugural Festival. Later, Bishop reported to the Executive Committee that members of the Drama Committee had complained that the rejections would amount to 'a loss of integrity and a lowering of the standard of the Festival'. Nevertheless, the Board considered The Beast in View 'too indelicate and offensive to perform', while others considered it to be a fairly amateur effort still 'in need of a lot of work'. The play, which represented social intimacy and sexualized violence in a shared house in Sydney, went on to be performed at the University of Adelaide's Union Hall theatre in 1959 before being largely forgotten.

The One Day of the Year was another matter. The title refers to Anzac Day, the hallowed day on which Australians and New Zealanders remember the soldiers who lost their lives in the First and Second World Wars. In the eyes of Seymour's central character, Hughie Cook, a university student, the day has descended into a meaningless ceremony that glorifies war and ends in a maudlin drunken reverie. The conflict between Hughie and his father Alf, 'a bigoted old digger', explores the generational divide in the post-war era in a way that attempts to reconcile both sides. In rejecting the play, Governor R. N. L. Hopkins claimed that it 'distorted the truth. It denigrated fine men who helped save their country from invasion'. Historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds note the significance of the Drama Committee's choice of play for the first Adelaide Festival and the Governors' intervention on behalf of the Returned Servicemen's League. They see these factors as indicative of the divisive effects of 'militarism and intolerance' even if denunciations of the play were couched in terms of national unity. Rejecting the play was a major error on the part of the Governors. It went on to have more than forty productions between 1961 and 1982, including a four-week season at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London where it received good reviews. It was then listed on Australian school and university department reading lists for many years to come.

Still committed to presenting a new Australian play for the first Festival, the Drama Committee held a playwriting competition to find a replacement for The Beast in View. Alex Symon's Goodbye to Number Six was the winner, and the play was presented at Union Hall. West Indian-based British playwright Errol John's Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (A Play in Three Acts) replaced Seymour's play. Murder in the Cathedral at Bonython Hall, sponsored by the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in association with the Guild, and Scenes from Shakespeare, featuring British Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit and his wife Rosalind Iden, were the main stage theatrical productions. At a recent restaging of Goodbye to Number Six, Michael Symons, grandson of the winning playwright, recalls:

The play [Goodbye to Number Six] won the first Adelaide Festival of Arts playwriting competition in 1960. I was young, but enjoyed that short opening season, which was probably its last, until we gave Goodbye to Number Six its recent airing. Our interest came from its author being my grandfather, Alex Symons. Detracting from family pride, however, the play had only won and been performed because the conservative board running that first festival had over-ruled the experts' recommendation, which eventually proved to be one of Australia's most enduring plays, Alan Seymour's The One Day of the Year.

The Governors revealed an animosity towards Australian-authored drama that dealt with contemporary social and political issues. It was not a matter of simply rejecting an untried unknown writer but of policing the attitudes that might offend the Board's friends and financial backers. After the Board's rejection of The One Day of the Year, a clearly annoyed Drama Committee reaffirmed 'its view that the production of a first-class Australian play was an essential part of the festival'.


The Board of Governors gave itself the authority not only to contain the financial risk of programming untried new works but also to mitigate the existential risk of dealing with the unknown. Ulrich Beck writes that although risk, threat and insecurity – along with 'inscrutable' ambiguity – have always contributed to the precarity of human life, industrialized secular societies are intent on minimizing and managing risk. In this equation, prudent management is elevated to a virtue, while risk-takers who fail are labelled dreamers and losers. Balancing risk, prudence, and management with those of innovation and enterprise is a familiar feature of neoliberal societies, but in the 1960s these elements were less systematized or regulated and were instead bound up with Christian values. Risk, as Beck notes, has historically been managed through pacts made with God, Fate or the Devil. Using theatre as a metaphor, he imagines, 'When risk appeared on the stage, God had to renounce his role as lord of the universe, with all the subversive consequences that this entailed.' The behaviour of the Adelaide Festival's Board of Governors suggests it sought to remove risk and, as befits a Christian nation, allow God to take charge of the universe. The subversive content and form of The One Day of the Year, and later The Ham Funeral and Night on Bald Mountain were not to be allowed to undermine the religious themes of the 1962 Festival's showcase productions of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood and Archibald MacLeish's JB, based on the Book of Job. White's plays, with their themes of abortion, sexuality, violence, alcoholism and incest, and their hybrid tragi– comic genre, revealed to the Governors not a bold new stream of dramatic writing but a risk-management crisis requiring the curtailment of the unpredictable.

A Climate of Censorship

The discourse on literary censorship in Australia offers a broader view of the ways in which culture was governed from Federation and sheds light on the attitudes likely to have shaped the views of the Board of Governors. Despite the cultural cringe, which privileged imported art and culture over the local, studies of the censorship of imported literature showed that deference to Britain and America had its limits and was modified by a regime that was also fearful of importing impurity and obscenity. Debates about obscenity in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Britain continued to play out in its former colonies for many decades. In her examination of the politics of moral regulation in Britain, India and Australia, Heath argues that postcolonial Australia strove to be 'purer', 'cleaner' and 'whiter' than Britain. This applied in particular to the regulation of books and periodicals imported from the imperial metropole of London. Jill Julius Matthews claims that despite sexuality being 'a core element in the meaning of modernity', as documented by Sigmund Freud and Foucault, postcolonial society has actively disavowed its representation if not its practice. As she writes, 'From the 1920s, critics and officials were proud to announce that Australia had one of the most stringent film censorship systems in the world.'

Of interest to this book is the way in which Heath refers to the regulation of obscenity as a drive – as in a moral crusade that also has an inarticulate psychosexual dimension. The 'drive to regulate the obscene', the drive for balance and the elimination of impurities and matter 'deemed beyond representation or that is beyond the accepted norms of public display' have links to Foucault's description of biopolitics, the moral imperative to manage and regulate bodies. However, where Foucault understands the regulation of bodies as 'a strategy', a 'set of mechanisms' or 'procedures', through which the 'basic biological features of the human species become the object of a political strategy' to do with power, Heath emphasizes the psychosexual Freudian dimension of the drive. This dimension seems to apply to the Governors' exercise of power in a jurisdiction that is imbued with personal relations and taste. The Ham Funeral's reference to an aborted foetus in a dustbin and Night on Bald Mountain 's references to alcoholism, incest and suicide confronted the Governors with abject matter and the unregulated extremities of human behaviour. The drive to regulate bodies – particularly those of females, or others deemed to be different – frequently exceeds rationality and enters the realm of affect, hysteria, moral outrage and extremism. The aim of the regulation of obscenity, as Heath argues, is to implement a biopolitical project to do with controlling bodies, gender and sexuality. From Foucault, we learn that the application of biopower is a structural principle, less concerned with individual bodies than it is with a constant intervention of governance over life, including the management of humans as a species and a population. Though the Governors mimic the operations of biopower in the microworld of a festival of arts, their broader view is the preservation of a colonial world and its governance. Biopolitics is the politicization of the basic functions of life – nutrition and also birth and death. It turns the body into an abstract and quantifiable object. In his 1978 lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault dates biopower to the period of empires and colonies: 'starting from the eighteenth century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species'.


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Copyright © 2018 Denise Varney and Sandra D'Urso.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations;



1. The Archive, Governance and Sovereignty;

2. ‘Words Fail Me’: The Ham Funeral and the 1962 Adelaide Festival;

3. Night on Bald Mountain and the 1964 Adelaide Festival;

4. The ‘Clowns’ Who ‘Cling to the Past ’: Sovereign Decision and the Practice of Exclusion;

5. The Sovereignty of the Plays and Opportunities for New Publics; Index.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘This timely book emphasizes the vitality of Patrick White’s plays and his contribution to current Australian theatre. Although White’s 1973 Nobel Prize was for his novels, Denise Varney and Sandra D’Urso present a compelling and detailed case for the drama’s enduring status. Their thoughtful exploration of the 1960s rejection of White’s drama reveals a radical challenge to types of modernist governance and sovereignty including the Australian separation from British culture.’

—Peta Tait FAHA, Emeritus Professor, Theatre and Drama, HUSS, La Trobe University, Australia

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