Men at Play: Masculinities in Australian Theatre since the 1950s

Men at PlayJonathan Bollen, Adrian Kiernander and Bruce Parr
Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, NY, 2008, XII, 215 + 26 ill.
Pb: 978-90-420-2357-4 | Order from Brill | Preview on Google

How are masculinities enacted in Australian theatre? How do Australian playwrights depict masculinities in the present and the past, in the bush and on the beach, in the city and in the suburbs? How do Australian plays dramatise gender issues like father-son relations, romance and intimacy, violence and bullying, mateship and homosexuality, race relations between men, and men’s experiences of war and migration?

Men at Play explores theatre’s role in presenting and contesting images of masculinity in Australia. It ranges from often-produced plays of the 1950s to successful contemporary plays – from Dick Diamond’s Reedy River, Ray Lawler’sSummer of the Seventeenth Doll, Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart and Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year to David Williamson’s Sons of Cain, Richard Barrett’s The Heartbreak Kid, Gordon Graham’s The Boys and Nick Enright’sBlackrock.

The book looks at plays as they are produced in the theatre and masculinity as it is enacted on the stage. It is written in an accessible style for students and teachers in drama at university and senior high school. The book’s contribution to contemporary debates about masculinity will also interest scholars in gender, race and sexuality studies, literary studies and Australian history.


List of figures | Foreword by the Series editor | Author biographies | Acknowledgements | Introduction

Chapter 1: What’s A Man To Do?

Focus play: Reedy River (Dick Diamond, 1953)

This chapter begins with a musical play written in the 1950s which depicts an Australian masculinity set in a seemingly more authentic rural past. Dick Diamond’s popular bush musical Reedy River (1953) was perhaps the most popular and most often produced Australian play of the 1950s and 1960s. It presents a nostalgic image of men and mateship in the context of workplace struggle in the pre-Federation era. The play carries some of the features and values that were associated with conventional Australian masculinity–the practical, rough-and-ready, have-a-go attitude which historian Russell Ward would later describe. Asking ‘What’s a man to do?’, the play’s central character Joe Collins confronts tensions in his transition from a nomadic working man-among-men to a domesticated husband and father.

Written during the period of the Menzies government and the Cold War, Reedy River’s idealised evocation of a rural Australian working-class masculinity offers a useful yardstick for evaluating masculinity in other Australian plays. In this chapter, we explore how Australian masculinity is differently theatricalised in Lola Montez (1958) and The Sentimental Bloke (1961), two musical plays with historical settings which also dramatise the tensions for men in choosing or transitioning between mateship and romance, labour and marriage. In devising solutions to the challenges of putting Australian men on stage, these musical plays forge an uneasy relation between the bloke-ishness of Australian masculinity and the theatricality of romantic sentiment. The chapter ends with a discussion of this uneasy relation between masculinity and theatricality in Nick Enright’s musical The Boy From Oz (1998).

Chapter 2: Fists, Boots and Blues

Focus play: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Ray Lawler, 1955)

In his lectures on The Making of Australian Drama published in 1960, Hugh Hunt found it “difficult to think of any Australian play which does not end up with a ‘blue’”. Hunt shared with the realist dramatists of the 1950s a conviction that emotional conflict was the key to effective drama, but he expected that conflict to be articulated in eloquent language. “When realism descends to the inhabitants of the backyard,” wrote Hunt, “conflict has to be couched in monosyllables and emotions have to take the form of physical violence”. Such a failure to express emotion through language is often also regarded as a masculine character trait, one in which emotional blockage accounts for acts of violence.

Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) epitomises Hunt’s observation that violent acts substituted for eloquent expression in Australian realist theatre. Yet in looking closely at stage directions in the play script and actual footage from productions, we explore how the ‘blue’ between Roo and Barney and Roo’s smashing of the doll were occasions, not simply where language gave way to inarticulate violence, but where male performers engaged new techniques of realist acting for expressing emotion. Indeed, inarticulate enactments of masculine violence abound in many of the realist plays from the late 1950s and early 1960s. So we also examine instances of violent action from Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart (1957), Barbara Vernon’s The Multi-Coloured Umbrella (1957), John Hepworth’s The Beast In View (1959), Peter Kenna’s The Slaughter of St Teresa’s Day (1959) and Ru Pullan’s Bird with a Medal (1961). The chapter concludes with a section on Gary’s House (1996), in which playwright Debra Oswald revisits the emotional inarticulacy of the Australian man. Gary is a practical man of action, a traditional bloke drawn from a vanishing Australia, who turns violence on himself in a shocking suicide midway through the play, only to reappear at the end as a ghost, cradling his baby with intimate emotion in a memory or fantasy of what might have been.

Chapter 3: The Bully and the Businessman

Focus play: The Bastard Country (Anthony Coburn, 1959)

Rethinking masculine violence in the realist plays of the 1950s and 1960s as a theatrical mode of emotional expression draws into question popular ideas about Australian men, their emotional inarticulacy and their habitual recourse to violence. What has developed in the decades since then is a critical perspective on the way realistic portrayals of masculine emotion in gender relations have naturally resulted in violence. This chapter focuses on those instances of violence that can be categorized as bullying. It looks at bullying not only as pathological aggression but also as a kind of policing of gender. In these instances bullying takes the form of public humiliation and punishment of members of the society who transgress accepted norms, especially boys or men who are perceived as deficient in terms of their enactment of conventional masculinity.

The chapter begins with an Australian play that toured widely in 1959. Set on a remote property in rural Victoria, Anthony Coburn’s The Bastard Country tells the story of John Willy whose war-time rape and murder of a woman in Greece is avenged by her husband who travels to Australia, infiltrates Willy’s family, marries his daughter, and finally kills him. Initially, Willy looks like the traditional Aussie battler who makes good through sheer brute force, hard work, grim doggedness and determination. But in a dramatic critique that anticipates later plays he is revealed as rotten to the core, a bully, a rapist, a murderer, an arsonist and crazed hostage-taker. We focus on his role as bully, especially the use of violence towards his two sons who are not yet adequately masculine to his mind.

The inherent violence of Australian masculinity was a favoured theme among the playwrights of the ‘New Wave’ as we demonstrate in readings of Jack Hibberd’s White With Wire Wheels (1967), Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed (1968), and David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971). It is a theme that Jack Hibberd recently revisited in Slam Dunk (1995). Indeed, violent acts perpetrated by men continue to animate performances and attract audiences for such plays as Marilyn Allen’s All the Black Dogs (1986), Gordon Graham’s The Boys (1991), Nick Enright’s Blackrock (1995), Daniel Keene’s Untitled Monologue (1998) and Ian Wilding’s Below (2000). But whereas violent acts may once have been considered the natural expression of Australian men’s national character, they are often now portrayed as socially marginalised, linked with features such as immaturity, unemployment, criminal delinquency, and other forms of social disadvantage. Alternatively, in other recent plays, masculine aggression is transposed, abstracted and even idealised in the competitive bullying of the business world. The chapter concludes by exploring the figures of the bully and the businessman and their convergence in John O’Donoghue’s Essington Lewis: I Am Work (1981), David Williamson’s Sons of Cain (1986) and Corporate Vibes (1999), and Tony McNamara’s The Cafe Latte Kid (1994) and The John Wayne Principle (1996).

Chapter 4: Black Men, White Men

Focus play: Burst of Summer (Oriel Gray, 1960)

This chapter explores what theatre can reveal about the interaction of masculinity, fatherhood and authority in recounting the history and imagining the future of race relations between Indigenous and white Australians.

Beginning with Oriel Gray’s Burst of Summer (1960), we explore plays by white Australians who have portrayed Indigenous male characters. These plays include David Ireland’s Image in the Clay (1959), Vance Palmer’s Prisoners’ Country (1960), Barbara Stellmach’s Dark Heritage (1964), and more recently Gordon Francis’s Gods’ Best Country (1987), Louis Nowra’s Radiance (1993), Nicholas Parsons’s Dead Heart (1994), the Marugeku production of Mimi (1996), Richard Mellick’s Welcome to Broome (1998), Hannie Rayson’s Inheritance (2003), and Katherine Thomson’s Wonderlands (2003). We describe two strikingly recurrent features in these plays. The first, which is also a feature in plays by Indigenous writers, is a crisis in masculinity indicated with the explicit absence of a husband and/or father figure. The second feature, more prevalent in plays by white authors, involves the physical abasement of a prominent male Indigenous character, often one who has started to achieve success in white society, or in some other way embodies the qualities of successful masculinity. According to an Indigenous character in Welcome to Broome, this abasement is how whites habitually imagine Indigenous Australians.

We then turn to some plays, mostly by Indigenous Australians, in which Aboriginal men and their patriarchal roles are not simply absent. These plays–such as John Harding’s Up the Road (1991) and Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead (2002)–actually dramatise the displacement of Indigenous men by figures of white authority. Other plays envisage and enact scenarios in which cultural practice–specifically the sport of boxing–is transmitted as an index of racial inheritance from father to son. Drawing on the long history of Aboriginal men’s involvement in boxing, Roger Bennett’s Up the Ladder (1990), Owen Love’s No Shame (1995), David Milroy and Geoffrey Narkle’s King Hit (1997), and Scott Rankin and Leah Purcell’s Box the Pony (1997) form a fascinating series of plays which require us to rethink from an Indigenous perspective conventional critiques of boxing’s masculinist stance.

Chapter 5: In the Theatre of War

Focus play: Rusty Bugles (Sumner Locke Elliot, 1948)

This chapter investigates how Australian playwrights have represented men’s experience of the Second World War and its aftermath in Australian culture. Over a period spanning two decades from the premiere of Sumner Locke Elliot’s Rusty Bugles in 1948 to its revival in 1964, we look at a series of theatrical productions–a revue, a ballet and a television play, as well as live theatre such as Ru Pullan’s Curly on the Rack (1958), Russell Braddon’s Naked Island (1960) and Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962)–in which men’s experiences at war are juxtaposed with their longing for suburban life at home.

In the second part of this chapter, we turn our attention to more recent theatre productions in which the legacy of the Second World War complicates the emergence of economic relations with the cultures of Asia. Productions celebrating Australian soldiers such as Nigel Triffit’s The Fall of Singapore (1987) and Richard Davey’s A Bright and Crimson Flower (1992) are examined alongside plays which reflect critically on Asian-Australian relations such as Jill Shearer’s Shimada (1987) and Michael Gurr’s Sex Diary of an Infidel (1992).

Chapter 6: Wog Boy Moves

Focus play: The Shifting Heart (Richard Beynon, 1957)

Assertively sexualised enactments by Greek-Australian actors in recent stage productions like The Heartbreak Kid (Barrett 1987), Wogs Out Of Work (Giannopoulous 1987) and Milk and Honey (Andreas 1994) and in feature films like Head On (1998), The Wog Boy (2000) and Fat Pizza (2003) have cultivated a transnational masculinity rendered recognisable as an energetic set of ‘wog boy moves’. The formation of this transnational masculinity, which also draws on Italian, Lebanese, Maltese, Macedonian and Turkish experience in Australia, may be traced to the post-war migration to Australia of men from the Mediterranean and to anxieties about their arrival disrupting the gender-order of Anglo-Australian life.

In the 1950s and 1960s, these anxieties about the transnational masculinity of new Australians animated performances of such new Australian plays as The Shifting Heart (Beynon 1957), The Promised Woman (Patrikareas 1963/2000) and The Young Wife (Martin 1966). And such anxieties still have the power to disturb and unsettle audiences to this day. For instance, our analysis of The Shifting Heart reveals how Gino’s trajectory out of the family home and into a world of dancing off-stage anticipates the trajectory of Ari, the young Greek-Australian in the feature film Head On. We also explore how erotic anxieties about this transnational masculinity may be responding to an aestheticised Anglo-Australian investment in classical culture. Looking at such productions as Charles Jury’s The Administrator (1955) about the Greek tyrant Dionysius, Brian Nason’s version of The Bacchoi (1970) or Michael Gow’s anarchic play on Greek love in Live Acts On Stage (1996), we trace the intricate relations between Australian imaginings of ancient Greek culture and a culture’s erotic investment in the transnational masculinity enacted among others by Greek-Australian men.

Chapter 7: Representing Gay Masculinities

Focus plays: The Fox in the Night (Barry Pree, 1959) and The Beast in View (John Hepworth, 1959)

In 1959, two controversial Australian plays premiered in Adelaide. A Fox in the Night, a prize-winner in the 1958 General Motors-Holden’s Theatre Competition, directed by its twenty-year-old playwright and seeming prodigy, Barry Pree, was remarked upon for its “ugliness and crudity”. The Beast in View by John Hepworth was a winner in the competition to select an Australian play for the first Adelaide Festival of Arts, but was rejected for production because it was, to quote Max Harris, “sexy, uncouth, and alcoholic”. The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild then staged it in a censored version. Both plays feature leading young male characters who are misfits, Michael Turney in A Fox in the Night on account of a lack of masculinity in the rural setting of a farmhouse near a small unnamed country town, and Bodge in A Beast in View because he is the outsider in a household of jaded, campy sophisticates in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Because of his uncharacteristic gender behaviour, Michael Turney is viewed as monstrous by his brutal father, whereas Bodge, a slaughterman, becomes a “monster” through his inability to cope with relationship pressures. Interestingly, both young men’s semi-clothed bodies are displayed during the course of each play, raising consideration of the intertwining of homoerotic inflections with heterosexual surfaces. This chapter focuses on representations of masculinity in these two surprisingly “queer” Australian plays staged soon after the premiere of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.

The intertwining of the homoerotic with the heterosexual surface is evident in other plays of the 1950s and 1960s until Dorothy Hewett’s Mrs Porter and the Angel (1969) made explicit its range of weak, effeminate and impotent homosexual characters. This little-seen play may be considered to mark the moment in Australian theatre when the love that dare not speak its name began to announce itself in unequivocal terms. From this important cultural period in the history of gay liberation onward, playwrights began unambiguously to represent homosexual characters and themes, although it was only after 1990, in conjunction with media and the market’s interest in gay sexualities, that a proliferation of plays about homosexualities and gay masculinities appeared. This chapter contrasts the generally elliptical and elusive references to male homosexuality in Australian theatre pre-1970 with the explicitness of works from 1990 to the present. An example is the guarded use of classical mythology in C.R. Jury’s The Administrator (1955) compared with Michael Gow’s unapologetic homosexual frankness in his use of Greek mythology in Live Acts on Stage (1996). Although A Fox in the Night and The Beast in View are the focus plays for this chapter, other plays to be considered from the earlier period are Hal Porter’s The Tower (1963) and Toda San / The Professor (1965), John Hepworth’s The Last of the Rainbow (1963) and James Searle’s The Lucky Streak (1966). Three recent books of memoirs by gay men who were active in Australian theatre during the 1950s and 1960s are also consulted regarding alternative masculinities: D’Gay Mates (2002) by Tweed Harris, Chapters and Chances (2003) by Reg Livermore and Little Black Bastard (2004) by Noel Tovey. We juxtapose early representations with a selection of more recent plays which depict a vast array of gay/queer masculinities–including Michael Gow’s Furious (1991), Alex Harding’s Blood and Honour (1990), Nick Enright’s Mongrels (1991) and Playgrounds (1996), Campion Decent’s Three Winters Green (1993) and Baby X (2000), and Timothy Conigrave’s Thieving Boy (1997) and Like Stars in My Hands (1997).

Chapter 8: Fathers and Sons

Focus play: The One Day of the Year (Alan Seymour, 1960)

Conjuring an image of the generation gap at the outset of the 1960s, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year (1960) marked a breach in the father-to-son reproduction of masculinity. The breach is physically enacted when Alf hits his son Hughie for showing disrespect to the ex-servicemen who march on Anzac Day: “That’s men like my father he’s talking about”, exclaims Alf to his wife in justifying his violence. Yet earlier in the play, Alf’s investment in his son’s social mobility beyond his own working class milieu is also physicalised when Alf kneels to clean Hughie’s shoes as Hughie studies statistics for a university degree in economics. Like the suburban men in Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962), Alf is already employed in the service economy (he operates a lift in a city department store) and is thereby displaced from the productivity of industrial labour and life on the land.

Drawing on economic concepts of labour, productivity and reproduction, this chapter explores the sexuality of father-son relations as enacted in Australian theatre since the 1960s. It proposes that widespread economic changes associated with the emergence of an information-based service economy, with globalisation, deregulation and the displacement of labour from rural and industrial sectors, have reconfigured the reproduction of masculinity in family narratives and affected new ways of enacting father-son relations on stage.

In later plays, such as Stephen Sewell’s The Father We Loved On A Beach By The Sea (1978), John O’Donoghue’s Essington Lewis: I Am Work (1981) and Tony McNamara’s The John Wayne Principle (1996) tensions arising from transitions between rural, industrial and service economies and from the way work practices alienate men from their families are dramatised to compromise the succession of labour from father to son. But it is sexuality that emerges as the most disruptive impediment to the reproductive ideal of a son following in his father’s footsteps. Richard Barrett’s Words Of One Syllable (1990), Elizabeth Coleman’s It’s My Party (And I’ll Die If I Want To) (1993), and Tim Conigrave’s Thieving Boy (1997) each stage dramatic confrontations between a homosexual son and his dying father; in Louis Nowra’s The Jungle (1995) an estranged father murders his homosexual son. Only in David Stevens’ The Sum of Us (1986), where the son reproduces the values of his working-class father and cares for his father after his stroke, is homosexuality cheerfully incorporated into the successions of family life. In the other plays, the difference of the homosexual son’s positioning within a reconfigured labour field compounds the sexual difference from his father. In Christos Tsiolkas’s Viewing Blue Poles (1999), for instance, heterosexual presumptions about fatherhood are explicitly challenged in a play that crystallises contemporary anxieties about economic change and sexual diversity as diversions from the traditional reproduction of heteromasculinity from father to son.

Chapter 9: Between the Sea and the Sky

Focus plays: The Multi-Coloured Umbrella (Barbara Vernon, 1957) and The Piccadilly Bushman (Ray Lawler 1959)

In the Australian literary tradition, the outback has long been a distinctive setting for dramatising the actions of white men. Representing the expanse of this landscape on stage was once a necessary challenge for an emerging national drama. Yet in recent Australian theatre this is no longer so. To countenance and critique contemporary projections of white masculinity into the future, we must look to the beach, to the sea and the sky, and to such practices as swimming, surfing, fishing, boating and flying.

In two plays from the 1950s, Barbara Vernon’s The Multi-Coloured Umbrella (1957) and Ray Lawler’s The Piccadilly Bushman (1959), the beach is represented in dialogue as an off-stage location where the elements restore passion to middle class life and reinvigorate relations between men and women. This passionately sexualised, potentially violent, yet ultimately restorative function of the beach is also deployed in other more recent plays such as Janis Balodis’s Wet and Dry (1986), where sex on the beach complicates relationships but restores fertility to life, Nick Enright’s Blackrock, where the beach is the off-stage scene for the rape and murder of a girl yet also the scene for the play’s reconstruction of male-female relations as 17-year-old Jared finally lets his younger cousin Cherie use his surfboard, and Michael Gow’s Away where reconciliation is effected by both a violent storm and an offstage walk along a beach by two of the central characters.

In other plays including Half Safe (Hodda 1990), Thieving Boy (Conigrave 1997), Certified Male (Nicholas and Rankin 1999), Alive at Williamstown Pier (Cole 1999), Life After George (Rayson 2000), Half and Half (Keene 2003) and James and Johnno (Forde and Forde 2004), images of flying, fishing and swimming act as a solvent on troubled relations between fathers and sons, brothers and mates. In John Misto’s monodrama Sky (1992), for instance, a father mourns the loss of his son who disappeared whilst flying solo over the sea. An explanation for the disappearance is that the pilot suffered from ‘the twilight syndrome’ where sea and sky look so alike that a pilot becomes disorientated and loses control of the plane. A similar kind of confusion about sea and sky is evident in the stage adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet (Enright & Monjo 1998) where dreams about water, sky and stars and images of boats, beds and bathtubs create a fluid world for brothers Quick and Fish Lamb. In these plays, an exposure to the sea and the sky may have a restorative effect on men who are incapacitated, incompetent or somehow incomplete. But in projecting a future for white masculinity onto horizons at sea these plays may also inevitably turn their back on the land.

References | Index

Related publications

  • Bollen, J. ‘Revisiting and Re-imagining The One Day of the Year’, Southerly, 77/1 (2017), 92–105. Simultaneously published by the Copyright Agency at Reading Australia, 
  • Bollen, J. ‘White men, wet dreams: fishing, fatherhood and finitude in Australian theatre, 1955-2004’ in Something Rich and Strange, eds Susan Hosking, Rick Hosking, Rebecca Pannell, Nena Bierbaum (Adelaide: Wakfield Press, 2009), 62–74.
  • Bollen, J. (2005) ‘Remembering masculinities in the theatre of war’, Australasian Drama Studies, 46: 3-19. Awarded the 2006 Marlis Thiersch Award for Research in Theatre Studies by the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama & Performance Studies.
  • Bollen, J. (2006) ‘Boxing the man: fighting the choreography of gender, race and generation in recent Australian theatre’ in What A Man’s Gotta Do? Masculinities in Performance, eds Adrian Kiernander, Jonathan Bollen & Bruce Parr, Armidale: CALLTS, 152-169.
  • Kiernander, A., Bollen, J. & Parr, B. (eds) 2006, What a Man’s Gotta Do? Masculinities in Performance, Armidale: CALLTS. ISBN 1921208023.