Race Plays its Part in Andrew Bovell’s Work and Australian History

Understanding our history and its legacy has become a major theme of Andrew Bovell’s work, writes the acclaimed Adelaide playwright and screenwriter.

I have addressed it [our history and legacy] in three plays, Holy Day in 2001, The Chair in 2002, which was a part of a larger work called Fever co-written with Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Irine Vela and Christos Tsiolkas; and The Secret River, 2013, a play based on the novel by Kate Grenville.

Thornhill saw the old man and raised his gun. It went off with a puff of smoke. He thought he must have missed for the old man was still standing there, with a question on his face. Thornhill thought to answer, if he knew the meaning of the question being asked, before the old man’s legs collapsed beneath him and he sat politely down in the dust. Blood came from his mouth, just a trickle, like spit but so red. And then he lay down and kissed the earth with the blood from his mouth. And a great shocked silence hung over the lagoon.
Dhirrumbin, The Secret River (2013)

Holy Day, was a more brutal and unforgiving telling of this history. Like The Secret River, it culminated in a massacre of Indigenous people. But it was as much about the brutalisation of women by men in our history, and the misunderstanding of the landscape by the white colonisers, as it was about race. It took me more than 10 years to write. I kept putting it aside — it was too hard and I was too unsure of myself as a writer. I began it in the year of the Bicentenary, 1988, and it had its first production in 2001. The Secret River took much less time. I had the book, of course, and I was more confident by then and had greater control of my craft.

race-australian-history-play-andrew-bovell-adelaide-reviewAndrew Bovell

Some argued that The Secret River was more forgiving of its white protagonists than Holy Day was of its characters. Subsequently, its white audience found it easier to identify with these characters than they did with the harsher portraits of ‘whiteness’ in Holy Day. I think this was the point. It was too easy for the audience to dismiss characters such as Goundry in Holy Day as monsters and therefore to conclude that the crimes of our history were carried out by ‘evil’ men. In the Thornhills of The Secret River, the white audience encounters a family with whom they can more readily identify. The Thornhills have escaped the brutality and poverty of the English class system and now aspire to a brighter future for their children. But once the audience empathises with the everyman, William Thornhill, given what he does at the end of the story, they must then consider whether, if they found themselves in similar circumstances, they too would choose to participate in a massacre, in order to secure that better future. This is a confronting moment in the theatre. We see a connection between then and now; the distance between our forebears and ourselves no longer seems so vast. The play transcends its historical setting and feels uneasily current in its depiction of the relationship between black and white.

Most white people did not participate directly in the massacres of the first Australians, but they were complicit by remaining silent and prospering from the violent dispossession that took place. That complicity and silence has characterised our history and the argument around the extent of it continues to rage.

The interesting question for me as a playwright who has sought to tell this story is which approach is more effective? Holy Day is unambiguous in its conclusions and was a powerful story to witness, but The Secret River reached a much broader audience and had a more significant cultural impact. Looking at it now, though, I know that I couldn’t have written The Secret River without having written Holy Day first. And the earlier play, dark as it is, is a more poetic writing of our history.

It was dusk. The women had come in from gathering and had lit the fires. The children had been with them. They stayed down at the river to play in the last of the light. A group of older men were sitting near a large rock, talking about the activities of the day and about what would be done tomorrow. They would move on from this place soon and join a larger group for ceremony. Some of the younger men had gathered around the fires to see what the women had brought in. They were hungry and looking forward to the meal. One grandmother was angry and telling them to wait. Someone looked up and pointed. A white man was coming down the hill toward them. The women started calling the children. Two older girls ran to the river to bring them back. The old men got up and moved to meet the white man. They understood that he was afraid and was trying to warn them. They heard the shots coming from the other way. They looked to see a group of eight white men on horses crossing the river. The two girls that had gone for the children were the first to be shot. Several younger children fell quickly after. The women ran toward their children and were shot in turn. The men ran for their weapons and were cut down. One woman grabbed a small child and managed to hide her in the bush. But when she went back for another she too was shot. When the full brunt of the shooting was over twenty two people lay dead. Twelve of them were children. Another fourteen were injured. Eight had managed to escape in the bush. The old woman had been spared. Too old to run and too old to shoot. She sat by the fire and wept. The white men got down from their horses and shot the wounded. They made a pile of the bodies and set it alight. There was one white death. The man who had come to warn them. This is our history.
Obedience, Holy Day (2001)

Obedience is a young Indigenous woman who has been taken from her family and country and raised by Nora, owner of the Travellers Rest, as both a daughter and servant. In this scene Obedience becomes the witness to a massacre. At the end of the play, Goundry, the primary antagonist of the play, rapes her and then cuts out her tongue, ensuring her silence. As a theatrical gesture it is as symbolic as it is literal. In The Secret River, Dulla Djin, a Dhurag woman also witnesses a massacre. The event is narrated by Dhirrumbin.

Someone else survived that day. The one Blackwood called his wife, Dulla Djin. At the sound of the first shot she took her child and sheltered in the bushes where she watched the slaughter unfold. She wanted to turn away. She wanted to run. But she made herself watch. She knew that someone had to see this.
Dhirrumbin, The Secret River (2013)

Here there is a significant change between the two plays. Both women are cast as witnesses to this history. Where Obedience is annihilated and silenced, Dulla Djin escapes the massacre and understands the need to witness it. Importantly too, Dulla Djin escapes with her child, acknowledging the survival and continuity of the indigenous presence and culture. The emphasis here is placed on survival rather than annihilation.

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The Secret River at Anstey Hill Quarry (photo: Shane Reid)

The only fight I ever had with my father was over the question of racism. I declared at the dinner table that Australia was a racist nation. My father disagreed. He held the paternalistic view that we, the white people, were a superior race and needed to look after the Indigenous people because they couldn’t look after themselves. Not any more — after all they had suffered. He wasn’t without compassion. He understood that what had taken place in the past had been wrong. Perhaps he saw it as an unfortunate consequence of building a nation. It was a commonly held view at the time, and still is. The argument became heated. I pushed him. He stepped back and fell over a chair. I was shocked — probably not as much as he — but all the same I was shocked at my own violence. I was also ashamed because my father was a gentleman and a gentle man. But what was more shameful was that I walked out and left him floundering on the floor. Later, he quietly said: “You need to watch that temper of yours, son.”

This is an extract from the new Platform Paper by Andrew Bovell, Putting Words in Their Mouths: The Playwright and Screenwriter at Work, published by Currency House

Header image:  The Secret River at Anstey Hill Quarry (photo: Shane Reid)

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