Debra Bruch------------Associate Professor of Theatre -- Michigan Technological University

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A Cultural History of Australian Theatre

by Debra Bruch


    The main objective of this manuscript is to try to answer the question "What makes Australian theatre Australian?"


    I will employ a historical/cultural methodology to assess the interrelationships among events, beliefs, attitudes, and theatre practices in history in an attempt to answer that question. To attempt to answer the main question, I will also employ the ideas and arguments of Australian scholars.


    The broad strategy to attain this main goal corresponds with my overall plan of action in three stages:

    Stage one:

      Gather information about Australian theatre (who, what, when, where), and make a list of events in chronological order. Australian scholars who have supplied a narrative history are John Kardoss, A Brief History of the Australian Theatre, and Paul McGuire with Betty Arnott and Frances Margaret McGuire, The Australian Theatre: An Abstract and Brief Chronicle in Twelve Parts with Characteristic Illustrations. Works that offer a critical history are John West, Theatre in Australia and an unpublished dissertation by Virginia Kirby-Smith, The Development of Australian Theatre and Drama: 1788-1964. A publication of primary sources in theatre history with some critical assessment is Harold Love, ed., The Australian Stage: A Documentary History. What is not available through these sources are Aboriginal theatre and theatre in Australia from 1985 to the present day.

    Stage two:

      Engage in intense research in Australian scholarship and outline the entire manuscript. An outline will be the product of assessing theatre events by considering the weaving of how those events interrelate with historical events, broad societal beliefs, and attitudes into meaningful patterns. The source I am using for reference in Australian history is Manning Clark, A History of Australia (6 volumes).

    Stage Three:

      (1) Research Australian Aboriginal theatre and Australian theatre events from 1985 to the present. (2) Write the manuscript.


    An early assessment of patterns in Australian theatre history seem to break into six eras of theatre history. I've broken these eras into chapters:

    Chapter One: From Dreamtime to European Beginnings: Captains, Convicts, and Clergy

      Tentatively, this era is from ancient days to 1826. A goal of this introductory chapter will be to examine the roots of lasting beliefs and attitudes that impacted theatre practices in Australia throughout its history. Dreamtime is important because it was the heart of the Aboriginal culture that European settlers confronted in its early days. Also, today, Dreamtime permeates Australian Aboriginal drama, especially dramas written by Jack Davis. Attitudes by settlers toward governmental and church authority were forged during this time also, and made a lasting influence on why theatre happened the way it did.

    Chapter Two: Bushrangers and Mates: A Culture Emerges

      Tentatively, this era is from 1828 to 1849. A goal of this chapter will be to examine the struggle of Australians to plant theatre in the country. The hypothesis is that the struggle was the main impetus to begin to forge a culture different from any other, not only the struggle of theatre practitioners, but also of settlers. Two main struggles of theatre practitioners were to appease the authority of government and clergy, and of social attitudes that promoted the belief that England was superior to Australia. The first is in part evidenced by Levey's struggle to open Sydney's Theatre Royal (names of theatres also evidence the relationship between theatre and government) and social attitudes relating religious attitudes to theatre practices that can be found in the newspapers of the day, Sydney Gazette and Sydney Monitor. The second struggle -- the social attitudes that England was superior to Australia-- lasted beyond this chapter, although it became clear with theatre during this era. This is in part evidenced by the performance of The Bushrangers (the first distinctively Australian play) at the Caledonian Theatre, Edinburgh, in September 1829. The epilogue spoken by Miss Elizabeth Tyrer, written for the occasion, chastizes the playwright for not choosing a "fitter" subject to write about than Australia, the fitter subject being England.

    Chapter Three: Fossickers: Gold, Immigrants, and Influence

      Tentatively, this era is from 1850 to 1896. A goal of this chapter will be to examine the seemingly clash of cultures during this era and how theatre events handled this conflict. Fossick is an Australian slang word. To fossick means to rummage, to search for something in a haphazard manner, especially for gold or precious stones in abandoned diggings. The Fossicker is a character type unique to Australian drama and literature who are usually miscreants who seek the richest holes during the day, mark them, and plunder them at night. A hypothesis of this era is that cultural conflict created the attitude that Australians fossick other cultures in an attempt to reap the best theatre ideas and practices. This era in Australian theatre history seems to focus on a sometimes violent clash between opposing attitudes of social status, the influence of the gold rush on theatre, and an inrush of outside influences (mostly from England and America) and tours that helped shape theatre practices in Australia.

    Chapter Four: Dad and Dave: Identification and Nationalism

      Tentatively, this era is from 1900 to 1952. The goal of this chapter will be to examine how theatre proceeded toward trying to be truly Australian. A hypothesis of this chapter is that theatre was not able to achieve complete Australian identification because of the baggage it carried from its earlier days. This era was a transition period for the Australian theatre that had significant steps toward nationalism. One step was the production of On Our Selection at the King's Theatre in Melbourne in 1912. Audiences strongly identified with the characters Dad and Dave, and the script was a mine of Australian idiom and custom according to McGuire. On Our Selection represented Australia's nearest approach to a genuine folk-drama at the time. Also, the first known Aboriginal drama was written during this era.

    Chapter Five: The Ocker: New Wave Movement and the Elizabethan Theatre Trust

      Tentatively, this era is from 1953 to 1983. The goal of this chapter will be to examine the emergence of a unique Australian theatre. The Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in 1954. A hypothesis of this chapter is that its ties to the government and to England (both in name and early practice) inhibited its attempts to truly create a national theatre identified as uniquely Australian. What it did, however, was to forge the path for the New Wave Movement, which marks the breakthrough into a uniquely Australian theatre and drama. The Ocker (pronounced "ahker") is an Australian character type created during the New Wave Movement. Also during this era, Australian Aboriginal drama and theatre began to flourish.

    Chapter Six: To Eclecticism, Economy, and Cyberspace

      Tentatively, this era is from 1985 to the present. At this time, I'm not prepared to offer an hypothesis.

Investigation Resources:

    From my office at Michigan Technological University, I have been able to investigate aggressively by using the internet through Netscape, telnet, and gopher. Australian universities and archives have supplied a great of information over the internet. I've also used the internet to investigate articles in indexes such as the Arts and Humanities index. Also, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature offers an annual bibliography of commonwealth literature in Australia. I then use our library's interlibrary loan to study the works I need. In Australia, the Mitchell Library has a wealth of sources. The Mitchell Library requires an on-site search. Other libraries that have major manuscript holdings are the State Library of New South Wales, the Australian National Library in Canberra, and the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne.

Current Bibliography

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