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Why Australian Plays?

Why Australian Plays?
By Alan Seymour
Australia has been dominated culturally and theatrically by two major influences – the British, and more recently the American – and as a result whole generations of us has grown up without realising that far from being the normal position it is, in fact, quite strange that most of our entertainment is imported.
Despite brave efforts by professional management and some little theatres, Australian plays are still something of a rarity. This is hardly a healthy position for what we are continually told is a young and virile nation. A good case could be made for the decadence of contemporary Australia, if that term suggests, as I think it does, a lack of native vigour and a dependence on and aping of overseas ideas.
There is no reason why we shouldn’t have a theatrical diet fairly balanced between native products and imports, in fact we must have both if we are to keep in touch with the rest of the world and ourselves. Is the latter a strange idea? Let’s consider it. In a season of ten plays a year, why not five Australian ones instead of one, if you’re lucky? This may and should come. (And if this sounds like an appeal for a chauvinistic theatre, remember that most of our writers seem only too eager to embark on solid national self-criticism.) The theatre, historically, is a gauge of a nation’s “aliveness’.
Even if one doesn’t want so “committed” a theatre, plays which simply reflect certain phases of its life and its people are important to a nation’s sense of its own identity. At this point in our history Australians are so dominated by American culture (every day and night on our television screens alone) that. Whether we know it or not, we are a confused race, barely capable of self-expression. Without self-consciousness, in the best sense of the word, a nation doesn’t know what it is or where it is going. The theatre can show us aspects of ourselves we hardly knew existed; it can reveal the specific and essential character and temperament of Australian people so that we recognise ourselves with a sense of shock or pleasure. This, I submit, is what our theatre and our country need. And if that sounds a dour programme let me add that it certainly doesn’t preclude basic entertainment values.
The ideal theatre is one which brings us the plays causing most excitement and discussion overseas, those classics which have something pertinent to say to us today, and plays of our own country by our own Australia writers. This does not mean, by the way, that anyone is asking for a quota system in which plays, no matter how bad are foisted on the public simply because they are Australian. In any case, few managements are as sentimental as that! I imagine they judge Australian plays, like all plays, on their merits.
If theatre personnel and academic institutions now interested in theatre (such as the University of Kensington with its National Institute of Dramatic Art and its Playwrights’ studio) can channel the unexpectedly large amount of effort being spent by some Australian writers on what are at present largely profitless attempts to write for the stage, we could at last be in for some exciting times ahead.

Read more in Platform Paper 39 THE RETREAT OF OUR NATIONAL DRAMA by Julian Meyrick