A warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders: This post includes images of deceased persons.
At the launch of his recent platform paper, Julian Meyrick proposed that “there has never been a foundational moment for Australian theatre… (Perhaps because) our defining moment as a nation came from fighting for the imperial power rather than against it. That has shaped us as a nation.”
I was thinking about this on Thursday when we were invited into the rehearsal room for Walking into the Bigness at the Malthouse. I was there for PWA’s dramaturgy internship and, in trying to reconcile what is currently a full-time rehearsal schedule with his role as dramaturgy mentor, Chris Mead invited us into the room. “It is an awful thing,” he said, “to subject a life to the structure of a play” before passing us over to Richard Frankland, whose life is currently undergoing just such a scrutiny. Richard talked us through what was in his mind as the first week of rehearsals draws to a close: the power of stories to create heroes for a community and how art is an urgent necessity, and not a luxury, for him. But there were other thoughts too. He told us that the average Indigenous Australian attends fifteen funerals a year in their community; that, if you are a child under the age of sixteen, you are twenty-six times more likely to be in state care if you are Aboriginal; that where his mob comes from – Portland, Victoria – was the site of almost 140 massacres, including The Convincing Ground massacre, the first documented massacre in Victoria, which saw between 60 and 200 people killed and only two young men survive.
It is almost impossible to reconcile this history with the image of a nation whose defining moment was fighting someone else’s war. Rather, I propose this: we are a nation typified by our wilful amnesia. Our defining moment was not ‘The Great War’ or even the unacknowledged war waged between settlers and our first people. Rather we are defined by our ongoing and deliberate ignorance of that unmentioned war. Because 140 massacres against a single people in a single district in a single state is a war and that there are no markers to indicate that it ever happened within the town of Portland is deliberate. It is a terrible sabotaging of our own terrible past.
I wrote all this on Friday before I heard of Tony Abbott’s hugely offensive comments at the Australian-Melbourne Institute keynote speech, which seemed to returned us to the shameful state of Terra Nullius we thought we had left behind: “I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.”
This slip speaks volumes of Abbott and his disregard for the indigenous peoples of this country, but what it says about Australia itself is equally as disturbing. Comments like this don’t erupt from nowhere. They come with their own heritage – centuries of it – which incorporates Terra Nullius, declaring Aboriginal people ‘fauna’, massacres, disease, displacement of communities, the systematic removal of Indigenous children from their families in order to ‘breed out’ a culture, the struggle for citizenship, for land rights, for political representation, for funding and so much more. This heritage must also include how such a history is spoken about in schools, in the media and in Parliament. It is disgraceful but (and I in no way say this to let Abbott off the hook) it is our national disgrace, not just his personal one. As I said on Facebook this morning, a New Zealand Prime Minister could not say such a thing and hope to keep their job. It is our willful amnesia that has brought us to the point where a Prime Minister can say such a blatantly offensive and untruthful statement and remain in power.
While flicking through my diary to find the quote from Meyrick’s speech, I found the following quote from Meyrick’s most recent platform paper, The Retreat of our National Drama:
“The late critic Harry Kippax (said) that he spent so long waiting for Australian drama to arrive he failed to recognize it when it finally came.”
I think the issue here might not be missing ‘Australian Drama’ (whatever that means) but that our identity is one that is unrecognizable to us. We are staring past our reflection in the mirror without a flicker of comprehension. Our identity is a constructed one, manufactured to illustrate not where we’ve come from but where we pretend we have come from. The actuality of our heritage has been distorted; manipulated and it is shameful. We should feel shamed.
So what does our ‘National Drama’ look like? Well, my guess changes daily. Today I think that, if it were to be an accurate portrayal of our national identity, it would probably look a lot like a bunch of white people avoiding eye contact as they stand on the site of a massacre they never acknowledge. And we are nailing it.
Thank you to my mother for reading and giving her always insightful feedback, which today included the warning “don’t get carried away with fabulous rhetoric!” Be sure to keep an eye out for Walking into the Bigness at The Malthouse. It is a very urgent work about a very great man.