A transcript of the inaugural Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture delivered at Belvoir St Theatre in 1995. It served as the springboard for the later memoir: Blood & Tinsel.
Rex Cramphorn was a gifted theatre director who relished ideas. He was certainly a great advocate of theatre having a philosophical base, and for many he was a guru in the area of performance. He emerged from Brisbane in the 1970s, and along with his fellow Queensland contemporaries David Malouf, Rodney Fisher and William Yang, has contributed mightily to the arts in this country. I’m sure Rex would be grateful that his friends have established, in his name, a public forum for present and future generations of theatre artists to offer their views on our theatre and our culture.
Historically, we have had little concern with acknowledging and recording the work of our theatre practitioners. Without the patience and tenacity of Philip Parsons and Katharine Brisbane in establishing Currency Press, we wouldn’t even have a record of the decades of drama that now constitute the basic literature of our theatre. As for the history of our actors, directors and designers, the written record of their lives, times or ideas is minimal. What does exist tends to be a dry-facts rather than a living document of their thoughts and experience. Mention the roll-call of previous generations of Australian directors who were influential in the creation and shaping of our theatre culture – Robert Quentin, Stefan Haag, Robin Lovejoy, John Sumner, Tom Brown, Peter Summerton, John Tasker – and they would mean next to nothing. Theatre practitioners are like a lost tribe with only an oral tradition handed down erratically from person to person, usually as gossip. Without access to history, the growth of our theatre is inhibited. For while an absence of tradition can be liberating, it can also be wasteful as each new generation earnestly sets about reinventing the wheel. The value of the Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture is that, over time, it might fulfil an important role in correcting this regrettable situation.
Australian theatre began with the corroboree, a ritual dance-theatre integral to the lives and culture of its community. It continues in tribal situations, though city dwellers are more likely to come across the tourist version; the subtle influence of this important tradition remains in fine theatre pieces such as Bangarra’s Ochres or Meryl Tankard’s Furioso. The notion that theatre, and art in general, are divorced from life and its rituals, as a diversion from life, took root with the arrival of European culture. It is now the accepted view. Storytelling would also have been part of traditional culture. In the legends and tales crucial to any society is a direct connection between past and present It’s a small step from the tribe clustered in a cave around a storyteller silhouetted by a camp-fire’s reflected flames to our modern tribes gathered in a theatre, or in that labyrinth of caves known as a cinema-complex. A movie audience sits in the dark, hypnotised by coloured light reflected onto a sheet, collectively agreed that this play of shadow and light represents real people in real situations, telling of universal legends. Most of these legends, incidentally, are manufactured in America.
This last fact should not be overlooked. It explains in part why resources are readily available for film and television, while theatre remains the poor relation. The power of technology to create images to amuse, enslave and inspire the masses has not been lost on imaginative governments: the American domination of this century has been accompanied by such images. Earlier, the tiny island of Britain was accompanied in its mercantile and imperial pursuits by the plays of Shakespeare, the sound of Gilbert and Sullivan and quotations from the English Bible. Only a little of this influence now remains. British musicals have successfully replaced Gilbert and Sullivan, while the finest Shakespearian actors are often reduced to a reflection of British political leaders, playing butlers in American movies, usually offering beautifully intoned advice to chunky super-heroes.
Politics aside, our modern tribal gathering is engaged in what has been termed ‘public dreaming’, an extraordinary act of imagination by the audience. Let us rid ourselves of the notion that the long-suffering audience lacks imagination. Whether we’re at the movies, collectively accepting that a spray of light is a person or place, or in the theatre, moved by an actor to summon up images of other worlds, we in the audience are active players in the game of art. Theatre exists in that mysterious imaginative space between the artist and the audience. In an age dominated by the novelty of new technology, over-obsessed with often useless and distracting information, it is one of the last of the cottage industries servicing the human imagination. Theatre is a tiny realm of the imagination that nonetheless maintains the power to influence our thoughts, our feelings and our actions in the greater realm of human society.
For me, theatre is at its purest and most alive when it appeals directly to the imagination, when it offers the least literal and most poetic use of words and images, when it acknowledges the presence of the audience, and requires its active participation in what amounts to a spiritual communion. This is the alchemy of artists and audiences creating, out of the air, something that is not actually present; it hovers in the air, in the realm of the imagination.
My own introduction to this kind of theatre was at the circus. I grew up in a world of travelling sideshows, carnivals, circuses, boxing troupes, Chinese acrobats and tent-show vaudeville. These forms of theatre, moving around the country from town to town in an age before television and advanced communications made them redundant, would now be seen as primitive, possibly romantic and certainly nostalgic forms of entertainment. These entertainments – for they had no loftier purpose – offered some valuable and enduring insights into the nature of performance. I have recollected this early influence of circus and carnivals in a short piece entitled The Aerialists, written to commemorate the sixtieth birthday of Barry Humphries, an Australian theatre artist whose work owes a great deal to these traditions, and to whom we all owe a great debt.
Before being shuffled off to school, I filled in time around showgrounds, sideshows and, especially, the circus. I came to admire those artists who performed on the trapeze and the high-wire – the aerialists. Artists who worked without a net seemed to my young eyes the true aristocrats of this vagabond world and the real icons of the circus. It was only for the aerialists that the crowd would hold its collective breath. My strongest memory is of a masked face, fear painted white, with a slash of red lips and a blotch of blue mascara, nailed to the sky-blue canvas by a cruel spotlight – or was it, in my child’s imagination, an apparition from the heavens? Anyway, Icarus incarnate. A drum roll would cut through the dusty silence and we, the voyeurs, surrendered to a shared hallucination. A terrible clunking sound announced that the safety-net had dropped. Mortality hung in the air. A step, then a glide, suddenly a stumble. The crowd gasped before balance was slowly returned. Sighs of collective relief. A flourish, a bow, bravura gestures, wild applause, etc. etc. The beckoning void had been traversed and the tawdry world of canvas and sawdust had been transformed into grand architecture worthy of sacrificial rites.
I cannot name the force that was so miraculous in all this. It might have something to do with the electricity contained in the solitude of the endeavour. Certainly, I cannot forget it or erase the memory; it haunts my dreams and guides my own clumsy progress. I am, it seems, destined only to admire those artists who work without a net. Consequently, I admire very few. Barry Humphries sits high in my personal pantheon, up there with Patrick White and the astonishing German choreographer Pina Bausch. On reflection, this introduction to illusion through carnival life was ritual theatre at its most elemental: the circus, boxing matches fought in sawdust-strewn tents (an appropriate preparation for directing the plays of Strindberg!), Chinese acrobats in silken pyjamas spinning plates and then, bare-chested, leaping through hoops of fire. All this non-verbal theatre constituted a kind of dance, communicated without words, beyond words.
Australians have always been suspicious of words, partly, I think, because of an innate distrust of language. David Hare once pointed out to me that the English have always used language and manners as weapons in global conquest and to keep people in their place. Presumably, it was in fine language that many of our ancestors were sentenced to deportation, to fill the convict ships and help populate the concentration camp from which this city has emerged. No wonder we’re suspicious of words. We prefer an ‘um’ or an ‘ah’ or an enigmatic silence. The landscape seems to encourage this silence. Perhaps it explains our suspicion of plays, and our pleasure at musicals and spectacle, our enthusiasm for opera in languages we don’t speak, the success of our dancers and painters and sporting stars and film-makers. Perhaps it is why our early silent cinema gained international popularity – until, that is, the introduction of sound. Recently it has regained some of this attention, partly through vaudeville-inspired films like Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Because they dabble in words and tend to judge things from a literary perspective, critics tend to be wary of films like these that tell their story essentially through images, music and dance; audiences love them. Not that there was any shortage of sound on the showgrounds. The beating of drums and clanging of bells added another essential element: rhythm. From the choral chant in a Greek tragedy, to the way a line is phrased in a play, or a door opens or a prop is put down, the rhythm of a piece of theatre communicates the meaning ahead of its literal sense. Language is merely the top-soil of a play, while its roots are in rhythm and action. It explains why Shakespeare, whose metric patterns represent the pinnacle of English language, also works so well in foreign languages. It’s why we can enjoy the Rustaveli Company performing Richard III in Georgian, or Kurosawa’s Noh Theatre inspired Macbeth – The Throne of Blood. It’s why we know within thirty seconds whether we like a film. The rhythm of the montage – action, sound, dialogue and editing – tells us. It’s what audiences respond to instinctively and why the same play can offer an utterly different experience from one performance to another.