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Patrick White’s Theatre: Australian Modernism on Stage, 1960-2018 by Denise Varney

Posted by Sydney University Press | Jun 24, 2021

A new book charts the remarkable transformation of Australian theatre over the past sixty years.

Patrick White is one of the giants of Australian literature and the only Australian writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his writing for the stage has always divided critics.

Sixty years ago this year, White’s play The Ham Funeral was famously rejected by the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, whose conservative board criticised White’s “difficult, expressionistic style” and “confronting material” and predicted that “the general public will find [it] … impossible to understand.” Six decades on, the play is still being staged by Australian theatre companies and has been described as “a triumph of imagination over mediocrity” (Geoffrey Dutton) and “one of the strangest plays by an Australian author” (Elissa Blake).

In a new book to be released on 1 September, Denise Varney, Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne, argues that White’s plays offer a window into the seismic shifts that have transformed Australian culture since he wrote them. When White’s earliest plays debuted in the 1960s, Australian theatre was dominated by the “backyard realism” of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. With their experimental style, bizarre sets, and satirical take on Australian life, White’s plays baffled their first critics. “They were championed by a small cohort of literary and cultural figures,” Varney explains, but “the prevailing view was that White’s plays were unsuitable for public performance.” When White’s work was embraced by a younger generation of directors and performers, including Neil Armfield, Robin Nevin and Kate Fitzpatrick, his plays assumed a new importance on the Australian stage.

Nikki Shiels and the cast of STC’s 2018 ‘A Cheery Soul’ by Daniel Boud

Varney explores how White’s eight plays have been staged and received during his lifetime and since, drawing on White’s correspondence and on interviews with directors and actors. She considers White’s work in the context of broader currents in Australian and international theatre and offers close readings of his playscripts, including his famously detailed stage directions.

Patrick White’s Theatre: Australian Modernism on Stage 1960–2018 is essential and fascinating reading for anyone interested in Australian theatre.

*The Patrick White Playwrights Award has been an annual initiative of the Sydney Theatre Company since 2000. It is held in honour of Patrick White’s contribution to Australian theatre and to foster the development of Australian playwrights. In 2010 an additional prize, the Patrick White Playwrights Fellowship, was introduced to recognise and support more established Australian playwrights. The awards are designed to benefit both emerging writers and mid-career writers, which together have a total prize pool of $32,500.

Angus Cerini was appointed Sydney Theatre Company’s Patrick White Playwrights Fellow in May, while Ra Chapman won the Patrick White Playwrights Award for her unproduced play K-Box. ” K-BOX gives voice to the adult adoptee experience, and explores the complexity of family and belonging. ”

Cerini is well known to STC audiences for his plays The Bleeding Tree (2017) and Wonnangatta (2020).

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