A Response: The Secret River | Arts Centre Melbourne presents A Sydney Theatre Company Production

March 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

The author lives. Despite protestation to the contrary, we must now reasonably conclude that the author still plays an integral role in both the context and the reception of a piece of art. It is with this declaration in mind that we turn to Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River.

First, however, we need to contextualise the issues. My first case study is this: last year Best American Poetry published a poem written by an Asian-American female, or so the editor was lead to believe. It turned out, however, that the author was a white male. This ignited a discussion about race and marginalisation that dramatically illustrated the continuing importance of authorship. While some would argue that the blind publication of the poem proves that authorship is irrelevant to the reception of a piece of work, this ignores why the piece was published in the first place, namely to include more people of colour in the annual, thereby reaffirming the importance of the author. Furthermore, those within the community, whose identity was misappropriated, argue an incident like this adds to their erasure from the socio-cultural fabric. An already privileged individual is exploiting a marginalised group for personal gain — therefore the artistic act is not a matter of ‘righting wrongs’ but of an individual colonising an identity for capitalist gain (as well as artistic notoriety, one presumes). This example typifies a wider response to contemporary practices concerning authorship. In particular it illustrates the way that marginalised groups and concerns are not treated as serious until a white man says exactly the same thing. Women often bare the brunt of this; during group situations a woman’s voice is often ignored or overlooked until a male raises her points.

Moreover, this case study elucidates the way that the Other is often reduced to their trauma; the idea that they cannot talk about their place in society unless it is about their suffering, which perpetuates the notion that to be Other is to suffer (how many ‘gay’ films have you seen that don’t involve HIV?) It is incredibly difficult for those seen as different to then talk on behalf of ‘the everyman’, as they can only be seen through the lens of their Otherness — even though those who can speak on behalf of ‘the every man’ (straight white men, by and large) actually do not represent the majority at all. The fact is, this case study is not an isolated issue and it typifies a broader philosophical discussion that gets to the heart of what is corrupt at the centre of modernity.

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Copyright Sydney Theatre Company 

Let’s further unpack the ideas at work here because it’s a fraught space to operate in, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Representation and artistry are complex and it is difficult to rationalise the significance of who tells what story after so many decades of post structural thought contending the opposite; both Barthes’ text, as well as Eco’s Poetics of the Open Work play a large role here in shifting academic concerns away from the author as the be all and end all. This contributed to the change in teaching practices, which once privileged authorial intent and now focuses on the reader’s response; a significant leap in thought. Indeed, there is a fallacy that specifically calls out those who try and ascertain the author’s intent, it’s called the intentional fallacy.

However, we must now conclude, and move forward with, the understanding that this is not the entirely the case; a work and its reception is inextricably connected to its author. Many will continue to argue against this. After all, the concept is anathema to many artists; who can and should dictate what an artist can write about? An essential component of being a creative is empathy, understanding, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and writing (or otherwise creating) complete works of fiction that resonate with an audience. Moreover, whatever work is created is necessarily not real, it is a representation; it is art, an abstraction. And an artist and a work cannot speak on behalf of all people everywhere; nor can they successfully accommodate the multiplicity of Beings in the word (nor the multiplicity within each Being). There are limitations. When a chair on stage becomes both an actual chair and the idea of a chair, it is hardly the exclusive fault of the author and they can’t be expected to alleviate this shortcoming by putting all chairs on stage. That’s impractical. However, this conclusion is inevitably the case. When a chair is placed on stage, it is a stand-in for all chairs.

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Copyright Sydney Theatre Company

Herein lie many of the problems that Plato points towards in The Republic, particularly in book ten where he discusses art explicitly. The argument being that there is the idea of a chair, an actual chair, and then a painting of a chair. The painting is so far removed from the idea—it is an imitation—that there is something untrustworthy about it. While this may seem like a minor quibble—what does it mean to be ‘untrustworthy’? —It speaks directly to our current conundrum, whereby a body on stage comes to represent all bodies. Where an individual becomes a stand-in for all who appear the same, how can we trust this representation of a person? It is untrustworthy. When a character is reduced to a stereotype, a particular trait, and so on, we bemoan that not all [x] are like that. Instead we look for complexity, and, although a contentious word, truth — as well we should. But as audience members searching for representation—to see ourselves and our world—we often struggle with and criticise a work of art that does not live up to our expectations, or do justice to a particular viewpoint or experience. And if we don’t, someone else does. With so many intricacies in regards to this issue and people taking it quite seriously, it’s easy to see Plato’s philosophy at work.

His solution (to be taken seriously or not) is to remove all art from the republic. He makes a number of exceptions—as do all philosophers musing upon art (which always seem to be self serving, it’s worth adding)—and allows war poetry to remain. Those familiar with Plato and post structuralism will know that this deterministic thinking can lead to education as propaganda and a dangerous ‘right way’ of thinking about and exploring texts; it is particularly fascist and dictates what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. The notion of the death of the author induced a freedom in audiences, artists and those somewhere in the middle. And this emancipation from the all-powerful Idea should not be underestimated.

Yet, here we find ourselves, once again, arguing for the importance of the author. I want to briefly turn this discussion towards the current primary elections in the United States — what’s this got to do with Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River? Bear with me. The Democratic primary race is being fought by the white female Hillary Clinton, who is by far the most qualified for the job, and the white male Bernie Sanders, who is easily the most radical of the two, arguably promising greater social equity. However, as a white male Bernie has had a life-long privilege to pursue more radical thoughts. And Hilary has had to play the game. She has embedded herself so deeply in the system, played her role so well, that we are now sceptical that she is capable of the change for which many people cry out, and so they should. But it’s not as simple as that. The way the system works is that those seen as Other must make themselves more and more like the ‘ideal’ in order to succeed; however, the catch is, once they reach the top, once the system finally permits them to reach it, the ‘ideal’ has changed and the candidate that is Other is lacking something else; something that those already like the ‘ideal’ have had the privilege to cultivate; in this case social reform. This is enormously disappointing for everyone because it means that revolutions will often be lead by those who embody particularly desirable characteristics. Though not always the case, it is very rarely the most disadvantaged that rise to the top, even during revolution. This is explored further in this article ‘Had Bernie been Bernadette — The heartbreaking truth about American patriarchy’. While this seems like a tangent, it sets the stage for my discussion of The Secret River.

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Copyright Sydney Theatre Company

It might seem like I am suggesting that an artist is limited to their immediate experience. I’m not. Playwrights are free to write whatever they want. I can’t think of anything worse than writing plays that are confined to characters like myself. What a boring world. In fact, I often write to escape my reality. Other times, when I see inequalities or injustices, it is my reaction to try and do something. They way I want to do something is often to write about it. Where we need to be cautious is putting words in people’s mouths or feeling as though we understand or can see things more clearly than them — see mansplaning. It’s tough because we want to help and it comes from a good place. But we cannot, or at least should not, exploit others. This may seem crippling or confusing, it may even feel like censorship, but we must take our lead from the voices within marginalised communities in order to better understand who should tell certain stories, ‘not about us without us’.

Otherwise, we are operating from a place of privilege, where we have the luxury (time, money, resources) to put together a production and in so doing take the narrative away from those it concerns. This is effectively cultural colonisation. I am not specifically levelling The Secret River with this critique but it bends dangerously close. And this production is an ideal place to open up these discussions. No doubt there were extensive consultations with indigenous groups about this text, and the play itself is based on a book (written by a white woman) that draws heavily on ‘historical’ evidence. I say ‘historical’ to draw attention to the fact that history is inevitably skewed, bias, and ultimately unknowable. That’s not to say we cannot learn from it. History is essential to our future.

The Secret River was written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield. It tells the story of convict turned free man William Thornhill and his family, who decide to claim some land along the Hawkesbury River, outside of Sydney. There are people already there, a family from the Dharug people. The act sets in motion a series of events that seems to suggest irreconcilable differences between the two peoples. It culminates in a brutal act (otherwise, why tell the story?) The play’s synopsis suggests that this play is a tale of two families, although, we are often positioned to follow the lives of the white people more closely. They are given histories, desires, and, in fact, the story begins with their arrival and ends with the fruition of their actions. If there is some solace to be taken, it is that the indigenous population were here well before the white man, and perhaps one day will outlast them. Time is long.

The process of creating this work seems to be diligent, consultative, and with a keen desire to confront past atrocities. By no means am I saying this is bad, it’s very good, and these processes must take place if we are to move forward. However, it’s all well and good for these two (white) men to take up the fight after generations of privilege and careers built off the back of it to then turn around and languish extraordinary amounts of money on this production but it’s because they can. They’re in a position to tell the story; others are not. I can understand how it feels like a case of damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What are they supposed to do, not confront the past?

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Copyright Sydney Theatre Company

Where are the resources being funnelled into producing similar scale productions that are helmed by other people though? In a nation where a ten-year-old indigenous girl commits suicide, I think we can safely say that more needs to be done. So is it good that this play exists? Yes. Is it important for (white) Australia to confront history? Undoubtedly. Is it great that main stage audiences see more indigenous actors on stage? Of course. Was I ashamed that I did not understand the native languages being used? I was. I don’t think anyone would suggest that this is a production that should not exist — or if there are, I cannot speak on behalf of him or her. However, it is so disappointing and disheartening that, like Hilary, the artists who created this must enmesh themselves (by birth and by choice) so thoroughly in the capitalist machine, that by the time they get to the top, some of the audience is expecting more. And we should. And so should the potential artists who can tell these stories if given the chance. If this play comes a year too late, it comes hundreds.

I am not an indigenous Australian. I cannot and do not mean to speak for the indigenous population of Australia. I am, in the scheme of things, very privileged. So ld I can sit about thinking about, writing about, and reading philosophy. What I see as the problem is that the current system blocks people out and by the time they get a chance to say their piece it’s already too late. Someone else has already taken the narrative. Those in a position to do so are almost always those who have had the privilege to sit and think about it.

After The Secret River most of the audience rose to a standing ovation. Ensconced in the Arts Centre we applauded. A woman near me wiped away a tear from her cheek, it glistened there like the diamond ring on her finger, “that was amazing,” she said. Her pearl earrings bobbed as she sobbed and her husband corralled her into the aisle, “that was amazing,” she repeated.

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