October 27, 1994

Drama and Screen Studies I

Lecture: Sweetown: Silent Legacy

NB. It is essential that you first read the text of Sweetown- distributed in tutorials some weeks ago. If you don’t have a copy please collect one from the Drama Office. On Monday 31 October at our 2pm session members of the original Red Shed production of Sweetown will present a reading. Please make sure you attend, it is an ideal opportunity to get a sense of the comedy and theatrics of the play. The actors will also discuss the production in a question-and-answer session after the reading.

Appropriately we are concluding the year with a pair of Australian texts – Michael Gow’s Away, our final reading for the year and, this week, Melissa Reeves’ Sweetown.

If there is some sense of local pride in my comments it is because this play is in many respects a product of Drama studies here at Flinders.

To begin with, some background on the Red Shed Company- from the entry I’ve written for the forthcoming Currency reference book: A Companion to Theatre and Dance in Australia.

Red Shed
Theatre Company, Adelaide

The Red Shed Company was set up in 1986 by enterprising final year students at Flinders University Drama Centre. Faced either with a lack of local opportunity or migration to equally uncertain interstate theatre work, a group of actors, writers and directors, encouraged by Drama Centre director Julie Holledge, secured the lease on the Red Shed, an inner city venue which five years previously had been home to Troupe Theatre.

The Red Shed Company (or the RSC as it was then waggishly known) reworked some of their campus work for public performances. They started with Sue Townsend’s Bazaar and Rummage and continued with productions written and devised within the company. Operating as a collective the Red Shed has always made consensus decisions on repsertoire and policy. Highlights in Red Shed seasons include Immaculate Deceptions (1988) a first play by Cath McKinnon, followed in 1989 by In Cahoots, a comic play about the Brownie movement, written by Melissa Reeves. David Carlin’s Frankenstein’s Children, a play about medical ethics, featured at the 1990 Adelaide Festival. Carlin also wrote Dog Eat Dog for the 1992 Festival. McKinnon’s A Rose By Any Other Name used expressionist techniques to examine domestic violence and the law and Melissa Reeves’ fine play Sweetown (1991) explored the vexed history of Aboriginal massacres. With such productions, and the vigorous restaging of new work from the UK such as Jim Cartwright’s Road and Frank McGuinness’ Carthaginians, the Red Shed has established a strong younger audience responsive to the frankly political, theatrically direct techniques of the company. Working in the round, often in promenade and frequently using comedy and music, the Red Shed has won over audiences with engaging, accomplished theatre.

Melissa Reeves , a graduate from Flinders Drama Centre has performed with Troupe Theatre and Circus Oz and written three plays for the Shed – In Cahoots, Miracle Mum, a nativity play commissioned by the Festival Centre, and Sweetown. In March 1994 Melissa Reeves won the coveted Jill Blewett Playwright’s Award for Sweetown. The prize was announced as part of the Premier’s Awards at the 1994 Adelaide Festival.

The play emerged from her own observations of Victorian country towns and character portraits improvised with the Red Shed company actors. But the source for the play’s central dramatic focus came from the expatriate Australian journalist John Pilger whose collection of essays, A Secret Country, in conjuction with a three part ABC documentary series, The Last Dream, offered a challenging and dissenting view of the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations. Amidst the Tall Ships and Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s complacent enthusiasm Pilger suggested a more self-critical perspective. For Aboriginal Australia there was much less to cheer about – especially since the celebrations insisted, as do some Australian historians, that Australian history only began in 1788. Interestingly, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992 and the steps towards implementation of the Mabo decision indicate considerably greater commitment on the part of the present Labor government than in the Hawke period. It might also be noted how entrenched attitudes against Mabo have proven to be -particularly in Western Australia.

Pilger, in the chapter entitled A Whispering in Our Hearts, recounts the disturbing, unofficial history of European conquest of the Aboriginal population and in passing refers to the fracas created in the Bingara Apex Club

Pilger pp.50-1. See Appendix 1.

In Sweetown Melissa Reeves artfully probes painful questions about past history. She identifies the impasse created when past events remains unacknowledged, when they are distorted by a constructed history, one that favours the conquerors and reinforces attitudes which were never tenable in the first place.

Alan Werther’s speech says it all

p.14 (all references to Sweetown script -Drama I handout)

Reeves shrewdly inserts some historical ironies into Werther’s 1965 predictions – much was to change with the loss of colonial preference in trade, in the destructive apparatus of the war in Vietnam (an important reference point in Away also) and in the technological change generated by the space program.

The preference for a history that makes us proud is an understandable one and Sweetown, which the Red Shed have toured extensively in country centres such as Alice Springs, carefully avoids confrontation with its audiences. But it intelligently examines the process by which a corrupt history becomes entrenched- and the effect on the community when this happens.

The opening scene illustrates the limitations of historical perspectives – You’re standing in a piece of history – says Mitch, this pub was built in 1865. If only walls could talk he says with unconscious irony, but then he is reminded that those particular walls were only built last year. Similarly the sense of history as something separate from the lives of all but the privileged few – the Alan Werthers who construct the history that pleases them- is emphasised when Mitch says – “You must go to the museum if you are interested in history.” But these are the same people who know nothing about previous Aboriginal settlement – “They said it wasn’t their line of expertise.”

Then we move to the Historical Society – and the much vaunted museum


Veronica the detective of history thinks she’s come up with a coup with Letitia Park – one of the influential Parks


Taking at face value the coincidence of names V presumes that Letitia Park has married her brother – not considering for instance that she could be a widow of someone named Park. Isn’t history wonderful she exults.

It is Alan, aware of the need to marshal history, to influence Editors and browbeat fellow citizens, has his own reasons for saying-

p.7 “These things have to be verified ..”

p.7 and Veronica returns to the fatuous list of European sacred sites. The cast iron replica of the bed the Man from Snowy River slept in, etc

But it is through the school system that our sense of history is shaped as we find in Miss Favishom’s class-

p. 15-16

The children begin with a song about English seasons and English birdsong. Then we have Miss F’s mnemonics a witty device by Reeves to highlight the mechanical nature of rote learning. The Greek Mnemon meaning `to remember’ links with the play’s larger theme of forgotten history. This process begins with Jack Greg

pp. 19-20

It is at this point that the hinges are found. Literal objects but also hinges of
memory and turning points for history – these hinges can swing forward- or back into denial and reinforcement of old falsehoods.

Memories begin to work for the townspeople p.26

Meanwhile at Apex tempers run about racial attitudes when Evan reminds Mitch of the time he suggested to two young black footballers that they might take their drinks out to the beer garden.

Melissa Reeves introduces a dream play element to the text when the liberated memories lead also to a freedom of the spirit – in Miss Favishom’s class, for Jenny, the publican’s wife, for Veronica and Ralph. The midsummer night’s frolic is only brought back to harsh reality by the bullying, insinuating tone of the local policeman – bringing the first indications of the backlash to come. This unfettering takes various forms- for Jenny it is thinking about her mother and her marriage , for the kids in the class it is a break from strict routines – “Shouldn’t we be doing history after music on a Thursday Miss Favershom ? We’re being spontaneous Anthony. Now lie down” !

The other anti-naturalistic feature of the play is the ghost of Alan’s great
grandfather. A silent presence in the scenes in the school, at the massacre site, even in the choir practice he provides a strong theatrical portent to the play. The clever use of the rehearsal to emphasise the dissonance surrounding the town is given more point with the lyrics of the hymn.


The conservative forces in the town rally as Alan Werther uses informal pressures to dampen the Apex plan. He uses pseudo history to deny the events


Again Alan states the sententious view of received history

p.47 “Yes. But there’s nothing to be gained by living in the past…”

For those like Jenny and Kay Favishom the pressures to conform are very considerable. The teacher is being investigated for unsound teaching practices.

p.49, p.51 “…it’s hardly going to change the course of history”

It is the point of the play that just such a step is what does change history – but it
is difficult and individuals must risk conflict and rejection to bring it about. It is too much for Kay Favishom, just as it is for Ralph quietly backsliding into revisionist re-interpretation

p.52 “There’s a very strong feeling…”

Meanwhile as the aged ladies of the CWA remember the genealogy of John Henry Jackson it leads to the worthy Alan Werther, a recollection they decide to forget just as the Apex Club choose to unremember their previous meeting

pp. 57-58

The play ends on a sardonic note- p.61 with the time capsule “preserving history for the future”


The capsule resembling a coffin, is filled with objects already, to us, from the past – the portrait of the Queen, the record of Click Goes the Shears, the teapot holder, the dead parrots, the Victoria Cross- it represents a false nostalgia. The hinges are included as buried history not the revealed kind. Alan doesn’t know when they’ll turn up again – but the ghost is there, next to its unquiet grave.

Sweetown gives no comfortable answers. Some have found the ending anticlimactic, too downbeat for the rest of the play. But the nearly thirty year span to our own moment of history suggests that that these memories can and should be countenanced. The Mabo discussion in the past twelve months indicates a preparedness to right history and rewrite it in the process. A play like Sweetown, with its intelligence, comedy and theatrical flair is part of this gradual, but historically necessary, shift in consciousness.


No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment