December 19, 2015

Introduction to the Currency edition of Maggie Stone by Caleb Lewis

The Rising Debt of Gratitude: Actions and Transactions in Maggie Stone

It was Polonius, in Hamlet who said : “Neither a borrower or a lender be/ For loan oft loses both itself and friend.” He is right, of course, but like much of the old man’s advice to the young prince, it is a platitude; something easier said than done. It is not how we live in the world, because the world won’t let us.

In his insightful, engaging, sometimes grimly humorous, play Maggie Stone, Caleb Lewis tells us a story of present-day Australia, but it is one rarely told, even though the refugee experience is woven into Australian history, especially over the last seventy five years. This country has seen waves of re-settlement after the Second World War, large numbers of Greek and Italian immigrants, and in the early 1970s, from Vietnam, but this is often not acknowledged as the truly nation building achievement that it is.

Each of these historic phases of population growth brought immense benefits to Australian culture and economy, but they were also met with resentment, ignorance and fear. It is to be remembered that the official “White Australia” policy was only finally rescinded by the Whitlam Government in 1973.

In the 21st century, Australia is more multicultural than ever before, with continuing migration, not only from the UK and Europe, but China, South East Asia, the Middle East and South Saharan Africa. And still, especially over the last fifteen years, social and political tensions persist. Issues of border protection, stopping refugee boats, and accusations of links with terrorism, are daily headlines even as I write this introduction.

Maggie Stone is a timely play which speaks to the continuing xenophobia and resistance which all communities feel when they are confronted with people and cultures which are unfamiliar and often, unfairly, deemed hostile to the prevailing values, beliefs and customs.

In the character of Maggie Stone, Caleb Lewis has gathered an array of Anglo Saxon Australian traits. She is staunchly loyal, no-nonsense, practical and ready to take action; she is also bigoted, suspicious and instinctively negative.

So, when in the opening scene of the play, she meets the Sudanese refugee, Prosper Deng in her office at the bank, she makes the immediate assumption that he is a cleaner, there to empty the bins. Presented with his desperate request for a loan to fix his car so he can get to work, and exasperated by the complexity of his problems, she promptly refuses him.

The ensuing chain of events leading to Prosper’s death, and the subsequent efforts by his widow, the determined, resourceful Amath, to support herself and her teenage son Benny, give human faces and emotions to the spiraling nightmare we call the poverty cycle; the cruel logic that once you get into debt, it is more likely to escalate than ever be reversed.

Several experiences prompted Lewis in the creation of this play. The first was when he was artist-in residence with a Sydney law firm and was working alongside a woman who was in charge of debt collection for the firm. As he recalls:

“She had a different title, but that’s what she did- she made the hard calls. I was fascinated by her. She was sharp and fierce and she didn’t suffer fools but at the same time she had this incredible capacity for loyalty. I had a lot of lunch conversations with her about other organizations she had worked for which were not quite as high-minded as a Sydney law firm. And I became interested in the whole world of debt collection and debt and poverty.”
(Personal interview, May 7, 2015. All subsequent quotes from this conversation.)

So he had found the benevolent side of Maggie, to which he added the more tangled attributes and conflicts which the character experiences because of her own emotional and financial debts and obligations. Similarly, his character, Amath Deng grew from his contacts working as a volunteer in Blacktown in Sydney with the Sudanese Australian integrated learning centre, SAIL. His task was to help migrants, almost always women, with conversational English. Reflecting on that time he says:

“I had gone in naïvely and, if I’m honest with myself, somewhat opportunistically, thinking: great, I will be able to ask these people about their lives and get the stuff for my play. And what I quickly realized was that these women had far more pressing concerns than talking about the past. They needed to know how to pay bills, how to get jobs, what this note or report said that had been sent home from school about their kids. These pressing needs were on them straightaway and I was caught out. I realized I wanted something from them too.
There’s a line in the play when Amath says –

‘Back in Kenya – in the camps- they say we can stay there for free. But everybody wants something. The journalists want our stories; the NGO’s want us to sing in their choirs; the SPLA wants our sons as soldiers. The spirits of our ancestors want us to honour them …’

I realized I also had come in looking for a relationship that was transactional in nature. I had to forget about that and just talk English !”

But Lewis also gained insight into the abruptness of the immigration process:

“People in camps would be invited into a portable office, watch a documentary about Australia for about two hours and then be flown there. Someone picked them up at the airport and took them to their house. Suddenly they are in this whole new world and in many ways left to fend on their own. So if you don’t have church or mosque or strong cultural ties, in many ways you are marooned.”

In the play it is Amath who exhibits the resilience and inner strength to adapt under difficult circumstances. Like so many of the women Lewis met at SAIL she quickly learns the social skills needed, taking up responsibilities traditionally seen as matters for men only. She is in marked contrast to Maggie who is outwardly strong but privately anxious and vulnerable. Skilfully, and using a mix of humour, pathos and suspense, Lewis makes the interaction and increasing trust between the two women the heart of the story.

As Lewis observes, Maggie is the character he uses to guide the audience into the unfamiliar world of Amath and her family. Tetchy, stubborn, rude, casually racist – she is, nonetheless, the devil we know.

“I didn’t want to write with a central protagonist who was from somewhere else, I wasn’t prescient about that world and, to be honest, the predominantly white audience who will be attending would want a touchstone, someone they can identify with and who can take them through the story.”

Initially Maggie’s contact with the Deng family is routine. But when confronted with the tragic ripple effect of her loan refusal, she has deep misgivings. Her motives for involvement begin with a sense of guilt but her commitment to Amath and Benny is a discovery of her better self. Only gradually are we made aware of her previous entanglement with Leo Hermes, a toxic obligation in order to help her paralysed brother. Just like Prosper’s desperate robbery, she is duty bound to help her family, even if it means doing crazy things with dreadful consequences. Lewis comments on her abiding insecurities and suspicions :

“Beneath the surface there is this desperate feeling of owing others , of being in a situation where she is powerless, not in control, so the only way she can maintain that power is to isolate herself. I read a great essay by Michael Flood called Mapping Loneliness in Australia. It shows that, despite the fact that cities are getting busier and there are more people, we are becoming more isolated than ever. Rather than being a great continent of people we have become a kind of urban archipelago with thousands of isolated islands.”

A central theme in Maggie Stone is the vexed question of charity itself.
“It is a complicated business, “says Lewis, “and I use the word ‘business’ consciously. I was interested in the idea of ‘charity wounds’ –what you do to a person, or a people, and how the relationship changes between the giver and recipient. When you accept the help of others it puts you in a vulnerable position, one that can be easily exploited. Maggie exploits that position by trying to get Amath to sign the letter. Georgina exploits it by dominating Amath – Maggie refers to ‘your little rent-a-friend.’”

Georgina’s place in this web of reciprocation is of particular interest. She is well-meaning – as she herself insists:

“Let me tell you – I’m a good person. I am. I give to UNICEF. I donate to Greenpeace, I buy dolphin safe tuna and free-range eggs- even though they are more expensive. And pink ribbons for breast cancer, red ribbons for AIDS and the white one for – I forget what it’s for but I always pin one on!”

But as Caleb Lewis notes, from the audience feedback from the Adelaide performances, she was the character most distrusted and disliked. “That took me by surprise. Georgina is like a lot of people in any city in Australia. There is a lot of her in me. We have good intentions but not a lot of interest or engagement in the backstories and where they fit in. Georgina wants Amath to fit into a backstory she has already written for her.”

Perhaps the reaction to Georgina is a measure of our frustration and often despair about our ability to contribute usefully in catastrophic situations, to use that hackneyed phrase – to make a difference. It is easy enough to lampoon Georgina as “a do-gooder” – often a curiously vindictive term in the Australian context – but are we all now just do-nothings ? It was former army chief, David Morrison who recently said: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” And it is a telling remark.

But the dilemma of providing charity and foreign aid is always how to make it useful to the recipients. A good start is to ask them directly what they need and to understand better how the assistance fits the given circumstances. The story of the mosquito nets, which Amath tells, is almost like a parable of unintended consequences. Lewis notes : “There is a predisposition to throw money at problems and hope they go away, when we need a more sustained face-to-face engagement.”

Maggie Stone opens up many questions and in Act One its narrative seems to be heading on a particularly dismal trajectory. But Lewis is not bound by naturalistic determinism. As a playwright he has an impish talent for keeping us connected even when the prospects are awful. His comedy and whimsicality, far from neutralising or negating the serious issues he raises, leaven them and re-frame possibilities.

We need only look at the names to see this is not strict realism – Maggie Stone with her cold-hearted surname, Leo Hermes sounds like a flashy expensive wristwatch, Prosper Deng is sardonically misnamed (Deng we are told means ‘rain’) and Georgina Spack is in there papering over cracks in the wall.

With its unexpected ending – a wish-fulfillment resolution – Maggie Stone is not sprinkled with pixie dust; many harsh realities remain. But neither does the play mire in pessimism. Instead Caleb Lewis has opened the play to a more hopeful perspective and reminded us that, while social interactions invariably carry the freight of debt, obligation and abuse of power, we can better understand these dynamics and name them for what they are. Then, true generosity – both giving and receiving – might have a chance.

Murray Bramwell
June, 2015.

Lewis, Caleb, Maggie Stone, Currency Plays, Currency Press, Sydney, 2015,

  1. vii-xii.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment