Internet Shakespeare Editions

Shakespeare in Australia

The following essay forms the Introduction to the collection O Brave New World: Two Centuries of Shakespeare on the Australian Stage , edited by John Golder and Richard Madelaine. The book is available from Currency Press, Sydney.

'To dote thus on such luggage': Appropriating Shakespeare in Australia

John Golder and Richard Madelaine (University of New South Wales), 2002.

Introduction

These days it is difficult not to read the clothes-stealing episode in The Tempest (4.1) in a post-colonial manner, and it is tempting to read it in a specifically Australian way. The larrikinism of Stephano and Trinculo seems familiar, their exploitative relationship with Caliban less happily so. We might, of course, identify Prospero with the Bard himself and the swaggering Stephano and Trinculo with Australian theatrical practitioners. An important issue (to which we will return) is the way in which Caliban, manipulated into bearing the white men's assumed burden, resists their valuation of the stolen garments. He cannot think why the others 'dote thus on such luggage' (231) and fears that the attempted appropriation will make them 'lose [their] time' and result in their being 'turn'd to barnacles, or to apes' (247, 248). Such anxieties about the relationship between identity, control and cultural baggage are ones which this introduction and the book as a whole address in various ways. It is salutary to begin with the fear of being reduced to a foolishly dependent or imitative role, since Australian appropriations of Shakespeare have seldom been acknowledged in their own right.

Shakespeare has been an important feature of the Australian theatrical and cultural landscape since at least 8 April 1800. He has been performed here regularly and no less memorably than elsewhere in the world, and since 1990 we have had the Bell Shakespeare Company touring nationally, performing almost exclusively the plays of Shakespeare. Yet neither Marvin Rosenberg in The Masks of Hamlet [Note 1] nor Dennis Kennedy in Looking at Shakespeare [Note 2] both global studies of Shakespearean performance published in the last few years, see fit to mention a single Australian production. The omission seems the more conspicuous in the case of Rosenberg, who, in a text of 925 pages, ranges as far afield as Armenia, Estonia, Korea and Turkey. David Bevington's introduction to his admirable 1990 edition of Antony and Cleopatra [Note 3] includes Lily Brayton in a list of major actresses who 'stayed away' from the role of Cleopatra, when in fact she starred in her husband Oscar Asche's production of Antony and Cleopatra on his second Australian tour. This production, Asche's most spectacular, was given its world premiere at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, for which stage it was specifically designed.

The reason for such astonishing oversights is that almost no attempt has been made to undertake any systematic analysis of Shakespeare on the Australian stage. The aim of this book is simply to begin to correct this sorry state of affairs. The volume does not try to be complete and comprehensive, but to be impressionistic, and to encourage further work by offering a variety of approaches and pointing to areas of interest and research potential.

Pioneering work on Australian Shakespeare

Of course we would not wish to suggest that the history of Shakespearean performance has gone entirely unrecorded, or that these performance practices have not been theorised. However, in both published and unpublished material, scholars have tended to confine themselves to areas of investigation with a relatively narrow focus. Or else the study of Shakespeare in performance has been incidental to the authors' central preoccupation. [Note 4] Some particularly stimulating work has been undertaken by cultural critics who have sought to locate Shakespeare within recent debates about cultural values in Australia: prominent here are the essays in the collection edited by Philip Mead and Marion Campbell, Shakespeare's Books: contemporary cultural politics and the persistence of empire) [Note 5] Shortly after this collection appeared, the Bell Shakespeare series was launched as an attempt to re-figure editions of Shakespeare plays specifically for Australian readers: perhaps the most aggressive way in which the series shows its post-colonial colours is in its concern to the emergence of uniquely Australian styles of presentation. The introductory essays of Adrian Colman, Penny Gay and Anthony Miller have begun to chart the complex fortunes of Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Julius Caesar respectively. [Note 6] Invaluable as scholarly work of this sort is, it is nevertheless only the beginning. The present volume, though necessarily limited in scope, marks a decisive, productive step forward. The direction in which it moves is similar to that taken by Michael Bristol's Shakespeare's America, America's Shakespeare, which aimed to 'explore the nature of the interaction between Shakespeare and [the national] culture', [Note 7] but this volume pays more attention to theatrical realities and to the evolving conditions and conventions of the stage.

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This page last updated on 16 September 2002. © John Golder and Richard Madelaine 2002.