Dr. Subhash Verma
Asstt. Prof. of English, Govt. College
The plays of Hannie Rayson, a Melbourne based contemporary Australian playwright, depict current opportunities for women in terms of expanded educational and career choices, which have in turn led to complexities in women’s relationship with men and a shift in family arrangements. Her plays also reveal that in spite of the women’s relative emancipation, they continue to face many other problems including sexism, violence, difficulty in balancing work and family demands, preoccupation with child-rearing and domestic chores. Rayson claims to be a feminist and writes from a women’s perspective. Her genuine concern for the welfare of women is reflected through their realistic, powerful and sensitive portrayal in her plays. Her plays frequently satirize upon the subject of the blind acceptance by women of the patriarchal system. This paper is an attempt to study Hannie Rayson’s Falling From Grace (1994) as belonging to that theatre-genre which does not believe in producing merely feminist plays. The Play is dominated by the theme of female friendship and shows that in the absence of an oppressive patriarchy in the office, the women have the power to take critical decisions that affect their own and other women’s lives.
Keywords: Feminism, Power, Decisions and Female friendship
Ever since the professional theatre began in Sydney in 1830s women have been there as playwrights, actors, managers and directors. “Despite social prejudice and the constraints of domestic life, they have written, danced, sung and acted with talent, versatility and resourcefulness and sheer hard work. They have initiated and administered theatrical ventures with flair and success (Parsons 650). Australian theatre has developed a tradition of feminist plays written by female playwrights since the beginning of twentieth century but the importance of feminist drama was never more obvious than in the 1980s and 1990s. A number of female playwrights started blossoming in the 1980s as a result of growing interest in the women’s movement worldwide. The feminist drama by the eighties began to turn away from the political and methodological norms of the seventies. It favoured liberal feminism rather than focusing on socialist feminist projects. Leftist agit-prop drama went into decline but in the eighties the liberal feminists desired to achieve change from within. Women’s theatre groups began to focus less on broad social change and more on working within the existing theatre system. Towards the 1990s women were in the forefront of experimentation in the Australian theatre and pushed the boundaries of theatrical convention simply by placing female characters at the centre of their plays. A new form of feminist theatre emerged in 1990s with feminist playwrights like Hannie Rayson, Tobsha Learner, Katherine Thomson, Joanna Murray-Smith and Patricia Cornelius1, who not only go beyond producing merely feminist plays, but also committed to give women opportunities and work experience in all areas of theatrical production which had heretofore been dominated by men.
Over the past thirty years the cultural expectations of what it means to be female have changed dramatically. Hannie Rayson, a Melbourne-based writer who is widely regarded as the most influential female playwright of the contemporary Australian Theatre, believes, “the emphasis on new and innovative Australian drama meant that women in the Australia theatre became not only the puppets but the puppeteers. And with women pulling the strings, women characters came to life. As Dorothy Hewitt said, until women became writers, the only strong female character in contemporary theatre was that of Coralie Lansdown, in Alex Buzo’s ‘Coralie Landsdown Says No2’” (Cafarella 13). She agrees that there are plenty of roles for women in the plays. One of her aims is to bring female sensibility to the stage. She desires to “create wonderful, huge women who are bouncing off the walls” (Cafarella 13). Rayson points out in an interview, “As I look around the table of women from 25 to 67 years of age, I feel the spirit of shared womanhood. As the youngest I feel the distance between your youth and mine is too great for me to be “the girl you once were”, yet I look at you and see “the woman I might become” (1982, 16). Rayson wants to harness the energy and creativity of the women she sees around her – like the women, their children and mothers with whom she regularly holidays. She says, “I want to create witty women. If I’ve got a punchline, I never give it to a man” (Cafarella 13).
According to Rayson women are getting more power day by day and with full energy they want to utilize it. She likes to place women in positions of power. In her plays male characters are outnumbered by female ones, who dominate and take the leading role. While women are the energy centers of most of Rayson’s plays men take peripheral roles. As she says, “My plays reflect a desire to focus on the arenas where women are power brokers – the domestic arena, (Hotel Sorrento, Room to Move, Mary) a women’s magazine (Falling From Grace), the arts Faculty of a University (Life After George), the local council (Competitive Tenderness)” (Murdoch 17). Rayson believes in fairness, equality and justice for all people. She believes that all people should be treated fairly: women, refugees, indigenous Australians, homosexuals, disabled people, the elderly, children and anyone who is vulnerable.
Rayson does not see man as the enemy and she also writes strong roles for men, as her Two Brothers (2005) is openly based on the lives of two brothers who are public figures. Her plays Falling From Grace, Scenes From a Separation, Room to Move and Life After George clearly show that although not explicitly defining themselves as feminists, young women have incorporated feminist principles into their gender and kinship practices. This approach Rayson believes, includes many recent gains: women’s work opportunities, combining work with family, sexual autonomy and freedom, and male participation in domestic work and child-rearing. Rayson is always interested in women’s experience as she says, “Gender has always been a key issue in my plays. I want to write plays about the experiences of women” (Ross 18).
The present paper focuses on the analysis of Rayson’s Falling From Grace, where she discusses current opportunities for women in terms of expanded educational and career choices, which have in turn led to women’s independence from men and to new family arrangements. The female characters in the play are powerful and complex. Power and responsibilities are in their hands. They are in high positions and take their own decisions. At the same time the play reveals that still women continue to face many problems, including sexism, violence against women, difficulty in balancing work and family demands, greater responsibility than men for child-rearing and domestic work. Falling From Grace also examine how far women are able to find their space because women in power positions still face many problems.
Falling From Grace (1994), along with Scenes From a Separation and Room To Move, is among the most overtly feminist of Rayson’s plays. The play directed by Aubrey Mellor and dedicated by Rayson to “my dearest women friends” was first performed by the Playbox Theatre Centre on Tuesday 9th August, 1994. “Falling From Grace is a humorous, yet often poignant, play which “presents the tangled friendship of three women all about 40 years old” (Romney 24). Suzannah Brompton, Maggie Campbel and Janet Brock are friends and colleagues, in a self-employed creative team that runs Metro Magazine, a magazine for the liberated woman.
Suzannah, the editor, is forty-one years old divorced mother of sixteen years old Tessa. Maggie, forty years old, is the sub-editor and a divorced mother of two primary school children. Brock is a writer who, at thirty seven, is happily married and pregnant with her first child. The women try to balance two goals: the ‘emancipated’ one they have inherited from their feminist mothers and the traditional one of marriage and children. Brock wants to publish Miriam Roth’s research on a new drug, currently under trial for the treatment of pre-menstrual syndrome. But when it becomes evident that the drug may produce birth defects if women become pregnant while taking it, conflicts start emerging among the three women friends. As Helen Thomson elaborates:
The three friends, Suzannah, Maggie and Brock, are all mothers; they are also journalists with a fair share of the power of the fourth estate. When faced with the dilemma of whether or not to blow the whistle on Miriam Roth, a brilliant medical researcher battling misogynist professional establishment on behalf of women, but just possibly ignoring birth defects as a side-effect of a new drug, the three are confused and torn apart by the tangle of issues and loyalties. (14)
The play ends with the reconciliation of the three friends.
Hannie Rayson’s own bonding with Hilary Glow, her dramaturge, is probably a strong factor behind constructing the play around female friendship. Rayson herself enunciates:
These days women make friends with other women for life. Whereas their relationships with their men are perhaps more transient – and that’s something that’s borne out by the divorce statistics. We will still know our women friends when we are old. (Kizilos 20)
Hilary Glow and Hannie Rayson became friends in 1986 when Hilary asked Hannie to help her to teach a course at Victorian College of Arts. Hilary is now a project officer at the Australian Film Commission. Then they collaborated with each other for Hotel Sarrento. They had collaborated for Falling From Grace also. Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento (1990) talks about the relationship among three sisters. Rayson, who has no sister but two brothers believes the bond between women friends is both more fragile and more tender than familiar sisterhood. In Hotel Sorrento the reconciliation or reunion of the three sisters could not happen because they could not resolve their conflicts and so they are separated at the end but in Falling From Grace the three friends reunite at the end after resolving their conflicts. So Rayson gives more importance to female friendship than familial sisterhood. “Sisters can slag each other mercilessly,” Rayson exclaims, “It’s a pattern that has developed over years and years and years. Women friends are more concerned with bolstering one another… There is a sense in which they support and nurture each other in the world” (Kizilos 20).
For Rayson female friendship is, in a sense, a new subject for women. In Hotel Sorrento the mother of three sisters suffered a lot and died of cancer and she had no friends while her husband spent his time fishing and drinking with his mates. Rayson observes feminism has legitimised female friendship, and it can flourish despite husbands or men as Falling From Grace clearly shows. The play explores the meaning of friendship among three women; who work together and share their thoughts, fears and joys. In this context Rayson narrates:
I find the bonding women have is very rich. Friendships are precious. I know, for me, that the support and strength I have received from my women friends over the years has been both rewarding and, at times of crisis, the only thing that has pulled me through. I wanted Grace to be a celebration of friendship between women. But because I like to write about contradiction, I wanted to explore the kinds of situations that could threaten that bond and drive a wedge between them. (Ross 18)
Suzannah, Maggie and Brock have a close friendship, as the long first scene establishes and the play “presents a multi-layered relationship of three women” (Eggleton 144). The opening scene also sets the feminist tone of the play. The three friends offer a critique of the values of the white male norms. They consider their friendship as their foremost priority. The conflicts start erupting among the three friends because of the complexities of professional life. The first dilemma occurs as Suzannah tells the pregnant Brock that she cannot print the story about Roth and the new drug. Its publication may save an unborn child, a matter close to Brock’s heart, but it could also lead to a costly defamation case if their information is wrong. Suzannah remains confused as to what kind of ethical framework should be adopted to take a decision in this case. Maggie leaks Hugh’s story to the press. Brock is pained to know that Roth’s reputation is in tatters. Despite these tensions, the play treads lightly to a comic resolution. The play ends happily with the women reunited in the maternity ward, designated as a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. In a final note of irony, Brock’s baby, a girl, will be called Grace.
So in the play it is friendship which becomes the ultimate value, and Miriam, fellow-feminist though she is, is sacrificed for it. So too are the men in these women’s lives. Above all, this is a play about the celebration of three warmly attached individuals with a shared sense of humour. Rayson suggests, “Her dilemma is exacerbated by her sex; by her sense of sisterhood – in the large sense of the feminist project to improve things for all women – coming into conflict with the love she feels for another woman’s husband” (Thomson 14). Thus Falling From Grace is not simply pitting the claims of women against those of men, but the big picture against the smaller, the greater good against merely selfish satisfactions. The main theme of the play is female friendship and how women value it, and how it provides valuable support. In the absence of an oppressive patriarchy in the office, the women have the power to make critical decisions that affected their own and other women’s lives. “Now (women) operate more in the public arena, more than we did in previous generations” (Kizilos 20), Rayson says.
In the play Metro Magazine is aimed at an educated female readership that expects to be served more than food and fashion. The magazine wants to make the feminist voices audible. Setting the action within a women’s publishing group brings the play into a vital strain of feminist cultural enterprise. Perhaps the biggest change that has hit the publishing industry is the advent of a large number of women-run independent publishing houses. Earlier women had less visibility and the levers of powers were controlled by men. Over the last twenty years the face of publishing has been changing and what was considered a male job a few decades back is no longer so.
Many feminist activists in 1980s and 90s entered the publishing world. Magazines such as Ms Magazine founded by Gloria Steinam in 1970 and edited by Australian feminist Anne Summers, claimed to have made feminist voices audible, feminist journalism tenable and feminist world-view available to the public. Several more feminist magazines continue to keep feminist issues in circulation and drive a wedge through the masculine domination of media ownership and publishing. In India in 1984, Urvashi Butalia left Oxford University Press and co-founded “Kali for Women” with Ritu Menon. In 2003, she formed her own strongly feminist publishing house, “Zubaan”. She narrated, “It was my involvement in the women’s movement that made me realize how lacking publishing was in bringing to light the writings of women, and how much needed to be done (Daftuar 12).
By the 1990s women’s magazines, many with women as editors, promoted a popular non-academic feminist discourse, with a focus on women’s stories and issues like domestic violence, sexual harassment and homophobia. In the play Metro Magazine actively resists stories of home and family as Rachel Fensham and Denise Varney observe, “Drawing on the reputation of feminist publishing Metro Magazine signals that the play is about clever, articulate and enterprising women, professional dolls, whose work is connected to and a product of feminist politics” (290).
Falling From Grace revolves around a story about Brock, who is researching for the magazine’s “Top Girls” series on prominent women. Her subject for the next edition is a brilliant research scientist, Miriam Roth, “a champion of women’s health” (12) and a woman who has challenged the male medical establishment. A Community Health doctor, Dr. Hugh Storey, ex-husband of Suzannah, attacks Roth for misleading people and enunciates many problems related to the drug which Roth is not willing to acknowledge. Instead Hugh wants Brock and his ex-wife Suzannah to run his story in the magazine. The drug Roth was preparing may or may not be responsible for birth defects. Is she avoiding unpleasant truths to save her career or is it just scare- mongering by a paternalistic medical hierarchy and an ambitious male doctor who does not want to see her on the top? And that’s why he conducted research especially on the defects of the drug. Is Dr. Hugh Storey, a “rabid careerist”, intent on gaining publicity by any means necessary? Or is Dr. Roth a “ratbagzealot”, for whom the medical profession is a prime site of institutionalized sexism? These questions are left unresolved in the play. The play also depicts the conflict between patriarchal medical establishment and an able female doctor. Men on Medical Board have suspended the drug trial and Miriam Roth is devastated.
In conclusion, Falling From Grace is about “women and power and what they do with it when they get it, is going to kick-start a few arguments both in and out of feministic circles” (Thomson 14). It asks some of the really hard questions about gender differences such as whether women are ethically superior to men, and whether all female friendships are stronger and more enduring than love relationships between men and women. The answers are ‘yes’ to the latter question and ‘not yet but they are learning to be better than men’ to the first. Other issues central to the play are idealism, betrayal, friendship and women’s health.
- Hannie Rayson, Tobsha Learner, Katherine Thomson, Joanna Murray-Smith and Patricia Cornelius are the feminist playwrights of Australia and their plays have gained worldwide attention. Wolf (1992), Miracles (1998), The Gun in History (1994) and many of Tobsha Learner’s plays move the reader emotionally and tend to have epic plotlines – ordinary women placed in extraordinary circumstances. Katherine Thomson is a great observer and recorder of the lives and struggles of marginalized people in general and women in particular. Barmaid (1991), Diving for Pearls (1992), and Wonderlands (2003) are some of her famous plays. The plays of Joanna Murray-Smith reflect the confusions of individuals in the 1990s and social injustice of the period just as the plays of Katherine Thomson. Her plays Honour (1995), Redemption (1997), Night fall (1997) and Rapture (2002) gained popularity. In 2006 Murray Smith wrote The Female of the Species, a farcical comedy about second wave feminism. Patricia Cornelius, a founding member of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, has written over twenty plays, including Last Drinks (1992). Issues of particular concern to women have been the subject of her plays – including domestic violence, exploitation and discrimination in the work place, female ordination and racism.
- Coralie Lansdowne Says No (1974) a play by Alex Buzo depicts a woman’s struggle for independence and for her sense of self. Coralie is a strong, vibrant and articulate heroine of the play, who has retreated from the awful social world and lives alone in her eyrie on the cliffs above Sydney Palm Beach. In the play, three males make advances to her. Her response to each of them is a firm ‘no’. She is the one who thrives on transience, and is not about to throw away her independence on any male. The feminists attack the play because at the end Coralie says yes for marriage to Stuart.
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