Essay by Jeff Sparrow

‘Please admit the bearer…to the execution of Ronald Joseph Ryan, on 3rd February, 1967.’

This invitation, received by journalists covering the last hanging in Australian history, hints at why Ronald Ryan’s story translates so well into the theatre. For the message sounds like a pass to any ordinary show. And why not? An execution is intended as a performance, an elaborate display of the state’s power over its subjects. But the ghoulish phrasing also illustrates a key theme in Barry Dickins’ Remember Ronald Ryan, in which the Ryan execution represents a bridge between two different eras. The authorities at Pentridge Prison modelled their procedures – and their invitation – on the ancient traditions of English hangmen. But in the Melbourne of 1967 those traditions seemed, like the execution itself, a grotesque legacy of an earlier age.

Born to working-class parents in 1925, Ronald Joseph Ryan grew up in Carlton – in those days, a slum suburb. His father, a former miner, abused him; his mother, a domestic servant, neglected him. Ryan got into trouble early, and was sent to a home for ‘wayward and neglected’ boys after stealing a watch. He escaped, moved to New South Wales, and worked in a variety of manual jobs. He married Dorothy George, a woman from a much wealthier background, but his domestic happiness didn’t last. ‘Ryan,’ says his biographer, Mike Richards, ‘was inexorably drawn to the reckless gamble – the big plunge.’ But Ryan’s wagers always lost.

By the 1950s, he was forging cheques to pay debts. Increasingly involved in crime, he went to jail in 1960, charged with breaking and stealing and sentenced to eight and a half years. After his release in 1963, he tried briefly to go straight, but soon returned to safe-blowing and factory break-ins. He received another eight-year sentence in 1964, whereupon his wife divorced him. Along with Peter Walker, he broke out of Pentridge in 1965. In the course of the escape, prison officer George Hobson was shot dead, almost certainly by Ryan. Walker and Ryan remained at large for two and a half weeks. In that time, they robbed a bank at gunpoint, and Walker killed another criminal he suspected might inform on them. It was a ‘reign of terror’, according to one Victorian politician. When the pair was eventually recaptured, Ryan was charged and found guilty of murder. All of his appeals were unsuccessful. Despite widespread protests, the hanging – the last execution to occur in Australia – went ahead.

We might think of Ryan as a familiar figure from Australian history – the roguish but charismatic larrikin. Compare him to the nation’s most famous hanged man, Ned Kelly. Both Ryan and Kelly were Catholics in a mostly Protestant nation. They both had a history of conflict with the law; they both killed authority figures (Kelly, policemen; Ryan, a prison guard); they won admiration for the bravery with which they faced their deaths. And, in both cases, the executions took place in the face of a major campaign for commutation. Yet the Ryan case also marked a key moment in the social, political and cultural ferment known as ‘the sixties’ (a period that, in Australia, extended well into the 1970s).

In the early sixties, Melbourne was a notoriously conservative city. When the Hollywood star Ava Gardner filmed On the Beach in Victoria, she purportedly described Melbourne as ‘the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world’. Despite being fabricated, the quote was widely believed since, for many young people, the city felt desperately dull. Most public places were closed on Sundays – even on weeknights the pubs shut at 6 pm, leading to the phenomenon of the ‘six o’clock swill’, where men tried to gulp down beer as quickly as possible before being ushered outside. In his 1963 poem ‘Melbourne’, Chris Wallace-Crabbe describes how:

Highway by highway, the remorseless cars

Strangle the city, put it out of pain,

Its limbs still kicking feebly on the hills.

Nobody cares. The artists sail at dawn

For brisker ports, or rot in public bars.

Though much has died here, little has been born.

Eerily, the poem’s metaphor of asphyxiation seems almost to anticipate Ryan’s fate. Yet by 1967, Melbourne – and Australia – was already changing. The expansion of higher education meant that more young people were attending university, with new campuses open at Latrobe and Monash. The Beatles had toured in 1964, with huge crowds swooning outside the band’s Southern Cross hotel room. A local rock culture had formed, and clubs like the Mad Hatter discotheque catered to long-haired fans of the new music. The government introduced ‘national service’, which meant that young people could be conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War. Opposition to the conflict was starting to grow, with student radicals outraging authorities by collecting money to support the Viet Cong. Henry Bolte, who was premier at the time, made no secret of his disdain for the stirring counterculture. A conservative farmer, he opposed reforms to Victoria’s strict laws regulating censorship, abortion and sexual morality. In 1962, the premier had supported hanging the murderer Robert Tait; but Tait had been spared after an appeal to the High Court. Bolte, therefore, saw Ryan’s hanging as an opportunity to restore his authority on law and order.

To Victorians frightened about the rapid changes taking place in Melbourne and the world, Bolte seemed a traditionalist, upholding the natural order. By contrast, the cartoonist Les Tanner famously drew the premier as a hangman, with the caption: ‘I do not bow to mob protests, only mob support.’ Both the pro- and anti-hanging camps used the media – including the new medium of television – to make their arguments. In his famous poem about the case, ‘A Victorian Hangman Tells His Love’, Bruce Dawe imagines the executioner saying to Ryan:

Be assured, you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling
as gently as a leaf – accept your role, feel chosen.
You are this evening’s headlines. Come, my love.

After the hanging, reporters asked the premier what he’d been doing at 8am, the moment that Ryan died. Bolte quipped, ‘One of the three Ss, I suppose.’ Pressed for details, he explained: ‘A shit, a shave or a shower.’ The crassness of his comments underscored the gulf between Bolte and his critics, many of whom had been weeping openly at the mass protest outside the prison.

Barry Dickins was a teenager when Ryan died. His play captures the sense in which the Ryan case exposed the fault lines of a period when, as Bob Dylan famously put it, the times were a-changing. Take the scene where Ryan meets Dorothy’s snooty relatives.

Mr George: The wine appears to be empty.

Ryan: You appear to be full.

Mrs George: That is an enormous pocket handkerchief you have, Ron.

Ryan: I use it to cry when I can’t see Dorothy.

Mrs George: I suppose you think that’s a very smart thing to say.

Here, Ryan sounds like a cheeky teenager. Compare his tone to the manifesto published inGo Set!, Australia’s first ever pop music magazine, which launched in Melbourne in 1966.

Every one of you cats has felt the lash of the Oldies kicking back and screaming, ‘No sonny, you’re not grown up junior, save those big words till you get a little older.’ Now’s the time to really break loose.

The sentiment reflected Dylan’s observation that ‘your sons and your daughters are beyond your command’. Significantly, in Dickins’ play, Dorothy sides with Ryan in a generational conflict against her respectable parents. Later, Ryan and Walker attend a party, where ‘various kids’ are playing rock music. Ryan is fascinated with what he sees and hears.

Walker: What dance step is this? Hey I like this one!

Christine: [laughing] It gets to you, doesn’t it? It’s the Twist.

First partygoer: And it goes like this.

Ryan proves himself adept at the moves, with Walker ‘clap[ping] his hands and cr[ying] with laughter and approval at the sight of his fellow escapee dancing this crazy new sensation’. On the one hand, then, Ryan’s character is associated with the youthful rebellion beginning to shake the city. As Dickins writes in his introduction, ‘Ryan and Walker were only “out” for about three weeks, but they managed to cause mayhem in dreary Melbourne; possibly they put it on the map.’ Yet, on the other, the play presents Ryan as somewhat separate from the new youth culture. Even when Ryan dances the Twist, it’s not his party – he’s merely visiting. Though he likes what he sees, he’s looking on it from the outside. After all, in real life, when Ryan broke out of jail, he was already 40. He was neither a student nor a political radical, but a married man who (like Henry Bolte) enjoyed a drink, a smoke and a punt – a figure shaped by the old Australia as much as the new.

Barry Dickins began his career writing for La Mama, a tiny Carlton theatre that opened the year that Ryan died. The monologue ‘Ryan’ is reminiscent of the experimental work La Mama facilitated – pieces written for the new and less stuffy audiences that were emerging from the counterculture. Yet, while Dickins’ work was made possible by the sixties, he has always been fascinated by the Australian culture that the sixties displaced – the working-class Carlton in which Ronald Ryan was born, rather than the bohemian Carlton that La Mama exemplified.Remember Ronald Ryan is no exception, as a play that celebrates the now-vanished ockerisms of the mid-twentieth century. Ryan calls his suit a ‘bag of fruit’, and talks of a car with ‘bodgie plates’. In ‘Ryan’, he describes how the hangman drops a ‘linen hood over my face that’s had a Dad and Dave’ (a shave). When he clubs the Salvation Army officer unconscious, he quips ‘Goodnight Sergeant Major’ (a line from a Second World War song); he calls out, ‘Ground floor women’s lingerie’ (in imitation of the Myer lift boy) as he chooses the gate from which to escape.

Ryan’s is the Melbourne of Turf cigarettes and Sao biscuits and cheese and tomato sandwiches. He might dance to Chubby Checker, but his own theme (repeated throughout the play) is ‘Cool Water’, a pre-rock cowboy song popularised by Vaughn Monroe and the Sons of the Pioneers in 1948. As the title Remember Ronald Ryan suggests, the play is fundamentally nostalgic. It urges us to recall Ronald Ryan – but what about him? The guards cleaning up after the execution certainly aren’t sure. ‘Nothing much to remember, is there?’ says one. ‘He’s different’, the second says, and adds, ‘There was something about him.’ But when pressed as to what that something might be, all he can offer is ‘he was kind’. Governor Grindlay agrees: ‘Something there was good in him.’ But he, too, can’t articulate what.

That’s the paradox of the play.

Remember Ronald Ryan is an exposé of the conservative society that allowed a brutal execution to go ahead. After Ryan’s death, the Australia of prison hangings ceased to be – the protests of 1967 led directly to the Death Penalty Abolition act of 1973. But while Dickins abhors capital punishment, the play is also a requiem for those aspects of the old Australia that Ryan himself represented. In the introduction, Dickins writes:

I interviewed so many, and so many wept when talking about Ryan. What was it about him, I wondered?

He is special to them, and terribly tender; even now – especially now with the years – more tender. Why do they keep on thinking about him? He has let them go long ago. Why can’t they? Something about the larrikin spirit, I’d say.

Dickins invokes Bradman and Phar Lap. Like them, Ryan belonged to an age that has gone. The ‘larrikin spirit’, the plays suggests, couldn’t survive the encounter with the hangman on 3 February 1967.

© Copyright Jeff Sparrow 2014