Essay by Nicole Moore

It is eight o’clock in the evening on the 21st of January, 1971, and the heat from an 100-plus degree day dissipates in the night air. Dorothy Hewett’s third serious play, The Chapel Perilous, is opening at The New Fortune Theatre. Built as a fourth wall to the Arts Building at the University of Western Australia in 1964, The New Fortune is a multi-storey outdoor space designed as an Elizabethan stage. The play’s director is Aarne Neeme, a young, sympathetic collaborator with whom Hewett has been working closely in rehearsals. Helen Neeme, Aarne’s wife, is in the demanding central role, and between the Acts she feeds their new daughter, only a few months old. Hewett’s twenty-year-old son Joe Flood is among the musicians tuning up at the side of the stage and his future wife Adele Marcella has a role in the Chorus. Hewett’s other four children, the youngest eight years old, sit in the audience with her husband, writer Merv Lilley. Also attending are some of her students and colleagues from the English Department at UWA, which a week or so earlier had finally awarded her a permanent tutorship, after first appointing her in 1964. Friends of Hewett’s from literature and politics have come too: T.A.G. Hungerford, Hal Colebatch, Dorothy and Bill Irwin, and Nicholas Hasluck among others, as well as a reviewer for the West Australian. As Hasluck recalls, in the front row, in seats reserved especially, are the prominent left-wing lawyer Lloyd Davies, Hewett’s first husband from whom she’d divorced in 1950, and his wife Jo. With a clap of thunder, the action begins in darkness, and a chorus of young actors in school uniforms, with dual roles as ushers, listen to a declaratory female voice: ‘I rode forward through the blackened land. I saw the forests burning and the fields wasted, waiting for rain. Upon a slope I saw a glimpse of light. Then I came to the Chapel Perilous.’

In one measure of its immediate success, by 1972 Currency Press in Sydney had published a formalised text of the play, with prefaces from Aarne Neeme, the critic Sylvia Lawson and the playwright herself. In her piece, Hewett notes of the heroine: ‘For many young women Sally Banner is the first modern liberated feminist in our literature: I believe this is an historical and literary accident’ (xix). This essay attempts to conjure the performative moment of The Chapel Perilous in order to think further about the relationship between this complexly provocative play and its extraordinary times. 1971 is at the apex of the period once described by historian Donald Horne as Australia’s Time of Hope, when the new social movements, including feminism and sexual liberation, gained mainstream consensus for transformative political and social change. ‘At times, everything seemed to be changing,’ wrote Horne in 1980. It was also perhaps a peak moment for Australian print culture, in an accelerating, mediatised social world, with widely-read newspapers, loosening censorship, new demotic technologies and a strong domestic publishing industry running influential agendas of reform. But looking back, for Horne the new ideals had been realised in a notably performative, ‘theatrical’ dimension of Australian politics: ‘It was by theatricalised episodes that, during the post-Menzies era, new issues crashed through into our attention’ (8–9). Protest culture was having its greatest effect through staged and dramatic interventions into a shared public culture on the streets. The boundaries between theatre and drama, stage and audience, culture and politics, were being ruptured, with effects well beyond the realm of the literary.

Yet Hewett’s Sally Banner is an equivocal, if not tragic figure, her liberation a chimera exposed not only by the reactionary forces of church and state, and by what is presented as the judgmental social control exercised in a provincial city, but also by her own limitations: her tortured failures and insecurities as a woman and a poet. Her representativeness in those roles is an accident, according to Hewett, reflecting the effect on the creative process of what seemed to her to be the determining social forces of the period, as well as the play’s chequered performance history – the key question of whether Sally is required to bow at the play’s climax or allowed to stand. Placing The Chapel Perilous in its moment can tease out the ways in which what can seem quite an ahistorical play, with its rich mythic citation, inter-medial experimentation and iconoclastic theatricality, becomes history or, more precisely, performative history, in so far as we can conceive such. Simultaneously, we can ask how this play represents, perhaps in an opposite way, a ‘literary accident’. What might we mean by the accidental literary?

Kelly Oliver’s work on what she terms ‘witnessing otherness in history’ gives us a foundational distinction with which to clarify the relationship between history and performance, drawing on some developments of Derrida’s from J. L. Austin, perhaps the most influential linguist on performative language. ‘We could say,’ Oliver suggests, ‘that the saying, or the temporality of time, corresponds to the realm of performance, while the said, or history, corresponds to the realm of the constative’ (51). Oliver relies on Austin’s understanding of descriptive utterance on the one hand, in nominating the constative, which is epistemological, in the realm of true or false, and already removed, or we could say laggard, registering that which is past or displaced – the representative distance between a telling and its object: ‘Dorothy Hewett wrote this play’. On the other hand Austin identifies performative utterance – ‘I apologize’, ‘Welcome!’ – which occurs as it is spoken, or makes and performs itself in one iteration. Austin demonstrated that these two categories are interdependent, never wholly separable, and Oliver uses this point to tell us some more about history: ‘performativity destabilizes history by showing that the constative element central to historical truth is dependent on the process of temporality, which can never be fully captured in that constative element’ (51–52). The now of the utterance is always in abeyance, as Derrida showed.

In a further step, Chandra Mohanty’s distinction between history and historicity explains how history can be open to difference. ‘[H]istory operates according to a “Eurocentric law of identical temporality” ’, declares Mohanty, as Oliver quotes from her work, and this, ‘is in some sense always already written; historicity can never be written in that sense because it is a dynamic process of negotiating the positions or perspectives that make writing history possible’ (50). For Oliver, ‘how the performative challenges the constative, or how temporality challenges history, returns the historicity of struggles over social norms to history’ (52). This question of historicity is what examining The Chapel Perilous’s place in history opens up for us – its role as the performed past in distinction from its place in the past. The struggle over social norms is exactly what is highlighted, not only in Sally’s quest (which is generically temporal if not historical, as a bildungsroman, even though it is also mythic) but in the play’s role as history, as an instance of cultural reflection and performance that we now regard from inside its future.

Temporality is heavily encoded across the surface of the text of The Chapel Perilous, furthering its Brechtian interest in defamiliarising the seeming natural order of the past. Hewett knew Brecht’s work early in her theatrical career, having spent time in the German Democratic Republic in the early 1960s: by the end of the decade she was reading Beckett, Artaud, Orton and other expressionists (Sheridan 178; Kiernan 49). At the end of the prologue and again at the play’s conclusion, a chorus of girls intones this preoccupation explicitly:

AMPLIFIER in HEADMISTRESS’S VOICE: Sally is a rebel in word and deed. The latter usually tones in time.

GIRLS: Till we have built Jerusalem…

[Girl’s voices on amplifier modulate into a chant.]

With time, with time, with time… with time…

[The girls begin to march out. Sally follows them, chanting.]

With time, with time, with time, with time…

[The AUTHORITY FIGURES are left alone on stage. The stage darkens to a red glow, the chapel bell tolls. The droning beat of amplifiers rises and dies away.]

Time… time… time… time… time… time…

But numbers of performance theorists have worked hard to show us that performance is not fundamentally linguistic or reducible to grammatical structures, and in so far as a piece of theatre is an event it occurs in space as well as time. A performance has visual and kinetic elements as well as aural effects, its phenomenological presence in the world is both experiential and ideational, it is produced in an elastic complex of material and social environments, and its ephemeral existence does not disperse an ability to resound with a realised theatrical place. Stepping beyond the materialist allegorical model of history and culture – history figured in culture as ground and cause (Jameson on Althusser) – the element of performance allows into this relation a dynamism, an interactivity, and a level of self-recognition that marks its difference from mere reflection or transference, or even representation. As history, its disruptive function is foremost – its challenge to certain social norms – and this is what enables it to count as such.

And this is also where we can identify the accidental literary, perhaps. The accidental resides not just in the fact that Hewett’s theatre enjoys an experimental dimension, trying out occasional unpredictable elements that introduce chance. And neither is it confined to the biographical, in so far as the play’s dramatic success propelled Hewett in new directions to some degree unintended. Broadly, conceiving of the play’s effects as accidental records the importance of incidence and particularity in the literary’s role as history, its ability to challenge smoothed teleologies of narrative history with the momentary and the unexpected, with disagreement, taboo matters and disruptive dissent. The accidental performative, moreover, can offer a way to account for the full import of intertheatricality, allowing for the complex and determining work of context, production, precedent, circumstance, audience and reception in the function and impact of any piece of theatre.

With a two-week season produced by the university’s very active Graduate Dramatic Society, The Chapel Perilous was staged to coincide with the Perth Festival, which included no Australian plays that season. It was the third of Hewett’s plays at the New Fortune Theatre and by far the most ambitious, in its expansive use of the large and multi-storied Globe-like stage (which Neeme called a ‘great square boxing ring’ (xiv)); its 18-member cast; its repertoire of more than twenty songs and a number of dance pieces; its oversized set, featuring looming, plaster-cast figures and a chapel tower; its rapidly intercut dialogue, dynamic structure and fluid changes; and language that was both poetic and sardonic. The plot follows the questing life of an unconventional woman from her school years to age sixty-five, as the AustLit database’s integrated entry summarises: ‘who attempts to find fulfilment – whether through her gift of poetic expression, through her sexual relationships, or in later years through political activism – and ultimately finds it through self-acceptance.’ The quest motif is explicitly sourced in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and the extract from ‘The Noble Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake’ printed in the New Fortune’s program describes ‘How Sir Launcelot Cam Into the Chapel Perelus’, facing ghostly knights and ominous portents: ‘therewithall he feared’. The performance also included extracts from The Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer, Marvell’s ‘Come Live with Me and be My Love’, Hubert Parry’s hymn of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, ‘What the Thunder Said’ from Eliot’s The Waste Land, the ‘Hokey Pokey’, the ‘Internationale’ and the ‘Red Flag’, and the notoriously obscene ballad ‘The Good Ship Venus’, with all its ‘friggin in the riggin’’. These were in addition to new lyrics by both Hewett and composer Michael Leyden: where not matched to traditional tunes, Hewett’s words were set to music by the experienced composer Frank Arndt. Reviewing the published version in the Canberra Times in 1972, Jo Gibson began ‘I think this play is magnificent in conception’ and ended ‘It offers almost insuperable difficulties to producer and actor. Almost. They are a challenge. Let them be met’ (Gibson, 12).

The immediate verdict on the New Fortune production was that Neeme had managed to do that. ‘Beautifully told in the form of poetical musical drama … [with] a poetry that is rare in any modern play,’ declared the West Australian’s Weekend News. Its review gave ‘much of the credit’ to the director, lauding Neeme’s ability to get ‘18 young people to move, sing, dance and act with a flourish that probably surprised even themselves. Mr Neeme’s production was full of life, intelligently staged and meticulously timed. It is a rare event when talents such as his and Miss Hewett’s are allowed to fuse in such a joyous happening’ (20). Reporting on Hewett’s premiere in a letter to their mutual friend and former colleague Carol Bolton, the poet Fay Zwicky declared it: ‘a huge theatrical success + I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Fortune Theatre better used’. She too emphasised Neeme’s role: ‘he achieved a nice balance of vantage points, helped by a particularly lively young chorus whose emphasis continually set Sally’s “immortal soul” against a society and against an audience identifying with that society and identified with it.’ The Australian’s theatre critic Katharine Brisbane was clearest about the play’s dramatic achievements and gives us our best sense of its place in Australian theatre history:

Miss Hewett is a poet whose compulsion to write plays about life as she knows it denies all caution, circumspection or nice arrangement of the mind. The Chapel Perilous is a play of vivid poetic imagination and awesome poetic memory… There is no doubt that Sally Banner […] is a memorable expression of the Australian’s blind struggle towards emotional maturity. It places Miss Hewett with this, her third play, at the forefront of Australian writing. (152–4)

Brisbane’s husband Philip Parsons was an old university friend of Hewett’s who had been prominently involved in the building of the New Fortune Theatre and had directed her previous play, Mrs Porter and the Angel, with Neeme in Sydney in 1969. By mid-1971, Brisbane and Parsons had established Currency Press, the first and only Australian publisher to subsist on the performing arts, as it remains, and they did so on the strength of Australian drama from that year. In a survey of the scene from March 1971, with a typical nationalist interest in the big picture (investing as the arts then were in rewriting Australian ‘identity’), Brisbane declared: ‘in its more outrageous aspects, the theatre is beginning, just beginning, to take a realistic look at who we are; and audiences are responding in recognition of that view’ (165). Grouping with Hewett’s the work of newly staged playwrights Rodney Milgate, Jack Hibberd, Alexander Buzo, John Romeril and Rob Inglis, Brisbane articulated, forcefully, the character of what is now known as the New Wave: ‘They are rorty, wasteful, intensely colloquial scripts and they make one realise how foreign to us are clever construction, eloquence and precision. They also show, to an awesome degree, how rich, vivid and accurate our colloquial tongue is’ (166). It was not just a change in content and language: for her, a whole new vernacular style had arrived. ‘Gradually and inevitably this style has begun to creep into the serious theatre. This broad, loud, extremely agile and all enveloping theatricality is reaching out into our theatres which have protected themselves from it for so long, bringing a vitality which is totally Australian’ (166). 1971’s momentum for change was evident in Brisbane’s praise for the ‘maverick characters, outlaw heroes who by their very existence impress upon us the extreme conformity of Australian society’ with the sole caveat that ‘except for Dorothy Hewett’s Sally, whom Melbourne saw this month, there are almost no good women’s roles in the contemporary writing’ (209).

Perhaps the most telling response – for our question as to how acci­dental was Sally’s liberation, how formative – is contained in a fan letter to Hewett from Shirley Knowles, a young woman from Hewett’s own suburb, who effused:

I think Sally Banner is a completely beautiful character. Set against the line upon line of embarrassed girls playing at being sexy and pink-eyed wives with borrowed attitudes, atrophied brains and dry cunts, Sally is a woman. She is honest, good (in the true sense of the word) and she is real. (She might be too real for some people.)


Just as the play was obviously the work of a woman, it has particular meaning for other women (and not just those who write poetry). Sometimes we wonder whether we’re misguided in ‘kicking against the pricks’ and refusing to join the masses of little women in housing homes (and all that goes with this). On the surface, Sally Banner would appear to be too much involved with herself, but I think she has to be to survive! That army of little grey women is always seeking converts. …

So, Dorothy, I think your play is wonderful (and not just by local standards). Above all, I think Sally Banner as a character is magnificent. She is quite a woman – I salute her!

Knowles is the example we have of the young women Hewett referred to; the group that saw Sally as an exemplary liberated woman and needed to write to her to tell her. The first newsletter from a Women’s Liberation group in Perth was published more than a year later: Sally was ‘the first’ in that sense. And it was not just Perth. After a big student production in Melbourne in 1972 and a season at the Sydney Opera House in 1974, and especially after the release of the Currency Press edition in 1972, there was national press. ‘For women, a work that will make things suddenly and blindingly clear’ declared the banner headline in the National Times in 1972, celebrating a play that ‘will put up Hewett’s name in lights along with Greer’ (Kemp 20, cf. Sheridan 180–81).

The parallel with Greer was not incidental: both were literary academics produced by Australian English departments dominated by Cambridge-educated Leavisites and both were keenly interested in the literature of the early modern period. The Female Eunuch was released in Australia and the UK in October 1970, just a few months before The Chapel Perilous premiered. It was Sylvia Lawson, the reviewer of the first edition of The Female Eunuch for the Sydney Morning Herald, who clarified their shared central concerns, in her essay for the first edition of The Chapel Perilous. ‘ “It is exactly the element of quest in her sexuality which the female is taught to deny,” Germaine Greer writes in the Female Eunuch; and it is exactly this that Sally will not deny, just as in the school chapel she will not bow down’ (x). The blasphemous link between sexuality and creativity ‘is why her adventures are perilous indeed,’ explained Lawson, identifying the Romantic tendencies of Hewett’s version. ‘The artist is necessarily on a pilgrimage: this is the relevance of Dorothy Hewett’s dominant symbol and title.’ In the original program, due to deliver a set of lectures on Blake in the Romanticism course at UWA, Hewett expanded: ‘We are all, particularly the young, inheritors of the romantic agony with all its attendant problems of the ego, free will, and anarchy… [sic] Blake’s four-fold vision and Coleridge’s milk of paradise, which often makes us absurd. The Chapel Perilous is about snatching a kind of victory from that inevitable defeat.’

Here we gain some sense of the expansive ways the period’s con­ception­ of ‘liberation’ can be decoded, and especially how literary enactments complicate and enrich political versions of the idea. Sally’s arrivalist role was hailed by Lawson as symptomatic of the production’s political moment. As it would for Whitlam almost two years later, Sally’s time had come: ‘She could not, in fact, have arrived any earlier […] it is only in an age when emancipation has given place to liberation that the Sally Banners of the world can begin to tell us who they are’ (Lawson ix). It is not just in the impertinent equivalences drawn between chivalric quests, epiphanic visions and a late twentieth-century woman’s confused desires for autonomy or recognition that we see a bid for freedom, moreover: the play’s deliberate vulgarity and brash satire, as well as its free-wheeling structure and language play qualify it for what Mary Spongberg identifies as the ‘feminist larrikinism’ of early 1970s Australia, with Greer as the most high-profile practitioner (Spongberg, Chaundry). For Hewett, having quit the Communist Party of Australia in mid-1968 after the jailing of Sinyavsky and Daniel and the Prague Spring, this meant challenging the available structural answers to the moment’s urgent social questions, especially about women’s sexuality, and an anarchic embrace of satiric debunking.

The Sydney women’s liberation journal Mejane appeared in early 1971 too, and featured some similarly anarchic and expressionist material, while poets such as Vicki Viidikas and artists such as Vivienne Binns had produced powerful work. Hewett had helped organise International Women’s Day celebrations in Perth through the early 1960s, as a CPA member, while the equal pay cases of 1969 had been confined to the eastern states. At the IWD march in Sydney in March 1972, a performance of a piece of street theatre titled ‘The Stages of a Woman’s Life’ began with a coffin and finished with a woman’s use of Bex powders (Stevens). It took until 1975 for Kate Jennings’s edited collection Mother I’m Rooted and the lesbian bildungsroman All That False Instruction, released under the pseudonym Elizabeth Riley, to claim substantial literary territory for other outspoken women, however – their titles are indicative. Anne Summer’s Damned Whores and God’s Police, also from 1975, took up where Lawson left off, hailing Sally Banner into history as ‘the only potentially revolutionary woman in Australian literature by women’ (Tompkins citing Summer, 42).

With roots in Sydney libertarianism, larrikin ‘vulgarity’ meant treating topics of the moment, such as abortion and homosexuality, with a frankness that was then shocking and a levity that compounded any offence: it was received as legally obscene. In 1971, obscenity, exactly in so far as it was identified and policed by forms of state and federal law, cultural gate-keepers and religious institutions, was a potent weapon for social subversion (Moore 251-60). In Act 1 of The Chapel Perilous, Sally’s mother finds Henry Miller’s then-banned The Topic of Cancer in Sally’s locker, along with packs of ‘Chesterfields and contraceptives’. Her father slaps her and she declares ‘I’m going now…with a copy of D. H. Lawrence and a spare pair of pants’ (29). Such bibliographical details were shorthand markers for the new forms of politics, with censorship debates at fever pitch through the months immediately before the performance. A series of court trials prosecuting distributors of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in four states had starred in the news pages since the previous September, and WA’s case was heard between Christmas 1970 and the turning of the new year. For Perth’s relatively small literary community, it was high political drama, as Horne might couch it, and Hewett was a high-profile player. The legal defence was run by Lloyd Davies, her ex-husband, and with Hewett a phalanx of local writers and academics stood up in court to testify in the book’s favour, including Merv Lilley and Fay Zwicky. The trial’s outcome – in which the magistrate found Portnoy’s Complaint obscene but had to allow it under the protection of a literary merit clause – was reported in the West Australian two days before the premiere of The Chapel Perilous (‘Ban that Failed’, 6).

Censorship of theatre itself was big news too. An actor in Alex Buzo’s play Norm and Ahmed had been arrested for uttering the word ‘fuckin’ as the second last word of the play in a Brisbane performance in 1969; Hair was at the end of its two-and-a-half year season in Sydney but its soundtrack was banned in Queensland. Jack Hibberd’s one-act Customs and Excise, a protest against both censorship and pornography, ran simultaneously with Hewett’s play, at the nearby Dolphin Theatre also on UWA’s campus. The inclusion of ‘The Good Ship Venus’ in The Chapel Perilous (44) was highly provocative in this context, while that choice suggests that the play’s closest obscene intertext was actually the public theatre contemporaneously being staged around the Tharunka prosecutions in Sydney. Summonsed first for the publication of the obscene ballad ‘Eskimo Nell’ in the University of New South Wales student newspaper, and then for other obscene material, Wendy Bacon and her fellow editors attended protests and court dressed as nuns, cardinals and Bugs Bunny through late 1970 and into 1971. Protestors supporting the Wave Hill strike in the Kimberley made similar points by wearing colonial dress, while guerrilla street theatre was a feature of east coast anti-Vietnam protests (Scalmer 33), drawing on the ‘living newspapers’ of an earlier political generation. Horne says, though his metaphor often wears thin: ‘[b]etween 1966 and 1972 the greatest theatrical events were not Hair or [David Williamson’s] The Removalists (although these had political importance) but shows such as the Vietnam marches and the green bans of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation – dramatisations of social change by the people’ (10).

Sean Scalmer maps the rise of what he terms ‘staging’ and ‘the performance of disruption’ in Australian political dissent through the mid-1960s into the early 1970s, as activists looked for new ways to keep the attention of the press in the drawn-out struggles on the big issues of the period (34). These were also sourced in an impulse to break down the boundaries between politics and art, however, as Scalmer details, from the all-encompassing performance of ‘living theatre’ to the ‘university wizard’ funded by the University of New South Wales to disperse political tension on campus (34). Hewett’s contemporary John Romeril had written a play dramatising ongoing conflict at Monash University, and it was this play, the surrealist Chicago, Chicago, that Melbourne’s Australian Performing Group, later to become the Pram Factory, took to the Perth Festival in 1969. At the festival, Hewett read to the group the first act of her uncompleted play The Chapel Perilous (Novakovic np).

This is not mere intertextuality or ‘context’. Jacky Bratton’s exploration of what she terms ‘intertheatricality’ in her study of early Victorian theatre in Britain is useful in thinking further about the kinds of multidimensional connections we can trace between Hewett’s play and its time. As an approach, Bratton’s idea necessarily ‘goes beyond the written’ and widens further than the immediate time frame of a single performance or theatrical event. An intertheatrical reading emphasises a mesh of interdependent factors, reliant on memory:

It seeks to articulate the mesh of connections between all kinds of theatre texts, and between texts and their users. It posits that all entertainments that are performed within a single theatrical tradition are more or less interdependent. They are uttered in a language, shared by successive generations, which includes not only speech and the systems of the stage—scenery, costume, lighting and so forth—but also genres, conventions and, very importantly, memory (37–38).

There are questions that can be asked about the viability of a ‘single theatrical tradition’ in a settler context, where Shakespearean drama shares a stage with forms of traditional corroboree, which it could in Perth in this period. More precisely, and more usefully for Hewett, Bratton identifies a: ‘web of mutual understanding between potential audiences and their players, a sense of the knowledge, or better the knowingness, about playing that spans a lifetime or more, and that is activated for all participants during the performance event’ (37).

In January 1971, Katharine Brisbane noticed, as did many, that Hewett’s play ‘took Perth by the ears’ (152). The Chapel Perilous was launched for a participating audience and, beyond Hewett’s voracious appetite for literary citation, it restaged aspects of their lives, theatricalising and performing the (auto)biographical in modes of performance that were at once highly self-conscious and richly connected to its audience’s experiences. It was networked into complex sets of conventions, staged systems and cultural memory that were literary, theatrical, historical and local, but which were being performed in order to be simultaneously challenged and flouted. Interviewed by the West Australian a month before opening night, Hewett disavowed any autobiographical dimension for her play, deliberately but perhaps not carefully enough:

 …’it is not autobiographical – there are people in it who are purely imaginary and events which never happened to me. I have tried to capture the atmosphere of life in a provincial Australian city, like Perth, as I felt it when I was growing up.

I wanted to get the feeling of the social fabric of life as it was in the war and post-war years in Australia.  … I wanted to see how a creative individual, especially a rebellious girl, could fit into an essentially limited and uncultured society,” Miss Hewett said. (‘World Premiere’)

By 1972, in its Currency Press edition, though, Hewett would declare that it ‘is the closest to autobiography of all the plays I have written’ (xvi). In her note for the New Fortune program, she locates its origins in the discovery by her son Joe of a diary from her teenage years, ‘with the most uncanny verisimilitude, the attitudes, dreams, agonies and limitations of that girl at that time.’ But ‘I don’t mean by all this that Sally Banner is ME. Sally Banner is a created character, a montage, close to me, born of my womb if you like, but cast out to act as a symbol for myself to try and make sense of the world I’ve inhabited.’

The Chapel Perilous departs from Hewett’s earlier theatre in its conscious address to the manifestation – the symbolic performance – of people in history, including herself, asking how culture characterises us; turns occurrence into performance and relations into community, personhood into individuality, singularity, and so on. Its interest in memory as a medium through which individual experience becomes history is never simply confessional or testimonial: the complex work done by what Brisbane identified as ‘poetic memory’ is always apparent. And in so far as the play is about Dorothy Hewett, it is an indictment of the world around her, private and public, intimate and social, and thus biographical as well as properly historical.

With an audience made up of many people known to Hewett and each other, especially for opening night, the biographical elements of The Chapel Perilous thus perhaps inevitably entangled and identified people in the play’s intertheatrical mesh, and perhaps inevitably against their will. Even before it opened, Hewett and Neeme had been forced to change Sally’s name from Thunder to Banner, after the Thunder family of Wembley in west Perth protested following a recognisable (auto)biographical register in various instances (that audiences know Hewett was brought before the Petrov Royal Commission on Espionage, for example (78)), while the prominent disclaimer inserted on the front of the original script and in the program, presumably after the ‘Thunder’ controversy (‘All characters in this play are wholly imaginary and have no reference whatever to actual people’), was clearly false.

And the mesh of consensus that sustained opening night failed drastically four years later, when Lloyd Davies sued Hewett and Currency Press for malicious libel in the portrayal of Tom, Sally’s husband, ‘with whom he identified certain incidents’ – perhaps the most libellous of those being drunken impotence on their wedding night. Targeting some more recent poetry of Hewett’s and another play too, ‘the matter was settled out of court, one condition being that The Chapel Perilous be prevented from performance, or sale in book form, in Western Australia during his lifetime. The ban lasted until his death in 2004’ (Brisbane 155). The question of what a successful defamation case means for auto­ biographical theatre is productive for thinking about performance in history – is it a genre failure? Is there too much biography or is the biography inadequate? Is there excessive truth or too much fiction? Is it that performative history has been overwhelmed by historicity – by accident? Or is it the other way around?

Besides its later ban, there are other extraordinary extra-biographical details from its moment that show how linked this performance was into the larger historical stage. Aarne Neeme was sent into compulsory national service two days after its opening and the production was forced to continue its season without him, while his new company foundered (Brisbane 153). He had to leave Helen and his new daughter too, of course, and Zwicky wrote to Bolton that ‘there was a distressing departure scene and the last we’ve heard is that Helen has moved across to be near him in whatever induction centre he’s been placed. A sad business and one more disastrous mark against conscription.’ Neeme refused orders, as a conscientious objector, and was ‘successfully defended by Ken Horler, barrister and co-founder of the Nimrod Theatre’ (Brisbane 155) – in a great instance of interventionist performative law – and finally excused from service. By Christmas 1970, at least 13,000 men were draft resisters. According to Horne, after the adoption of the policy of scaling down and ultimate withdrawal earlier that year, ‘prudently the government ignored almost all of them and the commonwealth police tried to make an example of only a few’ (55).

When The Chapel Perilous was produced at La Mama in Melbourne in 2007, the director Suzanne Chaundry reported that its historical arch was a key part of its contemporary appeal: ‘…it [is] a fantastic chronicle of Australian history at the time, going through all the music and looking at that period of World War Two going into the Cold War and the communist period in Australia’ (Chaundry np). But it is more than a chronicle – history enters the action in multiform ways: the outbreak of war is announced on the radio; the discourse of mid-century international communism is delivered verbatim; the Chorus mouths anti-nuclear chants, shouts ‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!’ Towards the end of the play, the properly historical public sphere appears as itself, in Brechtian disembodied announcements that work, we might say, particularly for contemporary audiences, as constative performance: bald yet ritualised descriptive utterances of notable past events. To move us from the Kafka-esque ‘trial’ in Act II, Sally sings part of Hewett’s lovely lyric ‘My Love on Whom the Good Sun Shone’, and then we hear:

AMPLIFIER: April fourth, Martin Luther King murdered in Memphis.

[Sally moves right and sits. David comes from behind SISTER Rosa’s mask, dressed only in underpants, carrying his trousers. He sits beside SALLY, looking ill at ease.]

DAVID: You’ve got a marvellous set of muscles between your legs, darling.


AMPLIFIER: August twenty-first, Czechoslovakia invaded. […]

AMPLIFIER: September third, Ho Chi Minh dead. […]

AMPLIFIER: September twentieth, Luna Ten softlands on the Sea of Fertility; and Sally Banner, OBE, flies home by Qantas. [The scene dissolves into an airport reception….] (86–89)

This is 1968, so only just historical for 1971 – and these announcements situate the action, for the New Fortune production, exactly where they are – Sally comes home to Perth. As utterances they develop from the constative to the performative, the past to the present tense, and while forcefully placing the fictional Sally Banner in history, these also form the moment at which she becomes wholly fictional: older than the autobiographical Dorothy Hewett and doing what her playwright has not yet done. To finish the play, Hewett stages Sally’s/her own return to Perth as a feted and senior author flying in from overseas. Hewett and her family did leave to live in Sydney, but not until 1973, and Hewett would also return (from the Eastern States) to a reception in Perth as an established poet and playwright in the mid-1980s. On Sally’s return, she is asked immediately:

CHORUS: What are your plans for the future?

SALLY: Cremation.

Importantly, the amplifier’s set of constative announcements was not included in the script when the play was staged in 1971. They were added in a set of revisions that Hewett sent to Aarne Neeme for comment on March 11th 1972, as she worked to resolve the ending (MS6184, Series 4.5, Folder 16). Hewett wrote in her preface about her difficulties with the play’s conclusion – how does one imagine oneself into the future? If your plot is a life there is only one way to finish; death is the end (xvii). And we see that the threat of the impossible fictional future is a danger of the biographical register; the way in which autobiography as a genre threatens to overdetermine its own performance. The play does escape that logic finally – its biological teleology – but Hewett’s struggle to achieve that is evidenced in what Chaundry identifies as the play’s several ‘false ends’. At the conclusion of the New Fortune production, Sally kept her back straight as she passed the school chapel’s altar on her way to the tower, where the play finishes. In a production for the Melbourne University Student Theatre a year later, the student actor playing her decided that Sally should kneel, ‘not humbly, but proudly, head held high’ (Hewett ‘Why’, xviii). Hewett reports being outraged when she saw this on opening night and the gesture provoked significant controversy: ‘Why does Sally bow?’ But this was the ending incorporated into the Currency edition. Finally, ‘she makes a kind of peace’, explains Hewett, ‘not with the Church, not with the State, not with temporal authority, but with life itself, which includes authority’ (xviii).

The play’s opening scenes also stage Sally’s return to her school as a feted poet, proleptically, with the stained glass window erected in her honour centre-stage above the altar. As is much of the action, this event is ironised, any poignancy dependent on the satire delivered in its performance:

HEADMISTRESS: It is rarely given to meet a student who has the recognisable instant quality… genius… major poet.

AMPLIFIER: [HEADMISTRESS’S voice] Minor poet! Major poet in a provincial town.

AMPLIFIER: Big frog in a small puddle.

HEADMISTRESS: We were all privileged to know her and as I look about this great hall inscribed with the names of famous women in history I rejoice that the name of my pupil stands among them.

[Spotlights SALLY]

SALLY: Queen Elizabeth, Madam Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Joan of Arc, Boadicea, Grace Darling, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Fry, Helen Keller, Daisy Bates… [whispering] Sally Banner… Sally Banner…

HEADMISTRESS: I believe I always knew it would be so.

SCHOOLGIRLS: [singing]

Poor Sally.

She never made it.

No matter how hard she tried.

She tried hard not to know it,

But she was a minor poet,

Until the day she died. (5–6)

This repeated moment, performed at the beginning and the end, moves us between proleptic and dramatic irony, to take us into sarcasm, with Sally’s self-discovery a puncturing revelation along the way. These layered ironies are further multiplied in biographical register, via intertheatricality, in that the play both satirises and performs the function of literary biography: to assess a writer’s legacy, or worth, after the day she died.

There is no stained glass picture of Hewett in the chapel of Perth College, her own high school, and no listing of her on plaques, though the school archives keep a clippings file. The school drama program has never produced the play. In so far as we work to think about a play’s historicity, perhaps it will always appear multidimensional, but in The Chapel Perilous’s case we are returned dramatically to ‘the historicity of struggles over social norms’, as Kelly suggests (52), and it seems clear that is because ultimately it is a play about cultural authority. Authority is explicitly (dis)embodied not only in the unpeopled amplifiers but in the large figures that loom from the back of the stage, and these are supplemented by personalised comment and accusations delivered by the identified ‘authority’ characters through loudspeakers at other points, as well as by an unidentified radio commentator. These loudly overlay the action, dialogue and singing with ironised comment, pointed criticisms of Sally and de-authorising satire. At the opening of Act II we are treated to an array of side show elements and the overblown sexualised fetishisation of women in a carnival, vociferously parodying Sally’s attempts to be taken seriously.

Authority is a gendered problem in this play, with a Romantic frame: is rebellion necessary for art? Could it be possible for seventies Australia to accept a female ‘genius’? How does such a figure grasp and hold authority? How is she given such – or is she never? The play lampoons all the major forms of established authority to which young women were subject in 1971 – school, church, the capitalist police state, the law courts, fathers and husbands, headmistresses and nuns. And set up in opposition are not only romantic passion and expressive sexuality, but utopian political fervour and commitment, somatic bodily desire and forms of poetic experience – authenticity: ‘I want to feel everything. To tell everything, to walk naked.’ Hewett’s attack on authority reveals The Chapel Perilous, only seemingly ‘accidently’, as on song with the performance of dissent characteristic of its political moment. Its Romantic impulses and literary subjectivity, while grounded in Hewett’s work for the English department, chimed with a younger generation’s move away from the collective values of the organised labour movement, and its full-voiced challenges to taboos about sex and embodied desire bridged the gap between older forms of feminism and the new guard in ways that seem to have taken Hewett by surprise. In The Second Sex, Beauvoir asked: ‘How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself?’ (17). In 1971, the kind of liberation Sally asks for is autonomous self-realisation and the freedom to authorise a future. For Hewett, the playwright, it is a capacity to perform futurity, and perhaps make history.

Works Cited

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