Sensitive issues and content warnings
The Drover’s Wife is a provocative and confronting text; particular care should be taken in students’ initial encounters with the text. Teachers should also be considerate of their own self-care.
Teachers should consider the needs of their students in determining the most appropriate way for students to read the play, whether this is individually, in small groups, or as a class. It is strongly recommended that Scene 7 is not performed as a dramatised reading in class.
Based on the work of Reading Australia Fellow, Alex Wharton, and contributor Emma Jenkins, a resource that supports teachers in engaging with sensitive issues has been developed for teachers. It is summarised below.
Approaching the text
Approaches to the text should include:
- A clear rationale for including the text in the curriculum.
The Drover’s Wife is an excellent text to increase students’ awareness and understanding of Indigenous and other marginalised voices, not only for informing balanced perspectives, but also for promoting reconciliation and intercultural understanding. Pedagogical aims may include:
- exposure to a multiplicity of Australian voices
- building empathy
- representing Indigenous people as complex individuals with relatable identities and aspirations.
- Protocols for bringing students safely in to the text, and safely out of the text
- Drawing on multiple sources
- A scaffolded and supported understanding of:
- Pre-contact Indigenous culture, diversity and practices (explicit teaching of vocabulary, use of photographs, artworks and own voice account)
- The impacts of invasion
- Contemporary Indigenous cultures and the reassertion of rights to cultural identity
Specific content warnings should be provided for:
- degradation of women
- sexual assault
- violence (e.g. assault, guns, hanging)
Safely in and Safely out protocols
These protocols should be used at the commencement and conclusion of studying the text, as well as to conclude individual lessons in which confronting content has been encountered.
To bring students safely in to the text:
- facilitate a space that is culturally, emotionally and physically safe for students
- be aware of and acknowledge students’ comfort and or discomfort and unease
- establish processes for students to inform the teacher if they are uncomfortable or to withdraw themselves from the discussion
- recognise students’ acts towards embracing resistance, humanity and intercultural understanding.
To bring students safely out of the text:
- debrief with students, allowing time for discussion and for activities such as private journaling, exit cards and thinking routines (Connect-Extend-Challenge, I used to think, now I think…)
- respond to questions thoughtfully and with accuracy
- model an appropriate emotional response
- address problematic attitudes with curiosity rather than criticism
- avoid asking students to ‘put themselves in the shoes’ of someone who does not share their lived experience
- provide opportunities for action.
Once a safe environment and protocols for approaching the text have been established, initial learning activities may include:
Reading the original short story
Studying the play is enriched by a close reading of the original Henry Lawson short story. A handout with questions (PDF, 136KB) has been provided to guide students through their reading of the short story.
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Illustrating the setting
Within the two texts, (the original Lawson short story and Purcell’s contemporary play) the physical setting differs significantly. A sense of these settings is gleaned from the opening of each work. Students should use evidence from the texts to create an illustration of each setting.
Using a search engine, image search for terms such as:
|Lawson Short Story
Indigenous cultures, diversity and practices
It should be emphasised to students that Indigenous cultures are not homogenous, and that Indigenous nations are rich and diverse in their cultural practices.
As the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt AM MP emphasised at the 2019 Frank Archibald Memorial Lecture the importance of schools engaging with their local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, in order to develop an understanding amongst students of their ‘local cultural context’.
Teachers should develop awareness of the Indigenous cultures and practices in their own geographical region. Many resources are available to support this, for example:
- The Virtual Songlines project has produced videos reconstructing the landscapes of the Eora, Birrarung and Tartanya areas as they were before invasion.
- The Gambay First Languages Map of Australia allows students to visualise the linguistic diversity of Indigenous Australia, and several languages include embedded videos.
- The Indigenous Knowledge Resources database produced by the University of Melbourne contains information about pre-contact Indigenous knowledges of astronomy, fire and water.
- The ABC Education contains a multitude of resources on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
- The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia is a useful resource that should be in every classroom.
- The OXFAM resource, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Protocols, provides an overview of conventions to ensure that teachers’ work is respectful.
- The First Australians, SBS Television.
- ABC RN AWAYE!
- In its first series, the television show You Can’t Ask That aired an episode featuring the topic of Indigenous Australians.
- Steven Oliver ‘I’m a Blackfella’ (YouTube spoken word).
- Steven Oliver ‘Hate He Said’ (YouTube spoken word).
- The Blackwords (AustLit, UQ) database has a search by area/nation/language group function to easily find Indigenous-authored resources from the students’ local area.
Published works from which excerpts may be taken include:
- Dark Emu and Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
- Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton (Young Reader’s Edition)
- Nyuntu Ninti (What You Should Know) by Bob Randall and Melanie Hogan
See the More Resources section, located at the bottom of this resource, for more information.
It is recommended to invite a local Indigenous elder, or artist, author, teacher, historian or poet, to speak with your class. Your school’s history teachers will also prove a helpful resource in providing context and content about Indigenous cultures, diversity and practices, and it may be worthwhile to have a colleague present an introductory lesson on this topic.
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Instruct students to formulate a vocabulary bank for their study of the play beginning with the following terms:
- First Nations
- first contact
Open and closed
To form the basis of a class discussion about their initial responses to the text, students should work in pairs or small groups to formulate a series of open and closed questions about the text. They should produce three closed questions and one open-ended question. The teacher may then choose to address each of these questions as a whole class discussion, or to have students compose their questions and provide these to a different pair/group to answer (this works well if mini-whiteboards are available).
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Outline of key elements of the text
Metalanguage for drama
A plot summary (PDF, 435KB) has been provided for students’ reference. This could be transformed into a classroom activity in which the events are put out of order and students reorganise them. A recording template (PDF, 137KB) is also available for students to use these plot points to produce their own summary and to graph the plot of both the short story and the play.
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The characters are briefly described at the beginning of the play:
- The Drover’s Wife (Molly), 40
- Yadaka (Indigenous), 38–45
- Danny, 14
- Thomas McNealy, 60, a swagman
- Douglas Merchant, 34–40, a peddler
- Spencer Leslie, 30–35, a trooper
- Robert Parsen, 45–50, a stockman
- John McPharlen, 25, a stockman
The Close Study section of this resource also includes a table for recording evidence of characterisation.
Students may use the themes chart (PDF, 627KB) to record evidence of the following themes:
- dispossession, colonialism and racism
- humans vs nature
- gender roles
- isolation and vulnerability
- poverty, survival, desperation
- mourning and grief.
Direct students to a suitable search engine or resource such as Google Image Search and look for open source, non copyrighted third party content, Creative Commons or Unsplash material. They are to search for an image to depict an agreed representation of the following:
- the dwelling
- the surrounding countryside
- the drover’s wife
- Robert Parsen.
Structure, parallels and contrasts
In analysing the text’s structure, students will gain insight from tracking references to Lawson’s short story, as well as considering the dramatic structure and unfolding of the action.
In the original short story, the survival of the Drover’s Wife is depicted through a series of battles that she is forced to engage in. In addition to facing the immediate threat of the snake as antagonist, Lawson narrates that:
- ‘She fought bushfire…’
- ‘She fought flood…’
- ‘She fought the pleuro-pneumonia…’
- ‘She fought a mad bullock…’
- ‘She fights crows and eagles that have designs on her chickens…’
This layering of challenges faced by the protagonist allows Lawson to emphasise her resilience and the way her actions deviate from gender norms of the time. The changing of tenses allows for a narrative fluidity between past and present, emphasising the ongoing immediacy of the threats, as well as the protagonist’s resilience in overcoming others in the past.
In Purcell’s play, ask students to identify the points of conflict or challenges that the Drover’s Wife must overcome. Who or what are the antagonists? Create a list of these with the class. Then, progress the discussion to consider how the Drover’s Wife overcomes these challenges. Finally, ask students to reflect on the ways that the Drover’s Wife defies gender roles in this feminist reimagining. Students may also consider how gender roles of the period are challenged through the character of Yadaka, particularly in comparison to the other male characters who represent patriarchal Anglo-Australian constructions of masculinity.
How has Leah Purcell manipulated dramatic structure to emphasise the empowerment the Drover’s Wife achieves by accepting her revealed identity?
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Form and Genre
It is intentional that Purcell has elected to transform this short story into a play (and now also back into a prose novel and a film version). Working in the theatre for a number of decades, knowledge of the dramatic form allows Purcell to give voice to the previously passive and nameless protagonist of Lawson’s short story. In the short story, the protagonist is subjected to the things that happen to her, further emphasised by Lawson’s use of the third person. In the play, Purcell renders a dynamic protagonist, afforded agency and the ability to drive the narrative action through her own choices, in an effort to refute the violence and mistreatment she endures.
Purcell explains that she has ‘activated all the characters’ (Writer’s Note, p. vii), allowing her to weave aspects of her great-grandfather’s story into the characters of Yadaka, Danny, and the father of the Drover’s Wife. The presence of these connections allows the protagonist to discover and reflect upon the significance of these connections, ultimately taking control of her own fate and that of her children.
This transformation of point of view and voice from omniscient narration to live-action drama fuels the play’s dramatic tension and allows Purcell to challenge audiences’ assumptions about Lawson’s short story. The heightened energy of Purcell’s ‘full throttle drama’ employs tropes of the Western genre such as good guys and bad guys, the pursuit of an outlaw, and a final showdown.
What opportunities have Purcell’s choices in form and genre afforded her in creating the story she sought to tell?
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In a play, characterisation is achieved both through what the characters say (dialogue), and the actions, expressions and body language of the actors. Often, the way a character should behave is described in the stage directions; in other instances, the director will make decisions about how the play script is brought to the stage. Following completion of the activities below, students should note the characterisation of each character in the characterisation chart (PDF, 371KB) provided.
Peel the fruit
In this group activity, students are encouraged to go beyond the dialogue and stage directions and consider the underlying motivations and attitudes of an assigned character. A full description of the Peel the Fruit thinking routine is available on the Project Zero website. The routine involves four steps:
- The Skin: what details about the character are provided at a surface level? Students record quotes, stage directions and concrete information about the character.
- Getting Under the Skin: students record the questions or puzzles they have about this character, or consider aspects of that character they wish to explore further.
- The Substance: students consider building explanations, making connections, and different viewpoints.
- The Core: students capture the heart of their character in a few words.
Many templates are available online for this routine, or teachers may choose to have students work with a large blank sheet of butcher’s paper to lay out their thinking.
As the students have considered an assigned character in depth, the class can participate in a hot seat discussion. In this activity, students are seated in a circle, facing in, and one student is seated on a chair in the middle of the circle. The student in the middle is in the ‘hot seat’ and will answer questions posed to them, in character. This activity will work well if one student from each group that has completed the activity above, is nominated. To begin with, the teacher may ask simple, direct questions, such as: ‘What is your name?’ ‘What are you wearing?’ and ‘Who are you married to?’ The discussion can then be opened up to the other students to pose prepared questions (PDF, 142KB), or those that arise naturally in the role play. The teacher may occasionally find it necessary to seek elaboration or model open-ended questions.
Language and style
The play’s dialogue is demotic language: appropriate for the time period, capturing the lexicon, idiom and vernacular or parlance of the characters. Crass and vulgar language is used for impact, as appropriate to the playwright’s purpose, and the characters speak in the style of realism.
Students may be interested to view the Australian Word Map of regionalisms and colloquialisms. In class discussion, ask students to identify some of the slang or regional variations that they use in their own communication. Students could also transform some everyday phrases into Purcell’s style.
The centrality of family connections and storytelling in Indigenous cultures is highlighted by the character of Yadaka – in his awareness of a family connection that becomes his gift to the Drover’s Wife. Ask students to reflect on the traditional stories, favourite stories, folklore or histories within their own family contexts; the teacher may share one of their own to model the kind of story to be shared, for example:
In my family, we often remember a walk that we took on the beach while camping for my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday. My son was splashing in the breakers when a huge freak wave swept him 50 metres along the beach. We were all worried and shocked, until he stood up with a huge grin on his face and said, ‘Whoa, that was fun!’
Objects are imbued with particular significance within the play, and although the set is sparse with few props, those that are used hold great significance. Have students brainstorm the significance of the following objects using the Symbolism PowerPoint (PPT, 3MB) as a starter.
- the snake/Yadaka
- chopping block/axe
- kitchen table
- hollow woodpile
- mad bullock
- Joe’s boots
- black (‘Black, black, black is the colour of my true love’s hair’, p. 14)
- cup of tea with sugar (white gold)
Students may also compare the symbols in Lawson’s short story with those of Purcell’s contemporary play. For example, the kitchen table in the short story is an island of safety and refuge for the Drover’s Wife and the children; in the play, the kitchen table is where she gives birth to a stillborn baby. What significance might this transformation have in Purcell’s reimagining?
Scene analysis: colour, symbol, image (CSI)
In pairs or groups, students are assigned a scene from the play to analyse (there are nine scenes). They should consider the following aspects of their assigned scene:
- Key quotes
- Language and devices
When they have discussed these aspects, they should complete a Colour-Symbol-Image thinking routine which summarises their interpretation of the scene, attaching a colour, symbol and image to the scene, with an explanation and reasoning with evidence for their choices. They may complete their final version in the CSI template.
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Ways of reading the text
Assuming a stance of literary criticism allows students to gain a deeper insight into the play’s ideas, views and values, and to speculate on the authorial intent. Delving into this approach will be a matter of teacher choice and the curriculum context in which the play is being studied. For example, if the play is being studied in a Senior Secondary Literature course, then the application of literary lenses is much more relevant. In the Director’s Note to the Currency Press playscript, Leticia Caerces explicitly states Purcell’s play to be a ‘postcolonial and feminist reimagining’ of Lawson’s short story. In this context, it should also be noted that many First Nations’ people do not consider Australia to be a postcolonial nation. Professor Anita Heiss has written on this topic in the teaching guide to the PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.
A Literary Lenses worksheet (PDF, 428KB) has been provided for students to create a definition of the most apparent literary perspectives that can be applied to the play. Short descriptions of the various readings and examples from the text are also provided below.
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A postcolonial reading considers the relationship between coloniser and colonised, including the ongoing impacts of invasion, frontier violence, and destruction of cultural memory. Postcolonial works ‘speak back to Empire’ by highlighting the biases of the coloniser and the ideological positioning of the colonised as ‘other’, in an attempt to interrogate assumptions of the dominant discourse. A postcolonial reading is concerned with enabling readers to identify with subjugated groups by amplifying their perspectives.
The characterisation of the stockmen and the peddler in The Drover’s Wife are evidence for a postcolonial reading as these coloniser characters are depicted with abhorrent character traits and enact brutal violence on the colonised. Through this lens, Yadaka’s perspective and construction as a representation of Purcell’s great-grandfather may be read as personifying the voices of innumerable dispossessed Indigenous peoples. The ending, which depicts the protagonist setting out to rescue her kin and seek refuge in the cave, shows her embracing her revealed identity as a Ngambri Walgalu woman and rejecting her identity as the Drover’s Wife.
A feminist reading attunes readers and audiences to the experiences of women, and how they are subjugated and/or liberated within a patriarchal context. Although Lawson’s short story was criticised upon its publication as ‘unrealistic’ in its representation of an independent and resilient bushwoman, today, Lawson’s narration is considered paternalistic in its suggestion that the absence of a male figure underlies the hardships faced by the Drover’s Wife. The omniscient third-person narration and the lack of a name for the protagonist is amplified in this reading.
In Purcell’s play, the agency of the female is augmented; she speaks, acts and directs the trajectory of the narrative. She wields a weapon and commands respect from the male characters. Purcell’s ‘feminist reimagining’ also reveals that the protagonist has in fact murdered her abusive and violent drunk of a husband, wresting back control of her situation and future in a powerful inversion of Lawson’s absent male character. Nonetheless, Purcell’s lead character also endures pain and violence through the stillbirth of her daughter at the play’s opening and the sexual violence perpetrated upon her in the play’s denouement. In this sense, Purcell encourages the audience to consider the limitations placed upon women within the play’s historical and contemporary contexts.
Ecocriticism explores depictions of the relationship between nature and humanity. With its themes of existence in a foreboding and desolate, isolated landscape, both Lawson’s short story and Purcell’s play lend themselves to an eco-theoretical reading. Whereas the antagonists in the Lawson short story are the snake and the ‘stray blackfellow’ who ‘stacked the woodheap hollow’, in Purcell’s play the snake has been reconfigured as Yadaka, a character who shows benevolence and support towards the protagonist.
In Purcell’s play, it is the European men who enact violence both against the characters (the Drover’s Wife, Yadaka), and the environment, evidencing their disconnection from land and their disregard for the natural world. This creates a juxtaposition between Lawson’s and Purcell’s European characters’ ideology: of dominating the natural world and systems as opposed to Indigenous Australian cultures’ ideology of harmony and reciprocity with the natural world and its systems.
Consideration of a text within its wider historical context underpins an historicist reading. Lawson’s short story – as a piece of colonial literature from pre-Federation Australia – is laced with the dominant values of its historical context and propagates the established colonial discourse, such as seeing Australia as an ’empty space’ and naming and appropriating the land by erasing Aboriginal presence from the land.
Emerging from a twenty-first-century female Indigenous perspective, Purcell’s play has been composed in a vastly different context and aims to disrupt the dominant colonial ideology. In the intervening period between the publication of Lawson’s short story and Purcell’s play, events such as Federation, world wars, the availability of the contraceptive pill, the 1967 Referendum, women’s liberation movements, and the Apology to the Stolen Generations, have all occurred. Taking a relativistic perspective in appreciating the vastly different contexts from which these texts emerge, provides an insight into the views and values underpinning their construction.
A psychoanalytic reading, derived from the work of Sigmund Freud, is concerned with the human psyche, the significance of dreams and the subconscious, and how these illuminate inner beliefs, desires and repressed feelings. Much meaning is attributed to symbolic objects and their interpretation. Within the play, Purcell has reconstructed figures from the original short story to create new layers of meaning. For example, Yadaka is a heroic re-characterisation of Lawson’s snake, and the ‘mad bullock’ that has been slaughtered is reconstructed as the drover, Joe Johnson. When the Drover’s Wife sees a vision or apparition of Ginny May, Yadaka encourages her to connect this to the repressed identity that she resists. Yadaka’s claim that he will navigate the landscape ‘in the shadows of the night’ presents him as an ambiguous or dreamlike figure, with the capacity to dissemble and move about undetected.
Comparison with other texts
A consideration of the play alongside the original tale of Lawson’s short story underpins this unit’s approach to study of the text. To understand the play’s deeper messages, engagement with the original is crucial. A Textual Connections chart (PDF, 422KB) has been used earlier in this resource that lists connections between the two works and encourages students to reflect on these.
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Within a literary context, Purcell’s play may be situated within a groundswell of contemporary works by Indigenous authors that ‘speak back to empire’. Arising from a cultural legacy of works that derived from and perpetuated the ‘settler’ myth that marginalised or negated Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives, the canonical works of Australian literature hitherto misrepresented, stereotyped or erased Indigenous and other non-white identities. This is apparent in Lawson’s short story, which limits its representation of Indigenous Australians to the overwhelmingly negative depiction of an unnamed and deceptive ‘stray blackfellow’ who ‘stacked the woodpile hollow’.
Contrastingly, Purcell’s play provides an embodiment of those previously excluded, and draws attention to the obscene reality of our national narrative, which cannot be denied. This is not to assert that Indigenous responses to colonialism are a new phenomenon; rather the surge of literary works represents an ‘appropriation of the Western form of storytelling to expose the silences in that very form’ and a growing willingness to listen and an appetite for the truth on the part of contemporary audiences. The interjection of Indigenous perspectives is notable in the work of Jack Davis, Ellen van Neerven, Alexis Wright, Alison Whittaker, Bruce Pascoe, Tara June Winch, Ali Cobby Eckerman, Melissa Lucashenko, Nakkiah Lui, Rachel Perkins, Deborah Mailman and many other Indigenous writers, poets, playwrights, filmmakers and television writers.
Purcell’s motivations for writing the play, are worth discussing with students, along with its significance as a representation of Australian culture, and as a contribution to Australian literature.
Students may reflect on the significance of The Drover’s Wife using a thinking routine such as Connect-Extend-Challenge or 3-2-1 Bridge (typically undertaken at the beginning and end of a unit of learning).
In Connect-Extend-Challenge, students reflect on:
- How does the play connect with what you already know or believe about Australian culture and literature?
- How has the play extended your ideas and assumptions about Australian culture and literature?
- What challenges remain in your thinking about Australian culture and literature after having studied this play?
Students are encouraged to reason with evidence in this activity, identifying and justifying specific language or stylistic techniques that have been employed for narrative or dramatic purposes.
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At this stage of the unit, the ‘Safely out’ protocols that were referenced in the Initial Response section should be employed.
- Encourage students to reflect on what they have learnt about Indigenous culture, diversity, dispossession, frontier conflict, resistance and to identify the role of Indigenous voices in Australian literature.
- Students may be invited to respond with their own reflections through class discussion or journal writing. Provide some journaling prompts for them, such as:
- What do you think Purcell was trying to achieve with this play?
- What is your biggest takeaway from the play?
- What moments in the play have stuck with you? Why do you think so?
- Create an image to represent your thoughts now that you have finished studying the play.
- The thinking routine ‘I used to think…Now I think…’ is a useful framework for class discussion at this stage.
- Discuss with students any persistent questions they have, or ideas they are still grappling with.
- Invite students to take action or participate in activities that promote reconciliation.
Rich assessment tasks
Two assessment tasks are included in this unit, one in a productive mode, and one in a receptive mode. As this unit is intended for study in Senior Secondary English, students are most likely to be required to respond analytically and comparatively to the text. The productive mode task of recording a podcast is intended to enrich students’ understanding of authorial intent and provide an opportunity for them to use metalanguage to reflect on structural and stylistic aspects of the play. These understandings will be of significant benefit when responding analytically.
1. Productive mode
Total Drama is an entertainment and popular culture podcast (fictional) that interviews theatre industry professionals about their work. The podcast’s tagline is: ‘industry insights from every angle of production’.
In pairs, students should select one of the following scenarios and record an interview with a partner:
- You have been employed as the director of a new stage production of The Drover’s Wife. In your interview, explain your director’s vision for the play and what you hope the audience will take away from the performance.
- You are a producer staging a new production of The Drover’s Wife. In your interview, explain why you are funding this production and think it is an important Australian story to tell.
- You have just been cast as an actor in a new stage production of The Drover’s Wife. In your interview, explain your interpretation of this character and how you intend to fulfil your role.
- You are the set and costume designer for a new stage production of The Drover’s Wife. In your interview, explain the design choices that you have made for the production and how these connect with the play’s message.
In recording the podcast, students should nominate one partner to be the interviewer and one to be the interviewee. Listening to some excerpts of similar interview podcasts such as The Garret, Dumbo Feather Podcast and Routines and Ruts will provide some insight into the conventions and style of this form. Quality equipment will produce quality recordings; the opposite is also true. Encourage students to record in areas free of background noise. Many devices are pre-installed with suitable software, or students may prefer to use an app. Students should edit their recording, removing silences and adding theme music and transitions. This task provides ample scope to address the ICT cross-curriculum priority.
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2. Receptive mode
Analytical essay response
The analytical essay is the most common type of response required of students in Senior Secondary curricula across Australian states and territories. Questions have been provided that ask students to respond to the play either as a single text, or in comparison to the Lawson short story.
Single text analysis
- ‘Purcell shows both the beauty and brutality of life in the bush.’ Do you agree?
- ‘In presenting the experience of her central protagonist, Purcell shows us the experience of many.’ Discuss.
- How does imagery of the natural and supernatural add to the audience’s understanding of The Drover’s Wife?
- ‘The Drover’s Wife (Molly Johnson) and Yadaka rely equally upon each other for survival.’ To what extent do you agree?
- ‘Purcell’s play shows characters whose actions are driven by desperation.’ To what extent do you agree?
- Compare the ways that Lawson and Purcell depict the level of control that their respective protagonists have over their lives.
- Compare how Lawson and Purcell represent the dangers and trials of living in the bush.
- ‘Ma, I won’t never go a-drovin.’ Compare the ways Lawson’s short story and Purcell’s play explore the notion of responsibility to family.
Assessment criteria for a task of this nature will be prescribed in the relevant syllabus documents for each state and territory.
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