Soon after journalist Ruth Park arrived in Australia during the Second World War, the Manpower Authority directed her husband D’Arcy Niland to join the shearing circuit in far western New South Wales. The newlyweds and D’Arcy’s brother Beres, whom Park adored, traveled for months around rural NSW and Queensland, Park picking fruit, noodling for opals, cooking for shearers, and becoming a Chinese chef’s offsider, among other jobs. In her autobiography, Park describes ‘blinding noon skies’ and a ‘kingly spaciousness’. In Moree and elsewhere, Park observed Indigenous camps on the fringes of towns.
Returning to Sydney, D’Arcy, Beres and Ruth sought lodgings in the midst of an extreme housing shortage. And so the three came to settle in Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. The home of their landlady was formerly a barber’s shop; Beres slept in the old barber’s chair.
Sydney then, Park reminds us, was a port rather than a city—its identity strongly maritime. Surry Hills had grown up ‘higgledy-piggledy’ among ‘prehistoric sandhills’. It was deeply impoverished and multiply infested with rats, bed bugs and nineteenth century illnesses. Life was lived out on its rowdy streets, observes Park.
It’s not that poverty was unfamiliar to Park, who was then mostly engaged in writing children’s tales and radio plays. Her father was a bridge builder and road maker, and she spent much of her childhood in rural camps. During the Depression, her family ‘was forced to retreat to shabby neighbourhoods’. But from Surry Hills Ruth Park initially recoiled: here was a city slum, ‘a scramble of lanes’ and narrow streets lined with overcrowded terraces and dank ‘ruinous cottages’. Victorian conditions prevailed in the mid-twentieth century, and everywhere there was violence, cruelty, stench and crummy nutrition.
According to Park, it was D’Arcy who suggested she train her powers of observation onto her surrounds—hey, there was nowhere else to go. When the Sydney Morning Herald announced its inaugural literary competition in 1946 it was their brief time in Surry Hills that she turned to, writing of it with ‘almost total recall’. This was the first novel Park wrote and the award of first prize to an outsider—a woman, a New Zealander—was controversial. Some vigorously denied the existence of slums; others saw Park inexcusably redeem the residents of poor neighbourhoods, depicting ordinary, feeling, humorous and intelligent people rather than razor-wielding criminals. This prize-winning novel was Harp in the South, soon after Park published a sequel Poor Man’s Orange. Decades later, she published a prequel, Missus.
Ruth Park’s trilogy centres on the Darcy family, who live at 12-and-a-half Plymouth Street in ‘the hills’. Hugh and Margaret Darcy also arrive in Sydney just married, as the Harbour Bridge is under construction. In her later, intensely romantic and utterly commanding novel, Swords and Crowns and Rings, Park depicts the scenes surrounding its laborious assembly: while the ‘monstrous hump’ was ‘crawling with men’, everywhere more stood knotted in corners and doorways, out of work.
In late August of this year I walked under those mammoth pylons and around to the Sydney Theatre Company’s home in Hinkson Road, where old finger wharves and warehouses have been converted to apartments, restaurants and ‘spaces’.
Kate Mulvany’s adaption of Park’s trilogy for the stage was an ambitious undertaking. Mulvaney condensed three novels into six hours of theatre over two nights, with 18 actors playing the characters that make up an entire neighbourhood, some cycling through as many as eight roles. While the books were written out of chronological order they were staged in sequence—before arriving hopeful in Sydney, Margaret and Hugh meet and court in rural New South Wales. The least compelling of the novels, the scenes from Missus were entrancing on stage.
What do Park’s women characters want? This question drives interlaced narratives.
Hughie’s mother Frances Darcy is ‘mad’. This is the 1920s; hysteria was of course Freud’s frequent diagnosis of women whose frustrations took a psychic toll. A lonely former governess, in the novel Frances is prescribed laudanum for her ‘nerves’, becoming addicted to it. On stage she reeled briefly and crazed, suiciding in a lake. Hugh is left burdened with the care of his brother Jer, who walks on crutches, his ‘feet knotted like tree roots’ since birth. Hugh carries close twinned fears: of his mean father, and of becoming a mean man like his father.
In Surry Hills, Hugh and Margaret— her name barely used, subsumed into ‘Mumma’ on the page and into ‘Missus’ on stage— share their home with their daughters, Roie and Dolour, as well as the powerful memory of their son Thady who disappeared off the streets while playing marbles as a child. Margaret’s mother, Eny, later joins them. It was a show-stealing performance from a brilliant Heather Mitchell: bawdy, hilarious and cruelly scornful before drifting into dementia-fuelled dreams of what life might have held.
Dolour bursts with the smarts, craving intellectual fulfilment, but eventually leaving school to work in a shop after bed bug bites infect her eyes. She also burns with growing sexual feelings that she has no language for. Roie is older and already ensnared by the expectation that she will sublimate her own desires to please/appease men; she is coerced into sex with lethal consequences. Roie works overtime at a factory in secret to save money for an illegal abortion at four months. Fleeing from another woman’s chilling screams, she is set upon by a pack of sailors who beat her mercilessly. Roie loses the pregnancy, but later re-finds her spirit upon falling in love with Charlie, a character of Aboriginal and settler descent (‘touched by the tar brush’ in the era’s parlance). It’s in their poetic partnership, not the institution of marriage as such, that Roie seeks and finds fleeting fulfilment.
What of Margaret/Mumma/Missus? Mulvany has her fixated on Thady’s return, but later we see her express a deeper, fearful desire: she does not want Roie and Dolour to inherit her role in life, wrestling with a cranky old stove to make dinner for a drunk husband each night. Sausages, baked potatoes. Repeat.
Other minor women characters embody contrasting possibilities and their limits. Mulvany presents two nuns’ passionate friendship as shot through with queer desire, eventually disciplined by the local parish priest. Then there’s Delie Stock, sporting her set platinum curls, exotic shimmering frocks and scuffed slippers, routinely fishing pound notes out of her buxom bosom. Park based the character of Stock on well-known inner city madam Kate Leigh, mythologised in George Blaikie’s entertaining Wild Women of Sydney and elsewhere. In Harp in the South it is Delie who pays for paupers’ coffins, and who foots medical bills, one for a local child whose leg ‘snapped like a piece of celery’. On stage is depicted the scene in which she treats local children to a Christmas treat: a riotous day at the beach capped off with brilliant costumes. Stock’s generosity of course does little to temper the moral opprobrium of this Irish Catholic community.
While women’s biographies are central, Mulvaney’s adaption makes clear that men, too, are constrained by the rigidities of their roles. When Charlie asks Missus for advice about his baby, she whisks the infant away to suckle on her little finger, saying his are too dirty with printer’s ink. She nurses the newborn tenderly; Charlie instead plants his hands on his hip and asks, reluctantly, unhappily, ‘What’s for dinner?’
One theatre reviewer observed that staged in 2018, the ‘casual racism sticks in the throat’. Sure. Park’s work is filled with mid-twentieth century assumptions of Indigenous passivity and fatalism. But something more subtle is also explored, both on stage and in the novels. Mulvany skilfully suggests that the characters she has to work with have different relationships to difference. Missus is especially fearful of racial others, harbouring, indeed nurturing, a range of prejudices. She fears that her grandson will be born dark-skinned, strongly desiring whiteness. This is the rawest and most abrasive of a range of her everyday efforts to mark and make meaningful social distinctions, between respectable Catholicism and domesticity, for example, and the sex work, backyard abortions, sozzled beatings and stand-over tactics of the street. However, in this fiercely egalitarian setting, Park grants other characters other kinds of orientations to the same question, possibilities that Mulvany perceives and enlarges.
The character of Jimmy Lick, played by a beguiling George Zhao, was presumably based on the Chinese grocer who lived next door to Park and Niland. With her neighbours Park made occasional friendly-cum-patronising attempts at communication; when Park and Niland left Surry Hills for fear the pollution was affecting their baby’s health, the Hing family farewelled them with a ‘fusillade of firecrackers’. On stage, Dolour develops a tender friendship with Lick, and other characters too accept that all manner of humanity are living cheek by jowl in this neglected neighbourhood: the shared condition of poverty and shared longings for absent kin trump assumptions about race-based difference.
And Roie of course falls in love with Charlie (as eventually does Dolour). Park has Charlie blunder his way to La Perouse after Roie’s death. This is long before the beach side suburbs were ‘glossy and affluent’ as Peter Doyle puts it in City of Shadows. The coast remained, Doyle writes, in its ‘stubbornly truer natural state’: in shacks and the occasional Californian bungalow the poor clung to snake-infested sand dunes and treeless heathlands. La Pa was—is—where a proud Aboriginal community sustained itself through shell art, fishing and work in nearby industrial sites. Charlie ends up in the camp of Angus McIntosh whose care—sweetened tea with goat’s milk, a comb—is critical in Charlie resolving to bear the pain of keeping on living without Roie. Mulvany enriches this exchange, finding spiritual content.
Embodied differences of another kind featured strongly in Park’s oeuvre. Hugh’s crippled brother Jer bore a physical difference that mortally offended his fellow schoolmates, Roie’s manipulative first lover, Tommy Mendel, wrestled with an impairment, and Johnny Sheily, who lived with his mother at 12-and-a-half Plymouth Street was intellectually disabled. The Harp in the South depicts both the devastating lack of social understanding of these differences, the labour involved in supporting Johnny and Jer in a hostile world, and that of course people such as these characters were a loved and accepted part of people’s everyday lives.
As numerous reviewers commented, Part Two, which adapted Poor Man’s Orange, was less successful than the impeccably choreographed theatre piece that preceded it. The set is stripped bare, becoming cavernous and crushing: a demolition soundscape of ripping and collapsing punctuates sad scenes. The neighbourhood frays as slum clearances proceed. The clever, energetic pastiche of Part One, whereby humour abuts conviviality, which abuts despair, is gone. But it’s in closing that Missus asserts herself again, becoming Margaret. She may be too wide to fit into the cardigan Hughie buys for her, but she faces reality stoically, in the wake of her husband’s juvenile sexual fantasies. Thady is dead. Their home will soon be razed.
This collection of souls was to be dispersed to far western Sydney suburbs or perhaps to the high-rise public housing towers of Surry Hills, Waterloo, or even Miller’s Point. The publication of The Harp in the South in fact galvanised social reformers and as well as dramatising the effects of this period, Park presided over the official opening of the Devonshire Street flats. Today residents of some of those same neighbourhoods fight their own eviction and dispersal c/o an insanely financialised housing market.
In a moving review Steve Dow shares that he clutched the arm rest on the ‘precipice of tears’ an hour into Part One, as the young versions of Margaret and Hugh traded places with their older versions, on a revolving set. ‘Only later did I understand that I was reacting to a perfect distillation of mortality and the flicker of a human life, as finely realised by director Kip Williams’, says Dow. This moment certainly floored me, and I sensed the whole audience fall into a deeply concentrated silence. My own tears leaked out all over the place: motherhood rather than mortality the stimulus. But as much as I was filled with gratitude for seeing characters I’ve long loved on the page so richly realised on stage, literary critic Susan Lever’s appraisal of the production is important.
Lever wonders if this latest Sydney Theatre Company production caters to a nostalgia on the part of middle-class Sydneysiders ‘for the suburbs that disappeared under the onslaught of their own rise in prosperity’. Further, Lever perceived a celebrating of ‘the Old Australia, when the Irish immigrants were the poor and white people dominated society from bottom to top’. Lever forces us to think in more critical terms about the appreciative consumption of aestheticised poverty by elite audiences—the singing, dancing poor in their cute button-up overalls and felt peaked hats. The response to these insights is certainly not, for Lever or me, to slap on the label of ‘poverty porn’. When applied to representations of contemporary circumstances, such as Struggle Street, it becomes both possible to be assured of one’s superior critical capacities and to avoid ever really feeling curious about or confronting what it’s like to live with material deprivation. While Lever’s questions linger, one thing seems clear: Ruth Park was unwilling to turn away from the lived realities of her time, drawing closer to poverty in an effort to understand it.
Eve Vincent is a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University. She is the author of ‘Against Native Title’: Conflict and Creativity in Outback Australia(Aboriginal Studies Press, 2017).
George Blaikie, Wild Women of Sydney, Melbourne, Vic.: Ribgy, 1980.
Steve Dow, Harp in the South (Review), The Saturday Paper: https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/2018/09/15/the-harp-the-south/15369336006855
Peter Doyle, City of Shadows, Sydney: Historic Houses Trust, 2006.
Susan Lever, Going Back to Where We Came From, Inside Story: https://insidestory.org.au/going-back-to-where-we-came-from/
Ruth Park, Harp in the South, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1951 .
Ruth Park, Poor Man’s Orange, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1981 .
Ruth Park, Missus, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1986.
Ruth Park, A Fence Around the Cuckoo, Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1992.
Ruth Park, Fishing in the Styx, Ringwood, Vic.: Viking / Penguin Books, 1993.
Ruth Park, Swords and Crowns and Rings, Melbourne, Vic.: Text Publishing, 2012 .
Jason Whittaker, Harp in the South (Review), Daily Review: https://dailyreview.com.au/harp-south-theatre-review/77569/