Reviewed: Three Australian Three-Act Plays. By Dymphna Cusack (Australasian Publishing Co.); 8s. 6d.
A recent reading of plays for the Jubilee competition has convinced me that the most common faults in our native drama are a reliance on themes already familiar in overseas plays and an inability to maintain theatrical interest and build to a satisfactory climax. It is true, of course, that dramatic situations are not unlimited in number, and that the greatest playwrights have proved that their originality does not necessarily lie in the creation of new plots; but frequently in Australian plays the action, the characters and even the dialogue hark back too obviously to older models, and local idiom and slang make too thin a cloak for clichés of dramatic writing. Often, too, the dialogue is insufficiently shaped towards the end of theatrical variety; competent and speakable enough, it is inclined to lose sharpness in a verbosity more suitable to the novel than to the ‘traffic of the stage’.
The three plays of Dymphna Cusack, now published in one volume, are not immune from these defects. Miss Cusack has already made a considerable contribution to Australian drama, and it is not surprising that each of these plays has been a competition prize-winner and has achieved performance on stage or radio. The sincerity of their purpose is indisputable, and their technique is, generally speaking, above the average for Australian plays. Miss Cusack keeps her eye on the theatrical limitations of her action and yet manages to give many of her characters an imaginary life off-stage. This is particularly true of Morning Sacrifice, which seems to me the most shapely and effective play of the three. The setting is the staff room of a girls’ school, and the actors in the bitter and tragic story are nine women teachers, skilfully differentiated and immediately credible. The play has the authentic note of personal experience, and the frictions and jealousies of a too-female society are brought out in terms of genuine dramatic conflict. The ruthless Miss Kingsbury, a combination of hard ambition and calculated charm, is understandable as a type and convincing as a characterization, and the other women provide the necessary amount of human variety to make the play rewarding to both actors and audience.
In the other two plays the character drawing is not so successful. Miss Cusack’s dislike of the capitalist class is revealed too strongly in the creation of the blustering, overbearing male or the silly, selfish society woman. Figures like Talbot of Comets Soon Pass and Mrs. Stanwell-Rock of Shoulder the Sky are so two-dimensional and theatrically unreal that they defeat the ends of the author in not offering a sufficiently convincing contrast to the innate nobility of the worker-type. In both these plays there is a tendency towards the hackneyed situation and the melodramatic attitude, and the conversation is apt to fall into long and undramatic duologues — sometimes with other people silent on the stage. This is very marked in Shoulder the Sky, which savours more of the documentary than of true drama. Set in a voluntary wartime canteen, it presents a large cast of assorted individuals in a series of episodes cut rather arbitrarily into three acts with little real continuity or emotional development. The fact that the author has not been able to weld her company of men and women into a satisfactory dramatic team is shown in the frequent isolation of characters in various parts of the main setting and in the use of awkward inset scenes.
Comets Soon Pass is much better. Four men and four women are somewhat improbably marooned in the house of a country doctor, a former city specialist, by the bursting of a dam. It is not clear how ‘Dr. John Smith’ has managed to conceal his identity for so many years, and the long arm of coincidence has to be stretched pretty far to account for the gathering together of people so intimately connected by hatred or love. The play, therefore, smacks too much of theatrical contrivance and the characters tend to be cut to stock patterns. Not one of them — the saintly doctor, the philandering artist, his disillusioned wife (formerly wife to the doctor), the ingenuous girl, the fascist-minded cannery owner, the snobbish country matron, the servant girl down on her luck, and the ill-treated Communist — has the reality of the schoolmistresses of Morning Sacrifice, and their dialogue and emotional responses seem to be conditioned by those of similar characters in other plays. Nevertheless, Comets Soon Pass, in spite of several over-long scenes à deux, has a good deal of vitality and would probably appear less conventional in the theatre. The curtains are good, the dialogue runs smoothly, and here, as in the other two plays, Miss Cusack adroitly lightens her serious material with some well-placed comedy.
Altogether, these plays make an interesting and encouraging volume to add to our stock of drama. The author has something to say and has the courage of her convictions — even to the refusal of false ‘happy endings’. I should very much like to see a performance of Morning Sacrifice, and I recommend it whole-heartedly to amateur groups who are anxious to assist the cause of the deserving Australian playwright, so constantly handicapped by the infrequent stage production of his or her work.