I’m reading Patrick White’s play A Cheery Soul, first published in Four Plays by Patrick White in 1965 and first staged at the Union Theatre, University of Melbourne, in 1963. It is built around a misogynist construct, the difficult woman, here the aged Miss Docker, a woman who is difficult to like, difficult to be around and makes difficulties for others. She is also, ironically, cheerful and good, the cheery soul of the title, and oblivious to the disparagement but not the condescension of others. This is apparent early in the play when the respectable Mrs Custance, who is moved to perform an act of kindness towards the less fortunate, invites the homeless Miss Docker to move into their ‘little glassed-in veranda room’. Mrs Custance refers to her as ‘a dedicated soul’ but tends to agree when Mr Custance, a man with a ‘Nietzschean moustache’, likens it to ‘the soul of a bulldozer’; others such as the Vicar denounce her ‘militant virtue’.
To read the play according to the majority view of its characters is to accept that Miss Docker is a difficult woman, a wrecker, a nuisance, a meddler and self-centred in her selflessness. But another possibility emerges. Readers of the text will note the stage directions at her first appearance:
Miss Docker is about 60. Although not particularly large, she gives the impression of being over lifesize. She is dressed up. Beige powder and plenty of purple lipstick. Probably a dark brown woman underneath. (p. 189)
The beige powder and purple lipstick are appropriately theatricalist for a Patrick White play, but the ascription of ‘a dark brown woman underneath’ opens up an intriguing line of possibility for the character, with implications for our broader understanding of White’s 1960s plays. The ‘dark brown’ underneath is at least ambiguous. It refers to sun-baked or to racially or ethnically marked skin. Later she is described as sounding ‘so … brown’, as in earthy, perhaps, but also different from the white-skinned speakers. And there is a reference aimed at her about a ‘piebald cat’. The ambiguity adds unexpected racialised layers to the play that to my knowledge have not previously been considered. Miss Docker to date has been played by light-skinned or white actors. Yet there it is. Reading it some 50 years after it was written, the ‘dark brown woman’ cannot but be noticed. More critically, the brown skin shifts the way in which the play must be read, without resorting to presentism. Written in 1963, the dark brown woman could well be a member of the stolen generations, the light-skinned—brown, not black—children removed from their families and taken into religious and state institutions or adopted by white families. She could also be a woman who has slipped through the racist White Australia policy that was not repealed until 1972.
The suggestion of Miss Docker’s racial identity is carried over into people’s reactions to her. Confronted by Miss Docker’s thick beige powder and purple lipstick, Mrs Custance is immediately uncomfortable. She is flustered and ill at ease, defensive and irritated. She finds Miss Docker difficult to be around, wanting tea at the wrong time, listening to music and spilling things. Mrs Custance’s reaction might be said to be affective, not cognitive, so much as an instant sensation. Would she have the same reaction to a woman who was below her in social class? Not likely. The logic of the scene is that Miss Docker is poor and is hence given a room. A more likely explanation is that Miss Docker’s skin generates a set of racist responses. Mrs Custance’s reaction is of skin to skin. Sarah Ahmed writes that how ‘feelings feel in the first place may be tied to a past history of readings, in the sense that the process of recognition (of this feeling or that feeling) is bound up with what we already know’.1 Mrs Custance knows about Indigenous peoples. She lives on the land of the Dharug people, whose country stretches west of Sydney and up to the Hawkesbury River. Her reaction is bound up with a past history or readings of fringe dwellers, dark-skinned servants in big houses, the missions and the women in Kings Cross, Sydney. She feels deeply uneasy.
The ambiguity surrounding the racial identity of Miss Docker makes it possible that the play presents an antithetical proposition. Instead of the woman as a wrecker, she is a woman subjected to life as an outsider. That she has neither the homely nor soulful characteristics of her implied character indicates that she might be read against the grain to reflect the wider social malaise of misogyny and racism. By now, the pattern of White’s approach to character is taking shape. She is marked as vulnerable in the face of normative social values. Her circumstances are more materially than spiritually or temperamentally determined, and she keeps her desolation to herself. If Miss Docker is indeed Indigenous Australian, or has other unspecified non-white heritage, then her alienation accrues a greater unspoken significance in the dramatic world of the play. As an older single woman in 1960s Australia, without a home of her own or an income, keeping busy and being cheerful is quite plausibly an acquired strategy for survival, which is not to say that the play presents this as productive or effective.
This reading of A Cheery Soul suggests a lot more prescience on the part of its notoriously difficult author.
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