This book assumes a level of knowledge about Australian theatre since British colonisation in 1788. The present section gives some basic facts for those unfamiliar with that history. For those interested in a detailed view, Rees’s two-volume History of Australian Drama (1978) remains the signal work, together with entries in Currency Press’s Companion to Australian Theatre (Parsons 1995). Thumbnail overviews can be found in Peter Fitzpatrick’s After The Doll (1979), Geoffrey Milne’s Australian Theatre (Un)Limited (2004), and my own The Retreat of Our National Drama (2014).

Australia began as a convict settlement and the last transportations occurred in 1868. The discovery of gold in the 1850s for a while made the country one of the wealthiest on earth, and it still derives a considerable part of its revenue from mining and minerals. In 1901, the country federated, though the British monarch continued as head of State. In 1999, a national referendum was held to determine whether Australia should become a republic. The vote fell short, and the country remains a federal constitutional monarchy, the Union Jack an integral part of its flag.

The Commonwealth of Australia is comprised of six states and two Territories, each of which has separate governments. All but one state are bicameral, with a partial separation of powers between legislative and executive branches. There are no Presidents in Australia, though there is a Governor General, the Queen’s official representative. The country has been described as over-governed and it is undoubtedly true that having three layers of political rule – the national, the state and the local – makes for complex structures and behaviours. In its public administration, Australia adopts a mixed ‘Washminster’ system – Westminster-style professional bureaucratic recruitment at lower and middle levels, Washington-style political appointments at higher levels. Thus the bipartisan influence of the Reserve Bank Governor H.C. Coombs (discussed in the Introduction), the architect of cultural subsidy in the 1950s and 1960s, is highly unusual.

During World War ii, Australia had a federal Labor (sic) government. In 1949, following the union of the Liberal and the Country parties, a ‘Coalition’ (conservative) government came to power, and remained in office for twenty-three years. Labor split along sectarian lines with the anti-Communist, Catholic-influenced, Democratic Labor Party preventing its colleague organisation from challenging the Coalition’s dominance. As in the uk, this was a period of steadily rising material prosperity. Unlike the uk, it was not matched by a concomitant growth in social openness. The ‘swinging Sixties’ made an appearance only towards the end of the decade, and this driven by political rather than cultural factors.

In 1962, Australia became militarily involved alongside the us in the Vietnam War. In 1964, compulsory National Service was introduced which forced selected young men to fight in it. The impact of this on the country’s self-identity cannot be underestimated. Hostility to the war, and to conscription – a traditionally unpopular measure – provoked demonstrations on a massive scale. Hundreds of thousands participated in moratorium marches, and theatre practitioners were involved in performatively equipping protest movements. I discuss the link between theatre and oppositional politics in my book See How It Runs (2002) and the effect it had on two important companies of the period, the Sydney-based Nimrod Theatre (1970–1985) and the Melbourne-based Australian Performing Group (1970 to 1981). These companies formed the core of Australian ‘New Wave’ theatre in the 1970s. This work can be regarded as a synthesis of British-style ‘first wave’ and ‘second wave’ theatre (for discussion of these terms see Taylor 1962 and 1971). There was a written drama dimension to it – sometimes realistic in style, but not always – and a visual and physical dimension. Whereas in the uk these tendencies played out over two decades, in Australia they were compressed. A rapid acceleration of activity occurred after the election of a Labor government headed by the legendary Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in November 1972.

Economically, socially and culturally, Whitlam was progressive and reformist, and under him the country soon shed the fustian prudishness (‘wowserism’) that had previously characterized it. But the pace of change got him into trouble. In 1975, a general election was forced by the Coalition’s blocking of supply in the Senate, and the dubious intervention of the-then Governor General, Sir John Kerr. Labor lost power. ‘The Dismissal’ is another high-profile event that has gone down in Australian history as politically scarring, and it is noteworthy that after taking office the Coalition did not attempt a return to its pre-1972 policies.

The New Wave both reflected these turbulent times and led them. As it expanded it added another layer of theatrical activity to those that preceded it. There were two main ones. First, there was a commercial theatre layer that meant, in practice, J C Williamson’s. This had once been the wealthiest and most extensive theatre touring network in the world. For 1870 onwards it dominated commercial production in Australia, owning venues in all major cities and bringing to bear its decidedly middle-brow Anglo tastes in their programming. In the 1950s, however, a second type of professional company appeared that became, in time, the cluster of state repertory theatres visible today. Melbourne Theatre Company is the oldest of these (established 1952), Black Swan State Theatre Company the latest (established 2008). The seasons of these companies are similar to those of provincial repertory companies in the uk, or regional theatres in the us.

By 1972, a symbiosis had arisen between JC Williamson’s and the state repertories, but there were problems. One of these was the low rate of production of Australian drama. This provided younger artists with a polemical point of redress. Though the New Wave can be mapped onto international alternative theatre configurations with relative ease, it was rarely talked about, or talked about itself, in global terms. It was an Australian phenomenon first and foremost. The nationalistic rhetoric which surrounded the movement prevents its proper historical contextualisation today. The book seeks to rectify this by giving a provenance for the New Wave in the companies which predated it (Chapter 1. Origins of the New Wave).

Not only did Whitlam take an interest in the arts, he provided a far greater level of support for it. Though there had been a federal arts agency of sorts since 1954 – the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust – after 1972 its successor, the Australia Council for the Arts, was more active, cashed-up and conspicuous. It attracted almost as much political ire as the Labor government. Cultural subsidy was a radical idea for a population that for so long had relied on importing its art from Britain and the us. It was precisely this second-hand, mendicant mindset that the critic AA Phillips lambasted as Australia’s ‘cultural cringe’ in 1950.

Awareness of loss is the beginning of recovery. In retrospect, the popularity of Phillip’s catch-phrase can be seen as a moment on the country’s journey to cultural confidence. Other events mark its progress. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler, which premiered in 1955, was a watershed for Australian drama, not least because Sir Lawrence Olivier endorsed it and transferred it to London’s Whitehall Theatre, where it was universally praised, ran for some months, and won the Evening Standard Award for Best New Play. The opening of the iconic Sydney Opera House in 1973 was another signal moment, as was the establishment of the flagship Sydney Theatre Company in 1979. Australian playwrights achieved box-office success, of which the most notable was David Williamson, who between 1971 and 1996 had twenty plays produced in mainstream theatres. Directors like Jim Sharman, designers like Brian Thomson, and actors like Judy Davies, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, and Mel Gibson, established international reputations. The end of JC Williamson’s in 1976 was an indication that culturally the country was no longer just an import market. In 1960, Australian drama comprised 14% of the total number of plays professionally produced in the country. By 1974, it was 18%. By 1980, it was 43%.1

In the following decades the country changed again. It faced the problems of other, post-War Keynesian economies – stagflation, manufacturing decline, ballooning public sector debt; and it participated in the same reversion to neo-liberal free market thinking to combat them. That this transformation was led in large part by a Labor rather than a Coalition government shows how the alignment between political Left and Right – the so-called Overton Window – had shifted. Socially, the country became more diverse and more embracing of diversity, at least in theory. The notorious White Australia immigration policy was dropped in 1965. During the 1980s there was greater acceptance of the fact of a multicultural society. This included greater recognition of the rights and history of Indigenous Australians, who far from dying out, as had been the prediction of pre-War anthropologists, achieved a new empowerment. Indigenous playwrights like Robert Merritt, Jack Davis, and Bob Maza brought stories to the Australian stage reflecting aspects of the country’s past many people had avoided, and some actively denied.

In short, during the 1980s and 1990s, Australia became both a more complex nation and one more capable of acknowledging that complexity. It put Australian theatre in a strengthened yet exposed position. Whatever the country was becoming, its culture was now a truer reflection of that transformation. Yet the relationship the theatre sector had with government – now fully invested in it, financially and administratively – was key to how it tacked and flourished. This was reflected in a range of cultural policy documents that are discussed in the book in terms of their practical impact on artists and theatre companies. Details about them are given as they historically occurred, and no prior knowledge is assumed. The first is the Industries Assistance Commission report Assistance to the Performing Arts (1976), the last the national cultural policy Creative Nation (1994). The difference between these two documents – the one narrow and reductive, the second high-toned and inclusive – is the measure of the change in State conceptions of the role and value of Australian theatre during the period.

Australian Theatre after the New Wave

Policy, Subsidy and the Alternative Artist