Category Archives: Books

Two camps at Australia’s Picnic

I RECENTLY came across a first edition of Joan Lindsay’s iconic 1967 novel Picnic at Hanging Rock at a country market, and an early print-run of the book’s last chapter, The Secret of Hanging Rock, published two decades later.

“Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing?”

With the new television adaptation out this year, my interest was piqued and I purchased both, eager to pick over the evidence of one of Australia’s enduring literary mysteries. Not what happened to the missing schoolgirls and their governess on a volcanic outcrop in the bush at the turn of the 19th century, but why the original publishers thought Australians, in the 1960s, weren’t ready to know the end of the story.

The copy of Picnic is rather dog-eared, having been purchased for a secondary school library soon after publication in 1967. The borrowing slip in the back reveals the book was enthusiastically loaned in the years before Peter Weir’s groundbreaking screen adaptation of the novel in 1975.

NOW A MAJOR FILM Penguin’s 1975 film tie-in paperback.

I own a very well-thumbed paperback published by Penguin in 1975 as a film tie-in, but this is the first time I have ever seen the iconic F. W. Cheshire Publishing Ltd. hardback, with its lurid green, psychedelic dust jacket illustration oozing a 1960s vibe like Rosemary’s Baby. I checked online and found that even in this condition, my battered, plastic-covered survivor is worth hundreds of dollars. Not a bad buy on my part, for just five.

Despite Cheshire’s and Penguin’s apparent reluctance to publish it, The Secret of Hanging Rock emerged in 1987. This slim volume is Lindsay’s final chapter to Picnic, padded by literary essays from members of a lucrative cult that grew out of Lindsay’s only successful novel.

MYSTERY AUTHOR Joan Lindsay’s name is mysteriously absent from the cover of her last published work.

These can be broadly defined as utilising humour, whimsy and academic analysis to justify the decision to keep the solution to Joan Lindsay’s mystery from the international (paying) audience of book and film. What none of them countenance is that the original story — if you keep Chapter Eighteen intact — is hardly a mystery at all.

What was strangely missing from the front cover of The Secret of Hanging Rock was the name of the woman who ensured Picnic’s final chapter saw the light of day: Joan Lindsay herself.

Was there ever such a telling oversight in the history of Australian publishing? Truncated stories and omitted credits… it’s as though Lindsay wasn’t ever to be trusted with her own work. Luckily she ensured we got to see Chapter Eighteen regardless of all the hullabaloo.

Although at least four reprints of this chapter were released in 1987, the title quickly disappeared from high-street bookshelves. Eventually, it started to garner very high prices on the second-hand market.

AUTHOR, REINSTATED Joan Lindsay finally got cover credit in 2016.

That all changed in 2016 when it was re-released by ETT Imprint with an extra essay penned by Mudrooroo, who towed the cult’s line by nixing any hint of Lindsay’s final chapter containing a solution.

The eBook edition reached No. 1 on Amazon in its category, Joan Lindsay finally made her own front cover, and everyone, including her estate, got their portion.

This was hardly a surprise. In 2016, a stage adaptation of Picnic premiered in Melbourne, and a new television series was announced.

But outside the machinations of publishing, this new outbreak of picnic fever has arrived with something of a reckoning.

Lifting the gossamer veil

In 2015, the fortieth anniversary of Weir’s film, which hit our screens during Australia’s constitutional crisis around Gough Whitlam’s sacking, a few journalists marked the milestone with reminders of Picnic at Hanging Rock’s enduring cultural significance.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM The schoolgirls approach escape velocity.

I called for a remake to reinstate Lindsay’s final chapter and acknowledge the bridge that she built between European settlers and Aboriginal Dreamtime in her truncated last chapter. Australians were ready to have the mystery solved, I reckoned.

An ongoing protest titled Miranda Must Go was on a similar trajectory, started by Melbourne artist and PhD student Amy Spiers, whose ultimate aim is to “decolonise” Hanging Rock and allow its Indigenous meaning to re-emerge.

But there are those who want the Edwardian gossamer veil to remain in place.

In 2017, a new biography of Lady Linsday, including an analysis of her Picnic oeuvre, came in the form of Janelle McCullough’s weighty tome Beyond The Rock.

It’s a very good read (check out my review) for those wanting to know more about Joan Lindsay, and it sheds a little more light on the origins of the story, but Lindsay’s bridge to Aboriginal Australians was not analysed.

Picnic camps

Walking the line between these two Picnic camps is Fremantle Media’s television adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, currently screening on Foxtel with its astonishingly youthful cast.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Despite decades of calling for more roles for older women in popular culture, it was a shock to read that iconic middle-aged characters like headmistress Miss Appleyard and mathematics teacher Miss Greta McGraw (thoroughly well-portrayed by Rachel Roberts and Vivean Gray in Weir’s production) were cast with actors barely older than the schoolgirls.

This decision seems, at least partially, to cloud the “feminist lens” producer Jo Porter (director of drama for Fremantle Media Australia) claimed the production has at its core.

Pre-production on the series was dogged by protests from the Australian Directors’ Guild about engaging an offshore director instead of looking to Australian creatives, particularly since the production is financed solely by Australian backers.

What’s clear is there’s a strong sense of ownership around Picnic at Hanging Rock. The book, the place, and all cultural expressions of it have become critical to ongoing discussions about reconciliation between colonising Europeans (and others) and Aboriginal Australians.

One territory was drawn on Joan Lindsay’s behalf by her publishers when the decision was made to remove the last chapter in 1967, and ongoing attempts to besmirch its content as “unfilmable” and an unsatisfactory end to the story.

But another camp has settled into this Picnic. Around it, people are speaking (and listening to) the truth about Hanging Rock, its Indigenous heritage and significance. The conversation does not start, or end, with Joan Lindsay.

Right on cue, Penguin has re-released a new TV tie-in edition, staunchly entrenched with its blind-spot on what Lindsay’s final chapter might add to the reconciliation conversation.

But that will never be the end of this story…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

LGBTI Labour’s Lost

A case for transgender players.

“Aliases, gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, bisexuality, homosexuality and performing have always gone hand in hand.”

OUTING lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) performers has long been an emotive and legal tightrope for historians, but 400 years since William Shakespeare’s death, it’s time to look where academics have feared to glance.

When Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell oversaw the publication of his complete works in 1623, they included a page of “The names of the Principall Actors in all these Playes”.

It was never illegal for women to perform on the stage in Shakespeare’s era, but it was seen as an unthinkable moral breach akin to prostitution. The solution was to cast boys in the female roles.

So of this list of twenty-six male performers, which must include those who played heroines from Juliet to Cleopatra, which fellows donned the skirts?

FOLIO FELLAS The names of the men who created the roles of Shakespeare's plays.
FOLIO FELLAS The names of the men who created the roles of Shakespeare’s plays.

Ruling out those credited with male roles leaves a cluster of men who began their careers as ‘boy players’ and wouldn’t register on any acting roll of honour – Alexander Cooke, John Shancke, Samuel Crosse, Nathan Field and Nicholas Tooley – yet all were shareholders in England’s premier theatre company The King’s Men.

Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 ensured LGBTIs remained invisible for centuries in the performing arts, however, it’s simply not credible to assume all the men on Shakespeare’s cast list were straight.

So I’ll add historical evidence to conjecture and show how easy it is to make room for a same sex-attracted transgender woman within a Shakespearean playhouse, and why she left almost no trace.

The record shows that twice-widowed Susan Tooley was on the market for husband number three in 1592. If we imagine her 10-year-old son, Nicholas, showed early signs of acting skill, we can paint Susan as a stage mother who made use of a known link the boy’s father’s family had to the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeares.

“Shakespeare attempted to dampen the Puritan inferno by writing a batch of heroines who cross-dressed as men.”

If the Tooleys – landed Warwickshire gentry – agreed to make the introductions that got the child off Susan’s genteel apron strings and into the hotbed of sodomy and vice that the Elizabethan playhouse was considered to be, I imagine they enforced one important condition. The boy, by that time listed in the records of London’s Court of Orphans as ‘orphan Tooley’, would have needed an assumed name.

We know from his will that Nicholas Tooley had an alias – the undistinguished surname ‘Wilkinson’. Perhaps it was coined for him in 1595, when a gifted lad was required for a crucial role in a new play?

Pamphlets from that decade reveal the playhouses came under the most intense Puritanical fire against boys cross-dressing on the public stage. If it was ‘orphan Tooley’ who appeared opposite Richard Burbage in the world premiere of Romeo and Juliet, the 13-year-old may wisely have cross-dressed as ‘Nick Wilkinson’.

Imagining the production was a hit allows us to cast ‘player Wilkinson’ opposite Burbage in Shakespeare’s regular new plays. The workload, and the pressure to maintain a slight physique, may have led the teenager, twice in 1599, to seek treatment from Simon Forman, London’s leading astrologer and herbalist. Forman’s notes reveal Tooley complained to him of “melancholy… moch gnawing in his stomak & stuffing in his Lungs.”

We know Shakespeare attempted to dampen the Puritan inferno by writing a batch of heroines who cross-dressed as men; but this could also have been a way to make performing lead female roles easier on one talented, ailing adolescent. The playwright let audiences in on the laughs, however, and created some of the best homoerotic scenes in theatre history, in Twelfth Night and As You Like It.

MASTER BURBAGE Player Richard Burbage (Dulwich Gallery, London).
MASTER BURBAGE Player Richard Burbage (Dulwich Gallery, London).

When ‘orphan Tooley’ reached his majority in 1603, Richard Burbage applied to the Court of Orphans to have him indentured. Clearly, ‘player Wilkinson’ had become indispensable, and since the authority had no choice but to use his birth name on the paperwork, Nicholas Tooley finally emerged as a player.

Under the terms of his apprenticeship, the young man was accommodated by the wider Burbage family, London’s leading theatrical dynasty.

Surely it was the relentless playhouse work, wrangling not only his own scripts but also his master’s, performing before enormous crowds in the pre-eminent popular entertainments of the day, that led to Tooley’s elevation to shareholder of The King’s Men by 1605.

For anyone on the payroll to make a career as a leading lady would have drawn plenty of negative attention; but Shakespeare’s next move suggests he recognised the dramatic potential of one man’s ability to convincingly inhabit feminine authority, passion and lust.

When the playwright dropped the cross-dressing of comic female heroines and created his most complex female roles – Desdemona (1603), Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra (both 1606) – one review showed the impact.

In a performance of Othello by the King’s Men in 1610, a consummate actress fooled diarist Henry Jackson into writing: “She always acted the matter very well, in her death moved us still more greatly; when lying in bed she implored the pity of those watching with her countenance alone.”

Was this Desdemona played by Nicholas Tooley at the height of ‘her’ powers?

Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, from the cover of 'The Roaring Girl'
ROARING GIRL Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse, arrested for performing on an English stage.

Onstage gender boundaries were being tested. In 1611, Londoners were thrilled and scandalised by the performance of a woman at the Fortune Theatre – Mary Frith, alias Moll Cutpurse, the infamous ‘Roaring Girl’.

Her subsequent confession to the Consistory Court states: “She told the company there p[re]sent that she thought many of them were of the opinion that she was a man, but if any of them would come to her lodging they should finde that she is a woman & some other immodest & lascivious speaches she also vsed at that time And also sat there vppon the stage in the publique viewe of all the people there p[rese]nte in mans apparrell & playd vppon her lute & sange a songe.”

Mary’s arrest, public shaming and penance were the playhouse gossip of the 1612 season and surely struck fear in the heart of every cross-dressing performer.

Now 30, Tooley was overlooked for the title role in a play by the newest writer on the scene, John Webster, whose The Duchess of Malfi ushered in the next generation of boy players, playwrights and shareholders.

My story, Merely Players, drew inspiration from this pivotal moment in Western theatre history.

Tooley’s one documented attempt at playing a male role was in Webster’s hit tragedy, while witnessing his replacement emerge; so it’s not a stretch to imagine his melancholy returned with force as he struggled to maintain his identity in the playhouse.

It’s also common for an intense period of playing passionate lovers to lay fertile ground for a relationship offstage; so it’s not incredible to suggest that Tooley and Burbage had an ongoing affair that came under threat as master’s career continued while apprentice’s declined.

My story has Tooley making a gender transition while disappearing for years into one of the few places that I believe would have taken him in – London’s Convent of Saint Helen. Here, she may have fooled the nuns into thinking she was a woman. The name I imagine was easiest for her to adopt was one she’d already used – Mistress Wilkinson.

After hearing that her old master is not well, I have her strolling back into the Globe playhouse in 1619, where she uncovers much hanging in the balance.

“Any number of participants in Western theatre’s groundbreaking era could have been LGBTIs.”

Before his death in 1623, the never-married Nicholas Tooley used his birth name to legitimise significant financial gifts to a coterie of women, including his master’s sister-in-law Elizabeth Burbage, “in whose howse I doe now lodge as a remembrance of my love in respect of her motherlie care over mee”. He stipulated the funds were to be paid into the womens’ “owne proper hands” and not to any husband.

The document reveals a man who spent much time in the company of a large number of women, and knew the legal impediment that marriage placed on daughters, wives and sisters inheriting monies independently.

But Tooley also signed a codicil identifying himself as “Nicholas Wilkinson alias Nicholas Tooley”, which no historian has ever thought to investigate as a cisgender dead name.

Any number of participants in Western theatre’s groundbreaking era could have been LGBTIQ, it’s simply a matter of ending the academic silence.

 Aliases, gender dysphoria, cross-dressing, bisexuality, homosexuality and performing have always gone hand in hand, and apart from sharing the stage when cisgender English women finally got public support for bursting onto the stage in the 1660s, in 400 years not much has changed behind the scenes.

This article was first published on Gay Star News and appears in Michael’s book ‘Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters’.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Play is hard work

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I’M pleased to announce the publication of another work of non-fiction – Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters. Here’s an extract from the foreword:-

Theatre people know the art of making a play is very, very hard work. Real life is simply a matter of turning on the phone-cam, whereas the creation of a piece of drama or comedy is an ongoing process of questioning and exploring, usually starting with a script on the page.

This book is the story of my journey with one piece of work that took me thirteen years to manifest. Merely Players was an idea I had in my teens, revived as my youth was waning, and still haunts me in middle age. Of all the projects I ever started, it is one of the few I have refused to give up on, and it’s the piece of literature that has been my greatest teacher in learning the writing process.

“As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.”

Along the way I’ve felt the bitter sting of rejection more times than I am willing to admit.

Unpublished and un-produced work is easily delivered to the bottom drawer of any writer’s desk, but sometimes it’s not easy to leave it there. This is probably a mixture of ego and bloody-mindedness, bad luck and the shortcomings of the work itself; however, when a writer knows a good story, a certain amount of persistence is required if the marketplace is slow to recognise it.

The most recent example of this process was the two-decade development of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol, which languished in what writer’s call ‘development hell’ until the right production team came along.

In interviews, Nagy admitted how match-fit the long wait made her, able to adjust her work quickly and subtly to match the visions of new stakeholders; yet she also admitted the years showed her the value of her original work when new production teams inspired her to put old ideas back in that had been discarded by temporary collaborators along the way.

Merely Players has been a bit like that for me, but it has also been a companion.

TAMING OF THE SHREW
BURGE’S BARD The author and Andrew Broderick in The Taming of the Shrew.

The focus required to commit to a full-length work kept me going through some very dark times, so much that the play has come to symbolise a lot about me as a person, my thoughts and feelings about ageing, sexual and gender diversity, and the politics of storytelling in the modern theatre.

After the latest rejection of my work, I retreated into writing in order to bring Merely Players to life for readers, not really knowing if the result fitted into any genre. Adapting a play into a piece of literary non-fiction requires the writer to direct the play’s action, in a sense, which has made what might have been a labour into a delight.

I also broke a cardinal rule about authorship that was around at the dawn of my writing career, about not putting yourself in the story, yet finding there was more of the tale to tell by opening the gate on my role.

I hope the finished product gives insights into the writing process, showing that life for actors and writers has not really changed much in the four hundred years since William Shakespeare was creating plays for his company of actors, The King’s Men.

“Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.”

When Shakespeare died in April 1616, he left several problems for his colleagues. The years between his death and the publication of what became known as The First Folio of his collected plays in 1623, a process spearheaded by Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, were a litany of loss and harried industry that only seemed to accelerate in the wake of lead actor Richard Burbage’s death in 1619.

Historians have speculated about exactly how the publication was paid for, edited and printed. The theories include Germaine Greer’s quite valid assertion in her well-argued study Shakespeare’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 2007) that the project could have been spearheaded and funded by Ann Shakespeare (née Hathaway).

Despite Greer’s well-documented blindspot for realities about transgender women, her work on bringing to life the under-documented life of Ann Hathaway sheds more light on the Shakespearean canon than it has ever been given genuine credit for, and was a great source of inspiration for me when using similar techniques to flesh out the transgender protagonist of Merely Players – Mistress Wilkinson, alias Nicholas Tooley.

As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.

The best explanation of the publication of the Folio I ever found was that written by actor and teacher Doug Moston in the introduction to his facsimile edition of The First Folio of Shakespeare 1623 (Applause Theatre & Cinema Book Publishers, New York, 1995).

Moston’s exploration of the Folio, from its typography to its many clues and cues for actors, recreates the performance conditions of the original Shakespearean players. It reveals much about how attitudes to rehearsals and script management have changed over time.

No matter what any historian thinks of the plausibility of Merely Players, it would be hard to argue that the deaths of two company mainstays made things easy for The King’s Men. The evidence that the First Folio is full of errors and not the definitive versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays (despite Heminges’ and Condell’s claim that it was) tells me there was a certain amount of desperation and pretence in its publication process.

It could also be argued it was one of the world’s most important and best-selling independently-published books, and therefore inspiration for self-publishers everywhere.

Having worked as an actor, knowing the passion and drive it takes to perform, and also keenly aware of how the same ingredients go into writing, I am qualified to speak on these actors’ behalf and imagine that they had the ability to rise above their station (players were considered by most to be little more than scum) and were far more influential than Shakespeare in delivering that which his work gave to the world. Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.

But I already know what a great story it is…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.