What does it mean to be Australian? A history curriculum demands that those who write, review, teach, learn, and have lived our history have time to deeply consider; What is our history? What should be included in a history curriculum? What knowledge is of most value and, importantly, who gets to decide?
Australian plays have a unique perspective to offer a study of Australian history. As artist and playwright Wesley Enoch has stated, “This country has a habit of forgetting its history”. There are over 100 plays already included in the APT Australian History category. We’ve dived deeply into the collection to draw on a range of scripts for teachers and students in primary, secondary and tertiary settings, plays that tell diverse stories of who we are as a nation, what occurred in our past, and who we want to be in future. On this page we have curated a series of plays by posing the question; How have playwrights written about Australia’s history, and whose perspectives are represented?
The recommendations include First Nations stories, migrant stories, colonial/settler stories, ANZAC stories, and political stories. The issues are explored through a range of theatre styles including drama, comedy, puppetry, melodrama, and monologue. Importantly, we asked each of the playwrights for any additional advice to offer educators and students. Their thoughts are included in the recommendations.
We invite teachers and students to immerse themselves in any or all the recommended plays, explore how playwriting captures history, the forms in which it does so, and why that may be important for our present and our future.
NOTE: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and students are advised that some of the plays make reference to people who have died – Sunshine Super Girl, Aliwa! Bright World, The Nargun and the Stars.
RECOMMENDED FOR PRIMARY
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform in class, possibly stage (note this play contains First Nations themes. APT recommends teachers consult/collaborate with local elders or community).
Cast: 2M, 1F plus narrators, voices of Land Elements, Indigenous Land Folk (4), other animals, up to 20 or more in total.
Recommended for: Years 4-6
Styles: Storytelling, drama, puppetry, magic realism
Historical context: 40,000 years – 1970s.
Themes and concepts: First Nations themes and stories, Australian History, Sustainability, Social Justice.
Curriculum links: Drama, Literacy, History, Intercultural Understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.
A young boy, Simon Brent, has been living in an orphanage in the short period since both his parents’ death in a car crash. He has arrived at Wongadilla, a small sheep holding belonging to his mother’s second cousins, Charlie and his sister, Edie. They have offered to take him in.
Initially, Simon resents Charlie, Edie and Wongadilla itself. As Simon begins to explore the mountain, swamp, gullies and forests around Wongadilla, he meets the mischievous, magical and ancient creatures that inhabit this place. His most frightening discovery is that of the Nargun, an ancient stone creature that has only very recently come to lurk in the gully at Wongadilla. Nargun threatens to upset the balance and harmony of the area.
As the folk creatures attempt to defend their land from humans, earth moving equipment and bulldozers begin to disappear. Then Simon himself is threatened by the Nargun. Simon comes to understand the conflict created by the co-existence of the settlers on the land, the ancient beings and the Nargun and learns that it is only by listening to the voices of the oldest inhabitants of this land, that a solution might be found.
It is important to note that the original production was informed by consultation with the owners of the Nargun story, the Gurney/Kumai, Monaro and Boon Warring peoples of East Gippsland in Victoria. It is recommended that teachers talk through the background of working through such protocols and understand how consultation was undertaken in the first place by contacting community. Wrightson’s own approach when writing the original novel was highly respectful and careful to a degree that was ahead of her time (Her life and career also offer opportunities for classroom research into the role and practice of the writer).
The play can be read as an example of writing for puppets, and also as an example of an adaptation of a novel. There are good parts for a number of characters, and there is the challenge of conveying the mythical creatures within the narrative. There are multiple themes in the play but at the core it is about understandings of culture and transformation in context of the natural world. In particular, it concerns the conflict created by the co-existence of the settlers on the land, and the ancient beings – especially the Nargun – who are part of that land. It also concerns a young person’s story from loneliness through to deep empathy.
Some of the scenes in the play can work as stand along short works for classroom performance. While a full production has its challenges, given the scale of the puppets, it is always a possibility with imagination and creativity. The play offers multiple opportunities for making and design, as well as a doorway into puppetry as a form.
UPPER PRIMARY TO MIDDLE SECONDARY
A play to: Read, to read aloud, to study, to perform in class, to stage, to use as stimulus for devising work.
Playwright’s note: Whilst the published notes for the staging for the play indicate five actors playing multiple roles, the writer gives schools and tertiary institutions the freedom to consider casting more students in the play, as there are 15 people represented in the story
Recommended for: Years 6-8 OR Year 9 – Australian History
Cast: Five main roles, a total of 15 characters in the play
Styles: Narration, drama, history play
Historical contexts: 1914-1918
Themes and concepts: World War 1, war themes, some mature themes. Some offensive language.
Curriculum links: Drama, Literacy, History, Critical and Creative Thinking.
This is a story with many characters, including powerful men at the centre of the decision-making at the time: Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, Catholic Bishop Mannix, Major General Bridges. Alongside these characters, the poignancy of the story about Archibald Jordan – a soldier of whom so little is known, and ‘Sandy’ the only horse to return to Australia, who was given to the army by a young farmer from Tallangatta. The challenges of the script to carry the audience on Sandy’s journey across continents, from 1914-1918 in 50 minutes are achieved by adroit transitions in the performances of the actors to skilfully shift emotion and time and place.
Actors 1-5 play the roles of all the various characters. They immediately transform their characters to do so. Five actors play 15 characters, and simultaneously, act as members of a pseudo Greek chorus. They comment, they narrate, they re-iterate, but most importantly they are charged with the purpose of bearing witness to the actions, to the intent and the folly of the over-arching story.
Whilst it is an ensemble piece, the main protagonist is the character of Archibald Jordan, and it is through his journey that the story of the war is evoked. He is almost the ‘unknown soldier’. And Sandy, the only horse chosen to return to Australia from more than 130,000 that went to the war is represented on stage, present as a powerful force.
UPPER PRIMARY TO MIDDLE SECONDARY
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform excerpts/scenes in class
Cast: Three cast members plays numerous roles as an ensemble – teachers, friends, family, officials, locals.
Playwright’s note: Students are encouraged to play the Aboriginal roles. The playwright states, “It’s important for young people to walk in another person’s shoes”. Teaching First Nations Content and Concepts in Schools is recommended as guidance: https://ilbijerri.com.au/event/new-resource-teachers-first-nations-content-and-concepts-in-schools/
Recommended for: Years 8-10
Styles Storytelling, combining narration with dialogue
Historical Contexts: 1931-2001
Themes and concepts: First Nations stories, stolen generations, racism and segregation, family, loyalty, love, some offensive language.
Curriculum links: Drama, Literacy, History, Intercultural understanding, Critical and Creative Thinking, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture.
Some people don’t believe that things like this ever happened in the past…What is important is that our stories be told. Through the Arts we can now voice and express the stories that make us who we are today – Dallas Winmar, playwright.
Set in Western Australia during the 1930s and in the 2000s – past and present time – Aliwa! (Watch out!) traces the true story of three Aboriginal sisters whose mother was determined to keep her children when officials wanted to remove them following the death of their father. The story is that of the three sisters of the poet and playwright, Jack Davis (The Dreamers, No Sugar, In Our Town).
Advice in the script.
The performance was conceived to be played by three actors. The actor who played Ethel also played Young Ethel, Old Ethel and the Teacher. The actor who played Jude played Mum, Old Jude, Giddeon, Eddy and the Cowboy. All three were on stage throughout, in the background and working props. The two music men played the Boys and the Station Master Aunty Dot played herself and sat to the side of the stage looking on. However, in the Yirra Yaakin/Belvoir production of 2001four female actors and two male actors played the characters. The Prologue to the play provides an explanation.
A Play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform excerpts in class
Cast: Two main characters and an ensemble play, approx. 20 roles
Styles: Magic realism, drama, comedy, non-realistic, abstract
Historical contexts: 1937-2016
Themes and concepts: Holocaust themes, First Nations histories and themes, some coarse and offensive language
Curriculum links: Australian History, Drama, Theatre Studies, Literacy, Critical and Creative Thinking, Intercultural Understanding
1938 Europe burns. Young Jewish couple Hans and Alice Herskovics mount a dangerous escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna. Half a world away, after a lifetime advocating for the rights of his own people, Yorta Yorta leader William Cooper leads a deputation to the front door of Melbourne’s German Consulate. His message – the persecution of the Jewish people must stop. Nearly eight years later, two playwrights come together on page and stage to explore the legacy of their ancestors in a unique cross-cultural collaboration. What makes a hero? What can pull of the best 90s flashback? Whose dog is the smartest? Whose oppression largest? From Australia to Australia, from Deb Ball in Benalla to Bright Bat Mitzvah, Bright World is a genre-bending trip into the heart of our history-making.
Bright World was originally staged using a basketball court as a set. This was a metaphor for the competitive subtext of the play (see the questions in the synopsis above). Excerpts could be explored using an entire class playing the many roles in the script. Caution is recommended in relation to the cultural and historical content and teachers are encouraged to consult with First Nations community and perhaps a local Holocaust Museum.
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform excerpts/scenes in class
Playwright’s note: Any production or performance with an audience should ensure that Aboriginal students and/or performers play the Aboriginal roles
Cast: 5 main roles and numerous other characters – approx. 30 characters in total
Recommended for: Years 9-12
Styles: Storytelling, drama, comedy, non-realistic, abstract/movement
Themes and Concepts: First Nations stories, Australian History, sport, racism, Aboriginal rights, social justice, family, loyalty, love, some coarse and offensive language appears in the script
Curriculum Links: Drama, Australian History, Literacy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Critical and Creative Thinking, Intercultural Understanding
A grimy old ball, a racquet made from a wooden fruit box, a pair of borrowed shoes … then the world at her feet. This is the heart-warming story of how Evonne Goolagong Cawley—our Evonne—rose from humble beginnings in an outback farming town to become a world champion tennis player by the age of just 19. With a tin wall for a court and a steely determination, little Evonne hits and hits and hits her way out of rural New South Wales and onto the world stage. On the way she must battle prejudice and homesickness and test herself to the very limits.
Sunshine Super Girl, by Yorta Yorta/Gunaikurnai writer Andrea James, is a funny and poignant take on the life of a talented sportswoman with a big dream. Infused with a wry Australian sensibility and a proud sense of belonging, it’s a story that will inspire and delight
“The set is a tennis court, orange clay, and a high-rise umpire’s chair. Some fruit boxes standing on end make do for the players’ seating. There is a string net with an emu feather woven into it here and there. Two Clothes lines either end. One line with a big white bed sheet and the other with a few tiny 1970s tennis dresses and frilly undies fluttering in the air. The audience is seated along two sides in a traverse arrangement” – Sunshine Super Girl, 2021. When thinking about how students could design a set for this play, the historical, political and cultural contexts would be important.
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform excerpts in class, stage, use as stimulus for devising
Playwright’s note: This work is a solo performance and should be performed as such
Cast: 1F, numerous characters played by the performer
Styles: Non-realistic, Bouffon, parody, drama, storytelling
Historical contexts: Female convicts factory Hobart 1839, and present day
Themes and concepts: Convicts, imprisonment, bawdy scenes (Bouffon style), some coarse language
Curriculum links: The Arts-Drama, Year 9 Australian History, Literacy, Theatre Studies
1839. Cascades Female Factory, Hobart Town. In a solitary cell, on the edge of survival, a ‘sleek little savage’ waits alone in the darkness. Left for dead, ten thousand miles from home, she plots escape and reveals, with biting mockery, the untold tales of her captors. This is Eden is at once an examination of our dark past, a parody of the way we perceive it and a vital call to arms.
From performer and theatre maker Emily Goddard and director Susie Dee comes a dark, humorous and provocative ‘anti-bonnet drama’ inspired by the rebellion and resistance of the female convicts of Van Diemen’s Land. Using the French clowning technique of Bouffon, where outcasts ridicule and provoke those in power, Goddard and Dee tread a fine line between the grotesque and charming to bring to life an extraordinary chapter of rebellion and survival that has conveniently escaped our nation’s history lesson.
The original production was staged simply in an intimate space using a bed frame as a transformable object, and metal pails/buckets. Students could take scenes from the play to explore and stage as solo performances and consider design choices for representing the scene; More at: http://www.thisiseden.com.au/education
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, perform excerpts in class, produce, use as a stimulus for exploring the key themes, ideas and styles to devise a creative response.
Playwright’s note: Schools are encouraged to stage
Cast: 2F, 5M plus puppeteers. Culturally diverse characters – Japanese, Malay, First Nations, English.
Styles: Drama, puppetry, Kabuki, play within a play.
Historical contexts: 1930s Broome, Western Australia – Pearl Fishing Industry
Themes and concepts: Pearl fishing history, First Nations history, Japanese history, racism, some offensive language.
Curriculum links: Australian History, Drama, Literacy, Intercultural Understanding, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Critical and Creative Thinking.
Set in the 1930s, Miss Tanaka is the beautiful and enigmatic niece of Broome’s former Number One pearl diver. Newly arrived from Japan, she captures the hearts of the town’s menfolk, but is promised in marriage to two brawling pearl divers, but who will uncover this mysterious young woman’s true identity? Based on a story by Xavier Herbert, Romeril’s play is a magical portrayal of the 1930s Broome, weaving an astonishing blend of folk tale, magic and spectacle as it races to its wild conclusion.
Miss Tanaka captures an historical period where the actions and words of people in relation to race, culture and women is no longer acceptable. The script captures that time clearly. The use of puppetry can be a powerful way to create roles as can the use of Epic Theatre – to represent rather than embody. The original production used both large puppets and hand-held puppets to create the world of the play.
A play to: Read, read aloud, perform excerpts from in class, stage or produce
Playwright’s note: For a secondary school performance, in the scenes that reference the priest’s defrocking it is written as literal to teachers are encouraged to approach this laterally and have permission to adjust the text accordingly. Teachers are welcome and encouraged to cast for cultural diversity beyond the self-evident.
Cast: 3F, 3M
Historical contexts: “1899, the Government Resident’s House in the Settlement of Somerset, on the far northern tip of Cape York in the Colony of Queensland”
Themes and concepts: Colonisation, settlement, some offensive colonial language, suggestions of nudity.
Curriculum links: Australian History, Drama, Theatre Studies, Literacy, Critical and Creative Thinking
It is 1899 and only the resolve of Lady Constance Drinkwater has kept the Far North Queensland settlement of Somerset from crumbling. Beset by storms, ill-luck and a mysterious disease that has killed all but two of Constance’s children, it is the arrival of strangers – anthropologist Professor Cornelius Crabbe and his companion, Mr Hop Lee – that sets in motion the final catastrophic days of Somerset.
The action is set in the main living room of the Residence which is a stone and corrugated iron building decorated in an attempt at tropical colonial grandeur; potted palms, wicker furniture, tiled parquetry, a large Chinese ginger jar, a chaise longue, and a combination of other English and ‘Oriental’ fittings and furnishings – from the script.
A play to: Read, read aloud, study, draw on the themes to devise a creative response
Cast: A solo performance
Historical contexts: 1999 to present day, during the introduction and sustaining of the Australian government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ policy.
Styles: Autobiographical, monologue, storytelling, solo performance
Themes and concepts: War, seeking asylum, refugee story, mature themes and powerful imagery
Curriculum links: Drama, Theatre, Contemporary Australian Theatre
Persecuted for his anti-war/anti-Saddam stance, Towfiq Al-Qady came to Australia as a boat refugee in 1999. During his extended stay in an immigration detention centre, he gets access to paint and paintbrushes and soon the walls of the desert camp is abloom with his colourful dreams of life and freedom. After being granted a temporary protection visa, Towfiq writes and performs in a play in which he recounts the painful memories of his former life in Iraq and his subsequent displacement in Australia.
“Rarely do asylum seekers and refugees find the opportunity to write, perform and co-direct their own work as Al-Qady has. A piece of intersubjective autobiography that speaks emotionally of his own experience as well as those of his family and fellow Iraqi citizens, Al Qady’s play is one that expresses an indestructible capacity for hope” – from the preface to the play.
A very large, wooden structure of the word ‘NO’ is positioned up stage, centre. While back lighting against the ‘NO’ structure produces shadows and shapes, which the actor uses to indicate different places such as his house, work, place. One actor plays different characters such as mother, friend, kids. A musician plays instrumental music, either on or offstage. The actor is dressed in white and weas no shoes. He carries a handbag containing water, toothpaste, a wallet and paperwork – from the script
OTHER PLAYS THAT COULD BE CONSIDERED FROM THE APT CATALOGUE
Teachers are advised to preview the script before selecting it for study
The Visitors by Jane Harrison
Stolen by Jane Harrison
The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell
They Saw a Thylacine by Justine Campbell and Sarah Hamilton
Convincing Ground by David Mence
Children of the Black Skirt by Angela Betzien
Holy Day by Andrew Bovell
Jasper Jones by Kate Mulvany
The Kelly Gang by Arnold Denham
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler
On our Selection by Steele Rudd
The Dreamers by Jack Davis
The Drovers by Louis Esson
The Man from Muckinupin by Dorothy Hewett