WELCOME TO THE JACK HIBBERD COLLECTION.
My first contact with Jack’s plays was as an early teenager, perhaps thirteen or fourteen, when I was taken to a production of A Stretch of the Imagination in Canberra that I guess very few people saw, Canberra being Canberra, but it left an indelible mark on me. The actor’s name was John Cuffe – a legend amongst us Canberrans – who I remember was very highly regarded as an interpreter of Beckett. Knowing what I know now, it is not surprising that his Monk O’Neill, truly a blood relation of any of the great Beckettians, should have made such an impact on me. Of course it went way over my head, but I remember the atmosphere of it so clearly; I remember how it looked and sounded and, as I search back through my memory banks I even feel as if I can remember how it smelled.
This is a great mark of Jack’s writing. He works so vividly on the senses even while, at first glance, so much of it appears as witty and flippant. In play after play as I read through his remarkable catalogue, there are characters who are in so much pain, who are drawn so viscerally that you really do feel as though you could smell or touch them, even if you feel that they might give you a vicious back-hand if you tried.
The legends of that fecund and vibrant seed-bed that bred Jack’s play writing, the Australian Performing Group (APG) (often referred to as The Pram Factory, or just The Pram) are, to say the least, a mystery wrapped in an enigma. There are so many tales of holes drilled in spoons, legendary arguments, ideological splits, spectacular successes and equally spectacular fiascos. It’s intoxicating to one, like me, who was too young to be there, but who has worked with so many of the people who created those legends (made more intoxicating by the fact that their individual accounts never quite match up). The group of artists at the centre of this collective is a roll-call of eminent Australian artists: Graeme Blundell, Margaret Cameron, Max Gillies, Sue Ingleton, David Williamson, Evelyn Krape, Tony Taylor, Barry Dickins, John Romeril, Jane Clifton, Lindy Davies… and so many more. There was an outpouring of work of all kinds, much of which has never and can never be captured for posterity, but in this collection you will find a few genuine gems from this period. Even though there are at least as many plays collected here that post-date the APG, it is apposite I think to remember that Jack’s career as a playwright, like so many others of this time, was started amongst this remarkable collective. The history of theatre in Australia and internationally, is water-marked by such apparently spontaneous ‘movements’. Who could imagine Simon Stone without The Hayloft Project, John Bell without Nimrod, Stephen Sewell without Belvoir Street, Declan Greene without Sisters Grimm, Joanna Murray-Smith and Hannie Rayson without Playbox?
Notwithstanding his relationship to the APG, Jack’s plays remain as seminal texts in the Australian playwriting landscape. His reinventions of vaudeville and Theatre of the Absurd, his nods to the great writers and thinkers of the twentieth century theatre like Brecht, Beckett and Artaud, but principally his extraordinarily singular voice have given us such wonderful and iconic works as Dimboola, A Toast to Melba, The Les Darcy Show and of course A Stretch of the Imagination. There are so many more, and this of course is the purpose of a retrospective such as this. For those of us who love and respect history, we live in egregious times. Remembering, learning from and celebrating what has come before is a fundamental cornerstone of an intelligent and civilized nation, not to mention the only way we keep the flame of exploration alive. Jack has truly blazed a trail – indeed continues to blaze it – with his courage, his originality and his iconoclastic approach to ‘the rules’. His work is passionate, joyful and on occasion incredibly bleak, but it is all driven by a vision that is fiercely human and, somewhat at odds with the general take on his work, intensely warm and empathic.
In a forum a few years ago which centred on the ‘New Wave’ of playwrights that blossomed and exploded in the late 60’s and early 70’s of which Jack (amongst others like David Williamson, Louis Nowra, Dorothy Hewett, Alma de Groen, Stephen Sewell, John Romeril et al) is a part, somebody – and from memory it was Max Gillies – made the observation that it is entirely correct to draw a direct comparison between this playwriting movement and the Australian Modernist Movement (the Angry Penguins) in visual art in the 1940’s. Just as the Modernists dragged Australian painting firmly into the avant-garde, so the ‘New Wave’ playwrights did the same for Australian theatre. Hibberd’s standing as an artist of significance most certainly ranks with the likes of Boyd, Nolan, Hester and Tucker, as do all of the playwrights listed above.
Hibberd’s body of work is a loud, joyful and brilliant noise; a journey that is still underway, and a legacy of enormous value to all of us who love art. It is an enormous pleasure and a matter of great pride that we have these wonderful plays in our collection and I commend them, in their entirety, to you.
Literary Manager (2010 to 2018)
Hibberd studied medicine at the University of Melbourne where he won the RD. Wright Prize for Physiology and resided in Newman College. After graduation he worked as Registrar in the Department of Social Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, 1966-67 and then as a general practitioner until 1984 when he began practice as a clinical immunologist, an area in which he still works a few days each week. He is married to the actress Evelyn Krape, and a father to Lily (1972) and James (1974) from a first marriage, and to Spike (1980) and Molly (1986).
Hibberd co-founded the Australian Performing Group (APG) in 1970. He was a member for ten years, and chairman for two. In 1983 he founded The Melbourne Writers’ Theatre and also served on the Theatre Board of The Australia Council twice, and spent several years as a member of the Literature Board.
Jack has written close to 40 plays, some of them not full length. His first play, White With Wire Wheels, was staged in 1967 at the University of Melbourne, and is a proto-feminist revenge play, which satirizes male herd behaviour and the men’s obsession with cars and alcohol-virility over women.
Jack’s micro-play, Three Old Friends, opened the legendary La Mama theatre in Melbourne (29 July 1967). This work was one of a number of very short works in which Hibberd reconnoitred the styles of Beckett, Pinter and Brecht These, plus a couple of longer plays (Who and One of Nature’s Gentlemen) made up a season called Brain-Rot (1968). This cemented an association between Jack, the director, David Kendall, actors, Graham Blundell, Bruce Spence, Peter Cummins, Kerry Dwyer, Max Gillies, Evelyn Krape et al with writers David Williamson, John Romeril, Tim Robertson and Barry Oakley leading to the creation of the Australian Performing Group at the La Mama Theatre and then the Pram Factory. This initiative to create an artistic collective, chaired originally by Jack, was a crucial factor in the revival of Australian drama with over 140 new Australian plays produced in the eleven years of its operation.
There followed Hibberd’s most popular play: Dimboola, a wedding breakfast farce with audience participation. It was a huge commercial success in the early 1970s, and holds the Australian record for the longest continuous run of a play (two years and nine months at the theatre restaurant, Whisky À Go Go in Sydney and stopped only when the building was burnt down). It still enjoys about seven amateur productions a year and has had overseas productions in London, Zurich and Munich. A feature movie based loosely on the play was made in 1976 directed by John Duigan and starring Max Gillies, Bruce Spence, Nathalie Bate and many others. It is a perennial favourite for rebroadcast on television.
His next play, a long monodrama, A Stretch of the Imagination, is regarded by most connoisseurs as his finest work, embodying a radical advance in the character of Australian theatre, embracing and remoulding as it does many of the strong strands in theatrical modernism. The actor who plays Monk O’Neill has to be a virtuoso. Stretch was the first Australian play to be done in China (in Mandarin) with a famous Chinese actor Wei Zong Wan as Monk O’Neill. The Shanghai production packed a large theatre for six weeks and the play has also had productions in the USA, Germany and New Zealand. In 2010 it was performed in London by Mark Little, a winner of the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award.
Jack Hibberd has completed some stage adaptations of short stories: Gogol’s The Overcoat (with music), De Maupassant’s Odyssey of a Prostitute (an epic gothic monstrosity), and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych . The Overcoat was the first Australian play to be staged in Indonesia.
Hibberd’s most challenging plays are his monodramas, in which he specializes. Those for women include Female Rhapsodies (sub-titled ‘curtain-raisers’), Lavender Bags and Mothballs. The first entails a preparation for a wedding (a fantasy performance), the second explores the fine public face of grief and its ugly private underbelly. Apart from Stretch, there is a gargantuan male on male monodrama, From Apes to Apps, subtitled A History of the Western World in Ninety Minutes, which indeed it is.
Among others might be mentioned Bedlam Ballads, two linked incarceration plays, one for females, the other for males. They resemble psychiatric research and torture oubliettes, and have overtones of USSR institutions and Guantanamo Bay. Domestic Animals embraces a ghastly dysfunctional marriage, and enjoys echoes of Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Legacy sees over siblings in a family crypt warring nastily over the will of their recently deceased father.
Blood Bath and The Crown Versus Alice Springs deal with poverty and injustice. Trios addresses two dysfunctional familes. In The Prodigal Son the father is a monster, and in The Dutiful Daughter the mother is a monster. An Evening with Elizabeth Bowen and Sean O’Faolin are again stage adaptations of stories. Slam Dunk entails conflict between two adolescent redneck chainsaw addicts and an adolescent conservationist and poetry lover.
Peggy Sue, a companion to White With Wire Wheels, dramatizes the mistreatment and exploitation of three romantic young women during a severe economic depression when they are compelled to work as prostitutes. Liquid Amber is a companion to Dimboola, and has audience participation at a Golden Wedding celebration. A Toast to Melba and The Les Darcy Show embraces the lives of the famous diva Nellie Melba and the champion boxer Les Darcy. Repossession concentrates on the conflicts between two poor young women who live in a shack out in the bush and two domineering corporate captains who, stranded, turn up for the night.
Jack’s recent plays are Commandments, in which five of the Ten Commandments are inverted, or perverted, so that the breaking of a Commandment becomes ethically justified. And Guantanamo Bay, which is set in that institution and is visited by President George W Bush, Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz because it is ‘Open Day at Guantanamo Bay’, and, to begin the celebrations, there is a performance of The History of American Violence . . . a play within a play. The guests watch some examples of the artistry of contemporary torture. Later they are joined by Tony Blair and John Howard, Australia’s ‘Man of Steel’. Fidel Castro appears as an interlude. A waiter called Malcolm X causes great distress among the American dignitaries.
Finally, Jack has completed a first draft of Time is of the Essence, and features Methuselah on his 1000th birthday when he is visited by Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, Salome, and Zenobia. They dance around him at the end to celebrate his majority.
He has also completed a revision of Dimboola, updating the text and providing numerous lyrics for songs and choruses. A director and composer are in hand, and a production is anticipated in late 2017. He is now putting the final touches to Three Sapphic Plays while also completing his novel, The Melburnians, the third of his trilogy, while using the time provided by his appointment to a Vice Chancellor’s Fellowship at Melbourne University.
Four Popular Plays : (1970)
White With Wire Wheels and Who?
Three Popular Plays: (1976)
A Toast to Melba, The Les Darcy Show, and One of Nature’s Gentlemen,
A Stretch of the Imagination
The Overcoat and Sin
Captain Midnight VC (1972, 1984)
Dimboola and Liquid Amber
Squibs (a collection of short plays, 1984)
Slam Dunk (1985)
Plays of the 70s (1998)
Jack Hibberd: Selected Plays (2000)
Duets (The Old School Tie and Glycerine Tears)
The Prodigal Son (2001)
Australian Playwrights: Jack Hibberd by Paul McGillick Rodolpi, Amsterdam 1988
Hibberd by J.D Hainsworth Methuen
Memoirs of an Old Bastard (1989)
The Life of Riley (1990)
Le Vin des Amants (1977)
The Genius of Human Imperfection (1998)
Madrigals for a Misanthrope (2004)
A nocturnal thriller set in Melbourne. Miss Finger, a forensic scientist turns detective after her two children die of overdoses. With the help of a suave Sydney detective, she weaves her way through Melbourne’s unsavoury and ethnically diverse underground, finally finding and nailing the Big Drug Baron, a toad-featured Australian Vietnam Vet, who originally went AWOL into the Golden Triangle.
Captain Midnight VC
Midnight is a VC winner from World War Two, but is denied a soldier settlement post-war because of his sooty complexion. He becomes an Aboriginal radical and an agitator for Black Power. He enlists the aid of black Americans and Africans, who infiltrate Australia, bomb Parliament House killing all its members, and seducing paddocks of white women. A dealis finally attained: all white Tasmanians are exiled to the mainland, and those urban and landless indigenes take over Tasmania, which they name Trugininiland.
Uncle Sam, who has been wrongfully incarcerated in the Hollywood Hospital for the Psychiatrically Challenged, escapes with the help of Charlie Chan, and begins a presidential campaign, assisted by an unlikely and incredible electoral team, including, among others, Black Hawk, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Mark Twain, Superman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Zapata, George Washington, Janis Joplin, Curt Cobain, Rabbi Harpo Marx, and Mr Ed. To cut a long narrative short, Uncle Sam’s truly liberal and leftish platform, along with his witty savaging of his two opponents and avaricious corporations in a television debate, leads to a refreshing and volcanic victory.
Singing the Seventies is a six-part series embracing the cultures of the Seventies. Each episode is situated in a different inner Melbourne suburb. Each episode devotes itself to a particular profession of occupation. For example, Carlton is theatre; the CBD, finance; South Melbourne, the media, etc. There are number of through-characters who bind the free-standing episodes together.