Ghosts of the Past: Contemporary Australian Gothic Theatre

Mary Luckhurst is Professor of Artistic Research and Creative Practice in the Faculty of Fine Art and Music, University of Melbourne.

The sublime horrors and lethal dangers of the Australian landscape are the subject of both true story and myth and were circulated by the first waves of white European settlers who arrived from the late eighteenth century onwards.

Stories of inexplicable disappearance, of violent death, of the intolerable trauma of separation from homeland, of the hostility of the extreme climate, and of those driven mad by deracination, loneliness and the struggle to survive were passed on and became the subject of bush ballads, poetry, fine art work, early Gothic theatre and melodrama and latterly, film and television. Contemporary Australian Gothic Theatre, on the other hand, has emerged since the 1960s and is as much connected with a postcolonial search for new identities and a political and cultural repositioning of Australia within the Asia Pacific, as it is with innovations in dramatizing stories and inventing new ways of making theatre.

In the last ten years Australian Gothic Theatre has boomed in every state. In a platform discussion at the Arts Centre in Melbourne in 2016, performer and artistic director, Lydia Miller, even went as far as suggesting that ‘our national genre is horror Gothic’. Australian re-visionings of European monsters such as Frankenstein and Dracula have proliferated on stages and sit alongside new Australian plays and devised works examining a range of cultural anxieties about the violence and trauma connected with white settlement, place, land and the denial of indigenous rights. Stagings of Night on Bald Mountain, The Secret River, The Bleeding Tree, Children of the Black Skirt, Jasper Jones and Picnic at Hanging Rock have all been framed as Australian Gothic. Individual states are even beginning to identify localised Gothic features in their performance, as the term ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ and the annual Dark Mofo Festival demonstrate. Such theatre and performance works draw their politics and aesthetics from a range of influences, including the more established tradition of Australian Gothic film championed by Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Cars that Ate Paris) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker), from the horror film genre, from the abundant ghostly myths and legends associated with bush, desert and coastal landscapes, and from oral storytelling and musical traditions that focus on violent and spectral events.

Pepper's Ghost stage set up, Le Monde Illustré, 1862

Ghosts are everywhere, as I learned when I was editing my book Theatre and Ghosts: Materiality, Performance and Modernity, and apparently nowhere more so than Australia. Theatre, and especially theatres of the Gothic, have an obsession with portraying ghosts and hauntings and theatre production has developed its own technologies to spook its audiences. The most celebrated was perhaps Pepper’s ghost, named after its inventor John Henry Pepper in 1862, which was used in theatres, museums and amusement parks and creates the illusion of figures walking through walls. Spectators screamed out loud and for a short time Pepper’s ghost was a sensation. Today, advanced technology and use of abandoned buildings and resonant sites can achieve rather more nuanced effects.

Malthouse Theatre performance of Tom Wright’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, February 2018. Photograph by Pia Johnson.

Tom Wright’s stage adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock has created its own spectral sensation. It was revived at the Malthouse Theatre in February 2018 and is again due to go on international tour. Directed by Matthew Lutton, it is a masterpiece of contemporary Australian Gothic theatre, conveying the continual menace experienced by the pupils and teachers in a colonial girls’ school in the Macedon Ranges in 1900. Their lives and values seem absurd, precarious and uncannily out of place in the ancient land they inhabit and they cannot escape the curious Rock which symbolically dominates their view. Three girls are apparently swallowed up by the Rock when out walking, a fourth is rescued but permanently damaged by the trauma of the experience. Driven mad by the loss of the girls and the collapse of her reputation, life’s purpose and livelihood, the headmistress throws herself to her death from the Rock’s pinnacle. Lutton’s direction is a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of increasing disjointedness and collapse; dialogue fails, community fails, kindness fails and logic fails. As a colonial project, the school is rendered irrelevant and meaningless. The uncanny aesthetic is achieved through the disjunctures of word and image, the increasing falsity and collapse of the settlers’ dialogue, and the surreal quality of the soundscore which often erupts as the stage is plunged into pitch black. ‘So there is such a thing as Victorian Gothic’ I heard an audience member say as I was leaving the Malthouse. ‘Who’d have thought it?’

Malthouse Theatre performance of Tom Wright’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, February 2018. Photograph by Pia Johnson.