O-r-i-e-l-G-r-a-y. That’s how you spell it. This Australian playwright’s name is not as familiar as those of Ray Lawler and Louis Esson and her award-winning plays have been excluded from the traditional canon of our national theatre. Her name was carried away to obscurity by a tide of historical, political and social circumstances that conspired against her, a left-wing, open-minded, working mother with a strong voice and battles to fight.
But Oriel Gray will finally have her name in the spotlight when her rarely seen 1955 play The Torrents washes over the stage of the Sydney Opera House in a Sydney Theatre Company co-production that opens next week. The forward-thinking J. G. Milford, played by Celia Pacquola, is an embodiment of the independent woman, a figure that recurs in Gray’s plays, in this instance bringing her energy and ideas to a 1890s goldmining town when she joins the previously all-male staff of a local newspaper, challenging views of the environment, media, race and gender. In the more than six decades since Gray wrote The Torrents, this touring production is only the second time it has received a professional theatre production.
Oriel Gray, pictured in 1976 when she was working on scripts for Bellbird.Credit:ABC
Gray will sadly not be there to see the production, having died aged 83 in 2003. For her, the history of The Torrents was largely one of disappointment. Her son, Nicholas Hepworth, says the play, ‘‘seems to have haunted the family for as long as I can remember’’. But the play’s history started on a more positive note – with a bottle of sparkling burgundy and a ‘‘biscuit-coloured straw hat, with a wide brim and straw-lace edging’’.
That was what Gray chose to buy with her £100 prize money after her script of The Torrents won the 1955 Playwrights’ Advisory Board’s award for best Australian play, chosen by nine judges from 130 entries. Gray’s script nearly didn’t make the competition – her then partner, journalist and author John Hepworth, had taken it from her, planning to post it when she refused to stop tinkering, only to subsequently leave The Torrents behind in a pub (where thankfully it was retrieved by a barmaid).
Gray had been a member of the Communist Party of Australia for nearly a decade until 1949, and was a celebrated member of the affiliated New Theatre movement which had a commitment to social justice. Her plays, such as her first Lawson (1944), Western Limit (1946) and My Life Is My Affair (1948), were frequently given amateur productions across the country. Gray’s mother died when she was six, and she followed her older sister Grace into the world of the theatre, first as an actor and revue writer, and later writing full-length plays.
I think Oriel felt like this prize was a big deal … this would make her name as a playwright and of course we know that it didn't.
But Gray wasn’t the only winner of the Playwrights’ Advisory Board’s award in 1955. The Torrents shared equal first prize with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – they didn’t share much more after that. One play was reduced to a footnote. The other is one of our country’s best known plays, is frequently produced by major theatre companies and has become a regular on education curriculums. The Doll, according to Macquarie University Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, ‘‘obliterated all that preceded it’’ by virtue of its success.
‘‘The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll has become this play that is used to periodise Australian theatre more broadly. You have before The Doll and after The Doll. It is seen as this seismic break, that Australian theatre was never the same before and after,’’ says Arrow, who wrote about forgotten Australian women playwrights who were working prior to the 1960s in her book, Upstaged.
The two plays were selected as equal winners and both were promised productions, a significant reward at a time when theatre venues were still limited. The Playwrights’ Advisory Board’s president Leslie Rees reportedly said that The Doll – a naturalistic play focused on an annual tradition of two male sugarcane cutters meeting up with two women in the city – scraped through because the judges liked its ideas, but they thought Gray’s script was more complete. Yet Gray’s play did not receive the promised offer of a professional production while The Doll was developed, workshopped, and premiered that year, to an overwhelming positive response.
We’ve made sure that the integrity of the world that we imagined she envisaged is on the stage.
Merrilee Moss, who wrote a PhD on Gray, has written a play about her life, and was a consultant on the current production of The Torrents, argues that Gray was ‘‘sacrificed’’ in a bid to form an Australian theatre that reflected a distinct, and distinctly masculine, national identity. She was a threat to the order – a former communist, who lived an unorthodox personal life (she had left her first husband actor John Gray, with whom she shared a son, for her sister’s partner John Hepworth), and she was writing progressively about class and gender during a politically conservative moment. On top of all that, she was a woman, a mother of three boys (two with Hepworth), who was one of the few writers of the period making a living from her writing. Lawler was also well connected to the theatre establishment, while Gray had emerged from the amateur wing.
‘‘I think Oriel felt like this prize was a big deal and this would mean that something would change. That this would make her name as a playwright and of course we know that it didn’t. It must have been very bittersweet watching the success of The Doll. It gets made into a movie, an opera, it’s still one of the best known Australian plays. To watch that as your play does not have that success must have been tough,’’ Arrow says.
The Torrents was produced for radio the year after the prize, given unremarkable amateur theatre productions in 1957 and 1958, broadcast on television in 1969 and turned into a lighthearted musical in the 1980s. Only in 1988 was the script published for the first time.
The first professional theatrical production of the play, by the State Theatre of South Australia at the Adelaide Festival in 1996, offered an opportunity to revive Gray’s work. The misspelling of her last name as Grey on a poster for the play was surely a sorry omen of what was to come. The reviews of the play were harsh, including one titled ‘‘Desperate Bid to Revive Monster Proves Hopeless’’. Gray saw the production and was greatly distressed, decreeing it as a major distortion of her work. By then, even she had come to think of her work as a ‘‘great, big, cumbrous, old-fashioned load of old-get out’’.
‘‘My heart sank for her. For her, this was her big chance to finally get it performed on a proper theatre. It was just devastating. I think that was really tough for her to finally feel like this was her moment, she had waited all this time,’’ Arrow says.
Gray wrote two more plays after The Torrents, Drive a Hard Bargain and Burst of Summer, which won the J. C Williamson/Little Theatre Guild competition in 1960 and saw Gray receive, finally, her first professional theatre production. ‘‘I just ran out of steam … you just get tired of bashing your head against a brick wall,’’ she said. She worked for radio, published a novel and autobiography, and spent 12 years writing for the popular TV soap opera, Bellbird.
Her son, Nicholas Hepworth, stresses that even though Gray’s plays never achieved the level of success of Lawler’s, she went on to write professionally for another half a century. She was a witty, quick thinker who could talk for hours on what she had been reading or watching.
‘‘She was full of life. It is important that people understand that [the fate of The Torrents] didn’t help, but it also didn’t stop her,’’ Hepworth, 68, says.
Celia Pacquola in the Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of The Torrents.Credit:Philip Gostelow
His mother would have been fairly anxious to hear her play was to be revived once again, Hepworth says, but also delighted that a new audience would see The Torrents. It was similar to how Hepworth felt when he was first approached by Western Australia’s Black Swan State Theatre (co-producers of the play with the STC) artistic director Clare Watson who wanted to include The Torrents in this year’s season, where six out of the seven plays are written by women. The ‘‘refreshed’’ play opened to positive reviews in Perth in June, and Hepworth was pleased by the cast and crew’s enthusiasm and commitment to his mother’s vision.
‘‘To be honest I imagine Oriel might have been a trifle annoyed at the prospect of changes to the play, maybe even more than a trifle, at least at first. Particularly this play which has been so … problematic,’’ he says.
She understood well that a play can be either performed, or fading ink and crumbling paper in a bookshelf nobody goes to any more.
‘‘But she would have come around. Because her play’s still there, with her ideas and her messages to us. She understood well that a play can be either performed, or fading ink and crumbling paper in a bookshelf nobody goes to any more. So the choice would be easy for her.’’
Watson had recently programmed Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and met Lawler in person, which prompted her to think of the other playwrights of his generation. On a flight, she turned over the first page of Gray’s play for the first time and found herself laughing out loud.
‘‘I was struck by its wit and the sophistication of its ideas and the eccentricity of its characters but I was mostly struck by how incredibly relevant it was to today’s world, in terms of the things it was saying about gender politics in the work place, big money and the power that big money wields, journalism and the environment.’’
J.C. Milford shocks the blokes of the office of the Koolgalla Argus in the gold town Koolgalla (based on Kalgoorlie) when the J in her name is revealed to stand for Jenny (the Torrents of the play are the editor and his son, Rufus and Ben Torrent). Her arrival prompts a consideration of subjects all too relevant to modern audiences – how women are treated in the workplace, how to balance environment and economic needs, and the power and role of journalism.
Watson and her team, including Virginia Gay as dramaturge, have treated the play as a new work – giving it the development process it missed in 1955. The two major changes included re-writing of the original ending, and the addition of a scene that would allow The Torrents to pass the Bechdel test, a measure of how women are represented in fiction.
Oriel Gray in the 1940s.
Gray had the sense that her career had been summed up by ‘‘not being The Doll’’, Arrow says. Their stories have been intertwined. Lawler was mentioned in Gray’s obituaries, and the publicity campaign for the current production has centred around their divergent paths. The rise of feminist cultural history and theory means Gray and her generation of women have started to receive more attention. It was gratifying for Gray, Arrow says, for people to be writing about her work after a lifetime of being overlooked and neglected.
‘‘I think she always felt a little bit perturbed that her role had been overlooked but also entirely summed up by this sense of you won the prize but you didn’t get the prize, you didn’t get the record of achievement and the acclaim that went with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. She was probably, I might even say, bitter about it later in her life,’’ Arrow says.
‘‘I think she was aware of some of the odds being stacked against her but of course you never know at the time. You don’t understand the story or know how it is going to turn out.’’
But maybe there’s more acts to come in Gray’s story. The revival of The Torrents in 2019 by two major state theatre companies contains a hope of renewed interest in her work, life and contribution – and in those of a generation of overlooked female playwrights who were integral to Australian theatre prior to 1960. When audiences walk into the Drama Theatre next week they will see a large sign with Oriel Gray’s name over the stage. And finally it’s spelt correctly.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Torrents is at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House from Thursday to August 24.
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