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The Return (Essay)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Jeckmen Wu

Discuss how at least one drama text uses characters to comment on notions of individual, group or national identity.

The ‘lucky country’ has always been heavily grounded in grand metanarratives and colonial myths that make up the national identity and deluded notions of Australian society, stemming from the values, beliefs and attitudes culminated in 1890s literature by iconic Australian writers such as Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson and Joseph Furphy. The result was metanarratives with archetypes such as the larrikin and the battler, ideological views of egalitarianism, and the romantic mythologisation of the bush that perpetuates the rural fantasy. In The Return (2003) by Reg Cribb, these predominant ideological concepts are well and truly shattered by the hollow and invisible script of frontier masculinity Steve and Trev enact in an attempt hide their ‘Otherness’, revealing, or rather confirming, the little substratum of truth on which our supposed “unifying” and “all-accepting” national identity was built on. The play uses its characters to comment on how the notions of national identity are all ‘intellectual constructs… and necessarily false’ (Richard White). Our identity has become strictly coded as male, white and heteronormative which sees Steve perform an extremely masculine script, which then also renders Australian identity as a construct due to its close association with the masculine archetypes, as a defence mechanism against a homophobic society. Notions of egalitarianism are also challenged and deconstructed through Steve and Trev’s status as outcasts of society. Despite expectations, and initial demonstrations, of mateship between the pair, Trev abandons Steve after the revelation of his homosexuality, confirming how heteronormative the Australian identity is and exposing the gradually fading authenticity of mateships in Australia.

A core idea in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is the notion that gender is an ‘improvised performance, a form of theatricality that constitutes a sense of identity’ (Elliot), suggesting the presence of an invisible script which we are all pressured to perform to satisfy the “thousand eyes” of the hegemonic social order. In a dramatic diversion from the Realist style of theatre, the play adopts a Brechtian metatheatrical twist by unveiling the writer’s presence and bringing into our awareness his ‘little book’. The prop metaphorically represents the set script of gender which has dominated Steve and Trev’s violent behaviours throughout the play. In the Australian context, this gender ‘script’ for men has become masculine and especially toxic, constituting enactments of the larrikin and battler archetypes which have become a marker of normative Australian identity, but one which expresses the darker and more malevolent side of Australia due to its element of criminality. It is the extreme association between the masculine archetypes and heteronormativity that forces Steve to perform this script of toxic masculinity as a safety behaviour to hide his homosexuality and not become more outcasted than he already is. His ‘imposing’ demeanour and ‘dangerous, world-weary edginess’, which he exerts primarily through his open harassment of Lisa, convincingly fool the audience’s panoptic gaze into thinking he is heterosexual. However, when his heterosexuality is revealed, the script and the hegemonic gaze have become so internalised as a locus of control that he still clings, albeit hollowly, to the performance of toxic masculinity in a way that conveys the self-policing of his own sexuality. He almost tries to convince himself that he isn’t bisexual, that the relationship was purely out of desperation (‘I don’t care who I fuck’), by not expressing and stubbornly denying any feelings for the writer’s ‘sweet little fucked-up brother’, acknowledging that ‘he loved me’, but never admitting to the opposite. While the panoptic gaze has been undermined, his diversion from the set script doesn’t go unpunished as he is condemned to social exclusion and silent disapproval, which are commonly used to reinforce normative behaviour in Australia where fitting in is the “Australian way”, resulting in Steve leaving the train ‘alone’, without Trev, and with his sexuality now deemed as “Other”.

In an iconic Australian rhetoric echoing the cultural myth of a ‘fair go’, PM Scott Morrison proclaimed, "I believe in a fair go for those who have a go,” alluding to Australia’s egalitarianism through the discourse of fairness. However, the “land of the fair go” has never truly existed. The phrase, even at its 1890s roots, has always been limited – the White Australia Policy and non-European immigrant discrimination both underscore that the fair go was only for whites while differences in job opportunities and wages highlighted that it was also limited to men. In the modern Australian capitalist society, this has become even more of a myth as money now constitutes real power and class dictates opportunity, revealing that a fair go has only ever been a conditional transaction to benefit those deemed deserving. The myth of egalitarianism is dissected in The Return through Steve & Trev, who are labelled as ‘thugs’ and cast outside of the class system to the criminal underclass of society as the bogan “Other”. There is an element of absurd theatre in their characterisation, or rather a lack thereof. They lack motivation and are often out of harmony with the world due to their economic disenfranchisement, becoming almost purposeless as they are repeatedly arrested and released from prison. This lack of purpose is also shared by Maureen, the other member of the working class, who remains on the train despite the termination of the line, travelling back to where she came from. The only characters with a purpose are the two members of the bourgeois class–Lisa and the writer–who are here to conduct ‘some research’ for a play. Hence, we see how lost, ignored and powerless the working class are in our classist society. Egalitarianism is further exposed to be a myth when Trev starts to sing “Morningtown Ride” by The Seekers. The whimsical song and its utopian lyrics, ‘All the little travellers/Are warm and snug inside’, is in sharp contrast to the intense realisation of social misery on stage, the setting of a ‘functional & soulless train’ carriage, and most definitely Trev’s physical stage presence and costuming–‘gaunt face and short spiky hair’. The audience can only laugh as a macho ‘thug’ tries to sing a lullaby, revealing how at odds the idealistic song is with reality and how someone like Trev will never reach the egalitarian fantasy conveyed in the song despite our strong national belief in a ‘fair go’. Trev’s deep tone of sarcasm (‘Golly, gee, whizzo’) makes a mockery out of the song and hence, the egalitarian myth, undermining its validity in Australian society. However, in the same way that a lullaby is used by mothers to soothe their distressed babies into slumber, the song similarly “lulls” the population to sleep, especially the “distressed” lower class or the ‘savage beasts’, indoctrinating us with the egalitarian myth as the song’s whimsical and dreamy aesthetic makes it all the more hypnotic. Lullabies are also seen by some as “a façade for a mother’s expression of goals, expectations, or even warnings for her child” (Lauren Castro in “When the cradle falls…”). Considering that The Seekers was an icon of Australia, and Australian icons being where many of Australia’s perpetuating cultural myths, beliefs and values seem to originate from, Judith Durham becomes almost a mother figure in this song with Australia as her “child”, soothing us all to sleep with the dream of egalitarianism and unity but one which will end abruptly when we wake up and realise the reality of a classist Australian society.

Traditional life beyond the Great Dividing Range “encouraged an interdependence that was manifested in a cult of bush hospitality and mateship” (Roberts). The European settlers were “in opposition to nature”, forcing them to engage in a “physical battle for survival” (Wright) against the gothic Australian landscape. This value of collective perseverance through hardship was only strengthened by WW1, when Australian soldiers embarked to fight in Gallipoli, embracing the underdog spirit and conquering adversity through unity with phrases like “brothers in arms”, thereby creating the ANZAC legend that white, bourgeois Australians still glorify and revere to this day, as evident by ANZAC cookies. This stoic companionship is emulated in the play between Steve & Trev, two ‘thugs’ who share the struggle of trying to fit into a new capitalist society, where their physical intimidation and demonstrations of traditional masculinity no longer grant them real power. Steve exhibits mateship by letting Trev ‘tag along’ as he has ‘nowhere else to go’, developing their homosocial bond on the way through occasional banter (‘sometimes I forget how stupid you are’), classic crass humour (‘“Spot the Bum” calendar’) and ‘distorted war dance’. Their joint movement on stage resembles a dance routine, albeit an unrefined and ‘jarring’ one, but one which creates an impression of a close familial bond, expressing the strength and importance of mateship as part of the Australian identity. Australian mateship is also formed through our prevalent drinking culture. When Steve, Trev and Maureen ‘have a drink’ together, the prop of a ‘bottle of Jack Daniels’ becomes symbolic of lower-class bonding, a moment of mateship between those who face a similar adversity against class inequality. However, this strong and admirable “spirit of companionship” is shattered at the end of the play, when ‘they all leave at different times, alone’. The separate & individual movements as compared to the united movement of Steve and Trev at the start of the play are contrary to unity in the name of mateship. This is especially emphasised when Steve is abandoned by Trev, his closest and only mate, the only thing he had left.

For Australia, ‘the past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past’ (Faulkner). Archetypes of the larrikin and the battler still enjoy a canonical status and are inseparable from the Australian identity as it continues to be cemented in our national identity by the hegemonic social order. Reg Cribb’s play The Return instead undertakes a radical postmodern deconstruction of Australia’s romanticised and ennobled cultural heroes along with its grand metanarratives of masculinity and nationalist myths of egalitarianism to reveal the hollowness that dwells beneath the façades. Thereby the notions of masculinity, egalitarianism and mateship which supposedly makes up our national identity are all revealed as faux through the interaction between characters onstage–the ‘scripted’ violent behaviours of Steve and Trev, the invisible divide between members of the upper and lower class, and the abandonment of Trev at the end.

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