Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife as Alter/Native Canon

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Year of publication 2019
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description There is probably not much left to be said about Henry Lawson’s iconic short story “The Drover’s Wife” (1892), though the Lawson scholarship continues to be interested in the rather ingenious process of mythologizing both the man and his work. Equally notorious are the many playful rewritings, which have in one way or another voiced something particular about the time they were written in—from Murray Bail, Frank Moorhouse, Barbara Jefferis, Anne Gambling, Mandy Sayer, up to the recent edition of all versions by Frank Moorhouse (2017) and Ryan O’Neill’s latest, though certainly not last, collection of 99 reinterpretations of the story in his The Drover’s Wives (2018). My presentation focuses on the theatrical spin written by actor, writer and director Leah Purcell. The play The Drover’s Wife in which Purcell played the lead, premiered in Sydney’s Belvoir Theater in September 2016, attracting enough commercial attention for Purcell and her troupe to start developing the play into a TV miniseries and possibly a feature film produced by one of the Hollywood studios. The main source for this rewriting the story is, expectedly, a much larger and significant presence of Indigeneity. What in Lawson’s canonical text remains elusive and ultimately ambivalent (a treacherous Black who builds a hollow woodpile and the midwife Black Mary who helps the wife deliver her baby), is brought in Purcell’s writing to the spotlight. Not only does the play introduce the character of Yadaka, Aboriginal fugitive accused of white woman’s murder, but eventually the drover’s wife herself is revealed to have Indigenous origin, being Black Mary’s daughter. This powerful twist implicates several things: a tour de force of frontier violence with disturbing and haunting images of racism, rape, lynching, and murder, the play unflinchingly confronts the very foundations of established literary canon as well as national history, providing an alter/native to both.
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