Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2019

Author event: Emily Goddard at Parkdale Library

I don’t review theatre on this blog, but I’m very interested in the process of creating it, so I was pleased to be able to attend an author event at the Parkdale Branch of the Kingston Library Service today.

Emily Goddard is the writer, performer and co-devisor of a remarkable play called This is Eden, and, thanks to my good friend Mairi Neil,  I will be seeing Goddard in performance later this month at the Kingston Arts Centre.  (We were told this afternoon that there were only five tickets left to this performance, but there are tickets available for the Frankston performance, and maybe others too, see here for tour dates.)

Today at the library Goddard talked about the genesis of this play, which the website tells us is…

…a dark, humorous and provocative anti-bonnet drama inspired by the rebellion and resistance of the female convicts of Van Diemen’s Land.  Using the French clowning technique of Bouffon, where outcasts ridicule and provoke those in power, Goddard and Dee tread a fine line between the grotesque and charming to bring to life an extraordinary tale of rebellion and survival that has conveniently escaped our nation’s history lesson.

The talk began with an Acknowledgement of Country, which also recognised that the story of Tasmanian women convicts is only a part of a terrible era in our history which included the genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines.

Goddard then went on to explain that she had never really been very interested in Australian history as it was taught at school, and she confessed that she’d only joined her mother on a genealogical quest in Tasmania because she’d just broken up with a boyfriend.  But as she retraced her grandmother Sarah Ford’s footsteps at the Cascades Female factory in Hobart, and heard about what she had endured, she began to think about ways this story could be brought to life in performance.

Emily is a 2010 graduate of Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris, a theatre school which teaches a style of performance called Bouffon,  which mocks those in power using grotesque satire. It seemed appropriate for dramatising the stories of the women, because they used mockery to rebel against the system.  As Goddard explained, they had plenty to rebel against.

Like many of the women transported to Tasmania, Goddard’s grandmother was a victim of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.  She was born in 1816 in Gloucester, one of six children whose father was hanged for horse-stealing.  Her brother was transported after a second offence of theft, but did not survive the ill-fated voyage of the George III in 1835, in which 133 lives were lost. Sarah and her sister followed in 1836, both convicted for stealing, and transported for seven years because it was a second offence.

Based on their behaviour en route, on arrival women were sorted into 3rd class (i.e. incorrigibles) who were given back-breaking hard labour and reduced rations, 2nd class prisoners who were on probation and expected to work their way up to 1st class so that they could be assigned to work somewhere in the colony.  Where they were sent was the luck of the draw, and many absconded from cruelty and abuse, or to be with their lovers, or were sent back to the factory because they were pregnant which was a punishable crime. (These women had to work all through their pregnancies, and then look after their own and other babies.  There was a very high infant mortality rate, higher than the rest of the population.)

The women coped with their circumstances with grim humour. There was  group called the Flash Mob which led attacks on those in authority, and performed skits that mocked the ruling classes.  Unsurprisingly no scripts survive, but the dates and content of these plays is known from the outraged reports about them.  One of those mocked in This is Eden is the Reverend Bedford a.k.a. Holy Willie, who was in charge of moral standards in the colony but had no theological training.  He was married, but was notorious for taking advantage of the women.

Goddard also explained that she hoped the play would have a wider resonance than its historical purpose, because there are parallels with the inhumane treatment of refugees. She talked about how transportation, despite the campaign against it by free settlers, offered the opportunity for a new life to the disadvantaged.  Sarah Ford married, and as an emancipist, moved to Collingwood in Melbourne, raised a family and died aged 76 in 1892.  Despite the horrors of the factory, like many others, this convict built a new life with reasonably positive outcomes.  Goddard likened these circumstances to those of modern refugees, reviled and ill-treated, subjected to great prejudice and feeling shame which makes them want to hide their stories.  She hopes that knowing more about our convict past might change our national attitudes…

PS Last week The Spouse and I went to the Southbank Theatre to see the smash-hit comedy Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui, which I reviewed during Indigenous Literature Week in July.  If you get the opportunity to see this play, don’t miss it, it is wickedly funny, and great entertainment with a subversive message about not taking identity politics too seriously.


Responses

  1. Lucky you Lisa. Nothing quite like theatre for bringing life to words. Hope it comes to Perth.

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    • I don’t think she said anything about the west coast, but I bet she’d be pleased to be invited…
      Which makes me think… how does a play like this get recommended to theatre programmers? I don’t have a clue how the process works.

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      • Re how does a play get recommended to theatre programmers? We are going on Monday to the launch of Canberra Theatre’s 2021 Season, a launch we’ve been attending for a few years now. We tend to subscribe to more dance than drama but we do pick up a couple of plays each year (including this year Lui’s latest play). Anyhow, on how they get recommended to theatre programmers, I don’t know for sure, but what I have picked up more between the lines than explicitly, is that the programmers read reviews, they travel and see shows, they have their contacts who will draw their attention to shows, and they generally keep their noses to the ground. Probably the smaller the show the less chance it has of coming to the bigger theatres’ attention, but this is how I think it works.

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        • Yes, you’re probably right, and they would also have to take into consideration the staging requirements. Our local playhouses are quite small, and have limited capacity for scene changes. The one in the actual Arts Centre is best suited to one and two-character plays but we’ve seen some really good plays there:)

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          • Oh yes, once they hear of something interesting, there are probably multiple steps that they go through … before something is actually picked up.

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  2. […] the way libraries are now hosting author events on a regular basis.  Just recently I attended an author event with Emily Goddard at Parkdale Library.  As far as I’ve been able to tell, the play she wrote ‘This is Eden’ is not a […]

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