I just finished reading a play called Savages by the highly regarded, multiple award-winning and strangely underproduced Patricia Cornelius. Mouth still hanging open.

(Reading Plays Series #1)

Savages is an extraordinary play. Very fluid, very fast, very disturbing. Its inspiration was the death of a female passenger, Dianne Brimble, aboard a P&O cruise ship in 2002. Eight male passengers (a group of friends) were under suspicion in regards to her death by overdose, but after considerable investigation, were found to be not culpable.  Savages is just what the name implies. It follows the conversations and activities of a group of four men on a cruise boat, who are clearly predators. Chilling and compelling.

So—follow my own advice— study, don’t read! What did I learn? What examples are here?

One of the most unusual things about the play is the way in which the words spoken by the four characters are often not assigned to any character in particular. The words tumble over each other, with a series of dashes but no names. In the notes she describes it like this:

“Sometimes they’re a chorus, a club, a team, indistinguishable from each other. sometimes they’re a pack of dogs. Occassionally they’re a savage animal.”

The effect is quite stunning, a thunderous rabble of masculine exuberance. Short clipped sentences, tossed phrases, dry barbs, witty repartee, bam, bam, bam. Assertions and rejoinders topple over and over, a rollercoaster of the playful amid the serious, a kind of peer-group boil of language. It is perfect for the subject matter—that of male aggression and pack mentality. The metaphor of the pack, and the men behaving as dogs, is taken to the extreme. They howl and bark and snarl at others and between themselves. They even whine like injured dogs at times.

But when dialogue is assigned to characters it is absolute. The four men are drawn with such clarity, their pain, their love, their loss. My god, you feel sorry for the bastards, they are so pathetic and woebegone. Yet with the fore-knowledge of what they are about to do nags at you. I found myself feeling ill when I read how they scanned the disco for women, knowing that one woman would die in their company that night.

No dull monologues! no soliloquies! No cringey out-pouring of their deepest feelings to the thin air for no special reason other than to let the audience hear their thoughts. Somehow Patricia manages to hold true to the story, the telling, the male pride, and still squeeze out the hellish depth of their inner minds with precision. Not easy.

I vow to avoid monologues from now on. They’re the mark of lazy writing. Unless you’re Shakespeare, then I’ll let you off.

Really loved this play. Need to read it again to see more of how she managed these things. I learnt she’s brilliant. That’s what I learnt.

I read an online interview she did soon after Savages was produced. In it she talks of the gender imbalance in the theatre industry and in particular the number of plays produced that are written by men compared to women. She’s a highly political woman. I met her a couple of years ago in a masterclass workshop in Brisbane. Yes, she’s formidable. But she’s also very funny and practical and humble.

Why is she under-produced?  She’s never got a mainstage guernsey in Australia. She would say it’s because she’s a woman. An outspoken woman who writes politically gendered plays that are full of expletives. (Her last two plays were Slut and Shit, and they are next on my list of reading). She’s most likely right. Main stage theatre is still the place of older white privileged men.

In this interview, I read she was concerned that she might come across as a whinger the way she continually expresses her concern that women are not getting a fair share of productions in Australia. She implores the interviewer:

“Just don’t make me sound like a whinger. I know I’ve had a bit of a whinge with you, but I’m actually nastier than that. Make me sound nastier!”
Sydney Morning Herald, April 2016

If this is what it is that Patricia wants, to be nastier, then brace yourselves. There could be blood on the stage yet.


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