51: The Golden Age

11 May

Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age is one of my favourite plays. I’ve only seen it in production once, back when I was at drama school, in a university production. It imprinted itself like a searing brand on my psyche in the way that profound experiences tend to. Reading it again today, so many years after I last looked at it, still gives me a punch in the guts.

Face and book

Nowra developed his own language for this play, which is based on what might be a true story. In the preface to the playscript he says that an academic told him the story of two men coming across a “strange group of people in the wilds of South-West Tasmania just before World War II. The story he told me is basically the play […]. He thought that the story about the group might be factual and that a friend, an historian, was trying to find out if there was, indeed, any truth to it. I don’t know what he discovered, nor did I care. Entranced by the story I started to write the play.”

I’m intrigued that Nowra is so upfront about the possibility that the story is just that: a story. The blurb on the back of the book takes a different slant: “This haunting play was inspired by the true story of a group of people, ‘ghosts from the netherworld of an Australian childhood’, who were discovered in the wilds of Tasmania in 1939.”

I’ve tried to see if there was a true story uncovered, but the only references I can find are all to Nowra’s play. It seems as if The Golden Age might be a myth, created by Nowra, based on a friend’s tale, and with no basis in reality. Which Nowra openly admits in his preface, but which publicity and marketing departments have turned into a factual account (presumably because of the appeal to audiences in seeing real events depicted on stage).

The Golden Age needs no claims of truth to make it appealing. It’s a classic Australian play because of Nowra’s exceptional handling of language, imagery and the outcast. The lost tribe – genetically malformed, interbred and with fading language skills – have rituals taken from theatre, nature and children’s rhymes. They are innocent, wild and without guile. When two young men stumble on them and bring them back to civilisation; it’s with the blessing of the group’s matriarch. “Nowt more outcastin’.” is a repeated refrain: no more outcasting. But, sadly, civilisation isn’t ready for the lost group and they are incarcerated in a mental asylum where they slowly die of Tuberculosis.

WILLIAM: You must let him go, Betsheb, there is nothing you can do. Nothing more.

BETSHEB: ‘e me las’ blood. Stef is me las’ blood. I am cast t’ the windy. ‘e me las’ blood, boyo.

WILLIAM: I know, but you must give him up.

The play is a tragedy because it’s all too easy to see how it would happen. The story could be about any group or person who is different to the norm and the way we as a society handle that difference. While the actual story might be a fiction, there’s emotional truth in the relationships and in the handling of those deemed to be outcasts. I’d love to see it performed again.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 10M, 6F (or 5M, 3F with doubling)

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