Nick Enright’s death in 2003 was a great loss to Australian theatre. Reading Mongrels today made me feel the loss once again.
Enright was inspired to write Mongrels by the lives and deaths of two famous Australian playwrights, Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna. The play is biographical in its subject matter and, although he’s changed their names, any one who knows their stories will recognise them in the production.
Jim McNeil wrote his first play when he was in prison for armed robbery. He was a violent drunk who had used his quick temper and ability with words to retain his sense of power. When the theatre community recognised his talent and lobbied for his release, he had found the champions he wanted. But it didn’t take long for him to alienate all those who had campaigned for him and to end up back on the streets.
Peter Kenna also came from a working class background, but he found theatre much earlier than McNeil and established a reputation as a playwright while he was still young. He suffered from renal failure and spent many years hooked up to dialysis machines, dreaming of what he could write if he had the strength and freedom.
In Mongrels, McNeil is called Burke and Kenna is O’Hara. The details about their lives listed above are all part of the play, but the strongest theme is the rivalry between the two men. From the moment they first meet, they are at each other’s throats.
BURKE: I’ll write my own titles. I’m going to bury you. Six foot under. Your plays are pissweak.
O’HARA: And which ones have you read? Name them.
BURKE: You don’t have to be a poonce in a bow-tie to read. I’ll bury you, O’Hara.
O’HARA: There’s no competition here. No prizes.
But there is a competition: to get their plays produced and to win awards. When O’Hara’s play flops and Burke’s is a run away success, the pupil outstrips the master and O’Hara’s place in the world is threatened. On the eve of the operation where his sister will give him one of her kidneys, he admits his fear to a young actor.
O’HARA: I’ll be a free man. And I’m frightened. Of freedom. For ten years I’ve used this body to drive me. I thought, I can hang on, I have so much more to say. And what if I don’t? Suppose they do the job and I can piss an arc like a rainbow? What good will that be if I’ve lost what drives me?
Mongrels has a cast of great, rounded characters, not just the two playwrights. There are four lovely roles for women, including the part of Elaine who was O’Hara’s producer and director until she fell for Burke and ended up marrying him. O’Hara’s latest play that he’s written since his transplant is a bit of a dog and Elaine tells him so to his face.
ELAINE: Talk about cheap cracks. Why can’t you get that amount of venom into your play? Get your hands dirty, a bit of blood and bile. All right, you’ve cut out the soliloquies, and they all say fuck instead of crikey, and they talk about their mortgages and the oil crisis. But they’re still plucky little victims. And I’m no longer interested in victims. On or off the page.
I love the way Mongrels examines creativity, rivalry and theatre and the shots that Enright takes at playwrights stealing material from life, just as he is doing with this play. It’s clever, dark and thoughtful writing.
Publisher: Currency Press
Cast: 4M, 5F can be doubled with 3M, 3F