131: The Chapel Perilous

30 Jul

The Chapel Perilous is Dorothy Hewett’s autobiographically charged play about self acceptance, sexuality, morality and politics. Sally Banner is Hewett’s alter ego and she’s a wilful, smart heroine, who is unable to conform to small town norms of the time.

Chapel Perilous

The play spans decades, ending in the late 1960s with Sally standing trial for her unorthodox nature and her many crimes of passion. It begins with Sally at school, in love with Judith: “a flat-chested, boyish-looking girl”.

SALLY: I’m saying, coward, that I love you. I’m saying, coward, that I ache for you to be a man. I’m saying, coward, that that queer, affected voice of yours drives me mad, so that I could punch your mouth and kiss you ’til the blood comes. I’m saying, coward, that I hate your smug invention of a mind that finds pleasure in illicit loving as long as it’s not mentioned outright.

Sally refuses to bow to the altar at the school chapel, she refuses to bow to community expectations, the only voice she’ll listen to it is the voice pounding in her body, through her blood. When the teachers force Judith to drop Sally, Sally consoles herself with men.

SALLY: Who wants to love a mind? Minds are too difficult. Nobody can love a mind. But bodies are simple and clean and straight. I know what to do with a body.

She keeps coming back to the same man, Michael. A man with a sullen mouth, a passion to rival her own, and more than a streak of cruelty.

MICHAEL: Why do you always go for broke, Sal?
SALLY: I don’t play for halves. I take it all the way.
MICHAEL: There can’t be any good come out of it. You know that?
SALLY: You said we had nothing to do with goodness or kindness.
MICHAEL: We’ll destroy each other.
SALLY: Destruction? Well, perhaps that’s the only way I’ll get my wish.

Sally has an abortion, marries a man who isn’t Michael, breaks his heart and leaves him and the child she had with him, becomes a Communist, is expelled from the party for denouncing Stalin’s atrocities, and finally stands trial before all the authority figures whose voices still ring in her head, pronouncing her guilty.

This was stunning subject matter in 1971 and so was Hewett’s writing style. There are giant masks on stage (denoting the authority figures), songs, a chorus, poems and plenty of sex. And then there is Hewett’s message: anti-authoritarian, revelling in the joys of the flesh and proudly female.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: suitable for large casts but some characters could be doubled.

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