Betty Roland (1903-1996) was an Australian writer and playwright and the play I read today, Granite Peak, has never been produced. It’s unusual to find a published script of an unproduced play, but Granite Peak was turned into a television drama in Britain and the playscript was published with Roland’s successful play, The Touch of Silk.
I was interested in reading Granite Peak as a snapshot of race relations in 1952 (as they were understood by the playwright). She started writing Granite Peak in the 1930s and it was a simple Cinderella story with the young heir to a rich property falling in love with a barmaid, not realising that she’s already pregnant to another man. When he discovers the truth it doesn’t stop him loving her and there’s a happy ever after ending.
This would have made for a sweet and unassuming play. Roland shelved it for 20 years until she visited the Northern Territory, where she was quoted as saying that the “rabid propaganda in Alice Springs against Aborigines got me very stirred up”. So she added a whole other thread to her play: one involving an Aboriginal man named Charlie, who has been brought up on the farmstead as one of the family and who is in love with and loved by Kate, the granddaughter of the elderly owners.
Their love is a Wuthering Heights sort of affair: doomed from the start. But whereas Heathcliff was a dangerous and troubled antihero, Charlie is a thoroughly nice and decent sort of man. The only thing stopping him and Kate from being happy together is racism. The fact that Charlie could pass as white is mentioned several times in the play in a way that would be uncomfortable for contemporary audiences.
MRS CARMICHAEL: He’ll never be able to hide what he is up here. Anywhere else, nobody would guess.
KATE: But Charlie doesn’t want to hide it! He’s proud of his dark blood. His whole idea is to show the whites up here what a ‘boong’ can do.
MRS CARMICHAEL: They’ll break his heart.
KATE: They’d have done it anyway. There’s not much future for a quarter-caste up here.
Later, Charlie talks to Roger (the young heir) about his feelings about leaving for England, where he’ll be studying medicine.
CHARLIE: It’s something right outside myself that’s taking me away. I’ve got a job to do that no one else can do, but don’t make any mistake: it’s going to tear the living heart out of me to leave all this behind. It’s no easy thing to go to a strange land and live among strangers, and I know there’ll be times when I’d change my hopes of all heaven for the sight of the spinifex, silver in the sun, and the screech of cockatoos as they fly in to drink at sunset.
Granite Peak is a romantic piece in every sense. The stories at its heart are romantic and the idealised white-skinned Aborigine fighting to be accepted despite his “black blood” is as romanticised as the rest. But, if you can forgive Roland her sentimentality and her desire to ‘do good’, you’ll find there are some moving scenes in this portrait of what feels like a far distant time.
Publisher: Currency Press (published with The Touch of Silk)
Cast: 7M, 6F