Book review: Australia in 50 Plays, Julian Meyrick

A wide survey of the contribution of theatre to our national sense of identity.
Author Julian Meyrick, who wears a hat, turns to his left to look at the cover of his book, the design of which features rows of coloured dots.

Australia in 50 plays is a unique way of gauging an art form that’s been central to the way we tell our national story. Meyrick is Strategic Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University, and has previously worked in associate roles for the Melbourne Theatre Company, where his focus was on new works, and the South Australia Theatre Company, where he is artistic counsel.

Meyrick also happens to be a board member of Currency Press (which has published key Australian playwrights ranging from David Williamson and Hannie Rayson to Lally Katz) as well as an experienced theatre director, and is therefore well placed to release a book tracking the diversity of the form over the years. 

One might expect Australia in 50 plays to offer a range of plays that tell our national story. Instead, Meyrick presents a group of plays that talk to each other: a development where themes become characterisations that become tropes, with a snowball effect that gathers momentum to become the story of Australian theatre. 

A broad range of plays are surveyed, although all the usual suspects are present. The arrival of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a watershed moment that we can see coming. More surprising are the developments that we can’t – in particular the plays of Patrick White and the 1970s New Wave reveal the extent to which Australian drama is still captivated by force of personality and temperament. 

Read: Book review: Abracadabra, Robert Dessaix

Meyrick’s summaries find unlikely affinities and articulate a project of national identity that may not have been foremost in the minds of individual playwrights and theatre makers. Indeed, in plays like Don’s Party or Norm and Ahmed, Meyrick attest to the fact that some of the plays are aimed at creating the opposite of a national story and instead explore some of the nation’s discontents. 

This book is an idiosyncratic and indispensable guide to Australian cultural history. It is assiduously researched and creatively conceptualised. It also attests to a purpose of creative endeavour that has animated some of our most interesting intellects, and proves to be a useful resource for theatre-makers and admirers alike.

Australia in 50 plays by Julian Meyrick
Publisher: Currency Press

ISBN: 9781760627386
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352pp
RRP: $39.99
Publication Date: 3 March 2022

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin