Stalwart the Bushranger
with The Tragedy of Donohoe
by Charles Harpur
edited by Elizabeth Perkins
"In 1833 a young native-born actor at Sydney's Theatre Royal took its proprietor Barnett Levey to court over unpaid wages, and lost his case. This unsuccessful litigant and actor was to become Australia's major nineteenth-century poet, Charles Harpur, who was even then writing his first play on a controversial local topic. This was the melodrama The Tragedy of Donohoe (published 1835), based on the recent outbreaks of the 'wild colonial boy.' Thirty years later, having continuously worked to expand this youthful play to a full-length tragedy, Harpur considered that 'a certain soreness on the subject of Convict Bushranging, which then existed in some rich and influential sections of 'Colonial Society' had led to the cold reception of the publication of his early play.
"Now for the first time the final 1867 MS of this classic Australian verse tragedy has been edited and published under the author's final title, Stalwart the Bushranger, with as appendix the original 1835 Tragedy of Donohoe. Harpur's satire of colonial injustice and snobbery, and his ambivalent portrayal of the Romantic anti-hero the desparate bushranger Stalwart, show that the play is, as he always beleived, 'destined to become a portion of the forming Literature of the Land.'"
First Paragraph from the Introduction:
Charles Harpur's Stalwart the Bushranger has never been performed in the 152 years since it began as The Tragedy of Donohoe in 1835; its publication therefore in a series designed to draw attention to past Australasian theatrical successes perhaps needs some comments additional to the general statement of principles outlined above. Although the play is known to students of the literature of the Australian colonial period and to Harpur scholars, principally through the long-out-of-print 1853 version The Bushrangers, its relative invisibility has left a curious gap in the overall picture of the development of Australian drama.
The Stalwart drama, which burned in Harpur's imaginat'on for three decades, centrally concerns itself with those public, political themes which Romantic melodrama took as its province: the shifting definitions of law and tyranny; the passion for justice and liberty in conflict with individualistic self-assertion; the demands of mercy and of revenge. As Shaw says of melodrama, 'it must represent conduct as producing swiftly and certainly on the individual the results which in actual life, it produces on the race in the course of many centuries.' In a historical situation where justice, mercy and the good appear to reside solely in the fragile but precious sphere of individual transactions, Harpur is fascinated by the destructive and creative potential to be found in the mutual attraction of faith and despair. Stalwart, in his torment driven against Mary's love for him and the trust and mutual faith of Abel and Linda, ends by destroying all of these characters as well as himself. Mary dies abandoned in prison, Linda loses her lover and her reason, and Abel lies murdered In the forest: all three display in refracted versions the potential fates of the hero himself, diffusing the significance of his central moral journey into the surrounding society. Balanced against the brave but fallen Stalwart is his alter ego, the courageous Dreadnought, the figure of retribution who enacts the dictates of justice without being tainted by the satirical portrayal which compromises most of the law's officers in this play. In a characteristic Gothic pattern, Harpur has split his spirited hero into complementary fragments - the outcast and his official nemesis - as though dubious that their separated elements could cohere within the dramatic world they must negotiate. And while the play employs the idealisation of feminine constancy and goodness typical of Romanticism, these virtues are refused the consolations of' poetic justice. Linda is impervious to the allurements of money and sex, yet innocently courts destruction by ceding to what Brecht was to call the most terrible temptation; that of compassion, while Mary's worship of Stalwart earns her a miserable end. In a disjointed and alienated world, virtue is as ethically problematic as evil.
From the Currency Press paperback edition, 1987.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2002 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Charles Harpur page.
Last modified: May 6, 2002.