"'An Australian tragedy', is how director Ken Horler describes Thomas Keneally's moving drama. 'A true story', writes the black actor Bob Maza. Bullie's House is the story of tribal Aborigines who expose their precious ranga, totems which gold the secret of the world, to the eyes of their white mentors in the belief that the white world in return will exchange its wisdom and technology. The author of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and other novels here compellingly captures in dramatic form the clash of two cultures in both spirit and the flesh, and with it charges his own race, not with wickedness but, even more trenchantly, with a lack of imagination."
First Paragraph from the Introduction by Tom Keneally:
When Bullie's House was produced at the Nimrod Theatre in 1980 a number of people saw it as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith revisited. In a sense it was. In The Chant the story is one of fierce and brutal exploitation of black by white. Good and evil are strongly, even melodramatically, identified. But then events in our history which encapsulate the early relationship between black and white - events such as the extermination of the Tasmanian Aboriginal, the Myall Creek Massacre, ruthless racial murders in Queensland and Western Australia - were cases in which evil was writ fairly large.
Bullie's House was a different sort of story. Anthropologists have noticed a number of cases in which tribal Aboriginals have attempted to achieve detente with the white race by offering, as the basis of a treaty, their most sacred and secret objects. The idea has been that such an offering would adjust the fraught balance between the two races.
The tragedy of such offers is that we, the whites, have never understood or been impressed by what has been offered.
In Bullie's House, an Aboriginal decides that the tension and inequity that exists between the two races is due to the fact that white society desperately needs the sacred, magical objects which, taken in whole, provide the key and the cause of the tribal universe. In return for offering such gifts, Bullie expects to receive the white secrets, those secrets that hold white society together, the mysteries which operate behind our white technology and our ordered towns. Bullie is no cargo-cultist; he believes that the exchange is equal. For there is nothing more precious, potent, fortifying, fructifying than the symbols which Bullie is willing to show not only to his black sisters (who have not looke dupon the secrets since pre-historic times) but also to whites.
First Paragraph from the Introduction by Ken Horler:
Few writers have successfully achieved the transition from novelist to playwright. Patrick White and Barry Oakley excepted, Australian novelists have generally stayed out of the theatre. (David Ireland and William Leonard Marshall made brief forays into foreign territory while Sumner Locke-Elliot crossed the bridge in the opposite direction.) In England the success rate has been no higher, and from an earlier generation we remember Somerset Maugham, Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestley, perhaps unfairly, for their stories rather than their plays. In more recent times only Nigel Dennis, Doris Lessing, Grahame Greene and J.P. Donleavy have ventured into the noisy and sweaty world of the theatre. In France, where they order these things better, De Montherlant, Camus, Sartre, Beckett and Duras have moved more easily between the two forms.
Although Keneally has concentrated on the novel, he wrote three plays before Bullie's House. His first play, Halloran's Little Boat (Jane Street Theatre, 1966), became the novel Bring Larks and Heroes (1967). Childermas (Old Tote Theatre, 1968) was an anti-war play set in some notional South-East-Asian landscape and addressed the problem of children as victims of post-colonial wars. Keneally now speaks of it as a 'committee' play, which is not surprising since it was commissioned by the Australian Committee of Responsibility for Children of Vietnam. His third and most successful assay to date into the theatre is An Awful Rose (Jane Street and Old Tote, 1972), a comedy of religion, whose central conflict, represented by the figure of a priest without faith, brougt it into Grahame Greene country.
First Paragraph from the Introduction by Bob Maza:
Perhaps the most rewarding moment in the stage life of an actor is when that unknown, unpredictable 'spark' manifests itself during a performance. Those of you familiar with the theatre will recognise it as magical, electric vibrations. It usually occurs spontaneously, though sometimes it is preceded by the premonition of something unusual. I have known it on occasion throughout my career on stage and the feeling is indescribable. Words somehow diminish the value of the experience.
'To the eyes of a beholder, a flower in bloom never dies.' So it is with the chance experience I was fortunate enough to behold in this play, Bullie's House.
When first I had occasion to read Bullie's House I approached it in an uncharacteristically critical frame of mind. I looked at its structure and started to pull it apart. On recollection I suppose it was a defence mechanism to attack an artistic work which I believed should have been done by a Black Australian. In fact all my Black colleagues joined the fray of criticism. Then from the mouth of a babe the meaning was made clear to me.
We were talking in a group about our main objections when a young Aboriginal girl piped in. 'Isn't it a true story?' she asked. 'If it's true and it's about our people, does it matter who writes it? It's about us - about our ways. Isn't it?'
End of conversation.
From the Currency press paperback edition, 1981.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2001 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Thomas Keneally page.
Last modified: December 14, 2001.