Upcoming seminar: Performing 1971: Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous, UNSW

All are welcome to the Centre for Modernism Studies in Australia’s sixth research seminar for 2016: Professor Nicole Moore (UNSW Canberra) will deliver a paper on ‘Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous’, on Wednesday 19 October, 5:00-6:30pm in the Robert Webster Building, room 327. Drinks will be served; please forward to friends and potentially interested parties.

In a preface to the first published edition of The Chapel Perilous – Australian writer Dorothy Hewett’s best-known play – she notes of its heroine: “For many young women Sally Banner is the first modern liberated feminist in our literature: I believe this is an historical and literary accident”. In this paper I investigate the performative moment of The Chapel Perilous, which premiered at the Fortune Theatre in Perth on 21 January, 1971, in order to examine how this complexly controversial play indexes and allegorises its turbulent times.

1971 is at the apex of the period once described by historian Donald Horne as Australia’s Time of Hope: the year when the new social movements, including feminism and sexual liberation, gained mainstream consensus for transformative political and cultural change. Yet Hewett’s Sally Banner is a tragic figure, her liberation a chimera undone not only by the reactionary forces of church and state, and by the close control exercised in a judgmental community, but by her own limitations: her tortured failures as a woman and a poet. Her representativeness as a figure is an accident, moreover, according to Hewett, reflecting the effect on the creative process of what seemed to her to be determining social forces, as well as the play’s chequered performance history – the key question of whether Sally is required to bow at the play’s climax or allowed to stand.

This paper wants to tease out the ways in which such an ahistorical play, with its mythic structures, inter-medial experimentation and iconoclastic theatricality, becomes history, and precisely performative history, in so far as we conceive such retrospectively. Simultaneously, we can ask how this play represents, perhaps oppositely, a “literary accident”. What might we mean by the accidental literary? Developing these ideas for an essay in the Reading Australia project, this paper situates The Chapel Perilous in a complex of debates about the near contemporary, at once contesting and making the recent past for literary and performative history.