And Nancy – well you’ll all love her. She’s just a little Australian girl with big Australian ideas and she’ll win all your hearts. 1
The evening screenings of Kate Howarde‘s Possum Paddock at the Lyric theatre in Sydney in late January 1921 were preceded by a special stage prologue. A large cast of children enacted for audiences a scene illustrative of life on “Possum Paddock”. The stage show was indicative of the enduring close relationships between the stage and the screen in this period. It also reveals how intimate the audience were intended to become with the bush life and the characters of “Possum Paddock”.
Adapted from a successful play, the story centred on a burly, bearded selector named Andrew McQuade who has battled the hardships of working the land. He now faces the loss of his property, “Possum Paddock” because he cannot repay a bank loan. His daughter, Nancy, is being courted by a young gentleman. It is he who succeeds in saving the property by overcoming the villainous plot of the greedy neighbour and his accomplice.
The silent film heroine, as we have seen in The Woman Suffers and A Girl of the Bush, was both defined and bound by convention. In A Girl of the Bush where our heroine displayed great independence of spirit, her sexuality continued to be governed by melodramatic convention and by the mores of traditional society. This society prescribed for women, virtue, purity, sexual innocence and maternity strictly within the sanctity of marriage. Any circumvention of these dictates of society resulted in despair, ostracism and in many cases, death or suicide as in The Woman Suffers.
As a comedy, Possum Paddock was typical of many bush farces in popular entertainment. The bush farce typically depicted the hardships and the unbounded optimism of Australian bush folk. The genre of the bush farce evolved quite specifically from a stage adaptation of the Rudd family sketches by ‘Steele Rudd’. These sketches first appeared in The Bulletin in 1895. Bert Bailey and Edmund Duggan took advantage of the popularity of the characters of the Rudd family and in 1912 produced the play, “On Our Selection“.
Dad Rudd, the gruff settler who battled against the odds, his smart, refined daughters and ‘the fine mother who is typical of the women who have helped to make our land’ were quick to become the enduring folk characters. 2 They personified brave independent pioneers for two generations of Australians. Bailey, in giving advice to a young playwright in 1918, attributed his success with “On Our Selection” and “The Squatter’s Daughter”, not to literary principles, but to his formula for keeping the audience from snoring:
Build your drama with a concrete, damp-proof foundation of human interest. Place on it a two feet thick wall of characterisation, strengthen it with girders of bright comedy, floor it with incident and roof it with good ends of acts 3.
Undoubtedly, the play’s specific Australian content also had something to do with its success. By the 1920s, the depiction of life in the Australian bush was immensely popular with film as well as theatre-going audiences. From bushranging films to bush heroine films, box-office figures revealed the insatiable desire of an Australian film-going public to see and hear about the bush environment. This was precisely at a time when their own lives were moving further away from personal contact with the bush. Kereen Reiger documents that the rapid urban growth of the 1920s reflected the ‘overall processes of capital formation and utilisation which were part of international development.’ 4
Build your drama with a concrete, damp-proof foundation of human interest. Place on it a two feet thick wall of characterisation... Bert Bailey
Nostalgia for the bush in the context of increasing industrialisation was manifested in many aspects of artistic life. Popular literature of the time took bush life as its theme. 5 Bush landscapes and bush types were idealised by the Heidelberg School of painting. As Bernard Smith writes in Australian Painting, 1788-1970, ‘it was during the 1920s that the Heidelberg school came to be identified by critics and the informed public alike, as a purely national expression in painting.’ 6
Stage productions of the early twentieth century also abounded with bush characters and scenery, sometimes so realistically depicted that the audience could experience the ‘pastoral odor [sic] of the unseen cow that trespasses on Dad’s lucerne patch!’ 7
Possum Paddock began as a stage production which opened at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 6 September 1919. It enjoyed a run of seven weeks, then ran a further season at the Grand Opera House. Margaret Williams found the play to be a repository of all the characters and stage productions of the bush farce of the previous the years. 8 The genre of the bush farce was well entrenched by this time, its characterisations familiar and easily recognisable to an audience. Indeed, several contemporary reviews of the play noted the “On Our Selection” flavour of the characters of “Possum Paddock”.
Next: Possum Paddock: the film.
Hero image: Possum Paddock (1921), Kate Howarde, National Film and Sound Archive
- The Herald (Melbourne), 2 April 1921, p11 ↩
- Margaret Williams, Australia on the Popular Stage 1829 – 1929, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p251 ↩
- Bert Bailey quoted in Katherine Brisbane, Entertaining Australia, an illustrated history, Currency Press, Sydney, 1991 ↩
- Kereen Reiger, The Disenchantment of the Home, modernising the Australian family, 1880 – 1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1985 ↩
- For example, Mary Grant Bruce, A Little Bush Maid, published in 1910 inaugurated a series of best-selling novels called “The Billabong books” which ran until 1942. Entry on Mary Grand Bruce (1878-1958) in William Wilde, Joy Hooton, Barry Andrews, Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985 ↩
- Bernard Smith, Australian Painting, 1788-1970, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, New York, 1971, p120 ↩
- The Bulletin, 19 September 1912, quoted in Margaret Williams, Australia on the Popular Stage 1829-1929, p251 ↩
- The Bulletin, 19 September 1912 quoted in Margaret Williams Australia on the Popular Stage 1829-1929, p251 ↩