In Australia’s wild woods, notorious bushrangers rule the land in Henry Melville‘s The Bushrangers.
With a score to be settled, Bill Fellows and his gang of bushrangers are focused on revenge. Mr Norwood has a target on his back after ratting out the bushrangers to the police. Now the outlaws won’t rest until his windpipe is cut. But when Norwood’s beautiful daughter and her English lover get in the way, an unlikely friend comes to their aid.
A milestone of Australian melodrama, The Bushrangers examines honour and trust in the harsh Australian bush and the relationship between white settlers, the Aboriginal people and the bushrangers.
This play’s significance lies in the things left unsaid and events unseen. What you don’t know can hurt you.
Henry Melville was the person every artist wants to be: rich enough to produce his own work. Born in 1799 to a wealthy English family, he moved to Hobart in 1828. Here he became a prototype for Keith Murdoch, buying and founding newspapers, and taking top editing and reporting positions. In April 1834, an “anonymous” contributor sent through a play to Hobart Town Magazine. A month later and hey presto, the play was published.
The Bushrangers is a domestic melodrama, and perhaps a coded critique of the government and society’s reaction to some key historical issues and events. The play’s most notable achievement is being the first “substantial” play to be written, published and performed in an Australian colony. Its representation of Australian scenery, societies and events within the industry earns it a spot in our theatrical cannon. However it is not just a surface level time capsule. The “trite” characters and plot points are a foil for the real grit of the piece, which is alluded to with conspicuous absences. Like the old rule of “don’t ask don’t tell” the racial issues are there in a spectral form. Off to the side, from a discomforting corner of history, we spy the context of Tasmania after the Black War, an event that only happened two years prior to the release of this production. Its sole reference to this land mark event of the time is one character to support the action of a subplot; the “noble savage” who helps Norwood because the bandits murdered his wife and children. This is why the play is important: because it pointedly ignores the harrowing history of Tasmanian Indigenous people. Melville was a known critic of George Arthur, who all but sanctioned the killing of Aboriginal people, so it is entirely possible that the play is a pointed undressing of the government of the time.
In the play, Australia is presented as a land where the wrongs of old world may be set right, where honesty and perseverance will triumph. At the time of it’s production, only a small group of Aboriginal people were left in Tasmania, most having moved to Bruny and Flinders Islands. The massacres that made them flee being attributed solely to outlaws, like the rangers in Melville’s play. In our present day world, the Black War and its terrible death toll is arguably more an act of genocide than civil war. True, things were different then, but how much have they changed?
The Bushrangers was first performed on Thursday 29 May 1834 in Hobart. It was performed again the following year in Launceston by Cordelia Cameron’s company.
ISBN 978 0908156 59 7