It’s the Wednesday before Easter, and the stage is set for what will surely be the most discussed Easter Nativity play in the history of Seaton, a rural town in New South Wales that is perched on the edge of colonial civilisation and the unending outback. Nancy Thomas, a local teacher, has finished casting her show and is excited to announce that this year the part of Mary will be played by Lily Walker, a young Aboriginal girl. It’s the most progressive casting the conservative town of Seaton has ever seen and news is spreading like wildfire.
Had We But World Enough is an epic addition to Australia’s theatrical history from one of its most important and fearless playwrights. Masterfully taking on explosive themes in a story that still maintains its relevance today, Oriel Gray’s nuanced and powerful tragedy is an exploration of love, racial injustice and the social-political climate of rural Australia.
It’s all well and good to label squabbling over details “political correctness gone mad;” but when the fight gets ugly, who pays the price?
Oriel Gray was arguably the first playwright-in-residence in Australian history, and one of the few able to earn a living from her work. She tied with Ray Lawler for the Playwrights Advisory Board’s prize, and yet somehow, she’s one of the most famous of Australia’s forgotten playwrights.
Her plays focus on Australian political and social issues, Had We but World Enough continues this theme with masterful skill. Published in 1950 and touring nearly every Australian capital with rave reviews, HWBWE is a play which analyses every level of racism. From the seemingly innocuous casual racism of average white citizens trying to overcome their fear of difference while simultaneously protecting boundaries, to the cringey bigotry of the powerful antagonist.
There are two parts to any discussion of HWBWE, as with every play that can be seen as “ahead of its time.” The first is undoubtedly the triumph of Gray’s methodical and nuanced analysis of racism. The second is the traps that we are all subject to as products of our environment. Gray was a white woman, and as such was not immune to the deeply entrenched and internalised racism of her time. This is evident in a hugely problematic plot point in the plays climax/resolution, and particular stage directions, which are excellent fodder for discussion.
This is not to say the entire work is invalid. She admits herself that she has little knowledge of Aboriginal people of culture, and so instead focuses on her knowledge of white colonialism. In doing so, perhaps Gray has succeeded in both doing her part to bring attention to racial issues and dismantle systems of oppression, without encroaching on stories she has no business telling.
It’s now March 2018, 68 years after Had We But World Enough’s publication, no one on the Sunrise team thought maybe it wasn’t a good idea for an all-white panel to talk about what should be done with Aboriginal children, or that covering up the subsequent protest would be incompetent. You only have to turn on the local news to realised why this play still matters.
“Gray’s exposé of the levels of racism in a small country town is intricate and insightful and her ear for dialogue unforgiving, colourful and precise,” Dr Merrilee Moss, 2015.
ISBN: 978 1 925338 50 8
Had We But World Enough was published with the assistance of AustLit www.austlit.edu.au