“I’ll shine in the back yard. Bright like a beacon.”
An Introduction to Norman Price’s Barking Dogs
(Markus Wessendorf, University of Hawai’i at Manoa)
Norman Price’s career as a writer of performance texts got off to a late start. Born in 1939, Price grew up in rural Queensland, then moved to Sydney in the early 1960s to study acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. One teacher at NIDA, in particular, made a lasting impression on Price and contributed to the development of his aesthetic sensibility: Margaret Barr, a former student of Martha Graham. Price, who took movement classes with Barr, became so fascinated with her ideas on breath, energy, the use of the gaze and the formation of gesture that decades later he would still draw upon these ideas in his theatre work. In the mid-1960s, after leaving NIDA, Price tried for several years to establish himself as a professional actor. He performed with various theatre companies and also worked in television. He was rarely ever considered for leading parts, though, and was soon pigeonholed as an eccentric type who “was good at playing rapists, and killers, and people who burnt themselves to death” (Price).
By the mid-1970s Price decided to return to the formal study of theatre. While a student at the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education in Rockhampton, he came across the writings of the French critic Roland Barthes. The encounter with Barthes’s texts and, more generally, with literary theory and semiotics was a mind-opening experience that led Price to radically question and reassess his own ideas about theatre and performance. After completing his B.A. at Rockhampton in 1977, Price left Australia to spend 12 months overseas. In London he saw Robert Wilson’s performance I Was Sitting on My Patio when This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, which demonstrated to Price that the ideas and theories he had recently discovered could successfully be applied to theatrical practice. He also met Julian Beck and Judith Malina in Rome, followed them to Florence where they were working on a new Living Theatre-production, and then again visited them in New York. After his year abroad Price returned to Australia and, in 1981, began lecturing on theatre at the University of Melbourne. He also started working on his M.A. (which he completed in 1989 with a thesis on Writing In The Space). Price’s theatre research at the time was very much influenced by the work of Brecht scholar Hector Maclean—his supervisor and colleague at the University of Melbourne—and later by the French theatre semiotician Patrice Pavis, whom Price first met in Paris in the mid-1980s and with whom he would later collaborate on various projects and workshops in Australia and Europe.
Looking back over his development as a writer of performance texts, Price considers the 1980s and early 1990s his formative years. When the Wuppertal Dance Theatre toured Melbourne in 1981, Price was so intrigued by Pina Bausch’s process-oriented working method that he not only interviewed her but also followed her to Germany to see more of her work. Another major influence on Price during this period was the Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki whose ideas of rhythm later informed the dramaturgy of Price’s performance texts. Between 1991 and 1993, Price was invited to participate in Suzuki’s intensely physical workshops and rehearsals in Melbourne, which culminated in the performance of Macbeth at Playbox Theatre. Also, during a visit to Berlin in the early 1990s Price attended a performance of Heiner Müller’s production of Mauser at Deutsches Theater that impressed him greatly. Similar to Suzuki’s approach (but without the strong physical component), Müller structured the text rhythmically. Price was also struck by how well Müller’s staging of Mauser clarified many of Brecht’s major ideas on theatre. Müller not only demonstrated how stage imagery qualifies and alters the meaning of text, he also set up a conflict between the audience and the text and invited the spectators to become active co-producers of the overall meaning of the performance.
Price began writing his own performance texts in the early 1980s. In 1980 he wrote The Meditations, which he directed at Preston Technical College in Victoria. In 1983 he collaborated with Jill Buckler on the script for One Personal Journey, a project that was presented at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre and featured Price as performer. The following year Price staged two other of his texts at La Mama: Dust Covers and the co-authored Photographs. While working on these texts Price came to realize that he was not only capable of writing for the theatre but also that he had finally found a way of channeling his recent intellectual, aesthetic and travel experiences into an artistic form of expression. However, the impulse to write for the stage faded away soon, and Price did not work on any new performance texts for several years. Apart from becoming increasingly involved in university affairs, Price mostly worked as a dramaturge or directed university productions of plays by Lorca, Brecht, Mishima, Euripides, etc. He also occasionally returned to acting in film (You Can’t Touch Me Now, 1985) or on stage (The Last Dictator at La Mama, 1990). Between 1989 and 1992 Price at last wrote two new texts, Strawberry Runners and The White Rose Café, that were presented as stage readings at La Mama in 1993. That same year, Price left the University of Melbourne and moved to Brisbane—a step that marked a major shift in his artistic orientation, since only after relocating to Queensland did he come to consider himself a writer first and foremost. Since then, Price has turned out a string of performance texts that are remarkable for their artistic originality and ideosyncratic vision. (All of these texts are, by the way, set in and around Brisbane). In 1994 Price wrote a new play, The Other Mother, that he developed with his recently founded company, the Glass House Performance Group. In 1996, the Glass House Performance Group was invited to tour The Other Mother to France, Italy and Germany. The next performance text, Barking Dogs, was first workshopped by Price himself at the University of Paris VIII in fall 1997 and eventually received a full production (under my direction, with Price as author/ dramaturge) at Brisbane’s Metro Arts in August 1998. The following project, Flat Out Like a Lizard, was first given a staged reading at Metro Arts in 1998 and then again during the Queensland Writer’s week in 2000. By this point Price had received a grant for dramaturgical work with Maryanne Lynch on the text. In 2000 Price also completed the first version of Marianne W., and he received a grant for the writing of Sweet Life, which was performed at the Maroochy Shire Civic Centre in December 2001. In 2001 Price also completed the first draft of Blow Out for which he received a writing grant from Arts Queensland, and saw three other texts of his performed: Strange Fruit and Three Little Girls were staged at a Bolthole Performance, while Looking Through Glass was presented at Skyline Restaurant on Brisbane’s Southbank. In July 2002 Bolthole performed another text by Price, Medea’s Dress. Price is currently working on a project that La Boite Theatre commissioned from him: Urban Dingos. He is also developing another performance text with the title The Chat Room, and is working on further drafts of his performance text Strange Fruit.
When I started to direct Barking Dogs in summer 1998, I was very much intrigued by the exuberant theatricality of the play and its hybrid mixture of styles, forms and genres. A summary of the play could run as follows: After Charlie has died in a trivial household accident, his three daughters Monnie, Helen and Patricia, who haven’t seen each other for a long time, come together in the garage of Charlie’s house to mourn their ruined lives and to exchange memories of their abusive father. The play climaxes in the ritualistic eating of a huge meat pie that Monnie, the eldest sister and the only one who never moved away, has prepared of Charlie’s remains. This shared meal, however, fails to provide full cathartic relief to the siblings, and the play ends with the younger sisters returning to their lives, while Monnie, left behind, sets the house on fire. The workmen’s chorus that has repeatedly appeared throughout the play has the final word: they tell the audience not to get in the way but to go home, since “there’s nothing to see.” As this short summary indicates, Barking Dogs invokes a wide range of ritual and drama that includes the Dionysian sparagmos, the chorus of Greek tragedy, the cult of the Great Mother, the Holy Communion, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Chekhov’s Three Sisters and kitchen-sink melodrama. The blending of sacred and profane elements in Barking Dogs corresponds generally to the equalizing treatment of uneven levels of tone throughout the play: The diction ranges from naturalistic street-talk to a highly stylized poetic idiom; the mode of the play alternates constantly between the tragic, the melodramatic, the sentimental, the grotesque and the realistic. It is the sensitive balance of heterogenous registers and moods in Barking Dogs that makes for the play’s aesthetic appeal.
The language of Barking Dogs is more poetic than dialogic. The linguistic material and building blocks of this and other texts by Price’s tend to be short, mostly “realistic” utterances that are organized into a “non-realistic” structure that is more musical-lyrical than dramatic. The characters’ fundamental isolation (a trait shared by all of Price’s dramatis personae) is formally indicated in the long monologues in which they articulate themselves. Price’s protagonists are driven by the need to tell their story: they are not interested in conversation. The stories themselves are conveyed in long “speech arias” (reminding of Racine) that consist of short segments set apart by pauses. Price uses pauses consistently in his performance texts for various reasons: to provide a rhythmic structure, to allow for a moment of stage action, to indicate a change of subject or return to an earlier one, and to intermittently redirect the spectator’s attention from a focus upon the text’s narrative towards an awareness of the larger performative event itself. However, there is no subtext to the frequent pauses in Price’s work. They are neither “meaningful silences” nor do they reveal “depth of character.” This lack of a psychological dimension also applies to Price’s texts at large, which is one of the reasons why he calls his writings for the stage “performance texts,” not “plays.” Price’s performance texts are not held together by a consistent psychological through-line or a tightly developed Aristotelian plot but, instead, use rather simple narrative constructions to allow for the episodic presentation of the protagonists’ stories. Despite the fact that Price’s texts defy psychological realism, there is one aspect of his work that closely links him to Henrik Ibsen. Similar to the characters in Ibsen’s plays, Price’s protagonists inhabit the past and are forever circling around the one traumatic event of their earlier lives that is the origin of their ongoing misery. Price indicates the circularity of this struggle in different ways: through the obsessiveness and insistence with which his characters savor, knead, twist and stretch particular sounds and words; through the highly charged symbolism that some objects have acquired for the characters (i.e., the potato peeler, the green box, the pink satin bow, Monnie’s knife in Barking Dogs); and through the exactness and compulsiveness with which the characters perform everyday rituals (Monnie’s kneading of pastry, her pouring of flour onto the floor, her cutting of the meat pie, etc.). One example for the obsessive repetition and variation of a particular word would be the following passage from Barking Dogs:
You won that green box at football.
Monnie’s round little green box.
You won it at football.
The box she has her pennies in.
Monnie’s pennies and Monnie’s box.
The pennies are on Charlie’s eyes.
Charlie’s gazing up at a kangaroo.
A kangaroo etched in a copper from Monnie’s box.
The kangaroo and the golden baby.
The kangaroo was in the box.
The baby was on top of the box.
Now Charlie’s in a box.
Will he be in a box?
On top of a box?
Or in a tin?
One of Monnie’s tins?
Not in Monnie’s round little green box.
Will he Monnie?
Not in your little round green box?
Leave it alone.
Put you in your box.
Now it’s all out of the box.
Out of the box.
Out of a tin.
The insistence with which the word “box” is repeated in this scene transcends by far the actual object on stage that Patricia is initially referring to. The repeated use of the word not only evokes some of the abusive acts (sexual abuse, forced abortion, etc.) that Charlie committed in the presence of the box, it also brings into play various other connotations of the word—from “vagina” to “coffin”—that are perversely linked with these incidents.
Price has tried to explain his work by referring to Tim Winton’s characterization of Australians as people who sit on the coastline using it like a veranda from which they look out to other places. This metaphor justly enough encapsulates Price’s ongoing fascination with and cultural orientation towards Europe, the United States and Japan, but at the same time it fails to indicate the deep rootedness of his work in an Australian context. As important as Price’s exposure to the work of Wilson, Bausch, Müller, Suzuki and others may have been for his artistic development, his plays also borrow a wide range of plot elements, characterizations, locales, dramaturgic devices and performance techniques from Australian theatre. Barking Dogs in particular incorporates the suburban setting of Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla, the eccentricities of Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination, the connection that David Williamson’s The Removalists establishes between masculinity and violence, the performance aesthetics of Jenny Kemp’s Call of the Wild and the storytelling technique of Wesley Enoch’s and Deborah Mailman’s The 7 Stages of Grieving. Price’s use of the veranda metaphor to describe his work, furthermore, seems to imply that his plays are located in the liminal zone between the enclosed sphere of the house and the vastness of the space “out back.” The main focus of Price’s plays, however, is on characters that have retreated from an engulfing landscape into an interior space cut off from the outside world. The protagonists of Barking Dogs meet in the garage of their childhood home; Lazarus White in Flat Out Like a Lizard inhabits a cupboard under the stairs; the male characters in Blow Out are confined to a medical ward, etc. Even though, in Barking Dogs, we look into the garage from outside and past a crew of road workers, the play’s action does not hover between indoor and outdoor space but rather centers upon the hidden “interiorities” of the domestic interior, i.e., the memories of traumatic scenes and incidents that occurred in this space and that the protagonists are desperately trying to overcome. One of Price’s major concerns as a writer is to bring to the surface what he considers the “underbelly” of Australian society: domestic violence and sexual abuse—often the result of wrongheaded notions of masculinity, racism, neglect of the environment, homelessness, etc.
Since Price considers his performance texts primarily as material to be explored in the rehearsal process, he has a nonchalant attitude towards other directors trying to tackle his plays. The director is not expected to treat his texts as sacrosanct but as open to divergent readings and interpretations. The text of Barking Dogs, for example, which I directed for Metro Arts in 1998, indicates specific songs and ritualistic actions. When I decided to substitute some of the stage activities and musical numbers indicated in the text with material that I felt was more in line with my directing concept, Price, who worked as dramaturge on the production and frequently sat in rehearsals, did not once oppose my choices. As regards the audience, Price wants them to be continually aware of the fact that they are watching this specific text being performed by these actors on this particular night in this physical environment. For Price the performance is not about the text, but rather about the relationship between the text, the characters and the audience (this, however, implies that the possibility of realizing such a relationship in performance has to be already indicated in the text). Price believes that his performance texts ask questions that lie between the words. He expects the audience to explore those spaces that open up between an utterance and the space physically or emotionally evoked by that utterance. Price has similar expectations of the actors who have “to be treading the water that space and pause provide before moving on” (Price). Price is not interested in the naturalistic representation of situations. It is more important to him that his performance texts are open enough to allow for a response to occur. One strategy to achieve this goal is not to overburden the text with breathless stage activity but to create characters that are doing very little so that they may appear almost static. Price is not worried that audiences may be put off by the static quality of his plays, since he is convinced that his “refusal to realize the text in a more flowery way” (Price) makes finally for a more powerful performance. Or, to say it with Lazarus White, the protagonist of Flat Out Like A Lizard:
You’re not going to witness any big physical theatre here.
No huff and puff.
No demonstrations of physical theatre.
Whatever that is!
None of that.
No testosterone rush.
I’m not here for that.
You’ll deal with words.
Words that will massage your brain.
That’s what you have to work with.
A verbal jigsaw.
Words and stories.
If you’re not ready to do that you should leave now.
I don’t care.
It’s your choice.
You make it!
You stay or you go!