IS IT POSSIBLE to feel too much? For millennia, stories from around the world have had as their explicit task the expansion of the human heart. Only in the past two decades have some stories been prefaced with the words ‘trigger warning’. For the first time in history, certain written narratives have been seen as potentially too powerful, too overwhelming for those who willingly choose to hear them. This isn’t Plato warning us about poets; nor is it the censorship of a thousand authorities through the ages. Trigger warnings are messages to the faithful – ‘Here Be Dragons’. But when did we become so afraid of feeling? This paradox of being drawn to disproportionate emotion lies at the heart of The Seven Stages of Grieving.
In the early 1990s, Brisbane playwright Wesley Enoch was teaching at university; Deborah Mailman, his student, became a friend. Like Mailman, Enoch was young, black and savvy, and fast refining the tools of his theatrical trade. One idea floating about the Aboriginal world at this time was the concept of seven stages of Aboriginal history, as identified by Michael Williams, the former director of UQ’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies unit. These stages analyse Australian life from the Dreaming, through several eras of British invasion and on to self-determination and mooted reconciliation. This idea, which riffs off the famous Elizabeth Kübler-Ross model of the predictable stages of grief, chimed with Enoch.
In 1993, about to hit his professional stride, Enoch’s rise was interrupted – his beloved grandmother died. He left Brisbane for home on Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island, to take part in funeral and other rites, some derived from ancient Aboriginal tradition. On the sanctuary of the island, the playwright had time to reflect. Enoch had already been aching to write works that went beyond the merely autobiographical:
I knew it was critical for us as black artists to grapple with the largest abstract themes of Indigenous life. I wanted to make sophisticated, world-class theatre, with Aboriginal ideas and Aboriginal people at its heart. And I didn’t want to be shackled by singular truths.
Fuelled by this vision, and by his loss, Enoch sat down with Mailman, and together they wrote The Seven Stages of Grieving. The one-woman show proved to be a brilliant catharsis that punched Australian audiences in their hearts, leaving them stunned. Aboriginal life and Aboriginal resilience were shown on the Australian stage as never before.
The curtain opens to an arresting, metaphorical image: a huge block of dripping ice is suspended above a bare stage. The only other prop is scattered red earth. As the play proceeds, the ice slowly melts.
We are not given any explicit facts of the invasion. Instead, we see only the aftermath. The audience has to imagine what has happened to Deborah Mailman, kneeling on stage, wailing and alone.
Then it shifts quickly into the present, to a community funeral. We hear about a month-long flow of bereaved between black houses, the enormous tables of food, the sorrow for the knowledge gone with one key matriarch. We also learn that for all its modernity, the Aboriginal family that is mourning here keeps to tradition. Photographs of the dead are put away in a special suitcase under the stereo. Their names remain unspoken for the correct interval. Everything, the audience is told, ‘has its time’. There is enormous grief here, yes, but grief scaffolded into an ancient tradition that contains it and makes it bearable.
The play touches on many different kinds of loss: a father ill and about to die at forty-eight. A woman unwittingly inviting the invaders into her house:
They broke from our soft whispered conversation
One took a handful of my hair and led my head to their knee
Another washed his face in my blood
Together they chained my feet. My feet.
Is the woman’s ‘house’ metaphorical? Or is it real? Who exactly are the invaders? We don’t know, aren’t told. What matters, for the Aboriginal woman, is that invasion has many faces.
Just as horror threatens to overwhelm, a hand grenade of humour erupts in the middle of everything. Mailman raises a scornful right arm and yells, defiant:
Oi! Hey, you! Don’t you be waving back at me! Yeah, you with that hat! You can’t park here, eh! You’re taking up the whole bloody harbour! Just get in your boat and go. Go on, go on get!
Both this and the following scene – ‘Have you ever been black? You know when you wake up in the morning and you’re black?’ – provide an emotional release valve. Being Aboriginal isn’t all misery; it can be a riot! The audience, laughing, is forced to confront Aboriginal people as real human beings, with a full range of emotions, swinging wildly here between sorrow and hilarity.
And then back again, since Aunty Grace, living in self-imposed exile, has arrived back on the island. Shame job – Aunty is barely known, assimilated, ‘stuck up’. Shame job – Aunty doesn’t cry at the funeral. Shame job – Aunty has married white and then stayed away, and is scarcely one of the family at all. Yet in one of the pivotal images of the performance, Aunty Grace halts at the graveside on her way to the airport. Her suitcase is flung open and emptied. She fills it with red earth from her mother’s grave, and at last is able to weep, for the shame of her own lost black self, as well as for her mother’s passing.
Traditional Goomeroi language is used throughout the play in speech and in song. This drives home the point that classical Aboriginal culture remains alive in the urban south. And this assertion of culture is also a necessary counterpoint to Mailman’s devastating monologue about the traditional ‘skin’ sections, which intricately link all people, places and things in the Aboriginal world. ‘It’s very complex,’ she explains, carefully arranging soil in small piles to illustrate. ‘I get it wrong sometimes.’ What she can’t help but get right, though, is the catastrophe first contact wreaked on the beautiful, complicated pattern of relationships. Her hand removes small pile after small pile – ‘and this is what happens when you take the children away’. Finally, her arm sweeps violently through the dust depicting an entire cosmos. It’s a mess, and so is the audience.
Trauma. Assimilation. Laughter. The glimmer of reconciliation. And finally, at close, a plea to be heard.
These are my stories. These are my people’s stories. They need to be told.
Aboriginal audiences adored the play, as did many other Australians. They understood the hope offered by the play’s epigraph:
To our parent’s parent’s, the pain, the sorrow.
To our children’s children, the glad tomorrow.
But early reviews were mixed. ‘The initial Australian reviewers thought it was a whingefest, some of them,’ Enoch told me over coffee. ‘Until the London reviews came in – they were fantastic.’
Henry Wordsworth Longfellow (predating Freud and Jung by a century) wrote that there is ‘no grief like the grief that remains unspoken’. But leaving grief unspoken is a very old convenience in Australia, dating back to the First Fleet. Brutalised convicts had no right of reply to their masters, of course, and deeds – not words – are what the British ‘pioneers’ valued most. Silence is there in the classic white Australian trope: the stoic bushman, almost mute in the face of drought, fire and flood. And truth (not) be told, there was a hell of a lot to be silent about in colonial Australia. Enoch and Mailman grew up in Queensland where, until the turn of the twentieth century, the lingering folk wisdom for dealing with troublesome far northern blacks was to ‘shoot, shovel and shut up’. They must have known that to talk about Aboriginal sorrow in Queensland was a revolutionary act.
From the viewpoint of long Indigenous tradition, mainstream secular Australia is clearly a culture in trouble. In One Man Tribe (NTU Press, 1999), Neil Murray describes Central Desert elders chastising young, mildly delinquent boys mucking about in Law Camp. They are warned by the senior men, who are intent on instructing them in a good and moral life:
You wanna be like whitefellas?! They got nothing.
Of course, not all white Australians ‘got nothing’, in either ethical or intellectual terms. Yet Australia does remain in many ways a juvenile nation, lacking much of a moral compass, denying its history and clinging to Gallipoli as almost the sole emblem of its uncertain nationhood. ‘The Last Post’ is a British lament; the ‘Ode of Remembrance’ was written by an Englishman in Cornwall, in 1914. The War Memorial in Canberra can’t even bring itself to acknowledge the colonial wars, let alone memorialise them.
What has this got to do with The Seven Stages of Grieving? Simply this: contemporary Australia has offered its first people so little, so late. Not only from spite or meanness, but also from simply having little to offer. From being too ashamed to truly know what has happened over two centuries, or too frozen by convict brutality to share our sorrow. In their play, Enoch and Mailman took the scorched Australian earth and from the ashes of a terrible history they made what meaning was possible. There is a way forward, they said to Australians, but the grieving must come first. The ice around our hearts has to melt before we can begin to live. Or as Faulkner had it: ‘Between grief and nothing I will take grief.’
Wesley Enoch’s father passed down stories of being instructed as a young man to throw lit matches onto country as a matter of course, when walking about Minjerribah. And as late as 2014, Enoch senior could predict with pinpoint accuracy where unplanned bushfires on his island would rage, which houses would be safe and which would burn. For all Aboriginal elders, to know the country is to love the country, and to love the country is to burn the country. Managed destruction and renewal lie at the living heart of the vast Aboriginal knowledge of this place. Everything has its time.
Enoch and Mailman dared to imagine the possibility of reconciliation long before it took shape elsewhere. They showed others our great pain as they gestured at a way forwards from a genocidal past. And they created genuine intimacy amongst strangers: they offered their audiences ceremony, which for millennia has been the only true path out of sorrow for Aboriginal people. Some critics reared back, offended by hard Aboriginal truths. But the second season in Australia was better received than the first. Understanding grew.
Australia in 2015 is not quite the same place that it was in 1995. Land justice remains elusive, being both delayed and denied. The Northern Territory Intervention continues, as does the obscenity of forced closure of remote black townships. But Wesley Enoch is now the director of the Queensland Theatre Company. Deborah Mailman is a household name. And in recognition of the bridge walks for reconciliation in 2000 – walks that Australians made in their hundreds of thousands – the authors, bravely optimistic, rewrote the ending of their play:
They said over a quarter of a million people walked that day, and then more in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide…all around the country…
Who would have thought, eh?
I guess we can’t go back now.
The Seven Stages of Grieving ventures to frightening territory within the living memory of Aboriginal communities – murder, rape, cultural genocide – but the play bears no trigger warning. Well-schooled in Aboriginal ceremony, the writers understood that our Australian problem is not too much emotion about Aboriginal grief, but too little. And they knew, too, that catharsis was long overdue.
In Sydney in 2014, Enoch recalled – with obvious pride – an old Aboriginal aunty, unknown to the cast, who broke from the Brisbane audience as the curtain began to close on the finale of the second season, and slowly made her way down the aisle. Up on the stage, she tottered across towards Deborah Mailman while the audience held its breath. Then, the elder put her arms around the actor and held her, sobbing, for a long minute. Someone had at last borne witness to her life.
Murray, N 1999, One Man Tribe, Northern Territory University Press, Darwin.