The Drover’s Wife – a feminine colonial reality

Molly Johnson - the drover's wifeproduction still courtesy Belvoir Street Theatre

Leah Purcell’s appropriation of Henry Lawson’s well-known story effectively delivers a realistic representation of a woman’s pioneering life in the Australian bush. While Lawson creates a vivid image of life as a mother, farmer and protector, Purcell unashamedly reveals the harsh brutality of dealing with various men on an isolated property.

Joe Johnson’s wife remains alert during childbirth, unwanted attention from a sundowner, an escapee, pedlar and trooper. It is her husband’s fellow drovers who finally demonstrate just how little control a woman had over her own life. However, her real identity and Aboriginal ancestry provides an explanation for her resilience and ultimately drives her to continue life in pursuit of her stolen children.

Belvoir’s warning that the production contains blood, violence, sexual violence, strong coarse language and distressing themes, reveals the authenticity of this perspective, compared with a traditionally romanticised view of how the Australian bush was tamed. The script references Lawson’s characters, plots and tropes from Victorian literature which would make an interesting comparative study in senior English classes.

Like many Australians, I’ve grown up with this story and love it. My mother would read or recite it to me, but before she got to that famous last line, I would stop her and say, “Mother, I won’t ever go a drovin’.”

I always wanted to do something with this story with me in it as the Drover’s Wife. There were two forms of inspiration that motivated me to write this play. First came the film idea in 2006, which I wanted to shoot in the Snowy Mountains. That inspiration came when I was filming the feature film Jindabyne, directed by Ray Lawrence. Secondly, I was in a writing workshop. I was there as a director, but got frustrated. So I went home and said it was time to write my next play. I looked at my bookshelf and there it was: my little red tattered book of Henry Lawson’s Short Stories. The red cover had now fallen off, its spine thread fraying and my drawings inside as a five-year-old fading.

In the original story, the Drover’s Wife sits at the table waiting for a snake to come out of her bedroom having gotten in via the wood heap, which a ‘blackfella’ stacked hollow. While she waits for the snake, she thinks about her life and its hardships. Her oldest son joins her and she shares her story with him.

This is not my version of The Drover’s Wife.

I was heavily influenced by the original story, and if you know it, you will see that. But I’ve activated all the characters she recalls in the original story. In my version, I have brought them to life for the stage and reinvented the conversations and action that might have taken place. Weaving my great grandfather’s story through the play has given it its Aboriginality so to speak, and I’ve embellished the story to give more depth and drama for the stage.

When I did sit down to start writing, the one thing I was conscious of was wanting to apply the stories of the men from my family. By this, I mean taking various positive traits from a particular family individual or a story that I was told or have researched, and embellishing the characters of Yadaka, Danny and the father of the Drover’s Wife with these details.

Through reading the reports on The Drover’s Wife, the black man was said to be the one that stacked the wood heap hollow allowing the snake to get in under. He is painted as the antagonist so I thought that I would turn that around in my play and have our black man as the hero. With this in mind, I was very conscious of the harshness and brutality of this time. Henry Lawson’s Book of Short Stories, where The Drover’s Wife appears, was first published in 1893. This year was also significant because of an event in my great grandfather’s life that brought him to Victoria from far north Queensland, which you will hear about in the play.

In one of my earlier drafts, I wasn’t happy with the ending and my partner said, “If we as blackfellas can’t tell the truth of our history, then who can?” This opened up the floodgates, and I wrote like I was riding a wild brumby in the Alpine country, and no apology for the rough ride.

I think of this play as an Australian western for the stage. I was influenced by the HBO series Deadwood and the film by Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained. I was also influenced by the history that was taken from my great grandfather’s personal papers and the recorded history that was documented by people of authority at this time.

This play has been described as dangerous… I love that it is and again give no apology for it. It is also a romance and a story of a mother’s love. So saddle up and hang on. We are going to come roaring down that mountain, side hit them low flats and rip onto the Belvoir stage. “Hip’im Jackson!” as my mum would say.

Read the Director’s Notes


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