This trail collects a range of items to enhance readers' engagement with The Chapel Perilous.
– Part One provides an overview of The Chapel Perilous, its author Dorothy Hewett, and some background to the play.
– Part Two highlights Hewett's separation, as a West Australian, from the mainstream of Australian literary developments in the 1960s and 1970s.
– Part Three focuses on the play's portrayal of a female character in a restrictive society.
– Part Four places Hewett's play within the context of the 'New Wave' theatre movement.
– Part Five offers suggestions for wider reading.
– Part Six provides tips for further research.
Click on the hyperlinks below to visit AustLit records and external references. Some of the critical works and other resources are available online.
Written in Hewett's freewheeling epic style, The Chapel Perilous is a journey play that spans the period between the 1930s and the late 1960s. The story concerns Sally Banner, an over-reacher who attempts to find fulfilment – whether through her gift of poetic expression, through her sexual relationships, or in later years through political activism - and ultimately finds it through self-acceptance. Thematically the play contains the qualities and concerns which are often associated with Hewett's style – female sexuality, questioning of authority and morality, and anarchic tendencies towards structure in both dramatic text and social attitudes.(...more)
Dorothy Coade Hewett was born and raised in Western Australia on an isolated farm in the wheat belt town of Wickepin. Until the age of twelve, she was educated by correspondence and had already begun writing short stories and poems. Between 1928 and 1938, Western Australia's Education Department conducted a program for correspondence pupils to develop poetry appreciation and writing skills. Pupils were sent illustrated 'Pattern Poetry' which they could follow to develop form and rhyming skills.
The origin of the term ‘Chapel Perilous’ lies in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur – a collection of Arthurian legends first published in 1485. In one of the tales, the knight Lancelot enters a chapel where he claims a sword that will arm him for his quest. Within the chapel, he faces ‘real and imagined dangers’ (Brisbane, Katherine. ‘Playwright's Perilous Journey.’ The Australian (27 January 1971): 10)
For further reading on the origins of the ‘Chapel Perilous’ in Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, see Field, P.J.C. ‘Malory and "Perlesvaus." (Old French source for Chapel Perilous episode of "Mort Darthur").’ Medium Aevum 62.2 (1993): 259+. The full text of Le Morte d'Arthur is available on the Project Gutenburg website.
Margaret Williams, in Dorothy Hewett: The Feminine as Subversion, frames her chapter on Hewett's The Chapel Perilous around the theme of 'The Lonely Quest'. Williams says: 'The Chapel Perilous is the first of the Hewett plays in which the central character is a lone questing figure of high ideals ... The identifying of a precocious schoolgirl’s ambitions with the legendary Sir Lancelot’s search for the Holy Grail may seem absurd ... but the quest theme ... is a recurrent pattern in women’s writing, transposed to a female character’s personal quest for identity and self-fulfilment’ (48).
For further reading on the 'quest' theme in The Chapel Perilous see Reba Gostand's 'Quest or Question? Perilous Journey to the Chapel' (Bards, Bohemians, and Bookmen: Essays in Australian Literature (1976): 289-304) and Jasna Novakovic's 'The Chapel Perilous: The Paradigm of Fertility Overshadowed by the Quest' in Double Dialogues 11 (2010).
To investigate the ‘Grail’ theme as a ‘thematic and allegorical device’ in works of fiction and its operation as a ‘representative of an individual's journey towards spiritual growth and enlightenment’, see ‘The Grail Theme in Twentieth-Century Literature.’ Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism 142 (2003). For allusions to the ‘Chapel Perilous’ in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, see Thomas Dilworth's ‘Eliot's The Waste Land.’ Explicator 61.1 (Fall 2002): 43-44.
The Chapel Perilous premiered at the New Fortune Theatre in Perth on 21 January 1971. The theatre, which had opened in 1964, had been incorporated into the design of the Arts building at the University of Western Australia – the institution at which Hewett was teaching at the time of the play's writing. The theatre's pit and tiered seating mimic the design of London's Fortune Theatre, a contemporary Shakespeare's Globe. (For further details of the production at the New Fortune Theatre, including stage layout, see Joanne Tompkins's '"I was a Rebel in Word and Deed": Dorothy Hewett's The Chapel Perilous and Contemporary Australian Feminist Writing' Australian & New Zealand Studies in Canada 10 (1993): 41-56.)
The play was produced in Melbourne the following year and then in Sydney in 1974. At about this time, Hewett and Currency Press (which had published The Chapel Perilous in 1972) were sued by Hewett’s former husband for malicious libel. ‘The matter was settled out of court, one condition being that The Chapel Perilous be prevented from performance, or sale in book form, in Western Australia during his lifetime. The ban lasted until his death in 2004.' (Brisbane, Katharine. 'Not Wrong Just Different: Observations on the Rise of Contemporary Australian Theatre (2005): 155)
Helen Musa, former arts editor of the Canberra Times, reviewing a 1987 public playreading of The Chapel Perilous, expressed the view that 'the play ... has long been a favourite with Australian literature departments because of its rich text and intriguing blend of Australian experience with European literary awareness, all expressed through "rough" theatre. The play has not, however, found the same favour with professional managements. An unwieldy three hours in length, with choral work, difficult music and a demanding soundtrack, it is rarely performed’. (‘Fruitful Collaboration Sheds Light and Entertainment.' The Canberra Times (12 September 1987): 10)
In a 1973 interview Dorothy Hewett told oral historian Hazel de Berg that The Chapel Perilous was the play that (at the time) was most important to her. Hewett acknowledged that the play had been described as 'outrageously autobiographical' and she did not demur from that view. In The Chapel Perilous she wanted 'to come to terms with' what had happened to her in her own life; to demonstrate, in the character Sally Banner, what it was like to be a creative person - particularly a creative female - during that period of Australian life. (To listen to de Berg's full interview with Hewett, go to the National Library of Australia's sound recording by clicking here.)
Hewett went on to create a further twenty-plus dramatic works for theatre and radio from 1973 to 2001.
'I didn't take part in any of the great Australian literary movements that have taken place in my lifetime because I was stuck over in bloody Perth most of the time and when I wasn't stuck there I was in the Communist Party…’ (In 'Asking for More: The Impact of Dorothy Hewett', an interview conducted by Nicole Moore, Overland 153 (Summer 1998): 26-31).
Aarne Neeme, director of the first production of The Chapel Perilous, reflects that Dorothy Hewett was building her craft as playwright ‘three thousand miles from the developing pattern of Australian theatre on the eastern seaboard. She stands outside that pattern yet she also embraces it. The free-wheeling vaudeville vernacular of the Sydney writers and the sociological interests of the Melbourne school are both vividly present in her work. She is unique.’ (‘Director’s Note to the First Edition.’ The Chapel Perilous (1977): xii)
'The campaign between rebel and restrictive society ... fought out from complex motives and in wild emotional terrain. It is in one sense an unusual version of the great romantic revolt in that it is seen from a courageously feminine point of view' (Whitehead, Jean. 'Ordeal by Freedom: A Carve-Up of Sally or Society?.' Westerly 1 (March 1971): 41
In her 1984 criticism ‘Female Figures in the Plays of Dorothy Hewett and Patrick White’, May-Brit Akerholt writes: ‘Traditionally, the female character in Australian drama has conformed to certain patterns of behaviour and language ... White and Hewett reject the restrictions of the so-called naturalistic drama ... they create a theatrical spectacle which defies conventions and labels ... and in doing that, they dramatise the ways in which the individual is imprisoned in the pragmatism of “the Australian way of life”’ (Westerly 29.1 (March 1984):68, 69, 70). Akerholt goes on to argue that the plays of White and Hewett ‘dramatise the conflict between the individual’s demand for freedom, or creative expression, and the pressures of society. The characters, and particularly the females, are both victims and perpetrators of the action in which they are involved’ (71).
Sally Banner, Hewett's largely autobiographical protagonist in The Chapel Perilous, is born into an era when ‘female emancipation’ – which had previously meant ‘chiefly careers and the vote’ – has broadened into ‘an age when emancipation has given place to liberation’ so that ‘the Sally Banners of the world can begin to tell us who they are’ (Lawson, Sylvia. 'Introduction to the First Edition.' The Chapel Perilous 1977: ix).
Hewett’s intention was not to create a ‘thesis’ play. ‘Why then’, she asked in 1977, has The Chapel Perilous ‘come to stand for so many people, as a force for liberation?’ Hewett suggests that, ‘for many young women’, Banner is ‘the first modern liberated feminist’ in Australian literature’. Sally Banner came to life, says Hewett, ‘at a period when liberation and freedom began to be on the agenda’. Banner ‘reflects her time’ ('Why Does Sally Bow.' The Chapel Perilous 1977: xix).
While 'not entirely drawn according to feminist guidelines', Sally Banner and others of Hewett's female characters are ‘pioneers in the world of Australian drama, bringing feminist possibilities to the stage well before the appearance of acknowledged feminist playwrights like Alma De Groen, and Sandra Shotlander’ (Tompkins, Joanne. ‘"I was a Rebel in Word and Deed": Dorothy Hewett's The Chapel Perilous and Contemporary Australian Feminist Writing.’ Australian & New Zealand Studies in Canada 10 (December 1993): 42).
'If their plays are also good art or penetrating social comment, so very much the better; but that is not their primary social function.' – A. A. Phillips, (‘Assaying the New Drama.’ Meanjin Quarterly 32.2 (June 1973): 189)
In 1972, more than 20 years after the publication of his seminal essay ‘The Cultural Cringe’, A. A. Phillips reviewed six new Australian plays for the Melbourne journal Meanjin (‘Assaying the New Drama.’ Meanjin Quarterly 32.2 (June 1973): 189-195). One of the six was Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. Phillips wrote that the quality of the plays was ‘perhaps not the most important consideration’. What mattered much more, he said, was that ‘they are here and that they are satisfying audiences’. The reason for his assertion was his belief that ‘the theatre's first importance is not as a potent vehicle of art, but as the place where a crosssection of the community has a common, and preferably a significant, experience’.
With few notable exceptions (such as Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll), Australian theatre audiences had been presented ‘almost entirely’ with ‘imported material’ and the theatre had therefore ‘forfeited half its power to develop our social coherence’ (189).
May-Brit Akerholt, in ‘New Stage: Contemporary Theatre’ – her contribution to The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature (2000), says that the ‘big question in Australian drama in the 1960s was not only what but who are we? The end of the decade spawned a critical yet celebratory theatre which sought to explore Australian identity and build a new confidence’. This new focus was ‘encouraged by several significant developments’, one of the most important of which was the New Wave movement which took shape in association with the Australian Performing Group at Melbourne’s La Mama and Pram Factory theatres. ‘Born in the late 1960s out of opposition to a culturally conservative theatre, the New Wave provided an alternative drama which exploited the vernacular and experimented with forms and structures in an in-your-face exploration of Australian myths and rituals’ (210).
The other developments that aided this new focus included the formation of the Australia Council, the establishment of the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the foundation of Currency Press to publish Australian play texts exclusively, and the inauguration of the Australian National Playwrights' Conference.
This alternative theatre environment, provided playwrights such as David Williamson, Alex Buzo, Jack Hibberd, John Romeril and Dorothy Hewett a springboard (and a physical venue) for their plays. It is salutary, however, to recall Hewett's caveat to this burgeoning of Australian work: ‘Except for its outstanding actresses, the Australian theatre has been pretty much a male preserve'. The new wave of drama which erupted out of Melbourne and Sydney in the late 1960s was dominated, says Hewett, 'by young male playwrights, who interpreted the world according to their experiences. The result tended to be a series of female stereotypes...’ (Hewett, Dorothy. 'Creating Heroines in Australian Plays.' Hecate 5.2 (1979): 73).
For more information on the 'New Wave' movement, see the following: Maryrose Casey’s ‘Australian Drama Since 1970’ in A Companion to Australian Literature Since 1900 (2007); Margaret Williams's 'Mask and Cage: Stereotype in Recent Drama.' Meanjin Quarterly 31.3 (September 1972): 308-313; and Axel Kruse's review 'New Drama.' Southerly 33.2 (June 1973): 240-246).
'The Australian Performing Group was an agent of change ... It stimulated a whole generation to see themselves in a new light, to see their culture emerge as truly Australian and to claim it thus. From the creative community that was the Pram Factory came many gifted writers and actors, directors of film, theatre and TV, artists, musicians and singers, circus performers, arts administrators and community artists. It is unique in the history of the arts in Australia, maybe in the world.' (Pram Factory website.)
Dorothy Hewett's plaque in Sydney's Writers' Walk is inscribed with a quote from The Chapel Perilous: ‘I had a tremendous world in my head and more than three-quarters of it will be buried with me.’ According to Hewett's daughter, the poet and academic Kate Lilley, the inscription was chosen by co-founder of Currency Press Katharine Brisbane. Lilley says that her mother 'didn't like it much, but she went along with it'. ('In the Hewett Archive.' JASAL 11.1 (2011): 12)
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