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.
As Hewett remarks in her 1979 Hecate article: 'Sally is balanced by several symbolic female figures, the "Authority figures" of Headmistress, Anglican teaching "sister", and mother... [along with the] lesbian love figure, Judith, who stands for intellectual control and denial of sensual love' ('Creating Heroines in Australian Plays', p. 77).
A radio adaptation of Dorothy Hewett's stage play.
'The Chapel Perilous derives from Sir Thomas Malory's The Tale of King Arthur, 1485 (Winchester MA, Caxton, Book VI. How Sir Lancelot cam into the chapel perelus and gate there of a ded corps, a pyece of the cloth and a sworde...'
Source: Tait, Peta and Elizabeth Schafer (eds.) Australian Women's Drama: Texts and Feminisms (1997): 3.
There have been further productions since 1971 including those of the Union Theatre (Melbourne University, 1972) and the Old Tote Theatre Company (Sydney Opera House, 1974). Both these productions were directed by George Whaley.
'Dorothy Hewett belongs to a long line of women who spoke out of turn.
'So does Sally Banner.
'Dorothy Hewett blazed a trail for women writers, and for Australian playwrights (of all genders) interested in theatrical innovation.
'I like to think that I’m part of that lineage.' (Introduction)
It is eight o’clock in the evening on the 21st of January, 1971, and the heat from an 100-plus degree day dissipates in the night air. Dorothy Hewett’s third serious play, The Chapel Perilous, is opening at The New Fortune Theatre. Built as a fourth wall to the Arts Building at the University of Western Australia in 1964, The New Fortune is a multi-storey outdoor space designed as an Elizabethan stage. The play’s director is Aarne Neeme, a young, sympathetic collaborator with whom Hewett has been working closely in rehearsals. Helen Neeme, Aarne’s wife, is in the demanding central role, and between the Acts she feeds their new daughter, only a few months old. Hewett’s twenty-year-old son Joe Flood is among the musicians tuning up at the side of the stage and his future wife Adele Marcella has a role in the Chorus. Hewett’s other four children, the youngest eight years old, sit in the audience with her husband, writer Merv Lilley. Also attending are some of her students and colleagues from the English Department at UWA, which a week or so earlier had finally awarded her a permanent tutorship, after first appointing her in 1964. Friends of Hewett’s from literature and politics have come too: T.A.G. Hungerford, Hal Colebatch, Dorothy and Bill Irwin, and Nicholas Hasluck among others, as well as a reviewer for the West Australian. As Hasluck recalls, in the front row, in seats reserved especially, are the prominent left-wing lawyer Lloyd Davies, Hewett’s first husband from whom she’d divorced in 1950, and his wife Jo. With a clap of thunder, the action begins in darkness, and a chorus of young actors in school uniforms, with dual roles as ushers, listen to a declaratory female voice: ‘I rode forward through the blackened land. I saw the forests burning and the fields wasted, waiting for rain. Upon a slope I saw a glimpse of light. Then I came to the Chapel Perilous.’ (Introduction)
'It is widely acknowledged that Dorothy Hewett borrowed the idea of The Chapel Perilous from the Arthurian romances reinvented by Tennyson and Eliot in rather different ways. What remains, however, unacknowledged in the discussion of Hewett's work is that Eliot took his key paradigm from Frazer who studied the old fertility rites, and from Weston who explored earlier versions of the Grail romances, where the purpose of the Quest was to regenerate the Fisher King and the land he ruled. The grail romances enjoyed huge popularity in France and Germany throughout the Middle Ages, but only in the oldest, versified versions were the fertility paradigm and the underlying signification of the Quest connoted clearly enough. Hewett, like Eliot, draws on the sources that point back to the pagan roots of humanity to critique the privileging of the death forces (repression) over the life forces (sexuality/ freedom) and the 'waste land' such an attitude makes of society. This is not to say that she subscribes to the 'myth and ritual' school uncritically. For Hewett, unlike for Eliot, the sacred and the profane co-exist dialectically and The Chapel Perilous is a notable example.' (Publication abstract)
A. A. Phillips introduces his review of six new Australian dramas by saying: 'The quality of these plays, and others in the present burgeoning, is perhaps not the most important consideration. It matters much more that they are here and that they are satisfying audiences. Culturally in the widest sense of the word, 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. But so long as our theatre presented almost entirely imported material it forfeited half its power to develop our social coherence. Moreover, it fed our tendency to drowse into acceptance of a client-state mentality. It therefore matters a good deal that a sizeable slice of our common entertainment is now being presented by our own entertainers concerned with our own forms of living and igniting an eagerness of response. If their plays are also good art or penetrating social comment, so very much the better; but that is not their primary social function.' (Meanjin 32.2 (June 1973):189)