In The First Joanna Dorothy Blewett explores Australia's acceptance of its convict heritage, tracing the fictional history of the Deverons, owners of a leading South Australian vineyard. The property, situated near the Onkaparinga River, was established in the early years of the colony by settler Stephen Deveron. The central characters of the play are the Joanna Millay, a young convict woman who becomes the matriarch of the Deverons, and Joanna Deveron, the wife of the second Stephen Deveron - the grandson of the first Joanna and the first Stephen Deveron.
The narrative begins on Joanna's birthday in 1945 and introduces the Deveron family. Joanna has only recently arrived at the vineyard and is still suffering from the effects of several years spent as a prisoner of war in Poland. Joanna and Stephen had married in England shortly before the outbreak of war but were forced apart after she became trapped behind enemy lines. Having led a peripatetic upbringing in Europe Joanna finds the dull monotony of life on the vineyard unbearable and is thinking of returning to Europe. Her love of Stephen is making the decision all the more painful.
When Stephen's maiden aunts give her a chair belonging to their mother, Joanna is at first horrifed by the thought of its staid existence. She at first can't bear think about it, but after discovering within the chair a set of diaries written by the first Joanna she becomes fascinated. The diaries reveal a life of trauma, loss, murder, illegitimacy, and eventually, triumph through love. Through her reading of the diaries the play's dramatic action segues into "interpolated scenes" depicting key moments in the lives of Stephen's forebears during the nineteenth century - 1837, 1849, 1862, 1871, and 1885. The diaries ultimately allow the contemporary Joanna the capacity to imagine a future at the vineyard with the man she truly loves.
In an interview with Coralie Clarke Rees on Sydney ABC radio on 8 March, 1948, Blewett described the play as:
"It's the story of a modern English girl called Joanna who marries an Australian wine-grower and comes to live in his family home in South Australia. There she finds the narrow insistence on family respectability stifling, and she is about to leave to place when she discovers the diary of the first Joanna who built the home and pioneered the vineyard. In it she reads that the woman who established this respectable successful family had been a convict girl from Tasmania. The first Joanna was a vivid courageous person who had lived dangerously. She appeals tat once to the imagination and the loyalty of the second Joanna who had been repelled by the smug legends about the old pioneer: and the young Joanna Becomes proud to belong to a family with such an honourably shady past."
MRS COLLINS who “obliges” at Chateau Deveron
JOCELYN CUMING Stephen’s second cousin
HALLEY VAN DRUYTEN Captain in the United States Army
EDITHA AND VIOLA DEVERON Stephen’s twin great-aunts, aged 92
JACKSON the chauffeur
SIR BERTRAM TAVENER Governor of a women's jail in Tasmania
LADY CAROLINE TAVENOR his wife
MISS BEATRICE TAVENOR his sister
CAPTAIN JULES SMITH of the British Army, aged 29
STEPHEN DEVERON 1st, aged 22
JOANNA MILLAY the first Joanna, aged 17
STEPHEN aged 34
MAJOR JULES SMITH 54
Joanna and Stephen's children:
EDITHA AND VIOLA 10
VIOLA AND EDITH 18
Set in post-World War II South Australia, the homecoming of the second Joanna is soured by the close-knit and guarded Deveron family. Feeling as if she can’t connect with the present, and questing her reasons for staying, Joanna turns to the past after discovering a set of diaries from her husband's grandmother, the first Joanna. The dairies reveal the skeletons in the Deveron family’s closet. They also help her decide her future.
'[Blewett's] play, The First Joanna, is the story of two women bearing the same name but who are born a century apart. Flashback to the colonial era provides the link to the story.
'The modern Joanna is a restless, sophisticated English woman married to the owner of a vineyard in South Australia. The first Joanna is the pioneer. Her story unfolds through entries in a diary discovered in an old chair.'
Source: 'Tale of Two Women–Aust. TV Drama', The Age [TV/Radio Supplement], 17-23 February 1961, p.2.
In his contribution to the The Cambridge Companion to Australian Literature, Richard Fotheringham notes that Blewett had taken a "dramaturgically fresh approach to the perennially popular subject of Australian Colonial history ('Theatre from 1788 to the 1960s,' p.154).
Reviews of each the productions staged during 1948 were typically positive. Frank Van Straten records, for example, that the Adelaide Repertory Society's version at the Tivoli Theatre was the highlight of that year's repertoire (Her Majesty's Pleasure: A Centenary Celebration for Adelaide's Theatre of the Stars).
The first draft of the play is believed to have been written in the early 1940s, shortly after the author had completed Quiet Night. It's first public performance was a rehearsed reading in Sydney in 1943, two years before the end of the war. This suggests that some aspects of the play would have been markedly different from 1947 version.
Details regarding the rehearsed reading were discovered in 2016 by Bryan Bartlett, a University of Queensland student undertaking Practices of Performance B (DRAM2210) - the course included a short season of The First Joanna at the Geoffrey Rush Studios. See 'Lectures." Sydney Morning Herald 23 October 1943, p.13).
Bartlett also notes that the Campbell Howard Annotated Index of Australian Plays 1920-1955 records a first known date of 1941, citing Debra Adelaide's Australian Women Writers : A Bibliographic Guide as its source. That publication does not, however, provide any details regarding its source for the year 1941.
1943: 38 Clarence Street, Sydney; 24 October [rehearsed reading]
1948: Metropolitan Theatre, Reiby Place, Sydney; 12 March 1948 [world premiere]
1948: Tivoli Theatre, Adelaide; 28 August 1948
1948: Repertory Theatre, Perth; 1-4, 8-11 December
1948: Rechabite Hall, St Peters, Adelaide; 14-17 December 1949.
1954: Stanthorpe Repertory Society, Stanthorpe, Queensland.
1961: Nowra (New South Wales) January 1961.
1967: Presented at The Green Room, Manchester, UK. 17 November 1967.
2016: Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio, The University of Queensland; 1-4 June.
NB: AusStage records that The First Joanna was produced at the Theatre Royal, Hobart in 1948 (no date is given). The source for this information is an advertisement that appears in the Hobart Theatre Guild's programme for Richard of Bordeaux (held by the Seaborn Broughton and Walford Foundation). That play was staged at the Theatre Royal between 1 and 8 May 1948, and later played Launceston (June). A search of Tasmanian newspapers for 1948 using Trove (the Australian National Library's digital newspaper service) has so far failed to locate any theatrical production of the play anywhere in the state in 1948 or any year afterwards.
'The Australian author of The First Joanna died last year, and it has found its way to Manchester and first production by the Green Room Theatre, through a journalist who was visiting Melbourne.' (Introduction)
Sub-header: The courage of a pioneer woman reaches across the years to her modern namesake in Channel 2's next gripping live play.
An article about the forthcoming ABC TV production of The First Joanna, describing the plot and characters.
A review of the 1948 Perth Repertory Theatre production (Repertory Theatre, beginning 1 December).
A review of the world premiere production of Dothy Blewett's The First Joanna (Metropolitan Theatre, Sydney; 12 March).
The Sydney Morning Herald announces Dorothy Blewett, the writer of 'The First Joanna' as the winner of the 1947 Stage Play Competition from the Playwrights Advisory Board. Column further comments on Blewett's writing in 'The First Joanna'.