Benedict Andrews on “The Season at Sarsaparilla”

To Change Love Into The Currency Of Words

All Patrick White’s plays were experiments. They allowed him to try on disguises and test voices. He could be clown and satyr, mystic and poet. He could slow time and speed it. He could unpeel people, show their vegetable and animal selves, make their well-worn masks crack.

Australian theatre has never had better stage directions. White’s are funny, concrete, mysterious. They teem with a novelist’s eye for detail, but essentially, they are bodily. You feel him trying a character on for size, getting into dress ups. You sense tremors along invisible strings as if a child were playing with puppets. His characters jerk, tremble, choke, are punctured. One is described as having “grown rather soggy.” Another wonderful instruction reads, “they cling to each other in the shadow of the fence, kissing freely, in joyful relief.” Others clutch, vibrate, sweat at every pore, sleepwalk, and explode with joy.

In The Season at Sarsaparilla, from such minutiae, White constructed a theatrical treatment of overlapping lives. In the brick boxes of expanding early 60’s Sydney suburbia, he confronted The Great Australian Emptiness. His response was a savage attack on Australian ways of life. His suburbia is a nightmare. A conservative, monocultural hell of stultification and judgement. Peering into the homes which underpinned the doctrine of the Menzies’ government, he saw cultural disease and spiritual sickness.

His slice of suburbia with its three kitchens and backyards prefigures Australian television’s coming portrayal of suburban lives on Number 96, or the cul de sac of Neighbours’ Ramsay Street. Unlike the soaps, White sees the tremendous fragility and nakedness of life. He stages a mythic presentation of ordinary life. With scathing contempt and deep compassion he brings us close to hidden lives of the onstage community. He achieves what his character Roy Child longs for, “to change love into the currency of words.”

In reference to her translations of Euripides, American poet Anne Carson writes,

“…what is the question of desire? I don’t know. Something about its presumption to exist in human form. Human forms are puny. Desire is vast, absolute and oddly general. A big liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there as it were arbitrarily, however it lights on them, swamping some, splitting others, casually ruinous…”

In The Season at Sarsaparilla, this shape-shifting force takes the glandular form of a bitch on heat. Over three sweltering Sydney summer days, her cries, howls, and whimpers fill the air of Mildred Street and get under the skins of its inhabitants. The effect is feverish, disorientating, and possessive. Cyclic processes of contagion, breeding, gestation, birth, and degeneration operate on micro, molecular levels, as well as on a cosmic, mythic plane. Like humming motors, female cycles of menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause drive phases of fertility and infertility, creation and destruction. They charge White’s symphonic study of suburbia with hungers and pulses and infectious dreams.

Rehearsing in Robert Cousins’ revolving model suburban house, has allowed us to get close to Patrick White’s theatricality of lives rubbing against one another. Without a set which adheres to a strict representation of three separate houses, we produce the synchronicity of the overlapping lives. We generate notions of private and public, inside and outside, visible and invisible. The play’s machinic construction becomes located in the monolith of the Dream Home and the backyard becomes an empty stage.

The suburban home, as in the paintings of Howard Arkley, is viewed as shelter, incubator, and cultural artefact. It is one molecular cell which contains the body of society. It contains the DNA of the McMansion belt, and, of the neo-conservatism of Australia under John Howard where the threat of a rising interest rate will win elections and continue to breed that Great Australian Emptiness.

Contemporary at its 1962 Adelaide premiere, The Season at Sarsaparilla is now a kind of ghost play, a theatrical séance. Like the “great trees which continue to spread, never quite exorcised” over the back fences of Sarsaparilla, so the ghosts of a disappearing era return to haunt the onstage house. White’s theatre sings with accents and voices layered deep in our culture and city.

Given its concern with cyclic processes of decay and regeneration, this play also posits questions of generational change. Today, Mildred Street’s youngest inhabitant, baby Kevon Knott would be 45 years old. What are his aspirations? What stories does he tell? Where is his Sarsaparilla? Who lives there?
And Pippy, who survives her first season of dogs in The Season at Sarsaparilla, would now be in her late 50s. What culture does she dream of? What world might she belong to?

Benedict Andrews, 2008