Realism, rascism and seduction in Brumby Innes

Picture from morguefile.com
Picture from morguefile.com

Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard

The three act play, Brumby Innes is written with a documentary realism with touches of poetic styling that promote the representation to the level of a folk-myth.

The action is set in a “wild and lonely cattle station of north-west Australia” (Prichard 1974:52) where Aboriginal inhabitants outnumber white residents. Brumby maintains his power over the group by the use of his rifle, and radiates a charismatic charm which prompts May to exclaim: “Mr. Innes is quite a thrill, isn't he?” (p.79)

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A villainous hero

A modern audience might revolt against Prichard's elevation of Brumby to the role of protagonist because of his treatment of the Australian Aborigines. Jack Carey attempts to restrain some excesses (eg. “Don't be a fool Brum.” p.58), but he is ineffective as he can not overpower Brumby and must appeal to the Aborigines to tolerate the abuse: “Tell the boys to let up, Wongana. He's dunk can't you see. Mad drunk. They'll get the worst of it.” (p.58)

However, as the biography of Ted Strehlow (see McNally 1981) demonstrates, the law did go very much against the Aborigines for many years. Therefore, during the period represented by the play, Brumby could shoot Aboriginal men (Pritchard p.63) and rape their women with little fear of reprisal (note that the trial is merely interested in Wylba's age not issues of consent, p.92). He could even have them charged for defending and rescuing Wylba and taking supplies without permission (pp.78-79, 93). The position of “Protector of the Aborigines” mentioned on p.64 was real, but it received little official support.

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Racism and abuse

The action in Brumby Innes begins with an Aboriginal Corroboree (Prichard 1974:53-55) which is irreverently interrupted by Brumby with his demand for one of the girls (p.56-57). Wylba is betrothed to one of the Aboriginal men, but this does not matter to Brumby who takes her to his hut and rapes her.

The ensuing dispute is curtailed by the arrival of Hallinan's party who have been mustering on the “sixty mile” - a name which creates a sense of distance and isolation (p.65), and the unfortunate Aboriginal girl Wylba is locked into the storeroom so that Brumby can present a semi-respectable front to the visitors.


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Picture from ancient faces.com

Sex and the socialite

Brumby makes a strong impression on Hallinan's neice May. May enjoys “flirting” and poses to tantalise Brumby (Prichard 1974:72, 79). Her uncle John warns May that Brumby “wouldn't understand” such social games as played in popular society.

However, May disregards her uncle's warning and returns at a later time to contrive to be alone with Brumby (p.81). At this time Brumby makes it clear he expects a physical relationship with May. She threatens to “scream” when Brumby touches her, however, the stage directions say she begins “yielding” as she has been fascinated by Brumby and thus allows herself to be seduced.

When May's Uncle finds out, he insists Brumby and May get married to hush any scandal resulting from their sexual indulgence. May resents being forced into marriage and losing the "nice" fiancé she left home (p.97), but it is too late to change her mind. May is angry, but Jack Carey observes she does not really hate Brumby as: “he gets you...like the rest of 'em” (p.96).

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A love triangle

May's arrival at the station is a source of disappointment to Brumby's faithful Aboriginal mistress, Polly.

Polly is a “good house-girl” and has been with Brumby “many years”, but she is powerless when she suspects Brumby wants “a young and pretty woman now” (p.79). May may be “city bred” (p.67), but as a “white” woman, she is a “scarce” commodity in the outback (p.81), able to command marriage and bear “thoroughbred” children (p.98).

The conflict between these women is largely of a passive-aggressive nature. Polly always answers “Murndoo. Don't know” to May's questions (p.85) and attempts to keep the other Aboriginal women from giving the newcomer any information (p.87); while May asserts herself as the lady of the house by handing out medication to Tullamurra (pp.85-87) and fabric to Warrarie (pp.88-89). These two women, become “mares” in the “mob” of the “boss-horse” Brumby Innes (Prichard 1974:91).

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While much of the action takes place around Brumby's hut, the atmosphere of the bush is maintained by the presence of Aboriginal characters, talk of horses and cattle, and the use of transcribed Aboriginal words.

The characters are also identified strongly with the environment. While May is happy she enjoys “riding before the sun gets too hot” and attempting to name native flowers (p.67). However, once she feels trapped “the red dust” begins “suffocating” her (p.84).

Brumby shares his name with that of a wild horse and describes men as “male animals” whose “lust” is “natural...Like the rain” (p.98). The play, like the bush day, ends with the setting sun (p.99).

According to Farrell, (Kiernander 2009:6) the manuscript won the Triad magazine's playwriting competition in 1927, but was not performed due to concerns about the subject matter. McCredie (1988:42-43) explains that “it was never easy for local writers to find a stage”, and like Prichard, many had to be satisfied by newspaper or magazine recognition.

A “non-professional” performance was staged by the New Theatre Company in Sydney, 1948, and the first professional performance was by the Australian performing group together with the indigenous Nindethana Theatre Group in 1972 (Kiernander 2009:7).

According to IMDB it was made into a telemovie in 1973.

References

Kiernander, A. 2009 THEA 317 Week 4: Bush Realism, containing notes to week 4 by Andrew MCue and Rosemary Farrell, University of New England, Armidale, N.S.W.

McNally, W. 1981 Aborigines, Artifacts and Anguish, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide

Prichard, K. S. 1974 Brumby Innes and Bid me to Love, Currency press, Sydney

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