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Drought, death and disingenuity in The Touch of Silk

Updated on May 3, 2017

Classic melodrama

The Touch of Silk was written by Betty Roland. The play was produced in 1928 by the Melbourne Repertory Theatre and also enjoyed an alternate life on the radio (Roland 2004:xiii, xix).

In the introduction, Shaw observes that the play's success as a radio production was due to the way in which the “central tension is bodied forth largely in aural terms”. (p.xix) It appears to be eminently suited to the medium of radio because the dialogue narrates the plot in a comprehensive manner and tells the story thoroughly.

Moreover, the play uses dark twists common to the genres of short story and radio plays.

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A femme fatale

The plot is fueled by the translocation of the female protagonist of the European novel into an Australian farming community.

Roland's interest in the European novel is evidenced by the fact that she adapted Flaubert's Madame Bovary for the Sydney Independent Theatre to perform in 1946 (p.xiv-xv); and it is interesting to note that Jeanne's dissatisfaction with rural Australian life is similar to Mme. Bovary's dissatisfaction with provincial French life.

The play also contains many of the elements of melodrama as there are dramatic turn-abouts and “strong situations that call for larger than life acting”. (pp.xi, xvi)

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A farm under threat

The action moves from a frugal shopping trip in town, to an impoverished dwelling on a struggling farm.

The farm is in trouble because the farmer borrowed money to expand, but unfortunately drought may prevent him from making a profit and paying for the land. The original farm developed by Jim's late father has been mortgaged to pay for the new land and is also in danger.

The wife Jeanne becomes dissatisfied with life on the farm and longs entertainment, withdrawing her support from her husband at a crucial time and placing herself in a compromising position with another man.

Her husband loses control and goes to strike his rival, however tripping over a root or rock on the ground affects his control and the blow he delivers is fatal, exposing himself to prosecution and the rest of his family to further ruination.

Mother and daughter-in-law

In The Touch of Silk, the audience is introduced to two forceful women. Jeanne represents nostalgia for the lost glamour of Europe as represented by theatres and cafes (Roland 2004:29), and her mother-in-law Mrs. Davidson represents the liberated Australian women who work alongside their husbands on the farm and understand the price of “fat lambs” as well as the men do (p.33).

It is not surprising that the two women clash creating intriguing dramatic tension from the very first scene where Mrs. Davidson is looking to get her “three seasons” old hat brightened with “fresh trimmings” (p.14). She has almost worked out a satisfactory arrangement with the milliner when her daughter-in-law arrives and criticises her choice (pp.23-25). Both women concede to the other's point of view, but the harm can not be undone.

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Jeanne has been in Australia for over “ten years” (pp.21,28), but “never seems to settle down and make any friends” (p.21). She has never hardened to farm life and insists upon buying meat from the butcher while Jim “is killing everyday” sheep they could eat (p.37). Jeanne has not developed a love of the land and describes the rural town as “this ugly little place” in comparison to her beloved “Paree” (p.29). Moreover, the compassion she expresses for the horse (p.39) is undercut ironically when she forgets to tell her husband the sheep are at risk of being bogged in mud (pp.37, 51).

Mrs. Davidson, on the other hand, has learnt that “it's no use swearing at the wind” (p.34) and knows when they “have to handfeed the sheep” (p.33). The Australian woman describes the farm as “my home that's going to be sold” (p.41) and believes Jeanne is lucky to have “a good husband like Jim” and “a home of her own” (p.21). Mrs. Davidson expresses her love in practical terms such as a place to stay (pp.66) and finds it hard to accept a daughter-in-law who expresses love in more sexual and tactile terms (p.85). The practical Mrs. Davidson is also a survivor, as we see when she is rallied by her neighbour to seek comfort in “a little work” (p.81).

It appears the audience is supposed to have sympathy for Jeanne, who is a lonely war bride, homesick, unused to the country and in conflict with her mother-in-law. However, the way she enters and spoils the older woman's pleasure in the third remodeling of her hat is decidedly unsympathetic (Act I, pp.25-27). Maybe Jeanne is not to know that the hat has already had a feather in a previous incarnation (p.14), but she, like Wilson who replies diplomatically “it certainly is a grand hat” (p.23), could have let Mrs. Davidson Senior enjoy her harmless piece of garishness. It is satisfying to note in a subsequent scene that the older woman has had the roses put into the hat (p.42). I hope this was brought out verbally for the radio version.

The re-write of Act II featured in the appendix attempts to make Mrs. Davidson Senior more of a villainess as she suggests Jeanne and Osbourne had an affair (pp.96-97) and continues to criticise Jeanne to the end of act III (p.98). I haven't seen the whole re-write, but I believe the original version contained a dramatic verve that would be lost in a re-write.

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A cruel country

The action is set in “north-west Victoria”in the heart of the “Mallee” country (p.4, 101), and the outcome is ironically tragic. The Australian environment plays many roles in the play as It has been a source of prosperity for shopkeeper Ritchie (Roland 2004:20), it presents risk and opportunity to farmer Jim (p.17) and it is an enemy to Jeanne who hates the wind (p.33) and curses the sunshine (p.46).

Clifford Osborne, the salesman has just returned from overseas and has “seen some wonderful places”, but declares “there's a sort of sameness” about exotic locations (p.6) and there is “no place like home” (p.15). He defends the Australian people against Jeanne's accusations, saying: “Australians are the friendliest people under the sun” (p.51), and this is substantiated when the neighbours arrive to help after a crisis (pp.81-83).

Much of the action takes place during a dreaded “drought” (p.10) and Roland uses harsh imagery such as bare paddocks with circling crows (p.45) and knives that kill sheep (p.51). However, the rain could turn everything green again (p.45), and the final word of the play is “Rain!”. (p.91) The Aboriginal people are absent from this play, although it would be interesting to cast an Indigenous actor in the part of the butcher's assistant.

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A downward spiral

The play appears to begin the long-running focus upon the foibles of human nature – where no one can rise above their environment and nothing will go right - which is notable in Australian theatre. The exception to this rule might be the character of Miss Patterson the shop assistant who continues being polite to the customer no matter how they behave. (pp.17-27) Miss Patterson is a minor character and we do not find out her fate, but she appears to have found positive things in and around the small town and while she is passed over by Osbourne as a potential date there is no indication tragedy will visit her future.

Jeanne is selfish and it is hard for someone who has grown up in a rural area to like some of the other things she does, such as keeping the horse until it almost starves (p.42). Nevertheless, it is understandable that Jeanne should find comfort in the silk underwear, as this is similar in function to Mrs. Davidson senior's rose. In this scene it strikes the audience that it is unscrupulous of Osbourne to be pushing the items on Jeanne, despite the fact it is his job as a salesman. (pp.41-52) The saving grace for his character in this scene is that he says, “If you won't speak to Jim I'll jolly well do it myself”, showing his honest intentions regarding the dance invitation (p.51).

The hand of doom

The twist at the end is diabolical as the audience knows that the officer, Hughes, merely wants Jeanne to confirm Mrs. Davidson senior's testimony that Osbourne struck Jim first, which would make the killing an act of self defense (p.70).

Unfortunately Jeanne has concocted the plan of exaggerating the nature of her relationship with Osbourne to give Jim a plausible motive if put on trial for murder (p.88).

Her stated intention of protecting Jim from any suggestion of insanity or post traumatic stress due to injury is in contention with the legal system as we know it, and will result in higher penalties for her husband.


Roland, B. 2004 The Touch of Silk: (1928), (Ed. Shaw, J.), Currency Press, Sydney


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