Inside Story

Oriel Gray makes her mark

The playwright and screenwriter’s widely praised memoir returns to print

Michelle Arrow 28 October 2020 1348 words

A wry, sceptical eye: detail from an early-1970s studio portrait of Oriel Gray by Giorgio Mangiamele.

I first met Oriel Gray in 1995 when, tape recorder in hand, I visited her at her home in West Heidelberg, Melbourne. I was a PhD student, eager and nervous to be meeting one of the women I was researching for my thesis on Australian female playwrights of the mid twentieth century.

Most of the women I was researching had left few published works behind: their plays survived mostly as manuscripts, and most of them had not been invited to deposit their personal papers in state library collections. My research concentrated on newspaper and magazine reports, theatre records, and the odd ASIO file. It was a solid archive on which to build a thesis, but it was sometimes hard to glimpse the living, breathing women who wrote the plays within these records. When you’re going to spend three years researching people’s lives, it helps if you can feel connected to them.

So her memoir Exit Left: Memoirs of a Scarlett Woman was a precious gift. It painted a vivid, charming picture of an impulsive, idealistic young woman who became a playwright in 1940s Australia, telling all the stories that the press clippings and play manuscripts could not. I must have purchased my copy in 1994 — that’s what I’ve written inside the cover — and it seems that every third page has been folded down to remind me of something important: the pages flutter with Post-it notes with short phrases like “banning of CPA” and “radio writing” written on them. My copy is well thumbed, and well loved.

The book’s appearance in the mid 1980s was part of a broader revival of interest in Australian culture in that decade. The 1980s was a boom time in Australian publishing, an era in which Australia’s literary history was being recovered and reappraised in the lead-up to the bicentenary commemorations in 1988.

Australian female writers were a particular focus of these recovery efforts, an outgrowth of second-wave feminism and women’s determination to repopulate Australian history with forgotten and overlooked female writers. Drusilla Modjeska’s 1981 book Exiles at Home: Australian Women Writers 1925–1945 was the pathbreaking text for this broad-ranging project. Modjeska examined not just these women’s writing but also their writing lives, especially their struggles to carve out creative space amidst the demands of their caring and domestic roles. Her book generated great interest in Australian female writers of all genres, including playwrights.

The feminist writer and critic Dale Spender’s Penguin Anthology of Australian Women’s Writing, released in 1988, published Oriel Gray’s play The Torrents for the first time. Angela Hillel published the first scholarly article about Oriel Gray in 1986, and would go on to write a PhD thesis about the Melbourne New Theatre in 1989. The theatre and drama that had been forgotten in the rush to proclaim Summer of the Seventeenth Doll a landmark Australian play were slowly resurfacing amid this surge of interest in Australia’s cultural history.

Oriel Gray’s importance to New Theatre had also contributed to her neglect by Australian literary and theatre history. The communist New Theatre movement emerged in Australia in the early 1930s, the product of a series of world-shaking political, social and economic changes. While workers’ theatres had existed since the 1880s, the Russian Revolution, the onset of the Great Depression and the establishment of the popular front against fascism saw a huge surge of interest in left-wing political theatre in the 1930s. The Communist Party of Australia, or CPA, had formed in 1920 and gathered increasing numbers of artists, writers and intellectuals in its early years, forming Workers’ Art Clubs to encourage the production of novels, paintings and plays from left-wing perspectives.

The New Theatre movement grew from these early experiments in fostering workers’ culture, fuelled by the sense of crisis engendered by the Great Depression, and Sydney New Theatre was founded in 1932. The group had initial success with American plays, including the production of Bury the Dead that captivated Gray on her first visit. But the theatre needed plays that responded to local problems and conditions: to speak to workers about their own struggles. New Theatre sought to cultivate and encourage Australian writers, to produce sketches, skits and then larger works. It went on to develop a long and proud record of producing plays by Australian writers, and did so at a time when there were few other opportunities for local playwrights to have their work performed on Australian stages.

Exit Left represented Gray’s attempt to seize control of her own story. She is perhaps most famous as the co-winner of the 1955 Playwright’s Advisory Board competition for The Torrents, alongside Ray Lawler, for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. While both were judged equal winners, their fortunes soon diverged: Lawler’s play was hailed as the standard-bearer of a new Australian drama, while Gray’s play languished, unproduced by a professional theatre company for decades (and only receiving a successful, sympathetic production in 2019). The success of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll overshadowed Australia’s thriving amateur theatre culture and its playwrights, including Oriel Gray, who, by the time she won the 1955 competition, had already written twelve stage plays.

Exit Left’s narrative ends well before The Torrents, a way for Gray to underscore the fact that her life and career amounted to much more than an ill-fated brush with fame in the mid 1950s. She continued to write plays, and went on to win the £1000 J.C. Williamson Play Competition in 1959 for Burst of Summer, yet neither that prize nor the 1955 prize brought further acclaim for the works.

Oriel Gray and I stayed in touch for years after our first meeting. I would write with questions about her life and plays, and send her things I’d written about her; she would send long, typed, chatty letters in response, sharing her thoughts about films she was watching and stories of her beloved cats. I think she nursed some frustration and disappointment about her career. Throughout her writing life, she had faced more than a few false starts; opportunities that looked promising had not eventuated, and prizes for her plays had not translated into lasting success. But perhaps most significantly, the Australian theatre revival of the 1970s and 1980s had bypassed Gray and her fellow mid-twentieth-century writers, relegating them to the footnotes of Australian theatre history, if they were included at all.

But with Exit Left, Gray made her mark. She produced a vivid account of the New Theatre movement at its most dynamic and vibrant. The book is at once a young woman’s coming-of-age story, a narrative of political commitment and disillusionment, and a fond portrait of a group of passionate theatre-makers who believed they were building a better world with their art. It is candid, witty and warm. Writing at the height of revived cold war tensions in the mid 1980s, Gray reconstructs both her youthful political idealism and the dour strictures of the Communist Party of Australia with a wry, sceptical eye.

The narrative of Exit Left ends when Oriel Gray is just thirty, her biggest professional successes yet to come. From the outset, she is alive to the transformative power of live theatre. She evokes the bustle of backstage life and the passionate, exacting political debates of the theatre’s members, who “wanted communism, or socialism, for Australia because they believed in it, and they wanted the best for Australia.” The excitement of political ferment is, for Gray, wrapped up in the warmth and energy of theatre life.

In that first conversation with Gray in 1995, she told me that “however faulty our efforts were, we were still passionately interested in theatre. I think we deserve a few withered laurels.” Exit Left reveals the ambition and commitment that drove Oriel Gray’s playwriting, and the enthusiastic community of theatre-makers who nurtured that drive and helped her turn it into plays. Her candid, engaging memoir will ensure that her contribution to Australian theatre history will not be forgotten. •

This is Michelle Arrow’s introduction to the Honour Bright Books’s republication of Exit Left.