In writing this account, I acknowledge the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and the traditional custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this recollection contains the voices and names of deceased persons.
The Structure of Feeling
About two months after we finished our second play together, J called to ask me a question.
“J!” I said, rising an inflection too far above the weight of impending obligation. “How’ve you been?”
J, it turned out, had been fine; then bored, a little searching. And then very hot. And now he had returned from the Simpson desert coated in a fine mist of something akin to the feeling of “missing you all”.
Would I like to catch up, he wanted to know. Did I think, more specifically, I could act as a gauge on whether “you all”—the whole cast—would like to catch up?
It was 1998 and, after our class production of The Cherry Pickers, I had only a few credits to go before I’d have a Literature degree and an entry-level job in admin. Meanwhile, I was renting a fridge with a Sociology PhD candidate in a New Farm share-house where the rats were more optimistic about the future than we were.
I glanced across the room at the sociologist ensconced in a grey cloud of his own making, beside a trophy-height tower of cigarette butts. Phone calls, I knew, provided him with some auditory diversity, relief from the dominance that Beth Orton exerted in the soundscape of his relative existence.
“All of us?” I asked.
“Yeah, all of us,” J confirmed.
On other end of the phone, J’s voice sounded far away, as if he were explaining something to himself from inside the tin can of his own mind rather than, as the sociologist would have argued, engaging in a symbolic exchange between two consumer entities.
I pictured the premature furrows that ran like snake tracks across J’s brow. I tallied the few small things I knew about him: that he wore khaki shorts and drove a Greenpeace-stickered van. That he’d veered off the path from Anthropology into terra that wasn’t so nullius. That I’d watched him grapple pointedly with the insufficiency of his pacifism. And that these last two things seemed so much bigger than any other small thing I might know about him.
We’d spent most of the previous year, the birth year of Pauline Hanson’s divisive One Nation party, analysing and performing plays as part of our studies in Black Australian Literature A and B at The University of Queensland. Eight of us had enrolled, and as each of our trajectories converged, we’d found ourselves blinking at the power released in our collision. But now, several months later, I detected a kind of “old gang” tone to J’s suggestion—a tone, I pondered, that didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of our ambition.
“I feel that what we did was really valuable,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “It is.”
“But now we’re all going in different directions.”
“Do you think so?” he asked. “Do we have to?”
I tried not to wobble on the fence as I began to list who we were, where we’d come from, and where we were going (as if in my own case I had any tangible idea).
In the space of a year, I reminded him, we’d formed an ensemble from difference. We’d been a cast of mismatched characters, three Indigenous Australians and five of us interlopers, but we’d forged a workable script. And in acting out our roles in the plays of Bob Maza, Kevin Gilbert, and Robert J Merritt, we had lurched upon our own difficult arc toward understanding the booby-trapped narratives of “reconciliation”.
As we questioned the motivation driving the characterisation of a missionary—or interrogated the value system of a whitefella surveyor portrayed through the eyes of a traditional custodian, or asked whether a Murri boy calling a white girl “migaloo” was okay in a real-life argument, or whether the same Murri boy and migaloo girl brushing cheeks in a Wiradjuri stage kiss would get the boy in trouble with his actual migaloo girlfriend—we had fallen apart, sometimes it seemed irreparably. And always with a desolation that seemed too large for the petty point on our tongues.
After one particularly wretched blocking session, I had watched J in his well-intentioned role as director curl into the stoop before the doors to the Avalon Theatre, cradling his head, wondering how he might ever answer to the generations of distrust his sandy-blonde hair made him responsible for. But it was in these moments of conceptual desperation, born from real people feeling real and essential pain together, that I knew we were learning the thing that our tutor, C, had wanted us to learn: that in theatre, as in life, committing to community-based perspectives teaches you to listen in the silences as well as in the noise, to question the terms of your own identity, and to act as an amplifier (not the voice) for another’s heartbeat. That the narrative we shared would endure.
“It is in art,” the cultural theorist Raymond Williams suggested, “that the effect of a whole lived experience is expressed and embodied … ” And “when that structure of feeling has been absorbed, it is the connections, the correspondences, even the period similarities that spring to the eye … It is as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it is based in the deepest and often least tangible elements of our experience.”
Or, in the words of poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, “Let no one say the past is dead. The past is all about us and within.”
“J,” I said. “I think we did the thing we had to do together.”
J was quiet. I stared at the ringleted cord, stretching out from the phone to the bit of plastic on the wall that tethered it to the unseeable lines beyond. And as I stared, I wondered how many nights I’d spent in a gin-soaked mist, arguing the case for a structure of feeling—for an articulation of time and place and the echoes of things that have happened?
How many times had I brandished Raymond’s theoretical spark against the smoky grey cynicism of the sociologist’s emphatic post-structuralist narratives? And now, here I was, unwilling to make good on the real. A first-generation migaloo trying to work out where she belonged, what she believed, and how to learn, but unable to move beyond the residue of symbolic exchange.
So, I agreed.
“All of us,” I said. “Let’s catch up.”
And I meant it.
But we never did.
Except for here, in this place, where we still need to keep doing the thing that we did together.
Clare Murphy, Bachelor of Arts (English Literature) 1998; Graduate Certificate in Arts (Writing, Editing and Publishing) 2004
Image, used with permission (Fryer Library, The University of Queensland):Avalon Theatre, UQ, 1971, Fryer Library University of Queensland Photograph Collection, UQFL466, Box 6, AE/P/1.
The opinions expressed in this story are those of the author.