My Culture 'Tis of Thee
Festive Noises from the Quiet Continent

"Australia is a happy country, paradise on earth with smiling people. There is no room for theater," the Yugoslavian director Ljubisa Ristic told a press conference my first day in Adelaide. "Theater is made by frustrated people for frustrated people. It needs a social situation, conflict in society. Otherwise, you see the same thing on stage as in life."

Ristic, who looked like a charismatic '60s hippie with his long hair and Indian shirt, sitting on the floor of the media lounge where the Adelaide Festival held its daily press briefings, had been brought in with great fanfare by the festival's artistic director Anthony Steel to create a piece with Australian actors called 1984 A.D., which had already caused a stink: bad reviews, noisy walkouts. Ristic, was untroubled. Theater, he said, "It's not a social event. You go to be touched, to think." His biggest problem with Australian actors, he said, was to get them to stop smiling.

Having just arrived, I didn't know what he meant about paradise on earth, but it was a fascinating introduction to Adelaide. Every two years, this sleepy South Australian city (pop. 900,000) stays up all night for a couple of weeks and throws an arts festival that has become central to the city's civic pride. Adelaide loves to call itself the Edinburgh of the Southern Hemisphere -- even if nobody else does. I'd never heard of the Adelaide Festival before I was invited to attend, but the promise of free airfare and lodging at the beautiful (sic) International Hilton in early March, still summertime down under, proved irresistible. The organizers are planning to do a big number for the 1986 festival, you see, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Australia, and they thought a bit of New York press might help promote the cause in advance. (I highly recommend it. End of plug. P.S.: airfare's $3000.)

From its humble and genteel beginnings in 1960, when the highlights were Sir Donald Wolfit reading Shakespeare and a production of Murder in the Cathedral, it has grown into quite a respectable and adventurous festival; the most fondly remembered visitors in recent years have been the likes of Pina Bausch, Peter Brook, and Tadeusz Kantor's Cricot 2. This year 42 companies from Australia and abroad gave 250 music/dance/ theater performances over a period of 18 days in the official festival, while the inevitable fringe offered a thousand more of every description, drawing a total attendance of some 200,000. It was ideal for a culture vulture like me. During my 10 days in Adelaide I ate very little, slept even less, drank a lot of Cooper's ale (the local brew, more alcoholic than our beers), picked up heaps of dinky di Aussie slang, and saw 22 performances. What drew me to Adelaide was the impressive sampling of experimental theater work from Japan, Holland, and Yugoslavia prominently featured alongside such mainstream blockbusters as Ashkenazy's Beethoven cycle (all nine symphonies and five piano concertos in six nights). But when I arrived and started dipping into the local art exhibits, cabaret performances, movies, and music events, I found myself getting an unexpected crash course in Australian culture.

"Culture" -- the word came up in conversation so many times in two weeks it almost becomes a joke. Australians are obsessed with the idea of culture, not in the sense of fine art but of national identity and how a country's art reflects and feeds its people, things that it seems to me Americans (certainly New Yorkers) take entirely for granted. The people I met had an intense interest in and knowledge of current affairs at every level of Australian society. Politics, the arts, education, and work were integrated into their everyday lives to a degree that astonished me. Office workers packed the daily Writers Week seminars featuring everyone from D.M. Thomas to Aboriginal poet Kath Walker and filled the theaters night after night. But it wasn't just festival fever. One of the odd things about Australia is that, although it covers as much land as continental America, 99% of the population is concentrated in one-third of the land, most of them in six urban centers scattered along the coast. This isolation from each other as well as from the rest of the world -- "the tyranny of distance," they call it -- makes them thirsty to know what's going on, just to maintain a sense of reality. That isolation, combined with the inherited history from England, the imported mass media from America, and the relative youth of the country (first settled in 1788, not federated until 1901), forms the basis of the Australian cultural identity crisis -- "the cringe."

I found Australia quite alien. For one thing, the people were very British in their accents ("Gidday, myte!") and personal reserve (especially the men, the women were more spunky and fun) which only surprised me, I guess, because the landscape of the Australian movies we get is usually much more little-house-on-the-prairie than a-foggy-day-in-London-town. And the provincialism is inescapable. Some of it is sweet, like the money (the paper money pictures Australian poets and architects as well as statesmen, and the coins feature beautiful strange animals like lyrebirds and echidnas). But the media are wretched. Pop music radio runs on a quota system so they'll play five-year-old hits by rotten tinny bands like Skyhooks and Mental as Anything instead of Luther Vandross. The papers are a joke, and not just the tabloids Rupert Murdoch cut his baby fangs on, either. You'll see stories like "Chilla the cattle dog dies aged 32" on the front page of the Advertiser, but then you'll also get letters to the editor saying, "Sir -- Each day I look onward with breathless anticipation to my perusal of The Advertiser. What new delights will it have in store for me? A lost dog, perhaps, or Mrs.Brown of Paradise looking harassed on a hot day. On Mondays, of course, there are several pages of weekend brides! Sometimes, we get a special supplement, on vacuum cleaning, or trucks.... But who can complain after Wednesday's supreme achievement in journalism? Next to a three-column story on parking tickets we were treated to not one but TWO pictures to illustrate..."

I should add, of course, that our media gives them the most appalling ideas about Americans. I mentioned to a cabbie that I lived in New York, and he said, "Yair, I saw something about New York on the news the other night -- a woman got thugged out by a Negro." And if Australia suffers a drought of cultural referents, the U.S. spews out a deluge, and what floats to the surface is sewage. I met people whose sole point of reference to contemporary American culture was Dynasty, which they pronounce "DINNesty" (or sometimes "DYS-entry") so they assumed Americans are all fabulously wealthy. However politely expressed, I sensed a lot of hostility toward Americans over everything from pop music to politics, all of which they monitor with ambivalent compulsiveness. "Reagan has a wet dream, and we end up with cum on our hands," sneered a handsome stranger in a Sydney gay bar -- but with his next breath he worried that a recent drug bust meant he'd be barred from visiting America. I found myself identifying with the weird feeling Laurie Anderson told me she felt touring in Europe and sitting across from people at dinner who kept talking to her about "your country." Asked to defend everything from Joan Collins to Gary Hart, I wanted to say, "That's not my country!"

But Australia is alien to Australians, too. They've developed a good sense of humor -- a sort of existential silliness -- about themselves, though. How can they help it? So much of their local lore is so lurid. There's the story of Prime Minister Henry Holt who threw himself into the ocean, presumably committing suicide though they never found the body -- this while in office! They make jokes about him being a spy and getting picked up by a Russian submarine. Then there's the saga of Azaria Chamberlain, a baby girl whose mother apparently slit her throat while on a family camping trip but who claimed on trial that the baby had been kidnaped by a dingo, thus giving rise to a nationwide craze for dingo jokes. Q: What's light brown and goes around and round Ayres Rock? A: A dingo doing a victory lap. And of course, the latest lead in the Henry Holt case is they're looking for a dingo in a wet suit.

In many ways, Australia is paradise on earth. It's certainly beautiful -- we think of the country in terms of desert and exotic animals, but my experience was of green, elegant, well-planned urban centers. The social system is exemplary: health care and college tuition are virtually free, the labor movement is (for now) very strong, the dole compensates for high unemployment (despite predictable grumbling about "those bums on the dole"), and arts funding on both state and federal levels is staggeringly high (South Australia reportedly spends $36 per capita on the arts, compared to New York State's $1.98). Yet like Canadians, Australians suffer an enormous insecurity complex because their culture is so ill-defined.

They're concerned about cultural imperialism for sophisticated (as well as kneejerk-patriotic) reasons. "There are dangers in being unduly parochial and taking no account of cultures and mores outside one's own direct experience," Australian minister for science Barry 0. Jones wrote in a paper on technology and the arts, "but there are also dangers if we ignore and reject our cultural particularity and subordinate it to a homogenised international culture which is founded on a false, meaningless consensus." But what is the source of that particularity in a society that is, as Ristic noted, without conflict? Historian Geoffrey Blainey notes that Australian history has been shaped as much by events that didn't happen as those that did: "Australia has had no civil war and no war of independence. It has had a few serious racial disturbances but by the criteria of many countries they would not be classed as serious. When Douglas Pike wrote a short history of Australia and gave his book the sub-title, The Quiet Continent, there could not be much doubt, except perhaps in the minds of the literate penguins on Antarctica, which continent his book described."

The thing is that, just as the geographical interior of Australia is all but uninhabited, the country has no mythical center. People flounder trying to pinpoint the Australian national character, not because there's no there there, but because they have an ancient history belonging to the aborigines who have been displaced exterminated, silenced and a modern history of white Anglo-Saxon settlers whose ancestral culture has nothing to do with the land they inhabit. I understood this best from my brief tour of the art on exhibit in Adelaide. "Painters of the Western Desert" at the Royal S.A. Society of Arts displayed the typical aboriginal style, a sort of pointillism only with big fat dots (a la sand/rocks/sunspots?) applied to primitive nature images -- there were wonderful canvases titled Snake Dreaming, Flying Ant Dreaming, Fire Dreaming, Water Dreaming, etc. Meanwhile, across town at the Experimental Art Foundation, the Chilean-born artist Juan Davila, notorious for his strong sexual (mostly gay) content, showed a number of very exciting, lurid, hilarious, utterly modern pictures, all of them filled with little scribbled tags identifying references to other artists from Rothko (squares of color) to Christo (an amorphous shape wrapped up and tied with string) to Tom of Finland (a gayporn hunk embracing and licking a tree). Davila's trademark tagging wittily expresses the elusive, eclectic nature of Australians' artistic identity.

"Who are we as a people?" is exactly the sort of issue an arts festival might well address, and the 1984 Adelaide Festival did so in a fascinating way. Rather than the usual Olympic-style competition, the subtext of the festival's international spread was an essay on various models for a national culture. Not all of them were what I would call healthy. The first night of my stay I saw Macunaima, a Brazilian comic epic performed in Portuguese that has been touring the festival circuit for several years and was one of the biggest hits in Adelaide, sold out, rave reviews. I loathed it. It was an innocence-and-experience saga involving complicated plot turns and mythical allusions, so not knowing the language I had to go by what I saw. There were some theatrically ingenious tableaux, but mostly it was bimbos on parade. Naked dark-skinned women with big tits and no humanity were trotted across the stage on the merest of pretexts, and every time he turned around the eponymous hero was either fucking them or killing them. You couldn't ask for a more pointed critique of the Latin American macho ethic but it was delivered as a celebration.

I thought Three Legends of Kra, a self-consciously feminist fable written by Australian actress-singer Robyn Archer and staged as a spectacle involving 100 schoolkids, might be an antidote to Macunaima, but it turned out to be a dreary somber, pseudo-ethnic pageant enacting Navajo, Japanese, and Viking myths only with female protagonists. The idea was no more profound than to present children with nonsexist heroic fantasies, but the problems Archer's female heroes faced and the wisdom they had to impart (championing the craftsmanship of weavers, say, over warriors) were terribly simple-minded and domestic -- "beat your swords into earrings" and that sort of thing. The State Theater of South Australia put on Moliere's Don Juan, whose hero is every bit as scoundrelly and sexually exploitative as Macunaima but at least has a moral dimension -- his determined perfidy brings out whatever shred of virtue the people around him have. The production was static and stagey, the acting terribly clahssical -- with the exception of William Zappa, a Don Juan whose facility of counterfeiting emotion caused him real pain -- but the setting was dazzling. A big pigsty equipped with chandeliers and harpsichord, it was a vision of aristocracy stepping in shit mingled at times with a Beckettian starkness.

The sexual subplot continued with Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, theoretically one of the festival's big lures but wretchedly produced by the State Opera of S.A. The sets were hideous, the translation rotten and melodramatic, the performances cardboard (Beverly Bergen's singing as Katerina, that Bavarian bundle of lust and murderous boredom, was merely pretty rather than lonely or desperate), and the direction based on the stunningly original thought, "Isn't Russia dreary?" Too bad, because it's an intoxicating musical study of obsessive (and explicit, not romanticized) sexuality, complicated and Sondheimian. The most interesting take on sexual warfare in the festival was 30 Men by the Dutch group Stichting Orkater, a twosome consisting of dancer Margie Smit and musician Dick Hauser. It was classic European performance art defined by the performers' particular skills and featuring a nonlinear narrative -- the kind that forces you to "read" film images, objects, musical signals, and live gestures as related parts of the text. Hauser's music -- prerecorded tapes of marimba and violin to which he sometimes added live percussion and guitar -- was sad and haunting, and Smit's choreography ranged from funny footsies on the sofa during a bourgeois quiet-evening-at-home to odd live/film interactions. The succession of striking images didn't accumulate but rather cast a spell, like a living canvas. Though decidedly minor, 30 Men was the sort of experimental work I was pleased to find in a reputedly conservative festival, but it baffled the Australians. "Poppycock" was one paper's entire review.

No such obtuseness greeted Theatre Tenkei Gekijyo's Mizu No Eki (The Water Station), the prestige hit of the festival and certainly the best thing I saw. The action of the piece was simple as can be -- for two hours, a procession of people mad their way across the stage, stopped at a trickling water faucet, and moved on without words, incredibly concentrated, in extremely slow motion (actually, a combination of slow motion and slow, lifelike movement -- suddenly, a look or gesture would indicate sentience rather than abstraction). Yet those two hours conveyed an archetypal panorama of humanity. As they interacted with the water, the actors summoned images of every kind of liquid in nature -- sweat, spit, snot, come, urine, tears, rain, mother's milk. Carrying their meager baggage with them staring outward in horror, sometimes with frighteningly physical noiseless screams, they seemed like refugees from war or apocalypse or simply existence, tasting the last water on earth. It was both a Kabuki ritual expressing the soul of post-Hiroshima Japan and a Beckettian farewell to life -- in fact, it had so many explicit references (a junkheap, man on a leash, surveying with telescope, man changing shoes) that Mizu No Eki was virtually a composite of the entire Beckett canon. But the stunning final image -- a repetition of the first, a woman turning after an interminable cross with tears streaming down her cheek -- completed the piece on a third level of existential theatricality, reflecting the sense that for actors dedicated to their art all life and sustenance come from those two hours on stage. At the curtain call I watched them closely, these awesomely disciplined, powerfully individualized actors. Their faces told whole lives, and they were not smiling.

I had very low expectations of the San Quentin Drama Workshop, one of only two American entries in the festival (the other was dancer Molissa Fenley's exquisite but slight Hemispheres), because they were doing a program called "Beckett Directs Beckett," which sounded to me like someone borrowing the master's production notebook and cashing in on his name. I saw their Waiting for Godot, "production supervised by Samuel Beckett" (meaning he sat in on rehearsals at Riverside Studios in London), at an afternoon performance along with several hundred teenagers who would rather have been donating blood than watching Godot. Their rowdy manners were just about to drive me out of the theater when Pozzo commanded Lucky to "Dance, misery!" As this baldheaded creature with a noose around his neck gave a pathetic little leap on one foot as if trying to fly, a moth imagining himself an eagle, tears unexpectedly sprang to my eyes. And a few moments later his monologue came across to me with unprecedented clarity: how can man be so articulate about his suffering and still suffer it? Well, this just turned out to be Godot as I always wanted and never dreamed I'd see it done -- slow, even dour, the vaudevillian side of the play not souped up for restless audiences, the way it usually is. The comedy was as precise (at times surprisingly stylized) as the poetry, which leapt from the stage with startling serenity.

I spent a long time talking about Godot with a director and journalist from Singapore who had spent several years in jail because of his writing. He felt, as I did, that this Godot was major work and not just another item to be ticked off the things-to-see list. But he was disappointed, I think, that the production didn't reflect more directly the prison experience of director Rick Cluchey for which the San Quentin Drama Workshop was named. For me the production proved that the less you impose conceptually on the self-contained world of the play, the more it can mean. My reaction was very emotional, and I realized that I always respond to the same line in act two: "Was I sleeping while others suffered?" It's a reasonable thing to think while facing death, a sort of guilt that you missed out on improving the world in some way, facing the void but feeling peaceful and wondering why. I think I relate to it because -- and this feels very American -- I have a good life, I work hard but I don't sweat, I eat well, I live well, I don't have any of the circumstantial difficulties so many people have because of health, economics, or unhappy personal lives. As they say in Australia, "No worries."

Ristic's 1984 A.D. was an ongoing controversy during the festival. A public forum on the workshop process that created the piece turned into (one of my favorite Aussie expressions) "a bit of a bunfight." One of the actors got up and announced that he was embarrassed to be in the show, deriding among other things the "daggy" costumes. (Someone else helpfully gave me the derivation of that common term -- a "dag" is a dried ball of shit in a sheep's ass.) And John Drummond, the director of the Edinburgh Festival, wrote an article accusing the director of contempt for his actors. When I saw the piece, I understood the hullabaloo at last -- Ristic had dug underneath the easygoing, "no worries" facade of his handpicked Australian company and stirred up a few nightmares.

It was a big, wonderful mess of a piece, an almost frighteningly chaotic Richard Foreman-ish collage clearly unlike anything Australian actors or audiences had encountered before. Loosely based on three texts -- Aeschylus's The Persians (the earliest extant Greek drama), Peer Gynt, and 1984 -- interspersed with documentary material or autobiographical stuff the actors had brought in during rehearsal, it explored the proposition that 1984 has always existed, that society has always made rules for itself governing what is acceptable and unacceptable. Ristic made this exploration immediate by ingeniously pursuing the performers' fear of failure and using that to unearth images from Australia's racial past. The opening section of the piece, which audiences had complained about, was a pretty awful, tedious run-through of The Persians -- intentionally, it turned out. It segued into dressing room scenes that perfectly captured the glum atmosphere backstage at a show everyone knows is bad, which in turn was a clever metaphor for the yeah-yeah-I-know-it's- important-but-it-doesn't-speak-to-me attitude that I suspect most of us feel about Greek drama and history in general.

What happened next is difficult to describe. From banal actor chat, the piece evolved into a wild, scary dreamscape. An actor named David who was reading a letter from his mother put on the blindfold worn by Xerxes in The Persians, and suddenly it was as if he were imagining a theater piece that could satisfy our urge to act out raw emotions and images from history, because weird, trippy things started happening. On stage a woman with her knickers down was shampooed while an absurd but fanatically detailed harangue on female masturbation was declaimed, and speakers patrolled the aisles while the loudspeaker played repeated snatches of Nat King Cole singing "They try to tell us we're too young..." A discussion of Ibsen's problems with critics and translators gave way to good, silly pop choreography. A schoolgirl who sat at a desk for a long time holding a stuffed koala bear got up and played banjo while five women swishing full skirts sang some crazy Campfire Girl-type song, then they blindfolded the girl, stripped her to her panties, marked her with cork, and as a sort of initiation into Girl Guides (the Australian Girl Scouts) had her act out a "feather aborigine." She nervously told a rambling aborigine fairy tale, punctuated by really unnerving shotgun blasts fired by a punky meathead in ripped jeans -- I didn't precisely understand the politics of all this, but the gist was the mistreatment and destruction of the aborigines, the dirty secret of Australian history akin to the situation of American Indians. For all the striking and odd stage pictures, there was much I couldn't make sense of at all, but theatrically 1984 A.D. was very exciting, savage, unpredictable, and I enjoyed watching what happened when an experimental Yugoslavian director prodded Australian actors to probe beneath the surface of their happy land.

Somehow I expected to find more work like 1984 A.D. on the fringe, experimental work that challenged ideas of culture and provided a critique of the official festival, but the fringe turned out to be primarily an introduction to the thriving, not terribly innovative street-level youth culture -- real people as opposed to artistic ideals. And that's important too. A lot of the Aussies I met grumbled that the Australian movies that make it overseas are museum pieces that don't reflect contemporary life, and in fact many of the films in the fringe's independent film series specifically endeavored to correct the situation. I didn't see Going Down, Haydon Keenan's Smithereens-like movie about four trendy women raging through Sydney's nightlife (the big scene, apparently, had one gal salvaging a lude from a drunk stranger's vomit), but Susan Lambert's On Guard was an exciting feminist thriller amazingly similar to Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames, less technically crude but without the wonderfully flamboyant acting.

Most of the stuff I saw on the fringe, though, was cabaret-style music and comedy, and a lot of it seemed very dated. D'Arc Swann was a dance company whose gimmick was dancing to rock music by Iggy Pop and New Order, Tokyo Rose a women's band from Perth who dressed punky but sang kitschy '60s pop, and Zen and Now a nostalgic revue of the kind that goes on every week at Don't Tell Mama. Some of it was terrific and funny, like a trio called Tick Where Applicable (accent on the second syllable) who sang B-52's-style parody songs and did a live-action film about paying the rent (to avoid the landlord, they jumped out the window and landed in ancient Egypt) and standup comedian Melanie Salomon, who did a great bit about an Australian-style Valley Girl ("Steve calls Wendy a pricktease and a slack moll -- how can you be both?"). But the best comedy I saw was a fringe-style act, who this year played the festival, called Los Trios Ringbarkus, a sort of cross between the Kipper Kids and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, intellectuals who accomplish their subversive goals through gross-out comedy. Besides their regular show, which included an audience-participation routine that began as a juggling act using breadrolls and turned into an out-and-out "bunfight," Los Trios (two guys, actually, named Stephen Kearney and Neill Gladwin) did an impromptu set at the after-hours Festival Club that featured a devastating 30-second satire (a slow-motion silent scream that became a yawn) of Mizu No Eki, one of the festival's sacred cows.

I put off for a long time having the expected serious chat with Anthony Steel, the festival's artistic director and indefatigable spokesman, because I feared I would get a lot of smiling propaganda, if not veiled pressure to write nice things in return for my free ride. Partly I took my cue from the staff, who referred to Steel as "His Lordship," and told mean tales like how he greeted Molissa Fenley at the airport with a grand sweeping cry of "Molissah!," to which the dancer sort of shrugged, "oh, hi." The thing was, I already had a higher opinion of the festival than most of the hometown press, who seemed either ill-equipped or undisposed to assess the festival as a whole. To me the lineup of artists presented in the festival seemed an appropriate response to Australia's quest for culture; even shows I didn't see (Raun Raun Theater from Papua New Guinea) or didn't like (Macunaima) modeled the various combinations of history, ethnicity, and interartistic and cross-cultural reference through which a nation expresses itself. The Stage Company's mediocre production of David Pownall's Master Class, for instance, a rather terrible English play imagining the infamous showdown between Stalin and Shostakovich over Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, usefully dramatized the tragifarce of trying to create a national culture by fiat.

Anyway, when I did talk to Steel, he turned out to be surprisingly unpretentious. In fact, he volunteered his own criticisms of the festival, such as the underrepresentation of dance, and told me that if he'd had his way he would have canceled the Beethoven cycle because "it doesn't fit a festival for this city" (he inherited it when the original director of the '84 festival resigned last April). The festival has a budget of nearly $3 million, more than a third of it public money, which makes the directorship a highly politicized job, and for better or worse Steel seems to have mastered the politicking. Formerly manager of the Royal Festival Hall in London, he ran the '74, '76, and '78 festivals, and has signed on to plan the big sesquecentennial in '86. He's taken lumps for outspokenness -- he once said, "The festival is not for the people, in the same way a cricket match is not for me," which really riled the Aussies, always suspicious of elitism -- and he's learned the art of surviving through diplomacy.

"My contract sets down guidelines," Steel told me. "There must be a balance between Australian and international companies, a balance of art forms, one or two big public events like Writers Week and the opening parade. Otherwise, I have a free hand." He's an energetic white-haired guy in his 50s who pointedly dresses down in tie-dyed smocks, sandals and straw hat. "The board doesn't interfere, but they would be very disturbed if I said forget Beethoven, forget Shakespeare. They expect a balance of the traditional and the new. Theater is hidebound by middle-aged, middle-class, middlebrow attitudes in Australia. What I find satisfying is the audience. Local theatergoers, who see little of interest in between festivals, book out Mizu No Eki, Molissa Fenley, Macunaima, things you'd think they'd be wary of. Concern for box office means you have to plan conventional fare, and lots of people loved the Philharmonia. But now I have statistics to show that people do want to see experimental stuff."

Steel has some radical plans for '86 such as a commissioned work by Philip Glass and a moratorium on British performers, "but I know that's just a dream. In 1986 there will be celebrations from January to December. My trump card is that I can say, 'You've got the rest of the year to accept birthday presents from abroad and do your historical reenactments. All the more reason for the festival to look ahead.' The trouble is," he sighed, "is that Australian artists don't look forward."

I guess that was the strongest impression I got from my brief but intense glimpse at the arts in Australia. With the possible exception of Juan Davila, I didn't see any visionary work, didn't see any plays by Australian writers at all, didn't see any really great acting (the best was probably in Ristic's piece). I was less impressed with the Australians' achievement in culture than with their appetite, their search and self-questioning, best exemplified by the production of English playwright Stephen Lowe's Tibetan Inroads performed by the ensemble-style Troupe Theater, which I attended my last night in Adelaide.

If the festival began for me with Macunaima, a crowd-pleasing tribal show of the most offensive, politically unaware, sexually and culturally exploitative sort, it ended with a stunning dramatic meditation on the volatile interplay of politics, religion, and sensuality. Carefully directed by a Marxist lesbian-feminist named Jules Holledge, Tibetan Inroads was one of the least commercially successful shows in the festival but probably the most intellectually rigorous. The play charts the struggle of a blacksmith named Dorje to learn from a succession of cruel blows. He is castrated as punishment for his affair with a married woman; his religious beliefs prevent revenge; and he and his church-dominated countrymen are "liberated" by the Chinese revolutionaries only to be reduced again to serfs laboring to build a road their "comrades" have deemed necessary for supply routes to China. Heady stuff, dense and wordy like so many of those staunch political British plays, but it ended with a speech that reverberates back over my entire experience investigating culture in Australia.

Asked by the propaganda officer for self-criticism, Dorje says, "My main mistake is a failure to question and understand . . . I do not ask myself all the time, who is this road for? Why have we decided to build it? Is it for the people? Who are the people? Where is this road going? I should ask these questions more often, and out loud, so that my comrades can help me in answering them."

(Village Voice, 1984)

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