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When Novels Perform History

Dramatizing the Past in Australian and Canadian Literature


Rebecca Waese

How do you bring history alive? This book explores the use of dramatic modes – such as melodrama, metatheatre, and immersion – to bring immediacy and a sense of living presence to works of literature rooted in history. Focusing on Australian and Canadian literature from the late 1980s to the present, the book features original research on novels by award-winning writers such as David Musgrave, Richard Flanagan, Daphne Marlatt, Peter Carey, Tomson Highway, Thomas Keneally, and Guy Vanderhaeghe. The analysis addresses how these writers use strategies from drama and theatre to engage with colonial and postcolonial histories in their novels and create resonant connections with readers. Some of the novels encourage readers to imagine themselves in historical roles through intimate dramatizations inside characters’ minds and bodies. Others use exaggerated theatrical frames to place readers at a critical distance from representations of history using Brechtian techniques of alienation. This book explores the use of dramatic modes to enliven and reimagine settler-invader history and bring colonial and postcolonial histories closer to the present.

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Chapter 1: Melodrama in Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker and in David Musgrave’s Glissando


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Melodrama in Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker and in David Musgrave’s Glissando

Although melodrama has been criticized since its golden age in the nineteenth century for its sentimentalism, stock characters, and predictable happy endings, it has in recent years begun to be redefined as a useful field of study by contemporary critics, particularly in film and drama, for its ability to give rise to affective revelations and portray emotional depths,1 and for its genre-crossing propensities.2 Melodrama is employed in some Australian history books to explore dramatic conflict, hardship, and morality, as in Manning Clark’s popular six-volume series, A History of Australia.3 In addition to its uses on stage, in film, and in history books, melodrama has engaging and evocative applications in literature and this chapter identifies how melodrama is used to great effect in two contrasting novels that explore significant aspects of Australia’s history: Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker (1987) and David Musgrave’s Glissando (2001). Outside of this book, readers will also find observations of melodrama in ← 29 | 30 → Australian novels by Marcus Clarke, Christina Stead, Kate Grenville, and Patrick White.4 Melodrama is a representational mode that is particularly well suited to exploring some of the key characteristics of early Australian colonial society that contained moral conflicts, emotional excesses of feeling and a shift toward secular society. Melodrama provides a means for readers to imagine key moments of Australian history through a stylized and dramatic mode that appeals to emotional truths...

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