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Sue Sherman has taught VCE English since 1989 and has completed postgraduate studies in feminist literature. She has also taught VCE Literature, and is an assessor and a member of the examination setting panel. Sue is a member of the VATE Curriculum Committee and has contributed to 'Inside Stories' and a number of Insight publications. She is a regular presenter at Student Revision and VATE Professional Development days.
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Divisions in Rayson's Inheritance
- Length: 1164 words (3.3 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
HANNIE RAYSON'S Inheritance is predominantly about divisions. It is set in Victoria's Mallee, one of the few regions to represent most accurately the "typical" bush of our mythic past.
It is the 21st century: more than 85 per cent of Australians inhabit the urban areas sprawling along the coasts, and more and more rural areas struggle to survive.
The first half of the play concerns a celebration - twins Girlie Delaney and Dibs Hamilton are celebrating their 80th birthdays, and with the gathering of their families comes the eruption of simmering resentments and anxieties about the future of Dibs and Farley Hamilton's farm, Allandale. The second half starts with a funeral and portrays the shattering of the tenuous links that held the family together.
Rayson's structure of 54 short scenes reflects the fracturing of the family and its fortunes. Characters are disaffected and isolated; there is a turning away from others, symbolised by the dissipation of the farm to fund Maureen's Hansonist political career.
The first act ends with a fight between Nugget and Lyle; the second act demonstrates that each is defeated, as Farley's death exposes the fissures in his family. But, Rayson suggests, Nugget has more resources, greater flexibility with which to respond to change and loss than Lyle, whose inarticulate puzzlement in the face of change paralyses him.
To an extent, the characters in the play represent aspects of the Australian identity and experience. However, Rayson's vivid grasp of speech patterns to evoke character, and her ability to manipulate the audience with humour and pathos move the text beyond mere polemic and stereotype. In an almost Brechtian way, she positions us to analyse as we are entertained and moved.
The characters address the audience; the fast movement from scene to scene juxtaposing past and present and prevents us from identifying with particular characters, forcing us to assess their points of view; there are few characters who fail to repel us, as they display truly human complexity and fallibility. That fallibility is usually associated with greed and a ruthless disregard for the needs of others. Emotional needs are rarely acknowledged by those most concerned with taking what they maintain is theirs, and this confusion of feeling and finance contributes to the play's ultimate bleak mood.
The title Inheritance is an ironic reminder that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, that: "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind."
The house of old Norm Myrtle is indeed troubled, as we see in the families of his daughters, Dibs and Girlie.
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The Hamiltons and Delaneys are divided, and struggling in different ways to keep their land, land that Rayson suggests should not be owned by any of them. We are implicitly reminded of the concept of terra nullius, the empty earth, that ignored the presence of Aborigines, as represented in the most obviously dispossessed character - Nugget.
Rayson uses Nugget to delineate the wrongs of the past that taint the present. He is a powerful symbol of the deracinated original inhabitants of Australia, representing Aboriginal history since white settlement - born as a result of a white man's taking of a black woman, wrenched from his own race, yearning for "the fire" of his ancestors, losing himself in drink at one stage, used and discarded by the whites, finally deprived of his birthright in every way.
The play depicts a bigoted and racist community, which is ruthless in protecting what it sees as its own property. Language emphasises this: Aborigines are "coons", Greeks are "wogs", homosexuals are "poofters" or "pansy boys", university education is to be laughed at and derided, native title is either believing in "the Easter Bunny" or getting "millions of dollars of Crown land".
Unable to deal with change, the characters look for targets on which to vent their hatred and sense of powerlessness.
"I'm keeping it in the family," says Nugget, mistakenly thinking that the will in which Farley left the farm to him still exists. But, "he's not family", says Dibs, who has just torn it up.
Rayson forces the audience to confront the damage done when blood ties are ruptured, when there is no sense of family, of connectedness. Not only are the Hamiltons and Delaneys in conflict with each other, but internally they are splintered.
Rayson emphasises that it does not matter which family inherits the farm, as it belongs to neither of them. Dibs won it on the flip of a coin; it has thrived on the labours of Nugget while Julia and William live comfortably in the city; it becomes a symbol of injustice and exploitation.
Not only does the audience's shifting perspective alienate us from most characters, it adds to the complexity of Rayson's vision and contributes to the sense of unravelling and irreversible loss - the damage cannot be rectified. Dibs' "capacity for human charity" is undercut when she labels her grandson, Felix, as "pathetic", and if she preaches "put(ting) yourself second", her destruction of Farley's will smacks of greed and revenge for being forced to adopt Nugget.
Her sentimental gift of the farm to Lyle not only reflects her true feelings about her own children but stems as much from gullibility as from generosity.
It is this decision, coupled with the inexorable results of past sins, that leads directly to the loss of what Dibs sought to preserve; immediately afterwards, Ashleigh and Brianna, paralleling Girlie and Dibs, discover Lyle's body.
The savage final scenes enact the violent disintegration of the family, of the self, of the rural community. The absence of Christian values first indicated by the priest's concert act is ironically suggested when, to the strains of "Praise Him, Praise Him", we see "the Delaneys' truck piled high with their belongings" arrive at Allandale. They are not welcome. "That is not our problem," says William, and the comfort offered Brianna by Felix is made an excuse for the manifestation of Lyle's frustration and desperation in the barbaric whipping of the boy. Cracks and rifts appear in the farmhouse, and a biblical plague gives concrete expression to the evil that has been done.
Rayson raises many issues that threaten 21st-century Australia, but most notable are the forces that separate and divide individuals and groups. The epilogue sees the start of Maureen's political career, founded on the lost farm. She can be seen as the most bigoted, grasping and selfish character and our knowledge in hindsight that Hansonism was relatively fleeting, is of small comfort in the face of its destructive and polarising effects.
It is cheering that Nugget is with Felix in the epilogue. Julia's baby could symbolise the birth of a new start, untrammelled by the past. Felix himself, named for happiness, embodies the hope of the future; he is honest, sensible, outspoken.
Rayson has him wearing a "Sorry" T-shirt. Together, he and Nugget "turn" (Maureen) "off".
· King Lear by William Shakespeare
· Hannie Rayson's Inheritance: text guide by Sue Sherman, 2005
· Introduction to Contemporary Australian Plays by Russell Vandenbroucke
· Review: "What to say about Inheritance", Kendall Hill, Sydney Morning Herald, April 26, 2003.