HANNIE RAYSONS Inheritance is predominantly about divisions. It is set in Victorias 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 Hamiltons farm, Allandale. The second half starts with a funeral and portrays the shattering of the tenuous links that held the family together.
Raysons 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 Maureens Hansonist political career.
The first act ends with a fight between Nugget and Lyle; the second act demonstrates that each is defeated, as Farleys 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, Raysons 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 plays 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. 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 mans 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.
“Im keeping it in the family,” says Nugget, mistakenly thinking that the will in which Farley left the farm to him still exists. But, “hes 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