The play was first performed in Brisbane in 1995, amidst heated political debates concerning reconciliation, racial discrimination and the conditions that Indigenous Australians were living under as a result of the way they had been dealt with by society and by the Australian government in the past.
The discussion of Indigenous history may raise strong feelings and emotions due to the upsetting nature of many of the events that have occurred in the past.
See the timeline, Indigenous history post colonisation (PDF, 199KB).
Personal response on reading the text
Texts for comparison
Speech: ‘The Redfern Speech’ by Paul Keating, 1992
In December 1992, Paul Keating’s famous ‘Redfern Speech’ summarised and addressed many of the past injustices committed against the Indigenous people of Australia. The speech is available on YouTube (with closed captions and connected to the National Archives of Australia).
An interesting article by Tom Clark ‘Paul Keating’s Redfern speech and its rhetorical legacy’ can also be readily accessed. Whilst this article is quite a complex and sophisticated one, teachers may wish to choose short excerpts to explore with their students. The most interesting aspect of the article is the manner in which it looks at the tension between the speech writer and the politician delivering the speech as a performance. This raises questions about authorship and purpose that will be of interest to students.
Picture book: The Rabbits by Shaun Tan and John Marsden, 1998
Shaun Tan and John Marsden’s picture book The Rabbits is an allegorical fable which effectively used the extended metaphor of white rabbits invading and colonising native creatures to explore the devastation that occurred since the arrival of the British in 1788. It is worth reading with your class and considering the parallels between the introduction of foreign species such as rabbits (with their tendency to become pests by killing off native wildlife) and the effects of human colonisation. The illustrator, Shaun Tan, notes that:
Researching accounts of Aboriginal contact with Europeans offered some insight into how strange one must have looked to the other; the unbelievable scale of ships, the sheer enigma of European clothes, possessions, language, social hierarchy and behaviour.
How is this sense of unfamiliarity and alienation reflected in the ethereal drawings? Imagine that aliens/barbarians/foreign life forms (be creative!) have invaded Earth with their advanced technologies. They bring strange diseases and damaging substances. Their goal is to obliterate your culture. Your task is to:
- Perform a mime in groups of four about the effects of this invasion.
- As an audience, critique each group’s performance in terms of its link to the arrival of white settlers in Australia. Which performance best shows links to our history? What are the effects of the invasion upon the oppressors and the victims? What is lost and why?
Activity: Creative writing
After reading The Rabbits and researching the history of Indigenous Australians after 1788, you may wish to ask your students to compose their own short narratives using metaphors to explore the effects of colonisation. Students may choose to compose a short piece of writing which either provides an overview of the effects of colonisation or chooses to focus on a specific event.
These narratives should be aimed at a child audience and use simple language and short sentences. They should have a didactic purpose (that is, they should try and teach their audience about the wrongs which have been done to their characters with the aim of creating empathy for the victims and enabling the responder to understand their predicament).
They should be between 150–250 words long and must include at least some non-human characters. The purpose of the exercise is to explore historical events in a symbolic or metaphorical manner.
Before reading the play, students should access and read a 2002 article by Jacqui Taffel from the Sydney Morning Herald on Deborah Mailman, entitled ‘The Mailman express’ which was presented to publicise The 7 Stages of Grieving, and then answer the following questions:
- How did Deborah Mailman meet Wesley Enoch and what is their relationship like?
- What event originally inspired Enoch to write the play?
- What does the writer state is the intention of the play?
- How has Mailman’s attitude towards her Indigenous background changed?
- What does Mailman like and dislike about acting?
- Why does Mailman say that the play is not purely autobiographical?
Students should read the Introductory articles at the front of the playscript and answer the following:
- On p.9, why does Neville Bonner refer to Moses? What point is he attempting to make about Indigenous history?
- What does Bonner wish to celebrate about Indigenous culture (p. 11)?
- What is the message presented in Cec Fisher’s poem (p. 9)? What is the purpose in quoting from this text?
- Why does Wesley Enoch criticise the “romantic picture” (p. 13) that many White Australians have of Indigenous culture?
- Read ‘A Cultural History of Australia’ (pp. 22-25) and note down three things you find interesting or surprising about this list of historical events. What did you learn from reading the timeline?
For other activities on different related texts see the attached Pre-reading activities document (PDF, 142KB).
The play is divided into 24 scenes. Each scene can be seen to relate to either the 7 phases of Aboriginal history or the 5 stages of dying (PDF, 108KB) that appear on the back cover. Some scenes are silent depending on visual effects, some scenes are in an Aboriginal tongue to show connection to the past, while other scenes have very modern dramatic forms such as stand-up comedy. There is some sense of a chronological development through the scenes. The attached plot outline (PDF, 180KB) tracks each of the 24 scenes, their action and purpose.
Activity: Understanding the plot
While reading through the play, try to identify the phases and stages in relation to the scenes you read. After you have finished the play, write a paragraph of about ten lines where you provide a plot summary, referring to either the phases or stages in your account of the plot.
After composing their stories, students should share them with the class.
Because death is an inevitable, natural fact of life, grief is only just as natural. “Grief” is defined as a deep sorrow, especially one that is caused by someone’s death. Some handle the death of a loved one better than others. Others, well, it tears them up inside and continues to negatively affect them for the rest of their life. Nonetheless, there is generally a process that a person tends to experience beginning after the passing of a loved one, and it starts with the initial shock of losing a dearly loved person and ends with finally accepting their passing. One model that explains the process of grieving is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ model “The Five Stages of Grief” – in which there is 1) Denial, 2) Anger, 3) Bargaining, 4) Depression and 5) Acceptance.
Denial happens to people when they first lose a person to death and can’t believe it has happened. They deny it. It is essentially a stage of shock, numbness, and disbelief. They are not denying the death has occurred; they are more so experiencing this mentality: “I can’t believe this person, whom I love so much and came to depend on, will never be around to embrace again.” This thought process serves to protect the grieving because to understand this reality all at once would be too intense and overwhelming for the living loved ones. Eventually one asks, “How did this happen?” and “Why?” But this is natural; it’s a sign that they are moving out of the denial phase and into the process of healing.
The second stage is anger – at oneself, at God, at the loved one, at the world. It is often kept bottled up inside until it turns into guilt – guilt that more could have been done to prevent this loved one’s death. But this is a completely natural response to loss. Recognizing this anger phase of the process of grieving and being able to control these strong emotions is a crucial step to moving on toward acceptance.
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Bargaining is the third stage. This occurs when the grieving person wants life to be like it used to be when the deceased was still alive and well. They essentially fixate on going back in time in order to prevent the death from happening in the first place. It is the “If only” mentality. This keeps the person focused on the past – and they avoid dealing with the emotions of the present, the reality of the deceased.
Depression is the fourth stage of grieving, according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ model of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is when the person who has lost a loved one and who is grieving enters a darker level – one with intense feelings of emptiness and sadness. When daily habits become a burden, and joy is hard to find in any event or experience. It is not a mental illness at this point, per se, but a natural response to loss. In this stage, the griever allows himself or herself to begin accepting the loss. At this point, they allow themselves to feel the pain, loss, grief and sadness that comes with the death of a loved one. This is crucial to healing – experiencing these emotions for this reason.
The fifth and final stage of the grieving process is acceptance. It is not the cure to grief, as the loss of a dearly loved one can impact a person for the rest of their lives. Acceptance only means the person who has lost a loved one is ready to try and move on – to accommodate themselves in this world without the loved one.
This is a process that everyone experience in one shape or form. It is one that can actually bring a person closer to the departed, the loved one, with a clear sense of the previous life and clear understanding how they want life to be now.