Last weekend I went to a staged reading performance at the State Library of NSW. The play, Her Brilliant Career, is about Miles Franklin and written by Alice Spigelman. According to the event spiel,
The State Library was a home away from home for Miles where she often arranged to have tea with one of the librarians. It was to the State Library that she bequeathed her papers, journals, and diaries. With this play Miles returns to the Library she so loved, where the idea for this play about her was born.
I was very excited about the thought of attending a public performance and I planned to take copious notes so that I could write a thoughtful piece for my blog. But!
A very big BUT!
The woman who sat down next to me just as the reading began was wearing an overwhelming amount of perfume. It was like a force field around her, almost suffocating in its intensity, and instead of writing in my notebook, I used it to fan my face the entire time in an almost futile attempt to keep the fug away. By the end of the performance I was so befogged, befuddled and het up I couldn’t stay for the Q&A with the playwright. I had to flee.
I then spent the rest of the weekend fuming about my enjoyment of a performance being ruined by inconsiderate perfume usage rather than thinking about what I actually saw & heard (if you must wear perfume, the scent of it should tantalise and tease, not knock your neighbour out or make them feel nauseous)!
Since then, a Covid positive diagnosis has taken every other thought out of my brain.
Catching up with some reading yesterday, Bill’s post about Miles Franklin on the AWW site prompted me to pull my thoughts together. However, without any notes all I can really do is give you a basic idea of the story as I remember it, with some help from the Library archive.
The event blurb describes Her Brilliant Career by saying that,
Miles Franklin was an enigma until someone managed to crack the code in which she wrote her desperate, hilarious diaries to hide them from her mother.
Through the prism of Miles’ explosive relationship with her mother, the play brings to life Miles’ stellar rise to fame as a young girl and why she was never able to repeat it. We see her refusal to commit to marriage; her years in Chicago working alongside the Suffragettes, why she had to stay away from Australia for close to 30 years yet remained a trenchant nationalist who joined a pro-fascist group on her return. Haunted by poverty and failure, she established the Miles Franklin Award, which remains Australia’s highest literary prize.
The reading included four actors (names I had intended to write down, but didn’t, and unfortunately their names are not on the event page). Two of the women played Stella – young Stella and older Stella. Another played her mother, Susannah and the fourth actor played Edwin Bridle, a cousin.
The story begins on the day of Susannah’s funeral in 1938 with Stella aged 59. A knock at the door reveals her cousin, Edwin. We quickly learn that Stella refused to marry Edwin before she headed overseas in 1905 and that they haven’t seen each other since. Their discussions touch on the passing of time, grief and loss and the difficult nature of Susannah. As Miles reflects on things said and done, her mother appears on the other side of the stage with young Stella to ‘replay’ these earlier events.
It’s cleverly done.
The device allows us to see the event as it played out, as well as seeing it through Stella’s more mature, more forgiving gaze of grief.
The youthful memory scenes cover the writing of My Brilliant Career and its reception, including Suzannah’s anger about having their family exposed in the book. The various comings and goings of Stella and her feminist activities also come under her mother’s scathing scrutiny. It was clear that Susannah disapproved of Stella’s choices in life and her friendship with activists like Vida Goldstein.
The discussions with Edwin touched on her reasons for declining the Order of the British Empire the previous year, her friendship with Percy ‘Inky’ Stephenson and her political affiliations. Unfortunately, I cannot remember how Spigelman drew the play to a close. By the end I was so desperate to get away that my concentration levels had waned.
This was only the second time I had been to a staged reading performance.
It’s fascinating seeing this inbetween phase in the life of a play, trying to imagine how it might look with a full set and more movement. I would have enjoyed hearing what Spigelman had to say about this process – what she had learned, what worked better than she thought, what didn’t work, what she planned to change etc.
Alice Spigelman AM is a Hungarian-born Australian clinical psychologist, writer and human rights advocate. Her most recent book, The Budapest Job, is a thriller set in 1989 at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her biography of Harry Seidler, Almost Full Circle: Harry Seidler: A biography, was published in 2001. A Kind of Reunion, her first play, premiered in December 2020. Her second play, to be premiered in Sydney in 2022, is Her Brilliant Career, about the life of Miles Franklin.
Her Brilliant Career is produced by Moira Blumenthal Productions. Founded by Moira Blumenthal, whose reputation as a producer and director spans many years and three continents, the company is committed to working with Australia’s best actors and designers to bring the wider community incredible Jewish plays that are both entertaining and illuminating.
One of the sections of Franklin’s diary that drew the attention of Spigelman were those were she talked about attending pro-right-wing fascist groups during 1938 and in the lead up to WWII. My understanding is that Franklin attended some of these meetings out of friendship for people like Stephenson rather than for her own political beliefs (which seem to have been of the Australia First, anti-war variety). But I have yet to read any of the biographies about Franklin and I’m only going on what I have gleaned from various wikipedia pages.
I’m not sure what Spigelman wanted to say about this part of Franklin’s life, or what bows she wanted to draw. Perhaps the Q&A would have covered this? I wish I could share more insights, but between perfume and Covid, that’s the best I can do!
I’ll finish with a personal aside that I discovered on Spigelman’s wikipedia page, or more accurately, on her husband’s, James Spigelman, the former Chief Justice of NSW. His parents, Gustawa and Majloch, were Holocaust survivors. They featured in his cousin’s (Art Spiegleman) graphic novel, Maus.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.