Oftentimes, the best representation of a nation can be found within literature. Such is through for Michael Gow’s 1986 play Away, which offers a distinct depiction of Australian society in 1968, a time when crises such as the Great Depression and World War II were decades in the past but still fresh in mind. Through Gow’s expert characterisation of Gwen and Roy, this didactic text reveals the preoccupation with social status, materialism and ignorance of mental illness that define this period of Australian culture.
Gow is able to make a strong comment on the excessive concern with social status possessed by Australian citizens of this time. This ideology is exemplified by the characters of Gwen and Ron, who represent the typical attitudes of Australian society, as seen when Gwen mentions she “got a new caravan. Everything in it you could want.” Here, the bragging within Gwen’s dialogue and the symbolism of the expensive vehicle is used to demonstrate that her family holiday revolves around status and is an opportunity to display their social position, rather than to bond with loved ones. It is through these devices that Gow is able to illustrate the intense value placed on societal standing by Australian society, an idea that is continued within Roy’s dialogue, “One. My position at school. I can’t go turning up at school functions with you if you’re going to behave like a ghost.” Here, the prioritisation of his ‘position’ over the needs of his wife highlights the importance of social status within the culture of Australia. As these characters repeatedly value their societal positions above even their loved ones, the play is able to emphasise the preoccupation with social status found within Australia’s nationhood.
The play also serves to underline Australia’s materialism within this time period through its characters. As the nation recovers from earlier historical traumas, the effect this has had on its citizens are clearly demonstrated within Gwen’s values, as seen within her reaction to the massive storm, “Take the stove! … Where’s my purse?” Here, her dialogue within this dangerous scenario reveals that she is most concerned with the safety of her material belongings, even over that of her family. Her obsession with her property reflects the extreme materialism that plagued Australian culture at this time, an idea which is further supported in her attitude towards the poorer characters of Vic and Harry, who are staying in a “lean-to” and who Gwen believes are “living like pigs” and “shouldn’t be going on a holiday if they can’t afford one.” Here, her dialogue demonstrates her condescending opinion of due to their inferior accommodation, suggesting that she measures one’s success by their material possessions, whilst her commentary on their decisions reveals that she expects others to do the same. Through the character of Gwen, Gow is able to illustrate the excessive materialism seen within Australian society following the Great Depression.
Additionally, Gow’s expert employment of characterisation has allowed him to illustrate the harsh ignorance towards mental illness demonstrated by the majority of Australian society during this time. This is obvious within Roy, who represents the nation’s dominant ideologies, and his unforgiving attitude towards Coral’s depression. This is seen in his dialogue with her, such as in the lines, “I don’t care how you justify it, you behave in a way that’s too…weird for my liking.” Here, his use of the phrase ‘too weird for my liking’ reveals that he expects her to adhere to his expectations for her behaviour and his disregard for her mental struggles. As he represents the common ideas of Australian culture, this highlights the nation’s unforgiving and ignorant attitudes towards depression and other mental illnesses. This idea is further developed as Roy continues to threaten her in hopes of altering her behaviour, “Do you want me to arrange shock treatment? …I’ll lock you up if that’s what it takes…But you won’t behave like this.” His reaction to her depression and his adamant belief that she has control over its effect on her behaviour reveal the complete lack of understanding in Australian society regarding this issue. It is through this strong characterisation of Roy that Gow is able to highlight the ignorance towards mental illness that was ubiquitous within Australian culture at the time.
Thus, Michael Gow’s expert use of characterisation, dialogue and symbolism enables his 1986 play Away to form a strong depiction of Australian society during the 1960s. Through his portrayal of Gwen and Roy, who represent the dominant ideologies of Australia, he is able to reveal the nation’s preoccupation with social status, as well as the materialism of its citizens and the ignorance towards mental illness present within its culture.