Adapting The Secret River for the Stage – Perspectives and Context

The 16th – 20th centuries represented an era marked by European colonialism. This included the forcible occupation of foreign lands and the control of these lands through various mechanisms of power. In Australia, this expansion involved the deliberate separation of the colonialists form the natives due to their belief of ‘European superiority’. Mirroring our infamous past, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of The Secret River tells the story of two families; one settler, one Indigenous, and explores the binary opposition that exists between the two. Interestingly, the play shows that at one point in Australian history a harmonious relationship between these cultures was possible. However, the text reinforces the fundamental notion that differing perspectives, shaped by an individual’s historical and social context, have prevented a peaceful coexistence, resulting in a history marked by a sense of tragedy and despair.

During the 18th -19th centuries a social hierarchy was prevalent in British society. Influenced by this contextual factor, Captain Suckling (constructed to represent the elite in society) is of the view that class is ‘pre-destined’ rather than ‘self- determined’. Upon docking at the Sydney Harbour, Suckling comes into contact with ex-convict William Thornhill; “stand back for god’s sake man you harbor the flies (Thornhill steps back)…a gentleman you pretend to be.” (Act 1, Scene 11) Here, Suckling’s condescending tone towards Thornhill reveals the denigrating attitude of the upper-class towards the lower-class. Also during the 18th century, the British Government had ‘raised the flag’ on Australian soil and ignorantly declared the land as ‘Terra Nullius’. Convicts were urged to inhabit the land and form a colony. William Thornhill arrived in New South Wales as a convict from the ‘slums’ of London. “We were nothing in London. Nothing to London. Place spat us out like it spat all them others out.” (Act 2, Scene 16) This discourse of bureaucracy, reveals that to Thornhill Australia was a life-line; an opportunity that symbolized a change of fate. From Thornhill’s perspective owing land symbolized success; a privilege reserved for the elite. Upon arrival, Thornhill makes his way around ‘his’ 100 acres of land and exercises ownership by physically touching certain objects; “with each tree he touched he said this is my tree and with each rock he climbed he said this is my rock.” (Act 1, Scene 2) This action reinforces Thornhill’s perspective, one in which physical possession is a measure of success.

Shortly after his arrival, Thornhill reluctantly comes to the understanding that ‘his’ land is inhabited by the Dharug people; a group that he views with disdain. Blinded by the belief of ‘European superiority’ Thornhill’s perspective of the Indigenous people reflects this social context. ‘European superiority’ has set a precedent for all aspects of white society to be considered the norm and anything that differs to be uncivilized. As a result, Thornhill makes no attempt to communicate with or to develop an understanding of how the Dharug people have inhabited the land. As the plot progresses, Thornhill perceives the Indigenous people as a threat to his newfound ‘success’. The climatic scene reveals how Thornhill dealt with the situation; “In the first dim light they waded to shore…In low and trembling voices the men started to sing [London Bridge is Falling Down] as they advance forward with their guns raised…puffs of smoke raising with each shot.” (Act 2, Scene 18) In this scene, music and sound effects have been used to turn a nursery rhyme into a terrifying song of war. The deliberate decision to utilize dim lighting creates a dire ambiance. Props (i.e. guns) are used to symbolize Western power, control and destruction. These stage directions reveal how Thornhill’s self-proclaimed superiority has allowed him to justify the most abhorrent cruelty. Social and historical context have turned a humble pursuit for material wealth into an act of dispossession and massacre.

The Secret River shows a contrast between the colonial and Indigenous perspectives on land ownership. As established above, the western understanding of ownership is centered around material possession, however, the Indigenous view is that they and the land are one. Until the colonists arrived, the question of the ownership of the land irrelevant. As the oldest living civilization, the Indigenous people lived in harmony with their environment; the belief was that the land belonged to them and that they belonged to the land. This contextual factor is reinforced when Thornhill confronts one of the tribes elders Buriya, who “Without haste rises and stands her ground, the way a tree stands on a piece of earth.” (Act 1, Scene 7) This metaphoric stage direction reinforces the notion that the Indigenous people have more than a materialistic connection to the land; it is a part of their identity which they are not afraid to defend. For over 60,000 years Aboriginal people lived in peaceful co-existence with the landscape4. They had developed their own pioneer behaviors which proved to be more conducive to the landscape than those of their Western counterparts, for example the burning of the land to enhance soil fertility. The narrator describes the flame as “a small tame thing that slid from tussock to tussock, pausing to crackle and flare for a moment and then licking tidily on.” (Act 2, Scene 8) In this scene, personification is used to show how the Indigenous people are working their flame; it is slow, controlled and deliberate. This action challenges the colonial perspective of Indigenous people as being unintelligent and primitive. Maintaining a dichotomy with the Indigenous people remained an important colonial belief, as the ‘failure’ of Indigenous people acted as an affirmation for the superiority of settler society. By exercising their traditional behaviors, the Indigenous people had hindered this dichotomy. The intelligence of another race was seen as a threat to the settlers; a treat to which they responded with brutal force.

In its original form and in adaptation, The Secret River aimed to explore the settlement of Australia. Throughout the play it is evident that differing perspectives, shaped by an individual’s historical or social context, has resulted in a history marked by tragedy and despair. The settlers, comprised mostly of convicts, were people who saw Australia as an opportunity to change their fate and achieve success through the acquisition of land. Already inhabited, the Dharug people were of the perspective that the land was a part of their identity. Their traditional behaviors were seen as threat by the settler society. Unfortunately, the settlers were blinded their own context; materialism and the false belief of ‘European superiority’ saw a humble pursuit for wealth turn into an act of dispossession and massacre.

The Secret River Analytical Essay

Early European settlers did not understand that, as the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginal people were entitled to the land, yet they did not claim ownership of it for their possession. However, the Aboriginal people belonged to Australia and its natural environment. Kate Grenville canvasses the concepts of belonging and alienation in her novel “The Secret River” through her manipulation of aesthetic features; symbolism, characterisation, and setting. The literary devices enable the readers to solidify their understanding of the protagonist William Thornhill. Through Thornhill, it is apparent that ownership does not necessarily warrant the sense of belonging. Unlike the Aboriginal people, Thornhill strived to manipulate the realm of land under his possession, yet he was continually alienated.

The symbolism of marks throughout the novel is exploited to emphasize Thornhill’s perpetual attempts to assert ownership on the land. The marks represent the disjunction between man and nature. Thornhill’s belief of entitlement of the land is explicitly portrayed in three incidents; when Thornhill carves a map on the dust to show the Aboriginal men his possession of land (p196); when the dirt is ‘marked with dark stains’ (p309) after the massacre; and the construction of a high stone wall around the perimeter of his property (p318). Thornhill carving a map displays the vain attempt to communicate and influence the Aboriginal men with European philosophy of land ownership. Nonetheless, due to lack of mutual understanding, the massacre ensues, depicting the forceful domination of natural environments and its inhabitants. The resulting stain brands the land, and renders the new European owners as its’ superior; the land enslaved, as opposed to in harmony. The symbolism is reiterated with the construction of a high stone wall. The wall is a barrier between men and nature. Thornhill attempts to control the land. Ironically, his quest for domination results in his alienation from others and his environment. The symbolism illuminates that the sense of belonging cannot be bought, it is achieved through mutual openness and respect, devoid of walls.

Characterisation performs a significant role in further establishing the concept of isolation and belonging. Thornhill’s character is consciously constructed to remain allusive. The name William Thornhill is as ‘common as dirt’ (p11). This causes the reader perceive him as inconsequential. He identifies himself as ‘no more than a shadow’ (p11). The ambiguous characterization of Thornhill communicates his lack of belonging. His shadow-like nature does not have any solid form. Grenville has intentionally depicted him in this manner to illustrate his inability to form connections with others and also himself. Thornhill’s lack of belonging is continuous despite the change in circumstances. He originated from humble beginnings as a petty thief but elevates himself to a man of status through land and money. Thornhill gains respect from others and disguises himself in the form of a gentleman he always aspired to become. Despite his outward success, his internal world remained the same; Thornhill perceived that material success would make him worthy of belonging. However, once he obtained such status, his belief did not come to fruition as he could not solidify his nature and remained a shadow. The gap between his external wealth and internal poverty and self-perception of being a thieving boy remained, resulting in his ongoing isolation. The ingenious characterisation of Thornhill deftly elucidates his unending lack of belonging caused by the mismatch between his external and internal worlds.

Different settings are employed to epitomize the themes of alienation and belonging within the novel. When Thornhill relocates to the Hawkesbury River, he develops a distorted perception towards London; his native land. He glorifies and yearns for it, although he admits ‘there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London’ (175) and his name ‘would carry the taint’ due to his ‘stinking past’ (176). Thornhill’s endeavor to imitate London by constructing an English-style mansion embodies his desire to gain the sense of security and belonging through living in an environment he is familiar with. His values, attitudes, and beliefs constituted from London are engraved within Thornhill and dictate his actions, to the extent that he is unable to embrace his new environment. However, he is disappointed by the look of his house as there was something ‘wrong with the way the pieces fitted together’ and ‘they had become dwarfish and awkward’ (315). Thornhill senses the disconnection between the building and the land. It is evident that the discrepancy between his ideals and the reality eradicates his sense of belonging. Grenville’s deliberate manipulation of the setting, and Thornhill’s response to each insinuates the sense of alienation is derived from the failure to accept the new environment on its own merit; he is separate from the true nature of things which furthers his lack of belonging.

In summation, Grenville’s meticulous construction of the themes of belonging and alienation allows the reader to gain a sophisticated insight on her character William Thornhill and his lack of connection to the land and others around him. Symbolism, characterisation, and the setting of the novel collaborate to elucidate Thornhill and his actions are often motivated from a desire to possess and control. Through her novel, Grenville effectively conveys the message that the sense of belonging seldom arises from ownership, and can only be acquired through mutual respect, acceptance of what is, and the capacity to embrace changes.

Influences and experiences in The Secret River

The concept of how a person’s view of themselves can be comprised up of many influences and experiences is effectively explored throughout Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. The broad range of experiences and influences that impact upon William Thornhill’s view of himself range from both his physical and emotional experiences as well as the influences of the people surrounding him, both his family and those he meets along the way.

Initially, in making the journey from London to Sydney, Thornhill was a recognized convict and criminal, which hindered his ability to gain the status in and recognition from society that he constantly craved. He faced a duality of alienation and acceptance from the society he lived in. However, after discovering the land of Thornhill’s point and establishing a life there, he came to a metaphorical self-realization that he had not only traveled a great physical distance from London to Sydney but had also essentially traveled even further as an individual. He no longer held the view of himself as the man who was ‘silenced’, convicted and sent away to Australia, but as the man who had embraced his situation and surpassed the little expectations people above him in society had placed upon him.

As Thornhill proceeds to select two men who would work for him on Thornhill’s point, he once again has an encounter with Captain Suckling, a man who was also on the Alexander transport with him. During a conversation between the two men, Suckling metaphorically compares Thornhill to a dog in an extremely disrespectful tone after being surrounded by flies, reinforcing the idea that Thorn hill would always be considered by others a poor waterman and criminal from London, and not the wealthy landowner in Sydney he had the desire to become. The lack of self-defense that Thornhill portrays during this moment illustrates that the influences of other peoples perceptions of him diminishes his own perception of himself.

Throughout the course of the novel, Grenville continually accentuates Thornhill’s prominent desire to no longer view himself as a criminal but as a gentleman of a much higher social class compared to what he had become accustomed to in London. With this desire came a motivation to become a wealthy owner of materialistic possessions such as land, servants and a house. The constant repetition of the possessive pronoun; ‘his’ as well as the repetition and passionate tone of the word ‘mine’ towards the end of the novel solidifies the idea that he had achieved what he set out to do upon arrival in Sydney; become a wealthy landowner and homeowner. He was now officially an owner of a house, of servants and as he believes, his wife. Additionally, it is his repetition of ‘my’ as he claims the land as ‘my own’ which reinforces his hunger for power and desire to remain in Sydney. He also believes that because of all his hard work he had achieved a status high enough to be compared to a gentry in London.

Despite Thornhill achieving more wealth than any man with his poor upbringing could have ever envisioned, he remains tormented by a sense of jealousy of and inferiority to the Aboriginal people as believes he had worked harder than they did in preserving the land, but still lacked the deep connection with the land that they continued to maintain. Grenville metaphorically reinforces this concept through Thornhill believing he did not have a place that was part of his flesh and spirit like Jack did. Also being isolated by his wealth, his son, Dick, remains estranged having viewed his fathers’ brutality against the aboriginals whom he had formed a bond with as a reason to leave his family and because of this Thornhill views himself as somewhat of a pathetic man.

Therefore it can be seen from a thorough analysis of ‘The Secret River’ that Kate Grenville effectively explores the concept of how a person’s view of themselves can be comprised up of many influences and experiences. This is particularly emphasized in her exploration of William Thornhill’s perception of himself which is essentially characterized by the broad range of physical and emotional experiences he endures along with the influences of other peoples perceptions of him. These perceptions had come from both people within his family such as his son, and those who he had met throughout his journey from London to Sydney, such as Captain Suckling.

Power and Race in The Secret River and Rabbit-Proof Fence

“The problem of half-castes is simply not going to go away”

“The bodies lying like so much fallen timber”

Both the novel ‘The Secret River’ written by Kate Grenville and the film ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ directed by Phillip Noyce showcase themes of social and racial prejudice and powerlessness in a colonial Australia setting. The two highlighted quotes are indicative of the hierarchy prominent within the society, in which the caucasian race maintains control over the Aboriginal people, constantly utilising zoomorphism in their own dialect to dehumanise them and build apathetic natures that assist in their destruction of the aboriginal communities through violent means. These prominent themes are not only deeply interconnected but serve as the primary source of conflict in both texts; groups such as the Aboriginal people are left powerless as a direct consequence of the institutionalised racial prejudice induced by the caucasian settlers. In the film, it is the powerful Mr. Neville, ironically titled ‘Chief Protector of The Aboriginals’ that admits “The Problem of half-castes is simply not going to go away”, embodying the popular attitude at the time, the utter disrespect towards those born of mixed races, blatantly disregarding them as a problem and being primarily concerned with his reputation as opposed to fulfilling his supposed purpose. In ‘The Secret River’, William Thornhill and his fellow settlers constantly display a blatant disrespect towards the Aboriginal Australians, erupting in a war between the two groups in a desperate battle for power and possession of land.

‘The Secret River’ utilises the first-person perspective of William Thornhill, who, like the boats that make his livelihood, serve as a vessel to explore the various social and power dynamics in Colonial Australia, especially in regards to race. Throughout the novel, the language is used to reflect the way in which Aboriginal people are viewed from caucasian members of the community, often described using adjectives applicable to nature and animals such as “lying like so much fallen timber” and “like a butterfly on a leaf”. The narrator mirrors the perspective of the European settlers, they see the Aboriginals as subhuman, below them, and this is further reinforced by their behaviour and prejudice that contaminates the majority of the population’s ideals. Smasher Sullivan, for example, is an extreme representation of this racism, indulging and taking pride in sociopathic actions, including brutal murder, due to pure spite of this race. This racism is reflected in ‘The Rabbit-Proof Fence’, albeit on a smaller scale, but again, is alluded to by the institutional treatment of aboriginal people and both subtle and overt racism. Again, those of the caucasian race treat the Aboriginal girls as subhuman, the titular fence, whilst being used to prevent the movement of animals, also oppresses the girls and forbids them from escaping, showing that, similarly to the novel, are seen as no more than animals, a point emphasised again by their being kept in a cage. Furthermore, the racism is shown to exist in all facets of life, even when a white woman donates clothes to the struggling girls, she remains distant and refuses to touch them, carelessly and heartlessly throwing objects at them. This shot is presented to the audience through a low-shot, a common technique used by the director to represent the power of certain characters, the majority of which are white male characters.

In ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’ directed by Phillip Noyce, camera angles and techniques are employed in a variety of methods to demonstrate power and powerlessness. In the beginning sequences of the film, wide angles exemplify the wild and innately free nature of the Australian bush, powerful in natural terms, whilst drawing thematic parallels to the use of low-angle shots, drawing attention to another form of power, one channeled into one person. The first white characters we see are viewed through this perspective, we, with the other characters, look up at the men as they sit atop their horses. Hence, the low-angle shot becomes a symbolic motif, representing power and constantly reoccurs throughout the course of the film. The power of the white man is embodied through the aforementioned Mr. Neville, who is consistently and almost exclusively viewed from this low-angle. He exerts this power over the powerless, demonstrated through their orderly structuring of the Moore River Settlement, which draws a stark comparison to the unruly bush that the girls travel deeper into, away from the control and oppression of others. The imagery of nature and theme of power are evident both in the film and the novel. The groups of Aboriginal people and European settlers seem to constantly be at war, with the settlers living under a pretence of safety as a consequence of their assumed advancements in technology. They believe they hold the power, however, this idea is constantly challenged in the Aboriginal peoples constant displays of force, such as surrounding the Thornhill’s house in spears and the ever-present “outrages and depredations”. The Aboriginal people are powerful in the bush through their connection to the land whilst outsiders are not; The European soldiers for example, are the victims of the bush whilst the Aboriginals are able to manipulate it to their advantage.

Both of the quotes are indicative of the prominent themes that permeate each text equally. Racial and social hierarchy and prejudice, power, powerlessness, they’re all connected and represented in both the novel and the film. They are both shown using parallel techniques, with the only noticeable difference one may notice to be the perspective of which they are told and time between the events of the narrative and the event that caused them to transpire, ie. the invasion of Australia.