Rooted, even more than
Norm and Ahmed, offers bizarre images, comic distortions of reality, in order to make us think about the situations of its characters and about the issues which their absurd behaviour raises. Like
Norm and Ahmed, the play lacks a plot in the conventional sense. Instead of developing to a climax, in which characters are brought to crucial recognitions about themselves and their situations, the structure of Rooted traces an inevitable downward curve in the fortunes of its protagonist, Bentley. None of the characters (including Bentley) ever comes to an understanding of his or her situation, and of the system of values to which they all mindlessly conform:
GARY: Just assert yourself a bit. Throw your weight around. Remember, in this life it’s up for grabs. You’ve got to go out and get it. (p. 91)
The social system of the play suggests a medieval wheel of fortune, on which all the characters are trapped. Its extremes of absolute social success and absolute social failure are measured by the two absent characters, Simmo and Hammo. The other characters compete with each other for status, power and possessions, and occupy varying degrees of ascendancy or decline. The gradual humiliation of Bentley—the main action of the play, in which he is successively stripped of the possessions he has prided himself on acquiring (his wife, his home unit with its admired consumer goods, his job, his friends)—is balanced by the relative success of the others. Yet success is likely to be as transient for these characters as it is demonstrated to be for Bentley, in a system which sacrifices intrinsic values and loyalties for merely temporary, ego-boosting satisfactions. If
Norm and Ahmed challenges the myth that Australia is a tolerant society,
Rooted challenges the equally entrenched myth that in Australia the ethic of competitiveness—competing with others for higher status, more power, a better job, more admired possessions—is a natural source of personal freedoms.
Simmo and Hammo embody the drive for status and the fear of failure in an extreme form. Their absence from the stage (especially that of Simmo) is one of the most unconventional of the play’s absurdist devices. Buzo’s aim, with this deliberately non-realistic effect, is to suggest that Simmo’s domination is primarily psychological. He exists primarily, that is, as a powerfully motivating illusion in the minds of the other characters. As such, his influence is shown to pervade every aspect of their lives. He is the ultimate achiever in the world of big business, controller of Simmo Enterprises Ltd, a vast, expanding empire employing the most sophisticated technology and the most up-to-date concepts. He is also Mr Big, the man whose reputation is so notorious that policemen and lawyers refuse to take action against him (p. 73), and an Australian-style John Wayne, taking a back-country Australian ‘hick town’ by storm:
GARY: He backed five winners at the picnic races, floored three locals in a brawl, demolished a niner, and torpedoed the minister’s daughter. (p. 77)
In his school days, we learn, Simmo was the bully who ran the playground (p. 66). And he is also—in this comically inflated composite image of every character’s dream of power and prestige—a sexual athlete of immense prowess, irresistibly attractive to women. Simmo’s name, which (like the names Hammo and Davo) is meant to suggest a typically Australian nicknaming habit, also suggests a pun on ‘simian’, and an ironic allusion to man’s evolutionary descent from the ape. Simmo is the winner, the fittest survivor in a society based purely on self-assertion, and on the ethic of winner-takes-all. Hammo, on the other hand, whose name suggests the ham-actor—the out-of-date, bungling, inexpert performer—is the born loser, the down-and-out that Bentley is destined to become the victim spurned by the system.
As a fantasy image shared by all the characters, Simmo has a permanence and stability throughout the play which is in comic contrast to the actual situations of the other characters. These are marked by their continually shifting, temporary quality, as allegiances shift and fortunes change in the frantic drive for success. Buzo draws on many traditional techniques of high and low comedy, as well as on more recent techniques of the absurd, to emphasise the rootlessness of his characters’ lives, their restless pursuit of temporary gratifications. The steady decline of Bentley’s fortunes is traced through different phases in the play’s three acts, each of which contains an unusual mixture of short and longer scenes: four scenes to each act, including a scene without words. The effect of these variations is to keep shifting our focus on Bentley (and to a lesser extent, on Sandy): to see him, in the longer scenes, in relationships with others, and to focus on him, in the scenes without words, as an increasingly isolated figure. A composite portrait of Bentley is thus gradually constructed, revealing his social situation and its bearing on his personal life.
The mixture of short and long scenes varies the pace of the play, giving it something of an episodic character as it shifts from one scene, one moment in Bentley’s experience, to another, within the overall design of a downward curve in his fortunes. It also enables Buzo to introduce farce-like complications into the actions and relationships of the minor characters. Six liaisons occur (all within a period of ten weeks!), in a shifting pattern typical of the comic action of farce: Sandy-Bentley, Richard-Diane, Simmo-Sandy, Gary-Diane, Richard-Sandy, Simmo-Diane. And these relationships are complicated by other rivalries and betrayals: Diane’s jealousy of Sandy; Gary’s and Richard’s friendship and betrayal of Bentley. The movement of characters into and out of Bentley’s unit (Acts One and Two) and Gary’s room (Act Three) also suggests the typically complicated movements of farce. At the beginning of the play Bentley and Sandy occupy their unit, and Richard occupies Gary’s room. Subsequently Bentley moves out of the unit and Simmo moves in; Richard moves out of Gary’s room and Bentley moves in; Simmo moves out of the unit and Richard moves in; and finally Bentley moves out of Gary’s room.
These farcical elements, offering a comic image of transient relationships, are reinforced by the proliferation of comic incidents throughout. The play’s visual imagery—its inventive use of stage design and props to illuminate the situations of the characters—is particularly important. No scene in the play is without examples of purely theatrical symbolism of this kind. It ranges from the simplest kind of visual gag—for example, Bentley’s production of a bowl of blue punch (p. 36), absurdly matching the blue armchairs—to the sustained symbolism of the decor and furnishings of Bentley’s unit itself. Its colour scheme of blue and white, and its ostentatious display of expensive furniture and latest-model sound equipment (stereo, tape recorder and transistor) suggest a cold, sterile atmosphere, an obsession with status and appearances. Sandy’s introduction of a vivid red abstract painting into this setting (p. 44) suggests the passion which is absent in her relationship with Bentley, and which she seeks in shifting her attention to Simmo.
Many of the incidents involving Bentley offer images of him as comically inept, a clown bungling even the simplest of actions. His inability to keep two tennis balls bouncing on his racquet (p. 35) is one example. So is the first of his ‘scenes without words’, in which he throws and misses with all five of the quoits he carries on stage, while Sandy—dressed in the same sterile white as he is—silently ignores him as she reads a newspaper. This brief, wordless scene encapsulates their situation, making its point through its direct visual impact. All the scenes without words, in fact, typify Buzo’s aim for a ‘freer style’ of drama, in which the ‘energies of what is being expressed’ generate their own theatrical force, without overt authorial manipulation: a style in which action is allowed to generate its own unspoken comment.
Other incidental actions and details inserted into the longer scenes suggest pure farce. The meat pie dangling from the ceiling (Act Three, Scene One) is a ludicrous illustration of the pretentious art world to which Richard belongs, as editor of an underground magazine with the equally ludicrous title, The Inevitable Tarantula. The third scene of Act Two opens with a succession of farcical actions by Bentley: he makes inept attempts to train a hose on the lovers through a peephole into their bedroom, then aims an air rifle at them, which starts to ‘move up and down, rhythmically’, comically miming the offstage movements of the lovers in bed. These are old circus-clown gags (especially the water squirting back into the face of the practical joker, Bentley), but they are given a new significance here, revealing Bentley’s inability to fulfil the role of a betrayed husband, and rendering absurd his sense of outrage. At several points in the play, also, the tape-recorder which is Bentley’s most recent and proudest acquisition is ironically made to broadcast Sandy’s voice, abruptly announcing to him the facts of her bitterness towards him and her infidelity: ‘Why don’t you shut up?’ (p. 37); ‘Bin having it off with Simmo.’ (p. 53); and (her final words to him as he leaves the unit), ‘Piss off.’ (p. 74).
If farcical action in
Rooted both comically characterises and judges the behaviour it depicts (in much the same way as a cartoonist offers an exaggerated and simplified image of behaviour in order to make some moral comment about it), the play’s language continually creates the same effects—defining the characters (especially Bentley) as victims of empty clichés, unable to communicate other than superficially with each other. As in Norm and Ahmed, it is important to recognise that although the language used by the characters is rooted in the everyday speech habits of most Australians, the play does not present such speech realistically. At the very beginning of the play, Buzo builds a comic exchange out of a series of repetitions, revealing Bentley as a man obsessed with appearances, totally dependent on the approval of others (especially Sandy):
BENTLEY: You hear that, Sandy? Gary reckons our unit’s immaculate.
SANDY: Yes, I heard.
BENTLEY: You hear that, Sandy? Gary reckons it was a great turn.
SANDY: Yes, I heard.
BENTLEY: You hear that, Sandy? Gary reckons Davo enjoyed himself.
SANDY: Yes, I heard.
BENTLEY: You hear that, Sandy?
SANDY: Gary reckons we’ve got a great stereo set.
BENTLEY: Yes, I heard. (p. 30)
The exchange finally becomes absurdly mixed up, as Sandy deliberately breaks the ritual pattern of question and response. This is a typical example of the way Buzo builds purely imaginative patterns out of speech, comically accentuating mannerisms in order to create witty theatrical images of his characters’ obsessions.
Many of the repetitive exchanges in the play present language as an empty social ritual. There are several exchanges (for example, pp. 53-6 and pp. 69-71) in which Bentley is ritually smothered in clichés by his friends (Diane, Richard, Gary) in what amounts to a mocking chorus. Buzo is particularly fond of revealing the emptiness of clichés by building them into absurd patterns of mixed metaphors (‘Pull your socks up and have a bash’; ‘Chin up and toe the line, you’ll soon be back on your feet’), or by creating ludicrous visual images out of them.
Individual characters are identified by the meaningless jargon of the circles they move in, of their occupations, or of the books and magazines they read. Bentley constantly speaks of his personal life and relationships in cant or jargon phrases absorbed from his job as a Grade Three bureaucrat in the public service, from the world of advertising, and in the later stages of the play, from glossy magazines promising instant success and instant problem-solving in personal relations. Bureaucratic double-talk provides him with the ridiculous evasiveness of his answer to a simple question about whether he likes his job:
BENTLEY: I can’t supply you with an unqualified categorical ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that particular question. However, I should like to make it abundantly clear that I consider the position eminently suitable on a number of counts, but equally unsuitable on a number of other counts. (p. 48)
Psychoanalytic jargon, and the sentimental clichés marketed by popular women’s magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal, provide a pathetically inadequate language to explain or cope with the facts of his personal demoralisation, sustaining him in the illusion that he is ‘adopting a meaningful stance’ (p. 94) or ‘establishing a point of reference’ (p. 95), or ‘undergoing some reorientation of the underlying factors governing my basic attitudes to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ (p. 80).
At other points in the play (especially in its earlier scenes) Buzo inserts longish monologues in which Bentley and Sandy reveal something of the repressed inner world, of real needs and desires, which their commitment to stylish social surface has gradually choked and thwarted. Bentley’s monologue at the end of the play’s opening scene (pp. 31-2) contains a typical mixture of delusions about his predicament and genuine solicitation for his wife. Another, at the beginning of the play’s third scene, reveals a genuine feeling for nature and for values other than the superficial, which becomes progressively lost in the course of the play.
The success of a play like Rooted depends to a great extent on the effectiveness of its vigorous theatricalism—its unusual structure and disposition of scenes, its inventive use of farcical situations and gags, its visual excitements, and its witty and varied creation of unusual patterns of speech—in providing an immediately humorous and thought-provoking vision of a recognisable world. The world of the play is immediately recognisable as the society, characterised by increasing affluence and consumerism, into which younger Australians grew up in the 1960s. Buzo offers a delightfully comic image of that world; but it is also a satirist’s image, conveying a sharp comment on the superficiality of the values on which it is based. Bentley, the play’s sad clown, is its central symbol: the innocent, vociferous defender of its values, and its most complete victim.
1. Note in The Australian Performing Group programme of The Front Room Boys at the 1970 Festival of Perth.
2. All page references are to Three Plays: Norm and Ahmed, Rooted, The Roy Murphy Show, Sydney, 1977.
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