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Literature can reflect the human condition by presenting aspects of our existence, including the wide range of emotions, our mortality and the transformations which differentiate us as a species. Examples of texts which do so include the play Away by Michael Gow, the photo “Woman on Bondi” by Marco Bok and the poem “Ode To A Nightingale” by John Keats, which provide similar and contrasting views on these aspects of humanity.
Away by Michael Gow, first published in 1986, is an Australian play set in the 1960s, following the Vietnam War, which explores the mortality, loss, restoration and transformation experienced in our existence.
Gow suggests that Tom is the catalyst through his characterisation of Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the opening scene. He alludes to Tom’s role as a healer, as it is through his death that others are able to begin the process of restoration – “Give me your hands, if we be friends, and Robin shall restore amends”, while adding elements of magic through the play-within-a-play. Tom engineers the play’s upheaval through the ‘Puckish’ curse – “I hope you have a rotten holiday” and by conjuring up the storm further into the text, which causes both great conflict and the restoration of the characters.
The mortality of our existence is also expressed through Tom. By reading the excerpt from “King Lear” in the final scene, Tom undergoes a cathartic transition, reflecting upon his foreshadowing death and finally accepting its inevitability – “while we unburden’d crawl towards death”. Gow’s casting of Tom as Lear insinuates that he has completed his role as the healer and is ready to face his destiny. Despite the tragic overtones conveyed through these lines, the concept of a new beginning is also implied through the stage directions and setting – “The light becomes bright, summery, morning” and thus reflects the positive aspect of being able to accept our mortality.
The concept of loss and restoration is portrayed through Coral, whose process of healing is triggered by Tom’s role in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, with Gow using a soliloquy following the performance allowing Coral to express her emotions and reach out to the audience – “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” The repetition of this line throughout the dramatic monologue reinforces her ‘awakening’ from depression and dysphoria, with the angel acting as a recurring motif for Tom’s role as the healer. The “flowery bed” can also be interpreted as Tom’s deathbed and thus, she unknowingly foreshadows his fate.
Gow uses the play-within-a-play, “The Stranger On The Shore”, to express Coral’s final acceptance and restoration. This play demonstrates love, sacrifice and death, with Coral’s role allowing her to experience the greatest change. The repetition of the line “I’m walking” emphasises this change and portrays her healing. Gow also uses the lighting of the bonfire as a symbol for the death of old beliefs and a signal for new life, “They’ve lit a bonfire on the beach. Look!”.
Similarly, Gwen goes down the path of restoration, as she is initially encapsulated within a shell formulated from her materialistic mentality, “We’ve got a brand new caravan. Everything you could want.” Her change in attitude is triggered by the storm which Gow uses as symbol for cleansing, bringing in elements of magic – “The FAIRIES return and stage a spectacular storm”. The emotional breakdown of Gwen as she receives news of Tom’s illness also expresses her change and she seeks forgiveness from Jim, “You must hate me? I’m sorry…”. The clichéd expression – “There’s a terrible taste in my mouth” as Gwen tries to take the Bex Powder also emphasises her transformation.
Thus, Away echoes the human condition by expressing aspects of our existence which deal with our mortality and the transformations we may experience.
“Away”. Gow, Michael (1986)”Michale Gow’s Away”. Beckett, Wendy (Glebe: Pascal Press, 1993)