The Geography of Haunted Places is a play that raises post-colonial issues in a post-modern performance. (Grehan, 2007). This play raises these issues in a matter of various ways such as invoking tropes of discovery and desire. It also investigates aspects like colonialism, racism, and female desire, as well as their points of intersection. The piece delivers its essence with the only performer – Erin Hefferon who challenges the audience in a number of ways, for example she gets them involved in the play and looks over their position from the socio-political issues point of view. This review shall attempt to discuss the more salient aspects relevant to the aforementioned statements.
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The piece raises issues by using the performer in order to challenge the idea of subject and object status. This is done in a manner of ways, a noteworthy example being the notion of exhibition. It is an omnipresent force within the mechanism of the piece, from the taxidermy in its setting to directly demanding the audience’s focus. Hefferon’s versatile performance technique of switching from high camp, melodrama or discursive commentary is a main force in drawing that focus, including even overt references placing herself as the “object of inspection” (Grehan, 1999). Furthermore, the costume with miscoloured cheong sam which is ambiguous, as it can represent either the cultural diversity, or absence of authenticity of Australian colonizers, and blonde wig may suggest “drag”: a show that is entirely about the exhibition made for and by the exhibitionist. Erin Hefferon in this performance depicts the difficulties of being an Australian and living in Australia both historically and currently. She portrays the notion of a woman’s body as an object of desire, discovery, conquest, and possession, and compares it to post-colonized Australia.
I feel the purpose of exhibition is to challenge the audience by questioning their biases, desires and need to discover the unknown. Discovery is seen to have led to the fatal immortality of the stuffed native Australian animals on display, as the poor animals are already dead, however the human hands have made their shapes everlasting. This depicts mankind’s thirst for knowledge of the unknown as an insatiable devouring of the inner reaches of the object, its soul, to study its outward form. A post-colonial issue raised here is the effect settlement had on the indigenous flora and fauna, something that can never be compensated for by the government, as the settlements have damaged the natural areas of wildlife distribution and according to the government it has other problems to deal with, which are more important. This performance transforms the theory of colonization into a form of artistic practice. This issue is further prodded by Hefferon’s interaction with Boo Boo and the story of Boo Boo’s sad life and dysfunctional behavior where it “shat in the dish and threw” it someone’s face. Here the dysfunctional behavior of the chimp can be seen as caused by its captivity in appeasing the constant human desire for discovery, which according to Freud is considered a fundamental inducement of human libido. The final blow to Boo Boo is the theft of his penis which goes to demonstrate the sterilizing force of Discovery and exhibiting the object of Discovery.
Discovery and Desire is also evident in the extravagant oral machinations of the piece when the high-camp style, placing the performer as the issue on exhibit is contrasted with the non-emotive commentary afterwards. It is effectively used to illuminate many thematic concerns. This style engages the audience and challenges them to think critically about the object personified by Hefferon at the time – the country, which has been colonized and conquered. Her body symbolizes the conquered land that has been discovered and enslaved through torture and seduction. The theory of colonization was transformed into this form of postmodern art that is not characterized by a storyline, lacks smooth flow, and the only actor performs the roles of various personae. The audience and the nomadic performer are engaged in a dangerous game of discovery, desire, and possession that is intended to make the spectator understand the meaning of this play in the concept of contemporary Australia.
The piece’s vibrancy and life visible in the shifting moods and styles of the performer is combined with moments of total calmness, when Erin acts rather like a narrator, are fuelled by the vivacious challenges to the audience. The audience is never allowed to lull into a set of standard expectations such as being allowed to sit back and watch the plot or character unfold. This is so as there is no character or plot development in a conventional sense. Merely pure performance followed by solemnly bland commentary. She goes from melodrama, laughing, exaggerating, direct quotes, and cursing; to a lucid narrating commentary on the issues brought forth.
The idea of the feminine as an unknown object to be discovered is also brought up. The sash of “Miss Discovery” is both the only reference to a character name and a pun on Discovery. There are also frequent images of Captain Cook and his marines approaching the “scalloped petticoats” of a foreign shore dangling “shiny things” in her face in attempt to seduce the unknown into surrendering her freedom and essence. The “Apotheosis of Captain Cook” is a direct contrast to this image as the former depicted Cook, a savior in a divine light as he was perceived by the indigenous on the East Coast of Australia, turned out to be a seducing conqueror who strived to colonize and possess this land. Such a glorification of a colonizer seems ironic as the divine Cook and his men could actually be seen as tempting the locals, a habit more akin to the Devil.
Identity of white Australians is a major concern that is evident within the piece. Hybridity also comes to mind in a parallel manner as the white Australian is given an iconic blonde wig and miscouloured cheong sam also suggest a wide background of cultures. The shifts in costume also show a progression towards discovery of the character within. The layers are peeled off at times first from the superficial assembly of distinct and rich icons of culture such as the blonde wig, cheong sam and sash; following that we are introduced to the hula dancing as a natural and fluid part of her soul as she can apply to both its traditional backing music as well as disco. The final layer, the performer plants the Union Jack in the middle of the audience, symbolically placing the blame on the audience and confronting the concept of colonization, leaving the issues she just discussed in their hands, as she displayed an entire spectrum of identity crises brought on by colonialism and marked its territory with the flag. The audience is left feeling mixed-up by this radical transformation from romance and drama to political issues.
In conclusion, the Geography of Haunted Places is an excellent example of a post modern performance piece, as it is a critique of post-colonial issues that does not have linear flow or story line, as there are no characters. Erin Hefferon performs a range of personae that portray authenticity, colonization, desire, discovery, and objectification. It draws a parallel between the colonized country and a woman’s body that was discovered and conquered just like the colonized Australia with its flora and fauna affected by its conquerors. It makes use of a performance style that utilizes melodrama and high camp performance followed by lucid commentary in order to demonstrate what is it like, being anxious in Australia through an art work. The audience is never allowed to lull into a state of comfort or ease and as such they are made to think about the issues presented.
- Grehan, H. 1999. ‘Negotiating Discovery in The Geography of Haunted Places. Australasian Drama Studies 34 (1999): 109-121
- Grehan, H. 2005. Lecture on Geography of Haunted Places. Murdoch University. Perth, Australia. 2007.
- Goodall, Objects of Curiosity and Subjects of Discovery. Australasian Drama Studies 34 (1999): 123–140.