Table of Contents
- ANALYSIS OF IMPORTANT QUOTES
- ANALYSIS OF THEMES
- Oppression and colonisation
- Techniques and Metalanguage
- CHARACTER ANALYSIS
- The Narrator
- The funeral characters
- Aunty Grace
- Daniel Vocke
- The Brother
- Essay 1: ‘The 7 Stages of Grieving is a bleak depiction of Aboriginal suffering.’ Discuss.
- Essay 2: How is grief depicted in The 7 Stages of Grieving?
- Essay 3: The 7 Stages of Grieving is fundamentally a play about families.
- Essay 4 : “Don’t tell me we’re not fighting! Don’t tell me we don’t fight most of our lives.” How is resistance to oppression depicted in The 7 Stages of Grieving?
- Essay 5 : How does The 7 Stages of Grieving balance humour and tragedy?
- Essay 6 : ’In The 7 Stages of Grieving, grief is inherited and passed on between generations.’ Discuss.
- Essay 7: In what ways does The 7 Stages of Grieving affirm Indigenous identity?
- Essay 8: How does The 7 Stages of Grieving interrogate the notion of Reconciliation?
The 7 Stages of Grieving is the product of a collaboration, beginning in 1993, between Noonuccul/Nguri man Wesley Enoch and Bidjara/Maori woman Deborah Mailman. It is a one-person play which riffs off the psychological model of the 5 Stages of Dying (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) as conceived by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and seven phases of Aboriginal history (Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self Determination, Reconciliation) identified by Michael Williams. It is a theatrical exploration of oppression and grief, told powerfully through intensely individual accounts of Australian Indigeneity. The central thesis of the play is that the historical and wide-ranging injustices towards the Aboriginal nations of Australia are not merely abstract historical facts, but part of a complex lived experience of contemporary Indigenous Australians. Personal and cultural grief are indivisible. As Wesley Enoch has put it, “our personal histories are indeed the political history of our relationship to Migrant Australia” (15).
The play essentially takes the form of a series of monologues spoken by an Aboriginal woman. The first few scenes are largely focussed on personal stories of loss – of an aunt, or the impending death of a father. In the Invasion section, the crimes of colonialism begin to seep into the narrative, and the personal and political experiences of loss and trauma are merged. The play thus has no linear plot as such, but does broadly follow the phases of Aboriginal history and personal adjustment to loss. It incorporates multi-media approaches to storytelling, involving music, sound effects, lighting and image projection.
For all of its heavy subject matter, the play is laced with humour, including the narrator shouting at a British ship in 1788: “You can’t park here, eh! You’re taking up the whole bloody harbour!” This is of course a reminder that Aboriginal Australia, for all it has suffered, is not a dead relic – or a “museum piece,” to use Enoch’s phrase – but a tough and resilient culture which continues to survive, thrive, and create. The play makes use of the Kamilaroi language, which originated around the tributaries of the Darling River in New South Wales, and contemporary Aboriginal English slang. Song and poetry is woven through the performance.
The play is ultimately optimistic, ending with the 2000 Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge, with attendant rallies across the country. Since the year 2000, the Australian “culture wars” surrounding national identity have continued to rage, with Australia Day parades competing against Change the Date/Invasion Day protests, and fraught debate over definitions of reconciliation and moves such as the ban on the climbing of sacred Aboriginal site Uluru. Some of the far-right culture warriors mentioned in the play, such as Alan Jones and Pauline Hanson, remain in the public sphere, and one of Australia’s most popular tabloid opinion contributors, Andrew Bolt, continues to deny the historical fact of the Stolen Generations – to which Kevin Rudd’s Labor government delivered a formal apology in 2008. The play thus remains a vital and timely piece of literature.
The 7 Stages of Grieving was produced and toured by Kooemba Jdarra, an Indigenous arts body based in Queensland. The play was initially well received – with some mixed reviews in Australia – but lauded in the United Kingdom. It has since been produced various times across the country and is regarded as a modern classic of Indigenous and Australian playwriting.
ANALYSIS OF IMPORTANT QUOTES
“I feel… Nothing.” (39)
Denial – brought about by a numbness to grief, or an inability to process grief, is common in the wake of a great loss. For the Aboriginal woman on stage, there is a dual meaning of the word nothing, emphasised by its capital N, which suggests it is a concrete, proper noun rather than an abstract noun. ‘Nothing’ refers not just to the absence of feeling, but suggests that she can palpably feel ‘nothingness’ around her, perhaps reflecting the partial destruction of Aboriginal culture, leaving Nothing where there used to be knowledge, ritual and meaning.
“Yugila yugila munan gi.” (40)
“Weep my heavy heart” in the Kamilaroi language. The first words uttered are in an Indigenous language, which serves to contextualise the rest of the play as an expression of Aboriginal culture.
“She took so many stories with her to the grave. Stories of her life, our traditions, our heritage, who I am… gone.” (43)
It is not just the loss of an individual which the narrator mourns – but the loss of the knowledge and culture held by that individual. The death thus signifies the importance of cultural acts and creation – if knowledge is not preserved, the narrator laments, then part of “who I am” dies with every Indigenous elder.
“Everything has its time.” (44)
The phrase “everything has its time” becomes a motif of the play. It reflects, on one level, the very idea of formulating grief (and as yet unreached points in Aboriginal history) into stages: there is a predictable cycle, and every moment, however painful, must have its time, and then be replaced by something new. The phrase thus prophesises an empowered Aboriginal future, as well as offering solace in moments of intense personal grief.
“…and I’ll never have to live through what my Dad lived through.” (46)
Like the grandmother discussed in earlier scenes, the speaker’s Dad serves as a link between the present and the past. The past is hugely important, and crucial to informing a sense of identity. However, is also frequently brutal, and, the speaker suggests here, in some ways best left in the past. This paradox, of trying to draw life-affirming meaning from a past full of such pain, runs through the play.
“I might be related.” (47)
The old Aunty symbolises the extent of the loss faced by many Indigenous people, especially those torn from their own families. She has no-one to grieve for, and so she grieves for everyone. Importantly, the narrator stresses that the man who had died “had no family to speak of,” and so can’t account for the presence of the old woman. However, if there was no family to speak of, it begs the question of why the narrator was at the funeral – she never explains her connection to the young man, or even uses his name. The three figures – Aunty, narrator, dead man – are perhaps united in a shared sense of loss and loneliness.
“Naia gigi warunguldul.” (48)
“I will be strong always.” Just before the Invasion Poem, the writers insert a statement of Aboriginal pride and strength, again in the Kamilaroi language. This foreshadows the hopeful resolution to the play, promising the audience that the First Peoples of Australia will survive the Invasion.
“Told not to do what we have always done.” (49)
The Invasion Poem binds physical violence – the stick, the knee in the face – closely to cultural violence. The attempt to eradicate Aboriginal Australians through the annihilation of their culture is an echo of the previous scene, in which the narrator found herself attracting the unwanted attention of English language, symbolically demonstrating the imposition of culture which attended colonisation.
“You’re taking up the whole bloody harbour!” (50)
Directly after the disturbing Invasion Poem, an alternative, comic depiction of the events of 1788 punctures the dread which attended the previous dialogue. The narrator yells angrily at a British ship as if engaged in a touch of road rage. The juxtaposition of grief and humour means the play refuses to present Indigenous Australians purely as victims.
“You get a lot of attention, special treatment when you’re black.” (52)
In the same vein as the 1788 section, this monologue is delivered in a darkly comic manner, “in the style of stand up comedy.” The narrator highlights the absurdity of racist prejudice, riffing of the phrase “special treatment,” notoriously used by some commentators to describe concessions made to members of minority groups.
“Dad says she was stuck up and wasn’t really family.” (54)
This scene explores the long-standing tensions and resentments which can arise around fraught family identities. Aunty Grace is straddling two worlds, and her acceptance into what is presumably a comfortable middle-class family in England is seen by her family as a betrayal of her aboriginality. Her breakdown at the graveside, and ready knowledge of the extended family, reveals that far from being cold-hearted and spiteful towards her family she has in fact struggled intensely to reconcile her two lives.
“They took him to the Royal Brisbane Hospital, pounding and pushing his limp body.” (57)
The report of the death in custody of Vocke – murder, or manslaughter, by an appallingly racist police squad – is delivered in a flat, emotionless procedural style, before the narrator intervenes to take control of the story, and describes in intense and visceral detail the death of Vocke.
“Don’t tell me we’re not fighting! Don’t tell me we don’t fight most of our lives.” (59)
The protest in response to the murder-by-police of Vocke is a defiant statement of resistance to the state.
“What is it worth?” (60)
The dirt on the stage, which has stood in for graves and the memories of ancestors – all manner of sacred and cultural significance – is reduced to mere property, something to be bartered for. To a culture which invests its landscape with sacred significance, the notion of buying and selling that land is absurd. Enoch and Mailman are thus subverting the conventional meaning of “bargaining” as outlined in the stages of dying.
“Now imagine when the children are taken away from this.” (63)
The narrator outlines the immense complexity of Aboriginal family ties, emphasising the nuance and depth to their knowledge systems. The forced removal of children – the Stolen Generations – is, by contrast, a blunt and ignorant attack on a complex and fragile system of relationships. This scene thus links back to the woman with no family who grieves for all Aborigines – she has lost her place in the world.
“And that’s how it starts, the cycle.” (65)
In frank and lightly ironic language, the narrator articulates the self-perpetuating nature of criminal action in a marginalised and vulnerable communities. Her account paints a picture of a justice system, and an entire society, geared against vulnerable people.
“What’s the use of having a word if we don’t think and talk about it.” (70)
The 7 Stages of Grieving sets out to interrogate the idea of Reconciliation, a word often used vaguely or as a substitute for meaningful political action. The writers break the word down into its component sounds in order to deconstruct and analyse it – and to try to draw meaning and urgency from it.
“These are my people’s stories. / They need to be told.” (71)
Grief alone, the play contends, is not enough. That grief must be converted to anger, and to story. The play here recognises its own role in making Australia listen to Indigenous voices.
“I guess we can’t go back now.” (73)
The play ends on an optimistic note, with the hope that by rallying, fighting and forcing Australia to listen, a meaningful reconciliation may be possible.
ANALYSIS OF THEMES
The title of The 7 Stages of Grieving is the most obvious indication of its central theme: the process of coming to terms with profound collective and individual trauma. Through a series of monologues from one narrator, the play moves through the stages of grief, exploring loss and pain from a variety of angles.
The play opens with an unequivocal statement of grief: a lone woman sobs on the stage, as synonyms for grief – “loss,” “sorrow,” “absence” etc – and its associative emotions are projected across the set. She sings, in the Kamilaroi language, “weep my heavy heart.” The first few scenes of the play are thus of utter devastation, played out in the language of the colonised.
The narrator then begins the process of moving through a sequence of monologues. Her role as a symbolic, all-encompassing figure of Aboriginal mourning takes on a more specific, personalised aspect as she tells the story of Nana’s funeral. Through this more personalised account Mailman and Enoch find another expression for a wider truth about Aboriginal history – the loss of culture and knowledge that comes with the death of individuals. As the narrator states: “She took so many stories with her to the grave. Stories of her life, our traditions, our heritage, who I am… gone.” The writers are fusing the notion of personal responses to death (the five stages of dying) with broader patterns in Aboriginal history (the seven phases of Aboriginal history). The play explores the ways that personal and communal grief and loss overlap. In “Story of a Father,” it is the fear of an impending death which haunts the narrator. Her father, she must accept, is getting older, and she worries about this fact. Grief in The 7 Stages thus extends across the past, presence and future – a sort of continuum of grief which links the living and the dead. This continuum embraces strangers as well as intimate acquaintances. The narrator describes a funeral of a young man attended by a woman with no known relation. She attends because, having been taken from her family, she sees a chance that she may be related to any Indigenous person she reads about in the obituaries.
In The 7 Stages, grief ultimately can only be processed by being turned to use. In the account of the march in response to the death of Vocke, the narrator calls on her comrades to “grab it in your hand and show your grief, lift it up and show the world” (58). Grief must be turned to anger, and from anger and resistance can follow justice, and then reconciliation.
Oppression and colonisation
The actual moment of colonisation is depicted in two, strikingly different formats. The first is the “Invasion Poem,” which explores the horror of invasion. After brazenly entering through the “front door” and speaking of “things that made no sense,” the colonisers erupt into physical violence. “One took a handful of my hair and led my head to their knee. / Another washed his face in my blood.” The narrator’s children are stolen, her mother “silenced by a single wave of a stick.” Cultural ritual and tradition is outlawed, and the narrator is left in “a landscape of things I know are sacred” but which is abused and dismissed by the colonisers. This poem, in its highly elegiac, dreamlike manner, is the only part of the play to directly address the violence of European settlers during the colonial period. In its themes of death, cultural loss and the stealing of children it connects to various other scenes in the play.
After the confronting Invasion Poem, the next scene is a jarringly dissonant joke. The date 1788 appears on the set, and the entire scene consists of the woman yelling at a British ship as if it is a badly parked car:
Oi. Hey, you! Don’t be waving back at me! Yeh, you with that hat! You can’t park here, eh! You’re taking up the whole bloody harbour! Just get in your boat and go. Go on, go on, get!”
The juxtaposition between horror and levity is not intended to make light of the suffering of Indigenous Australians. Rather, it challenges the notion (maintained by many from colonial times to the present) that Indigenous Australia simply lay down and let Britain colonise their country. The narrator is shown angrily telling the British to leave, and the tongue-in-cheek nature of the scene is an affirmation of the resilience of the Aboriginal community, turning trauma into dark humour.
Colonisation and oppression do not stop simply with the end of the (nebulously defined) colonial period, of course. The real-life story of Daniel Vocke/Yocke/Yock, for example, highlights the disproportionately violent “justice” frequently carried out by police officers against Indigenous Australians, and the “Story of a Brother” reveals how insidious cultural dispossession is, and its ability to define the lives of marginalised and vulnerable people. It is through people power, namely the march at Musgrave Park and the Reconciliation Walk on Sydney Harbour Bridge, that oppression can be beaten, according to the play.
Family is central to all the characters who appear in the play. The narrator’s love for her Nana is palpable. Indeed, an entire community of some hundreds of people gather for her service and wake, testifying to the strength of her character. Even the extended family is large – “we numbered close to 50 people.” As a matriarchal figure in her family and community, Nana is treated as a source of strength and knowledge, one of many crucial linchpins in a cultural and familial network. The fear of losing family members runs throughout the play. The narrator reports that she is so terrified at the thought of losing her father that “Sometimes I find myself crying in the dark alone.” Here the narrator fears the death of a family member. It is fear of a different sort of loss which informs the Story of a Brother. Here, the narrator fears losing her brother to a punitive justice system. However, there is another form of loss at play – the loss of a spirit, or sense of self. Her brother (and family) have intense shame brought on them from his spiralling troubles with the law. This shame eats away at the spirit and dignity of the individual: “in our family to be shamed out like that eats your spirit, your life.” The criminal cycle, begun by an act of police harassment, risks robbing the narrator’s brother of all sense of self-worth and purpose – with disastrous consequences. The scene ends on an uncertain note: “My brother fronts court in 2 weeks. And the family’s still wondering what’s gonna happen.”
There is also a particular, family-oriented grief which historically has been faced by Aboriginal Australians: the trauma of the Stolen Generations. In the first half of the twentieth century a string of policies where enacted to remove so-called “half castes” from Aboriginal communities and move them to missions, or to white families. The underlying belief was that Aboriginal children who were of partial European heritage deserved a “better” life than what was afforded them in traditional communities. The impact, on both the children and the communities from which they were taken, was devastating. The narrator explains the intricate and intensely complicated network of familial relations underpinning Indigenous communities in “Home Story.” The delicate balance of connections is completely destroyed, the narrator demonstrates, by removing children from the equation. In “Front and Centre,” the lone woman at the funeral is never explicitly said to be a member of the Stolen Generations. However, she does say this: “I never knew my family – maybe I could meet my real family[.]” “Real” suggests that she grew up in an adoptive family, making her a stolen child. The woman continues to search for her place in the world, for her family, clearly haunted by the traumatic experience of abduction and forcible adoption.
There is an interesting parallel to stolen children in the character of Aunty Grace. Grace was not forcible taken anywhere. Indeed, she elected to move to Britain with a British soldier after the Second World War. To her family, this amounts to a betrayal. The narrator’s father asserts that Grace “wasn’t really family,” and Nana refused to speak of her. However, the narrator notices that Grace does not seem to have had any desire to abandon her family – indeed, despite having lived overseas for fifty years, she appears to have made a conscious effort to keep up with her Australian connections: “she seemed to know all about us. Remembering names and quoting our parents’ names and guessing ages.” Grace is accused of having sided with the colonisers by moving overseas. She is thus placed in a impossible position, between family and her husband.
The idea of Aboriginal and white reconciliation is a notion thrown about frequently and often uncritically, or in the form of empty platitudes. The 7 Stages of Grieving sets out to interrogate the idea of reconciliation, breaking it down into a string of words which challenge its authority. The “Wreck/con/silly/nation Poem” runs:
A Wreck on arrival,
A changing flag,
A Silly pride for sale,
My Nation knows my identity,
A people, travelling.
The suggestion that Australia, as set up by colonisers, was a “wreck” and a “con” implies that there must be a clear and unapologetic overhaul of the nation in order to make reconciliation meaningful. Only the granting of power (self-determination) to Indigenous Australians can result in reconciliation. The Woman challenges the audience: “You know there’s this grieving.” The stories of her people “need to be told.” The audience now know what the narrator has suffered; the unspoken question is, what are they going to do about it?
For a play about grief – intense, despairing, personal and communal grief – The 7 Stages of Grieving ultimately draws a conclusion which might seem surprisingly optimistic. The final scene describes the Walk for Reconciliation, a day of mass protest across Australia which almost overwhelms the narrator: “I mean there’s so many people.” The protests are taken as evidence for an appetite across Australia for meaningful change. The final line of the play is optimistic, but nevertheless a challenge, a call for action: “I guess we can’t go back now.”
The ending may appear surprisingly optimistic, but if students contextualise it in the rest of the play they see that of course the entire play has been less about grief and despair as it has been about strength and survival. From the show of life and culture at Nana’s huge funeral service to the rallies against police brutality to the darkly comic depiction of British invasion and settlement, the entire play has been characterised not just by suffering but by its inverse: the ability to survive, to draw on personal and communal strength and fight for a better future.
Techniques and Metalanguage
The 7 Stages of Grieving is a modern piece of theatre which eschews some traditional requirements of the stage. For example, it is a largely episodic piece of work, lacking a clear and cohesive narrative frame or plot. Although it is essentially non-linear in its narrative development, it is structured around the seven stages of Aboriginal history, and the five stages of dying, and thus has some basic elements of a traditional plot; there is a conflict, for example, in the form of colonial invasion, and there is resolution of sorts, in the Walks for Reconciliation and the hope of a brighter future.
In place of a traditional plot, the action of the play is instead structured as a series of monologues (a monologue is an extended speech performed by one character) delivered by an unnamed Aboriginal Woman, originally played by co-writer Deborah Mailman. These monologues cover a range of experiences, from political rallies to huge family funerals. The lone performer thus becomes a sort of symbol of a broader Indigenous experience. This structure also allows the writers to do something which is, to an extent, quite unusual: as there is no interaction between characters, the play is told exclusively in an Indigenous voice and from an Indigenous perspective, which inverts much of Australian history – in which Aboriginal communities were talked about, but not talked to. The only “white” voice in the play is the police report on the death of Daniel Vocke. That police report is, however, violently repudiated by the narrator, and included not in some phoney gesture of “balance” but as an example of the callous indifference held by Australian authorities towards Indigenous Australians. The only “white” voice, in other words, is included purely in order to display the limitations of the voices which comprise much of Australian history.
The play juxtaposes contemplative moments of solitude and reflection, moments of intense violence, and moments of levity and humour. The use of humour helps to emphasise the strength of the communities depicted in the play, preventing Aboriginal peoples from appearing completely helpless and weak. Moments of humour illuminate this strength include the comic treatment of the arrival of a British ship in Sydney Harbour, and the monologue delivered as stand-up comedy, which details the racism faced by an Indigenous woman over the course of a day yet ends with the life-affirming “I’M STILL BLACK! AND DEADLY!”
The play makes use of a multimedia form. It includes music and images to generate meaning. The meaning behind “Gallery of Sorrow” and “Suitcase Opening,” for example, is almost entirely created by sound and image, as the special effects work to create a “tapestry of Land and People.” Language, image and sound thus combine to create a short but intensely powerful theatrical experience.
The 7 Stages of Grieving incorporates real-life events. It includes the death of Daniel Vocke, its aftermath, and the Walks for Reconciliation – all of which had occurred shortly before the creation of the play – and in some cases were incorporated into the text in later rewrites. The inclusion of historical events today imbues the play with a sense of historical importance, as a document providing a glimpse into struggles which still resonate today. At the time, it must have given the play a sense of real and genuine urgency, commenting on political events as they unfolded.
Finally, The 7 Stages of Grieving includes traditional Aboriginal song, from the Kamilaroi language of NSW. As the notes explain, the Kamilaroi language is “spoken or understood” throughout the region around the tributaries of the Darling River. The inclusion of Indigenous language reveals the cultural root of Indigenous cultures which still flourishes in Australia today. Similarly, the inclusion of Aboriginal English highlights the power of appropriating an invader’s language and employing it for the purposes of liberation.
The 7 Stages of Grieving is a one-woman play, with an unnamed Aboriginal woman narrating the piece. However, there are a number of characters who emerge throughout the play, primarily through the narrator’s monologues.
The narrator of the play is an unnamed Aboriginal woman, originally played by co-writer Deborah Mailman. She is symbolic of the collective Aboriginal experience, so far as such a thing is possible, and weaves various accounts, memories and collective experiences together. She opens the play in an intense state of grief and mourning. Over the course of the play this grief manifests itself repeatedly, variously as despair, fury, humour, anger, reflection and finally hope. The character can thus be read as an expression of collective grief and mourning.
The first full-length monologue describes Nana, a “strong god-fearing woman” and matriarch. She was clearly much loved by her community, and the narrator describes huge numbers of mourners arriving for the funeral. She was distrustful of government and sought comfort and authority in her church. Like many of the older characters described in the play, a painful and harsh past is hinted at: “Nana would tell us of the days when there wasn’t enough to feed all the children.” She is a survivor, and a holder of knowledge; the narrator laments the knowledge – and sense of identity – which goes to the grave with her nana.
The funeral characters
One monologue about the loss of identity revolves around the funeral of a young, nameless male. The narrator recalls that he had no known family – and yet there is a woman crying her eyes out at the service. The narrator follows her home and asks her about her relation to the man. She replies that as she does not know the identity of her own family, she attends every funeral of Aboriginal people, in case they are related. Although not explicitly stated, the woman is presumably a member of the Stolen Generations, forcibly removed from her community at a young age, allegedly for her own benefit.
Aunty Grace is, presumably, one of Nana’s daughters (although ‘Aunty’ in Aboriginal communities can be used as a general honorific). And emigrant to the United Kingdom, she returns for Nana’s funeral. Her mother was disgusted that she left for another life, calling her a “black princess.” The narrator’s father claims that Grace “was stuck up and wasn’t really family.” Grace, however, appears to hold no real ill-will to her family, and seems to have made a serious effort to keep up to date with their growth and lives. Initially unable to cry, she eventually breaks down at Nana’s grave. Aunty Grace is in a difficult position – she has carved out a presumably happy life overseas, but that that happiness has come at the cost of isolation from her family, who resent her leaving for marriage with a white man.
Daniel Vocke is based off real-life Aboriginal man Daniel Yock/Yocke (the name appears under various spellings). Yock did indeed die after being arrested by Queensland police in 1993. The play faithfully relates the huge march – of some 4000 people – which met in Musgrave Park in response to the death of Yocke, and of so many other Aborigines who have died in police custody. Yock was the younger brother of the great Aboriginal Australian poet Lionel Fogarty, who spoke at the protest and led the campaign for justice.
The narrator relates the story of her brother, intended as an example of the ease with which vulnerable members of a community can slip into criminality. After being harassed by police, the brother fronts the courts and is fined. The fine, with its attendant shame, leads to alcohol dependency and further crimes. Imprisonment is thus presented as the logical endpoint of marginalisation and vilification.