Helen Garner must have loved prize-winning book designer WH Chong’s cheeky cypress-dominated cover for the Text Classics edition of her two screenplays, The last days of chez nous and Two friends. You’d only realise this, though, after reading her Preface, in which she explains that she had incorporated cypresses into her screenplay for their “freight of meaning”, but that, because an appropriate location could not be found, they were replaced by a spire! For the published screenplay, however, Garner says she’d taken “the liberty of removing the spire and putting the cypress trees back in.” Love it.
I enjoyed reading this book much more than I expected. I’ve seen and enjoyed both films – a long time ago, as they were made in 1992 and 1986, respectively – but reading screenplays didn’t seem very appealing. How wrong I was. I’m glad, therefore, that Text decided to republish this volume in its Text Classics series. As always, they’ve value-added by commissioning an expert to write a commentary, which, in this case, given there was already an author’s Preface from the original 1992 edition, they appended an Afterword. It’s by well-regarded Australian scriptwriter, Laura Jones (who, coincidentally, is the daughter of the late Australian writer, Jessica Anderson.)
Both the Preface and the Afterword are informative and engaging, but I’ll start by discussing the plays. They are presented in the book in reverse chronological order of their writing, which means The last days of chez nous comes first. Both stories chronicle relationship breakdowns. This is common fare for Garner, but here as in all her work I’ve read, it’s not boring. Her skill lies in the intelligent, clear-sighted way she explores these situations, and in her ability to inject both humour and warmth. She’s never maudlin, and she never judges.
So, in The last days of chez nous, the breakdown is the marriage of Beth and her French husband JP, while in Two friends it’s the friendship between two 14-year-old girls, Louise and Kelly. Both, as is Garner’s wont, draw from her life. She was married to a Frenchman, the marriage did break up, and her husband did fall in love with and eventually marry her sister, most of which happens in the play. In Two friends, Bernadette Brennan reports, she drew on a friendship her daughter had had, but, when she saw the film, she realised that it was “really, in a funny sort of way, about me.” And the “me” character was not the sensible daughter, based on her own daughter, but the friend from the troubled background.
In her Preface, Garner tells how the impetus to write her first play, Two friends, was money. She needed it at the time, so when the idea was put to her:
I rushed home and rummaged in my folder of unexamined ideas. Out of it stepped Kelly and Louise, the young girls who became Two friends.
She continues that, although money had been the initial driver, she found, as she got down to it, the writing was “powered by the same drives as fiction” – curiosity, technical fascination, and “the same old need to shape life’s mess into a seizable story.”
This latter point is important, not only because it confirms her lifelong subject matter, “life’s mess” aka relationships, but because it answers those criticisms that she “just” presents her journals. She doesn’t, she “shapes” what she’s experienced (and seen) into “a seizable story”. She also shares in the Preface some of the things she learnt from film writing, including the challenge of working collaboratively which is something writers don’t usually have to do, the “priceless art of the apparently dumb question”, and that she was “forced to learn and relearn the stern law of structure.” She explains, using Last days of chez nous, how her “perfectly smooth narrative curve” was turned into “a little Himalaya of mini-climaxes”.
This is a good place, though, to talk about the structure of Two friends which chronicles the girls’ relationship breakdown in reverse. That is, we start at the point where it appears to have broken down and move back through the months to the peak of their togetherness. Experienced scriptwriter Laura Jones discusses this in her Afterword:
The story … is daringly told in the present tense, backwards, although each of the five parts is told in the present tense, forwards. We hold these two storytelling modes in our minds at once, the forwards momentum and the backwards knowledge […] Such deft playing with time–elegant, formal and musical–offers great storytelling pleasure, as we move from dark to light, from the painful separation of two adolescent girls to the rapturous closeness of ten months earlier.
She’s right, it’s clever because the end is bittersweet – we love the close friendship but we know what’s coming.
Now I want to share some of the experience of reading these plays. Here is an example from early in Two friends when Matthew, Louise’s wannabe boyfriend, tells her he’s seen Kelly:
LOUISE: What did she look like?
MATTHEW: All right.
He shrugs; like many boys he is not good at the kind of detail Louise is after.
These instructions to the actor about his character also enliven the reading. It’s the sort of sentiment you’d find in a Garner novel, though perhaps expressed a little more creatively.
And here’s some scene-setting in the next part, where Louise, Matthew and Kelly are together:
Kelly plays up to Matthew–almost as if she can’t help it. (Kelly will become one of those women who, when there’s a man in the room, unconsciously channel all their attention towards him.)
Similarly, in Last days of chez nous. Here is a scene where Beth has eaten some French cheese that JP has been storing carefully until it reaches maturation. He’s very upset, and eventually Beth senses the importance to him:
Beth is silent. They stand looking at each other. She has not quite succumbed, but for once he has her full attention–and this is so rare that he does not know what to do with it …
All this is probably what always happens in scripts, but Garner’s way of describing the situations and characters certainly made the screenplays more than just readable. They were engrossing.
Of course, I read Shakespeare’s (and other) plays at school – but that was school and, although I enjoyed them, I haven’t really gravitated to reading plays/scripts since. I won’t be quite so cautious in future.
Do you read them?
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)