Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Jane Harrison, Stolen (1997)

The Aboriginal writer, Jane Harrison’s play Stolen (1997) was commissioned by the Aboriginal theatre company, the Ilbejerri, to emotively tell the story of Aboriginal suffering involving the ‘stolen generations’, an issue that was also articulated that year by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report Bringing Them Home

The play mounts a critique of the legacy of the assimilationist policy of removing a number of half-caste Aboriginal children from their Aboriginal families to be raised by missionaries or to be adopted by white middle-class families, a policy accused of denying many of these Aborigines a sense of family and place, as well as stripping them of their sense of Aboriginal identity. 

To a lesser extent, the play also dramatised the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1989−1991), which had found that many of the Aborigines who committed suicide, or died behind bars, were formerly ‘stolen children’ who had been removed from their Aboriginal parents by welfare authorities. 

Although Jane Harrison is the principal author of Stolen, it should be noted that there were other significant creative inputs from the members of the Ilbejerri Theatre Company as they theatrically workshopped the play between 1992 and 1997, and also from the Aboriginal theatrical director Wesley Enoch who made contributions to the tone and character of the work. 

The play presents a political argument that condemns the racist and paternalistic assimilationist policies of white Australians while hoping to generate sympathy for the victims of these welfare policies that divided Aboriginal families.  Meanwhile, the play celebrates the survival of the Aboriginal people in the face of great adversity. 

The play is also an expression of Aboriginal nationalism in that it tells stories about Aborigines to Aboriginal people, treating Aboriginal history as a means to define and unite a distinct people.  Meanwhile, the play is also aimed to make white people understand a tragic dimension of Aboriginal history in the hope that this will contribute to ending the persecution, discrimination and suffering of Aborigines at the hands of whites. 

Written in the style of the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, the  play consists of a sequence of short scenes that revolve around five carefully crafted Aboriginal characters (Jimmy, Ruby, Shirley, Anne and Sandy) who make numerous points that collectively constitute a more comprehensive political argument about the suffering and loss experienced by members of the ‘stolen generations’.  The scenes are not chronological because their purpose is to contribute points to a political argument rather than to use the theatre to realistically evoke a particular time and place. 

While some of the Aboriginal characters who were stolen children had tragic outcomes, such as Jimmy who committed suicide while in prison and Ruby who succumbed to autistic madness, not all the outcomes are as profoundly pitiful.  Shirley, a stolen child who later, as an adult, had her children stolen, was eventually able to reconnect family ties by establishing relationships with her grandchildren.  Anne, who was raised in comfort by middle-class white people, was eventually able to come to terms with her conflicting identities created by her experience of adoption by accepting both her families, black and white, as part of who she was.  Meanwhile, Sandy decided to make the trek back to the desert homeland of her Aboriginal people to revive a more direct and tribal sense of her Aboriginal identity that could not be found as a city-dweller.  In this way, the play argues that the experiences of members of the stolen generations were varied, all suffered, but some suffered less than others. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Stolen meaning, Stolen themes, Stolen analysis, Stolen notes