On ‘Hotel Sorrento’, by Hannie Rayson

HANNIE RAYSON’S WELL-loved Hotel Sorrento, which premiered onstage in 1991 and was made into a feature film in 1995, explored some immediately identifiable terrain for many audiences when it first appeared. It tapped the theme of Australian ‘cultural cringe’, the contested ownership of cultural and personal stories and conflict over entitlement and betrayal. These concerns were framed in the rocky relationships between three Australian sisters, all of who, at the play’s opening, have made widely different paths for themselves in the world.

Rayson is recognised for her capacity to deftly encapsulate larger social, political or cultural issues through the prism of a personal and domestic set of conflicts, and this technique has often been cited as one of her greatest skills as a playwright. In this play, and in later works, such as Life After George, Inheritance and Two Brothers, she creates plausible characters and, through their interactions, layers the text with deeper social concerns that are politicised and timely.

In this way, the family becomes the arena for the exploration of larger-scale social shifts and complex upheavals – particularly, a family confronted with crisis in which submerged or repressed tensions are finally, unavoidably revealed. I spoke about this with Rayson in an interview in late 2014, in which we revisited the play’s themes of cultural and familial identity.

‘Who has power, how do they wield it and who suffers at the hand of it, are questions [that] always interest me,’ Rayson began. ‘So I go to the family to explore them. I understand it in a family context. I can take the audience with me on that and make the links between what we understand in our known worlds with how the tensions might express themselves politically, in a bigger national canvas.’

In 1986, Rayson received a grant from the then Theatre Board of the Australia Council to do a series of interviews with expatriates. Peter Carey’s novel Illywhacker (UQP, 1985) had been nominated for the Booker Prize, and Rayson imagined a play in which a central character had achieved similar accolades in order to explore its repercussions. ‘I needed to create someone whose opinions were going to receive attention by the world press; someone passionate and outspoken about Australia so that the pendulum between my own sense of deep affection and frustration that this country can engender, could swing back and forth freely. In this way I could create a tension and interplay of often contradictory ideas,’ she explained in 1992, in an introduction to the play text. ‘But at the heart of this play is the family and the sisters.’

In Hotel Sorrento, Rayson created Meg, the sister who has left home and made a new life for herself in England. She has written a successful, Booker-nominated novel based on her life in Australia, and returned home to discover that her aggrieved sisters maintain the novel is actually their life story, with only the names changed. The international attention it is attracting becomes a bone of contention between the sisters, and Pippa and Hilary’s sense of betrayal and unwilling exposure over the story it has to tell also provides dramatic structure to the narrative, because it requires Meg to physically return from ‘the outside world’ back into the domestic sphere of her old home town of Sorrento. Now privacy, memory, notions of loyalty and contested versions of who has the right to ‘own’ shared histories is paramount. In this way the catalyst of the book’s publication breaks open the dual layers of both worlds, and Rayson’s facility for mirroring the universal in the domestic (and vice versa) can be given full rein.

‘Families seem to have an astonishing capacity to endlessly postpone the settling of conflicts and old scores,’ Rayson commented in her 1992 introduction, and it is telling that she then provides a second catalyst for change and conflict when Wal – the family patriarch and the solid basis for its cohesion – drowns while swimming with his grandson, Troy.

The conflicts that arise now are both personal and cultural, and the raw emotional wounds caused by them expertly tip the ‘pendulum’ that Rayson talks about. Ideas about identity, for example, or the oscillation between loyalty and betrayal, can weave between the two. In fact, they can contradict each other, provoking further dimension and complexity to characters, and adding vivid power to the exchanges of dialogue that drive this play.

Wal’s death creates a bleak vacuum in which reassessment – not always rational, not always charitable – can take place.

This fraught and unbalanced world, teetering uneasily as the adult sisters are reluctantly forced to reexamine their lives, creates dissonance and oscillation in the arguments and allegiances each character experiences.

In Scene 7, for example, personal conflict is simmering. Meg is astonished that her sisters would want to sell the house, and is quickly made to realise they see her move to England as a kind of defection. ‘It’s our home,’ she insists. ‘Our family home.’ ‘Not any more,’ says Pippa. ‘…you live in England for godsake. It’s not your home.’ Meg answers: ‘And you’re doing your best to make me feel like that.’ In this, she articulates not only the frustration and alienation of the expat who chooses another place over ‘home’ and feels themselves the target of veiled criticism as a result, but also the surprised realisation – also common of expatriates – that while they are making a life elsewhere ‘home’ does not exist in a stasis, but moves on without them, changing irrevocably from the parochial, insular or romanticised state they recall.

It is Hilary’s son, Troy, who most clearly embodies this state of flux in the wake of Wal’s death. When Edwin, Meg’s rather pompous English husband, mentions to him that ‘most Aussies have the travel bug’, Troy recalls his grandfather’s complete contentment with staying in one satisfying place: ‘Pop used to say… “Why would anyone want to leave a place like this?” … He said people only travelled when they needed to run away.’

Once the conversations broaden to include the perspectives of secondary characters Marge and Dick, the conflicts about identity and grievance move from the personal and private to the public and cultural. In Scene 11, the outspoken, agitated Meg fumes about lack of acknowledgement of the artist as a national Australian trait:

People used to ask me why I stayed in London. Why I didn’t come home. And I used to say it was because the artist has no status in this country. Why make art when you can make money? That’s Australia for you. But I’m talking ten years ago. I was sure things would have changed…there’s all this talk about the new renaissance in Australian culture…but the fact is, in this country there is a suffocatingly oppressive sense that what you do as an artist is essentially self-indulgent.

Dick, a newspaper editor, is affronted by this: ‘…I can’t for the life of me see how you can feel so authoritative about this. Like that interview in the Guardian…I’m sorry but I found that highly offensive. What you said was cliché ridden and misinformed…the issue for me is why you, as an expatriate, feel compelled to dump on this place. Because in effect you’re dumping on the people who are actually trying to do things.’ Meg responds with another attack on who’s legitimately entitled to have an opinion on Australian culture: ‘So one can only be critical from the inside. Is that it? …I think that this so called cultural renaissance is actually about patriotism. Which makes people like you very defensive.’

It is not long, though, before her restless criticism swerves back to the personal and her private grievance against her sisters as she lambasts them for not acknowledging the book. ‘You see, you all think I’m terribly pretentious because I take myself seriously. Because I referred to myself as an “artist”. You think that’s pompous bullshit don’t you?’ she goads. Fresh layers are revealed more confrontingly as the attack builds: ‘Well, let’s talk about attitude, shall we? What about when someone writes a novel and gets no response from the people she knows. What can we understand from that? That the novel itself is no good? That novels per se, are not really all that relevant? Or is it something to do with the attitude of the other people? Something to do with selfishness? Or what about cowardice?’

Her sisters react with equal heat. ‘You’ve spent the whole time telling us that you don’t write autobiography. You write fiction,’ Hilary answers furiously. ‘Now I’ve had to sit here and listen to all that when you know as well as I do that the only difference is, you haven’t used our real names.’

Audiences are able to see clearly the conflicting tensions within the women themselves, and this dramatic articulation of their dilemmas makes us reassess and shift our own loyalties.

A major dramatic theme in Hotel Sorrento is ‘cultural cringe’ – a term coined by Australian critic AA Phillips in a seminal and highly controversial 1950 essay in which it was used to describe the sort of ingrained, internalised inferiority complex, common in post-colonial cultures, which makes people dismiss the value or worth of their own culture as somehow inferior to that of others. Phillips asserted that the general public in Australia at the time assumed that work produced by Australian writers, artists, musicians, actors and dramatists suffered by comparison against the work of their British and European counterparts. In the wake of Phillip’s influential theory, many social commentators have mapped this cultural evolution within Australia, identifying traits such as anti-intellectualism, an emphasis on sport (as Meg says disparagingly in the play), and a sense that Australia exists on a cultural periphery, with the real artistic innovation and accomplishment occurring elsewhere. As a result, people who held this view, according to the ‘cultural cringe’ theory, tended to disparage and devalue their country’s cultural, intellectual and artistic life. Those who chose to live elsewhere for extended periods of time as ‘expatriates’ wore that name as occasionally meaning something more like ‘ex-patriots’: that is, unpatriotic, dissatisfied and critical of Australian culture and society generally.

Rayson herself believes that this theme is no longer as central to our cultural sense of ‘self’ as it once was. ‘If I were producing the play now for performance,’ she said in our recent interview, ‘I would cut most of the references to the cultural cringe in relation to Britain. That time has passed… I think Australia has a pretty robust sense of self. The swagger born of insecurity about our cultural worth has all but disappeared.’

It’s an interesting paradox that the idea of a ‘cultural cringe’ suggests the anxiety and dissonance provoked by looking inwards, towards one’s own failings and deficiencies, but the conflicted characters in Hotel Sorrento spend their time looking out – with yearning, with longing, with frustration and resentment – to the world beyond the shore.

In terms of imagery and metaphor, it is the ever-present ocean that suggests the ‘push and pull’ of the play’s themes. More than 80 per cent of Australians live within a hundred kilometres of the country’s coastlines, and if anything is offered in terms of national identity in the play it is the sense that we tend to look yearningly outwards for answers to our vexations. This makes sense, intuitively – our interior is, after all, often harsh, dry and inhospitable, while the ever-mutable ocean is the dangerous and mysterious barrier, separating us from the differently lived life beyond our shores. If the characters in this play possess a hidden sense of inferiority – or defiant defensiveness – it comes from perceiving themselves as the viewed, the subjects of the gaze of other more confident cultural observers.

The sea, a liminal boundary between what’s ‘in here’ and what’s ‘out there’, plays a central metaphorical role in orienting audiences to the inner conflicts of each character. Scenes unfold as characters wordlessly avert their eyes from what’s inwards and gaze out to sea. They wander along beside its shore, thinking. They paint it, fish in it, and swim in it. They reflect on a monolithic rock that towers from it – ‘the place for glorious departure’ – reminding them of the need to jump off and take the plunge into ‘real life’. They are restless and confined when they are inside the house, and find a temporary peace outside at the ocean’s tidal boundaries, dipping their toes in the water and pensively sharing ideas. And if they are not looking out, they are sitting ignoring the view and perusing newspapers – the news from elsewhere that gives shape and definition to what then spurs their exchanges.

Only Wal and Troy actually immerse themselves in that ocean – in fact, of course, Wal is lost permanently in it, throwing himself wholeheartedly and passionately into surfing its waves. The others stay on shore. When Edwin attempts to at least paddle in its shallows, he is the object of ridicule as Pippa mocks him for not going in deep enough, although Pippa herself never even gets her feet wet. Ocean imagery is used often in the play to highlight these connections. Hilary vows to Troy that despite their pain she’s not going to let them ‘go under’. Pippa begs Meg to let them all sell the house so that Hilary’s life can be ‘salvaged’. And poignantly, in the play’s final scene, as an auctioneer spruiks the property, it is the house’s ‘glorious location’ close to the ocean that is its major selling point – not as a home, but as real estate. We also sense that Meg has conceded Hilary and Pippa’s point that the house itself is no longer ‘home’ now that Wal is gone, and all three sisters will make their lives elsewhere.

Hannie Rayson herself acknowledges the mutability and emotional pull of the play’s enduring appeal:

Hotel Sorrento was a play I wrote very early in my writing life. I think it is structurally flawed and expresses much of my inexperience as a dramatist. I have written a lot of plays since then, and got better at the craft.

But there is something about this play. I wrote it with utter love and tenderness. I had a baby during the writing process and that added to a sense of dreaminess and perfect serenity. It was a journey of the soul, and even though I now think it’s clunky in part, it’s strange because actors, directors and audiences love it. It is my most produced play. It has had hundreds of productions. And the royalty cheques from it have saved my bacon on more than one occasion. It has a certain magic that I like to think comes from the happiness in which it was written.

The ‘certain magic’ is also infused with melancholy, as nostalgia and loss collide for these plausible characters struggling to reconcile the changes and long-simmering secrets of their shared lives. Rayson’s great and characteristic skill is to humanise her characters so that they, too, can embody this ‘journey of the soul’ for an audience, brimming with flaws and contradictions, but always compassionately rendered.