The Play by CJ Dennis
It was difficult to select a recording to feature first in the Aussie Voices project, but Algy’s recording of The songs of a sentimental bloke by CJ Dennis offers so many avenues for interesting speculation that I wanted to present it early.
CJ Dennis is a fascinating author. Little remembered now, he was rather like Mark Twain as to Americans, in terms of his comparable cultural impact.
CJ Dennis is the author that teaches Australians to speak Strine. His poems are a little tricky to listen to, and modern people think it is because he is writing in a pristine Australian dialect, uninfluenced by television and Americans. That’s not true at all: his book has a long glossary at the back because it was meant to be a puzzle. Most Australians, when he was writing, had no idea what many of the words meant. You were meant to discuss the odd words with your friends and family and cheat at the back if you got stuck. That so many of his words are now thought of as archaic Australianisms is a sign of his popularity, not his fidelity to an original Australian way of speaking.
In terms of the work itself, he does some clever things with the design of his characters. Bill, our narrator, is a young street thug. He doesn’t call himself a thug, but he’s part of a push, a gang, and he gets in trouble with the law. So, he’s the sort of juvie who’d be moved on now by the mall police. He decides to get his life straight when he meets Doreen, the love of his life.
In The Play, Bill takes Doreen to a play, to show her a good time, and to show he’s a bit sophisticated. The play is Romeo and Juliet, which is about a young street thug called Romeo, who tears around with his push, getting into sword fights. Bill notices the similarities and differences between himself and Romeo.
Dennis does some sly things with his Aussies attending Shakespeare. They aren’t at all pious about it, and so there’s a refrain from a snack vendor that punctuates the story. There’s this obvious opposition between high culture and low. The interesting thing here is that the Australians who are experiencing Shakespeare in this way, rather than as something watched in silent veneration, are far more like Shakespeare’s original audience than the later Australians who used him as a touchstone of Britishness, civilisation and sophistication.
I really enjoy this reading, and I hope you’ll test it out. Algy has recut and reloaded his files, so that if you like you can just sample The Play, which is just over six minutes long. The whole book is also available, and at just over two hours, divided into convenient breaks, its an easy gateway into audiobook listening.
Other works by CJ Dennis in the Librivox catalog include a handful of short poems and The Glugs of Gosh, Dennis’s favourtie work. It’s a social satire of Australia with a controversial ending. Algy Pug has recorded many works for Librivox, being particularly active in dramatic works.
The Gold Coast Library Service has various formats of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. If you are interested in film history, we have DVDs of the restored form of the 1919 movie, which is a must for film history fans.
We’re going to revisit Bill and Doreen later in the year, for The Kid, which is a lovely little poem about the fatherhood, but I’ll see you in a fortnight, for gentlemen and thieves, as we claim Raffles for the colonies.