The Mayne Inheritance

(La Boite)


In August 1940 Mary-Emilia Mayne, the last surviving child of Patrick and Mary Mayne, died in the family home, “Moorlands” on Coronation Drive, now incorporated into the Wesley Hospital. Her estate was willed to the University of Queensland which had already benefited substantially from the family’s accumulated wealth of a century and the estate of her youngest brother, James. None of the five Mayne children who survived infancy married. Patrick Mayne’s line died with Mary-Emilia.

The volatile teenage Patrick left the depredation of Ireland and arrived in Australia with only the skills of a farm labourer in 1841. In 1844 he gained work as a slaughterman at a boiling-down works at Kangaroo Point earning one pound per week. On 26 March 1848, one Robert Cox was murdered in the area of Patrick’s workplace and lodgings. Cox’s dismembered body-parts were found in four locations. Mayne was never a suspect. It is speculated that Cox could have been carrying about three hundred pounds. Whatever the sum, it was never found. William Fyfe, alleged to be Cox’s homosexual partner, was hanged for the crime in Sydney on 4 July 1848.

In September 1849, the pound-a-week Patrick, now married to Protestant Mary McIntosh, purchased his first Queen Street property, a butcher shop, for two hundred and forty pounds. On 8 August 1865, Alderman Mayne, aged 41, with expansive (but heavily mortgaged) property holdings in central and suburban Brisbane and its environs, died after deliriously confessing to the crime in the days before his death. The confession became public. Such facts as there were fell victim to public embellishment. Not only was Patrick Mayne a murderer, he was insane. This sin of the father was to visit his survivors to the end of each of their days and beyond.

On his death his widow, with five Catholic raised children Rosanna (15), Isaac (13), William (9), Mary-Emilia (7) and James (4), undertook redemption, consolidation and expansion of their property-based wealth. This responsibility eventually fell to Dr James Mayne. It is suggested that the children were sworn to a family pact never to marry for fear of passing “inherited insanity”.

Under the omnipresent stigma of a fortune built on blood, the family imploded. Rosanna became a nun, confined for life after a nervous breakdown, in All Hallows Convent, seemingly in a state of perpetual prayer for the redemption of her father. Isaac, a lawyer and homosexual, slipped into insanity and hanged himself in a Sydney Asylum, aged 53. A love-denied William lived out his life in miserable comfort at Moorlands. Less affected by her father’s legacy of guilt, Mary-Emilia’s course in life was steered first by her mother and then by James. Despite his standing as a surgeon, business acumen and public generosity, homosexual Dr James Mayne could not wash the blood from the family name. Built after the death of Mary, Moorlands became and remained a place children avoided well into the twentieth century.

Brisbane was opened for free settlement in 1842. Its population doubled to 5000 between 1844 and 1850. Two-thirds were Irish, but as the city developed its governance, together with the swelling population, became Protestant-dominated. Catholic influence rose through the tenure of James Duhig as Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane from 1917 to 1965. Moorlands, Mayne Junction and Mayne Hall at the University of Queensland are the skeletal remains of a family whose benefaction is virtually unsurpassed in Brisbane and Queensland’s history.

It is from their history that Errol O’Neill has structured his episodic The Mayne Inheritance – a Play, with acknowledged “inspiration” from Rosamond Siemon’s book of the same name. Ms Siemon suggests the saga of the Mayne family contains the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. Certainly it echoes Eugene O’Neill’s great familial tragedy Long Day’s Journey into Night. Regrettably for this reviewer, a long time admirer of the current playwright’s talents and social commitment, the production did not realise the full potential of the subject matter. This is attributed in part to the play’s structure, but mostly to direction which, in turn, did not realise the pathos and dramatic tensions latent in the script, and some performances which failed to capture the complexities of the central characters.

The play as published is in two “parts” with 47 scenes 23 in Part 1 and 24 in Part 2. In this premiere production six actors play some 30 characters. Most secondary characters appear in Part 1, which jumps back and forth in time and place through events, real and imagined, from 1854 to 1930. Part 2 is more chronologically sequenced and the location of events more clearly defined.

The design is minimalist and obscure and offers little assistance to the audience in following the time and place shifts in Part 1. Limited use is made of the theatre’s obvious technical resources in creating and sustaining the play’s dark theme or exploiting its few lighter moments.

As it is Patrick’s deathbed confession which is central to the family’s subsequent travails and traumas the playwright opens the play on the dying man with his “children” circled at a distance. Almost immediately Mary-Emilia transforms to her mother Mary and James to Father (later Archbishop) Dunne, as Patrick blasts out his delirious confession. From that moment there could be no surprise or suspense associated with the murder. Remembering the ages of the children at the time, the audience is immediately asked to accept the conventions of flexible time, place and shifting characters adopted. In a minimal set and with limited assistance from costumes and lighting throughout, this was a big ask and a large demand on the characterisation skills of the actors.

Mr O’Neill acknowledges the difficulties of compression in the play’s long gestation period. He also asserts, in dealing with historical figures and events the playwright’s advantage in “being able to use the best of several (historical) interpretations as the point of departure for … dramatic speculations”. Those speculations should finally produce “a piece” offering a one-time viewing audience ready access to the story being told, appreciation of its theme and empathy with or sympathy for characters caught in the maelstrom of structured dramatic tensions. Though becoming more involved through a reading of the text of Part 1 than during the production (which was confusing), this reviewer considers that that part remains more a work-in-progress than a finished text. Progressively it reveals the Gothic horror of the murder as the family lapses into almost immediate guilt without the full measure of dramatic tension denial, doubt or disbelief could have provided. Through their capitulation the audience is denied the same dramatic experience. We are witnesses to, without identification with, the family’s individual implosions.

By Part 1’s end, James, who had escaped the cauldron in London, is pulled back into it by the death of his mother. If the play has a “tragic hero” it is James. Surrendering his future as a surgeon for fear of “insanity” it is he who continues the family’s fortunes; he who resists the overtures of Archbishop Duhig for money to advance the Catholic cause; he who weathers the bigotry against the family, their heritage and blood inheritance and he who initiates the benevolence to the university, despite which he dies without public recognition anyone not Irish, Catholic but incredibly wealthy and generous would have received. The play does not fully explore the dramatic wealth offered by Dr James Mayne.

In Part 2 we also witness the denial of William’s one hope for love and his lapse into indolent misery; Isaac’s complete unravelling, committal to the asylum and suicide; Rosanna’s purgatory of prayers and finally Mary-Emilia’s solitary death after a brief flashback to the young, hopeful and sane Patrick leaving for Australia.

Patrick’s foreboding presence in the lives of Rosanna, Isaac and William is maintained by his recurring appearance “in their thoughts”. He never intrudes in this way on Mary-Emilia or James. The play begs for imaginative surrealism in production but unlike the dead Patrick, this never materialises. Minimalism in most aspects corrodes the intent and theme of the work. This is not to suggest that a director is not at liberty to “interpret” an established work, but this is new coin and the playwright’s published stage directions make it clear he is also no mean-hand as a director. By way of example, Patrick Mayne, historically, was a man who carried and used a stockwhip as a weapon. The text provides him with one. The production does not. The text has Isaac symbolically use it to suicide. Patrick’s death blanket is a less telling substitute.

Although an actor with patent talent, Haydn Spencer continues to mar intensity with volume and in this production neglects the first vocal discipline of being intelligible. His Patrick is present, but unaided by the available technology, rarely the “presence” the role requires. He redeems himself, to some extent, in quieter scenes.

Mary-Emilia is a pale shadow of her mother. It is she who would have capitulated to Duhig had James not intervened. Sue Dwyer in the dual roles is solid and controlled, but clearer physical definition between the two is required. She is not assisted by costume.

As the younger Rosanna and in her secondary roles, particularly Florence, Elise Greig, despite vocal limitations, achieves clear differentiation and depth where the script allows, but in Rosanna’s prayer-prattling senility lapses into quaking caricature.

David Brown’s Isaac gives us unrelenting unorchestrated two-dimensional anger at volume, but without anguish can not hope to excite empathy or sympathy. His Quinn and Duhig are closer to the mark.

Stephen Carleton (James and others) and Michael Futcher ( William and others) carry the play and the production with thoughtful, moving performances across the board.

La Boite is to be congratulated on its willingness to present “local product”.

— Ron Finney
(Performance seen: Fri 14th May 2004)