“They killed her last night.” These were the first words Michael Griffith said to me the morning after his play, The Magnolia Tree, premiered in La Mama Theatre, Melbourne on Wednesday 17 May. The Magnolia Tree centres around three disconnected siblings – Jack (Ezra Bix), Vicki (Helen Hopkins) and Deb (Rohana Hayes) – who have come together to choose a nursing home for their mother, who is suffering from severe dementia and has been largely unresponsive for eleven years.
The mood takes a sharp turn when Jack suggests they eschew the nursing home and put their mother out of her misery – that night.
At first repulsed by the idea, Jack’s arguments slowly convince the dysfunctional trio to accept it may be “for the best”. The play reaches a climax when Vicki, still racked with indecision, pauses at the edge of the staircase that leads to their mother’s room.
At this point the actors freeze. It is time for the audience to become involved.
The Magnolia Tree is a play with two endings: One where Vicky ends the life of her mother, and one where she does not.
The audience must decide which one they see.
“I was wondering which way to end the play,” said Michael, “because both endings were powerful, and then I thought, ‘why don’t I leave the answer up to the audience?’ In that way they can test their own morality,” he said.
Three days before the opening night, Michael was confident that the audience would choose life. “I really think they will choose life. Most people would think about [euthanasia], and maybe even be tempted by the money. But, we are Christian-based, no not even Christian, we are humans. And as humans we don’t kill our mums,” he said.
Yet, Michael was proven wrong, again and again. On the first night, the audience of forty overwhelmingly voted to kill the mother.
“I’m stunned,” he said. “I really thought death wouldn’t stand a chance.”
As the nights wore on, the audience vote skewed slightly in favour of life (5:3), but it turned out that this was because not everyone was voting.
“Once we changed the voting process to make sure every person voted, the votes hot up in favour of death, three to one,” said Michael.
The filmographer, recording the play from the back of the audience, spoke of his shock, saying, “I can’t believe how quickly they put their hands up.”
While this may be a discouraging litmus test of the changing morality of the theatre-going public, part of the reason for the pro-death vote is the brilliant and persuasive use of argument Michael wrote for the antagonist, Jack. Michael, an agnostic with a Catholic upbringing, says that he drew inspiration for Jack’s character from the scene of the devil tempting Jesus on the mountain (Matt 4:1-11).
“I see it as Jesus on mountain, when the Devil is saying, ‘You can have all this, you can have these kingdoms, if you just listen to me.’ I think the devil – not that I’m a big believer in that sort of thing – would talk in a way that made so much sense, that you struggle to see what’s right.”
Pro-death arguments are compelling, as the audience at La Mama Theatre discovered firsthand.
“I just made Jack push, push and push,” said Michael. “Part of you is wondering, ‘Is he evil?’ but there’s another part thinking, ‘maybe not, maybe we are blind, maybe he really is showing us that this is the better way.”
The character of Jack is not unlike the concept of the ‘superman’ (German: Übermensch) put forward by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche’s life project was to set up a ‘new morality’, one that would replace what he saw as the ‘slave morality’ of Christianity – which recognises the value of the poor, meek, the humble and the peacemakers.
His ‘new morality’ favoured the strong, the aggressive and the assertive. Much like Jack, Nietzsche’s ‘superman’ was destined to go ‘beyond right and wrong’, in order to bring the humanity into a new era.
Communism, the Third Reich and eugenics are just some fruits of Nietzsche’s ‘new morality’. But, no matter how many times it fails in practice, its promise lingers like a siren song, as once again displayed by The Magnolia Tree.
Michael says that the reaction to the play demonstrates that “as a culture, we don’t know who we are.”
The play was meant to be a comment on an Australia that is making people “harder” than they might wish to be.
While Michael meant to show this through the characters of Vicki and Deb – being forced to even consider such a horrible decision – the real social commentary is being shown through the audience. Perhaps we are harder than we would like to be.
By putting the dialogue in the mouths of “three real people”, The Magnolia Tree shows that euthanasia is not an isolated issue, but one that is “interlinked” with the rise of poverty, homelessness, despair and lack of care.
“It is not a euthanasia play, it is a snap shot of an Australian family … and yeah, it’s dark.” The reception of The Magnolia Tree has taken Michael completely by surprise.
“The LaMama Theatre has been swamped with calls,” Michael said. “And in the last few days we have had waiting lists.” The show has been picked up by the Melbourne Theatre Company, and will run a second season at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. Other Australian theatres have also approached Michael, including Queanbeyan Performance Arts Centre in Canberra, which seats 400.
“To have 400 people voting would be amazing,” he said.
While he was thrilled with the success of the play, Michael is still digesting the reality of how the audience has responded to the message.
“I have been writing for a long time, and to be picked up by one of these big theatre companies is amazing. But I wish it was for one of my plays that shows hope.”
“It’s a strange thing that I’ve written a play that convinces people to kill their own mother,” he said. “I’m really shaken.” It seems the ‘new morality’ is already on the rise.
The Magnolia Tree played at La Mama Theatre, Melbourne from mid-to-late May and due to popular demand, will have a second run at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre at a time yet to be announced.