No Sugar is an Australian play, written by the poet Jack Davis and published in 1986, about the plight and struggles of the Aboriginal people during the great depression. Several historic figures, events and landmarks blend with the fictional characters to bring us this tale, and both do justice to the occurrences of the time with their portrayal and description. The dominant reading of the text is a post-colonial look at the misuse of power by the Caucasian figures of authority, as seen from the perspective of the Aboriginals. This is seen throughout the text; with the main characters being the Aboriginals subject to the mistreatment and thus our (the audience) sympathies, and the clear cookie-cut villains subjecting the aboriginals to heinous acts and thus become the target to the audience’s resentment and hatred through the misuse of their power. However, as with the case of most works of literature, multiple readings can be garnered from the text, which may or may not be on the same wavelength as the dominant; to be put simply, if it’s able to be reinforced then it’s a reading, especially if there is a pressure to have something different from the really obvious . This blog will showcase 4 completely abstract readings that can be derived from the text with enough evidence to seem halfway to legitimate. In no particular order, the alternate readings are (with the aid of trusty Magic the Gathering cards);
All of these are readings that can be derived from the text, and can be valid essay points. So, let’s delve deeper, shall we?
Whips are power.
Throughout the play, the main weapon of choice for many of the characters is a whip, doak (throwing stick) or a baton, the most common and referred to in the text being the former. These whips come in all shapes and sizes, from simple bullwhips used by the Police Force and Trackers to the might Cat o’Nine tails used by Superintendents of the various ‘settlements’ around Western Australia, as seen with Billy and Superintendent Neal throughout act 2 through 4.
COOL, I GUESS?
The big thing to notice here is that the people with the whips, the most advanced weapon listed above, are the ones with power over others, and the people with the more complex and damaging whips are people with high power.
Not seeing it? WHY YES.
On the bottom of the social ladder, with the least amount of power, is the Aboriginals. Above them is the police force, along with the various people under their employment (The trackers). And at the top of the social food chain is the Superintendents and the various personal that run the settlements. There is the overarching force of power that is Mr Neville, as he is the person in charge of the Aboriginals and their lives, but he is presented as a ‘Godlike’ figure throughout the story as he takes part in only one key event in the story (Ordering the transfer of the Millimura’s to the Moore River Settlement and thus kickstarting the plot). He is supplanted as the villain in this story by the presence of Mr Neal, and thus we’ll end this social ladder with the more immediate power-influence present in in the aboriginal’s life (but that’s beside the point). The aboriginals do not have any access to whips, and don’t carry any. The police force use whips, and also use shortened whips (batons). Superintendents use a whip with 9 ends (Cat o’nine tails), and use them regularly. See a correlation?
The importance of whips are even acknowledge in the play, as Billy (The tracker of the police force) attempts to pass on his whip to the powerless (and whipless) Joe and Milly in order to give them a weapon and a well-known symbol of power in order to stave off potential threats. This can be interpreted as Billy handing down his power from one to another, as he is giving his source of power and authority, the whip, to people that he trusts and likes. This is following an incident where Billy was outclassed by Joe, so the passing of the whip can also be seen as someone handing the power to someone who can wield it (similar to ancient cultures that gave their weapons to the people who defeated them, like Ancient Japan).
Whips are power. And those who can wield them have absolute power.
Jimmy is a bad influence and is not a chaotic good character – he is chaotic neutral, if not chaotic evil.
According to many readings and interpretations of the play, the general consensus for the main character or the primary protagonist is Jimmy Munday (which is also reinforced by his appearance at the top of the three character lists at the start of the script, as that’s where they go). However, his actions and dialogue refute this, if not turn it around 180 degrees completely. Jimmy’s actions and dialogue, even though they are for the greater good of his culture, are not morally acceptable to the audience and reader’s values.
Jimmy begins the play by sharpening an axe, lamenting the past and letting his thoughts and feelings of the “wetjala’s” be known to the audience. He curses them, stating that they are “…them bastards…” and refers to the authority with disdain; “Yeah, fuckin’ gubmet. Fucks everybody up…” He rebels against the immediate authority almost always, regardless of whom it is. Then, depending on the character’s actions towards him, Jimmy then either continues this treatment (Mr Neal and Mr Neville) or begins to trust them and treat them with respect (Frank and Billy). Psychologically speaking, this shows the tendencies of a paranoid person (who, as both the play and historical context both do, show as an extremely believable mindset to have) and/or a person who has suffered throughout their life. So he lashes out at people who are similar to those who have ‘wronged’ him already.
But as most people will tell you, two wrongs do not make it right. Instead of trying to reconcile with those who are now his fellow countrymen, he attempts to do what most males do when challenged by something in their territory; he fights back. However, the immoral ways he does is of cause for concern. He uses violence as threats, both throwing around and smashing a bucket whilst in jail. He is rude and obnoxious to the authority, even though he knows it will not diffuse the situation, telling the Constable and Sergeant “Fuck you, you white bastard, fuck you.” after they give him more charges after he destroys their property. These actions are not of a person who is looked up upon in society; rather these people are looked down upon for the reason of being a bad person who attempts to burn bridges wherever they go.
So how does this make him a protagonist? You see, he is doing it for the greater good and for the righteous cause, but his actions do not make him a good person. And to me, a good person does not make a favourable protagonist, if not make them an antagonist.
Matron isn’t evil. She is secretly the protagonist throughout most of the novel.
As mentioned previously, the character of Jimmy Munday is generally accepted to be the primary protagonist in the play, due to him being in the centre of most of the events and plot of the play. From a morality and actions viewpoint, we the readers can place the mantle of protagonist onto someone most people wouldn’t expect; The Matron, Mrs Neal, the wife of Superintendent Neal.
WHAAAAAAT? BUT SHE ONLY JUST APPEARS LIKE IN ACT 2 AND BARELY DOES ANYTHING IN THE GRAND PLOT?! HOW CAN SHE BE THE PROTAGONIST?
Well, for one she isn’t a deliberate criminal like Jimmy and Joe, making her morals to be a bit straighter, and she does things out of kindness, and not fear or submission (Billy, Sam and Milly). She is an honest, honourable person who isn’t afraid to stand up for what is right.
BUT SHE DOESN’T- Quiet you.
We are introduced to the character of Matron Neal in scene 3 of Act two and she initially greets the Millimurra-Munday family with open arms and respect, a rarity among the Caucasian members of the society. Immediately this allows the audience to view Matron in a more favourable light than the other people that we have met of her culture (Frank notwithstanding). She is the first to realize that the Aboriginals had been dumped onto the settlement for no reason, as she remarks that “…just the four of them.” have the disease of scabies, which was the excuse for sending down the natives to them. She knows of Mr Neal’s rape related crimes, remarking to him that Milly was “…afraid of the living…” and he was only “…trying to help himself.”. She genuinely cares for the Aboriginals under her charge, both attempting to help with the birth of Jimmy (junior) and the subsequent aftermath of it, making sure Gran has the necessary tools for her birth. When the Aboriginal’s cause their ruckus at the Australia day celebrations and Jimmy’s heart fails, she is the only Caucasian character who goes to his aid, and continues with the aid after all the others had left.
All of these are traits of a morally just person, and thus can be inferred that Matron is a likeable character, and thus a protagonist. So what makes her the main protagonist? Not much, but it’s a lot better for a reader (me especially) to follow and sympathise with someone who has the world crumble around them, rather than someone who tears the world down with him, be it his fault or not that he was put it that position initially.
So in conclusion…
Not every piece of prose has to have one set reading. Looking deeper may find results that are stranger than yourself, and may or may not get you good marks in an essay. Happy hunting fellows!