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Marjorie Bligh: Superstar or Eccentric?

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Tasmanians of a certain age will surely be familiar with the name of Marjorie Bligh. Many more Tasmanians soon will be with the musical based on her life opening next week at Launceston’s Earl Arts Centre. Written by Stella Kent, and with music composed by Karlin Love, the performance is by the Launceston Players, directed […]

Tasmanians of a certain age will surely be familiar with the name of Marjorie Bligh. Many more Tasmanians soon will be with the musical based on her life opening next week at Launceston’s Earl Arts Centre. Written by Stella Kent, and with music composed by Karlin Love, the performance is by the Launceston Players, directed by Matt Taylor.

A larger-than-life and colourful figure throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s Marjorie has been described as, ‘an eccentric domestic goddess who was the author of a library of advice books that covered food, household management, health and beauty, poetry, gardening and recycling’.

Yes, recycling. Marjorie was ahead of her time and could almost be said to have pioneered the recycling movement in Tasmania, even if her determination to waste nothing and reuse everything resulted in practices that were more than a little bizarre. They included knitting bedspreads from plastic bags and used pantyhose, and protecting garden plants with bras.

An eccentric figure of curiosity and amusement even in her own lifetime – Marjorie died in 2013 at the age of 96 – she was the subject of a number of magazine and newspaper articles, as well as authoring of many of her own. It was therefore perhaps unsurprising that after interviewing Marjorie about one of her books – when she was still a young journalist working at The Mercury – Tasmanian novelist Danielle Wood decided to write a biography of Marjorie. She was intrigued by the rumour that Marjorie may have been the inspiration for that national housewifely icon from Moonee Ponds, Dame Edna Everage. It seems she wasn’t, although Danielle has it on excellent authority that Marjorie was admired enormously by Dame Edna. Housewife Superstar was published in 2011.

“Marjorie was a complex woman and writing about her is a correspondingly complex task. On the one hand it’s tempting to poke gentle fun at her, because – let’s be honest – being serious about crocheting toilet roll holders out of discarded plastic bags is fairly eccentric. But we need to remember that Marjorie was a big personality who happened to be born as a woman in 1917 in rural Tasmania. She had to leave school at the age of 14, and she didn’t have a lot of options, other than to become a housewife. I believe she decided if she was to be a housewife then she was going to be the best one the world had ever seen,” explained Danielle.

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Coincidentally Marjorie’s colourful life story had also captured the imagination of another Tasmanian writer around the same time. Internationally renowned Launceston playwright Stella Kent was working on a script about the life of Marjorie Bligh, that included songs. Karlin Love recalled an early song reading of Marjorie Unravelled was performed at the Launceston launch of Danielle’s book at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery.

Stella’s script spent several years in development however and faced a number of challenges along the way before it was considered ready to perform. Some of these challenges included changes of directors, actors, and musicians, as well as a performance schedule that like so many others around the country and the world, was delayed due to COVID-19.

So the world première at the Earl Arts Centre on Thursday 9 September was originally intended to be a featured highlight event at last year’s Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival, until the pandemic forced the Festival to be cancelled.

With the TVWF’s Word-of-Mouth three-day pop-up festival due to begin however, president Mary Machen said the cocktail party collaboration event before Thursday’s performance offered a wonderful opportunity to both celebrate spring and show the Festival was ‘springing back to life’. She said the collaboration between the Festival and Launceston Players, was also a wonderful way to recognise Stella Kent’s storytelling skills which have brought to life one of Tasmania’s boldest characters, and shone a light on a period in Tasmania’s history that involved a great deal of social change.

“It’s a fit in so many areas of writing, and TVWF is all about storytelling and recognising storytellers.

It also gave us a really great opening night. Launceston Players had been looking for collaboration, and with such collaborations the way of the future, we were ahead of the game since discussions about this event were taking place two years ago in preparation for our 2020 Festival!

We had to cancel that but as luck would have it the musical fits in with our Word-of-Mouth pop-up Festival so we’ve made it work, and it’s perfect synergy!” said Mary.

But Marjorie Unravelled is a musical and that meant a composer was needed for all the songs that are a feature of the show. Since Stella knew and had worked previously with Karlin from their years teaching at Launceston’s Centre for Performing Arts, it was no surprise that Karlin was the musician she approached to write the music.

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“I got the phone call and we had a cuppa at Pierre’s, and I thought that was to tell me about the project so I could go away and think about it, but no, Stella just assumed I was doing it so it wasn’t a question of saying no!” Karlin said.

With directors, actors and musicians coming and going since an early script reading was held in late 2018, the production has undergone a number of changes of direction, and the many rewrites have also been reflected in the music score. Although the musical was fun to do, Karlin said conveying the passage of time through changing music styles was more of a challenge since the initial concept involved a small ensemble of four cast members and two musicians, with minimal set and props.

Successive changes in direction, and multiple rewrites have involved the music having a larger role in carrying the story forward. Although the Launceston Players production involved more changes in direction, and also changed music’s role in the project, both Stella’s and Karlin’s involvement has been minimal. She explained this was a normal occurrence today, and since handing over the score she explained it was up to the show’s musical director to decide how it would be interpreted.

“It’s been a sequential collaboration so Stella and I haven’t been involved in the show’s production. This is normal these days. Forget Rogers and Hammerstein standing around a piano in discussions with the cast. Marjorie been an interesting journey for me and because of the period the music is piano and drums – the most effective way to cover the 1930s through to 1970s. Some of what I chose to do wouldn’t have been authentic to Marjorie’s own experience though, but I did research what music would have been played at dances she would have attended. Mostly it would have been Irish music, but people would still have rolled up in their satin ballgowns!”

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To represent the changing times Karlin instead chose to go for music with more glamour – the big band and swing sounds of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, and then as she came into her own feminist power as a resourceful, advice-giving woman, using the Motown sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the influence of Aretha Franklin, and the Supremes.

“I’m sure Marjorie wouldn’t have listened to their music but I wanted to use music that I think Marjorie wished her fantasy world included, even if she herself didn’t realise it.”

Having seen a taster of Marjorie Unravelled – a performance of Act Two featured as part of the 2019 Poetry Festival – there’s little doubt the show’s director Matt Taylor has it right in saying the full show will be an unconventional and satirical take on the fantasy life Marjorie thought she was living.

“We see her transforming herself from this humble housemaid, to becoming the regal princess she believes herself to be by the end of her life,” he said.

I’ve secured my ticket to the cocktail party and gala performance so will be frocking up and sashaying into the Earl Arts Centre on 9 Thursday September all prepared to see a great show.

Marjorie Unravelled is being performed at the Earl Arts Centre from 9 – 18 September. Tickets available at the Princess Theatre booking office: phone 6331 0052 or at

The full TVWF Word-of-Mouth program, ticket availability, and background information about guest speakers, can be found on the TVWF website

Anne Layton-Bennett is a published writer both in Australia and overseas in both print and online publications. She writes regularly for specialist magazine The Veterinarian, and co-edited: An Inspired Pursuit: 40 years of writing by women in northern Tasmania, (Karuda Press) 2002.

Source: Tasmanian Times

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