An Ultimate Guide to Rainbow's End by Jane Harrison

Published on
March 9, 2024
An Ultimate Guide to Rainbow's End by Jane Harrison
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Jane Harrison’s 2007 play ‘Rainbow’s End’ invites its audience into the household of three Indigenous women as they struggle to realise their dreams in an era of racial segregation and dispossession.  Set in the 1950s, Harrison backdrops the fight for housing rights and the Queen’s first visit to Australia to remind its audiences how little has changed since the establishment of Rumbalara. Alongside this political backdrop, Harrison constructs a coming of age story where Dolly’s personal struggle to retain control and agency over herself and her dreams serves as a representation of the story’s parallel political struggle for Indigenous sovereignty.

Synopsis

The play follows the Dears family, who live in a humpy on a riverbank near Shepparton, Victoria. Early on, Nan Dear explains that the government “forced [them] to leave Cummeragunja. Our home” (p. 15), and that this settlement is a result of displacement. 

When Errol Fisher, a white boy who has come from Melbourne to sell encyclopaedias, stumbles upon the settlement, a romance forms between him and Dolly. While she is aware of the near impossibility of their relationship, Nan Dear is even more sceptical of Errol and warns Dolly to “watch who [she’s] mixing with” as it’s “hard to tell a good man from a bad,” (p. 41). We later learn that her mistrust is born out of personal experience with sexual assault, and the result of her witnessing Ester’s abusive relationship with her white husband. 

At the Miss Shepparton Ball, a fight  ensues between Errol and Dolly’s cousins, and after their escape she experiences further pressure from Errol himself, who attempts to convince her to go live together in Melbourne. Dolly scorns at his promise of a “better life” and makes it clear that she would not leave her family behind. As he grabs her arm in one last attempt to convince her, Dolly breaks free and runs off, only to have her agency even more brutally taken away from her later in the night when she is sexually assaulted at the hands of her cousin. 

In the final act the three women have moved into Rumbalara, yet find the housing bleak and ‘unloveable.’ It is also revealed that Dolly is pregnant with the child of her assailant. Meanwhile, Gladys pursues her own dreams and employs Errol’s help to learn how to read .

In the final scene, at a general meeting to discuss Aboriginal housing rights, Gladys accepts her daughter’s choice to become a nurse despite previous efforts to get her a banking job. Nan Dear also clears up her misunderstandings with Errol and encourages Dolly to give him a second chance after seeing his transformation of character. Finally, Gladys delivers a powerful speech in her father’s absence, in which she demands better housing conditions, the right for Aboriginal people to make their own decisions, and an end to segregation. 

Themes

Family 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the play’s central themes is family. The text explores culture-specific understandings of family and contrasts how family is viewed and valued differently across Aboriginal and Anglo-Saxon culture. Whereas for Nan Dear it is shocking that Dolly’s family tree is not expected to include ‘cousins,’ for Anglo-Saxons in the 1950s like Errol, family seems to be a transient unit which one grows up from in order to form their own family, rather than a community which spans across generations. More broadly, family is explored paradoxically as a source of support and entrapment, especially when it becomes clear that wishes and dreams can clash with family expectations and individuals are forced to make difficult choices between themselves and their families. Furthermore, despite family being an unbreakable bond, Harrison does not shy away from critiquing the darker abuses of power (namely between men and women) that continue to plague families from both Aboriginal and white communities. 

Dreams

Harrison’s play intertwines the dreams and hopes of individual characters with the playwright’s own hopes and dreams for the future of Australia and Indigenous rights. In the microcosm of the family unit, dreams are created, contested, and oftentimes crushed by reality. Gladys’ dream for better Aboriginal housing and her hope to see this realised through the construction of Rumbalara is shattered upon realisation that Rumbalara is not a good enough solution. Dolly’s dreams especially seem to be constantly under threat, whether due to societal barriers or pressures from within her family. It appears that Nan Dear’s cynicism and pessimism, fuelled by past trauma, become a hindrance to the realisation of Dolly’s dreams. This cynicism is treated with empathy by the playwright, yet simultaneously aims to prompt the audience to question how the hopelessness and distrust that comes with generational and personal trauma can prevent progress towards a better future. 

Racism and Segregation

Harrison explores racism in the 1950s as taking numerous forms; throughout the play we witness harmful racist attitudes of paternalism, assimilation and segregation

The first, paternalism, describes an infantilising view of Indigenous people as incapable of looking after themselves and thus needing the protection of white people or the government; we see this in the way the Aboriginal community in ‘Rainbow’s End’ is constantly surveilled by white authorities (such as the Inspector) and in the memories of Cummeragunja alluded to by Nan Dear, where the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1909 had placed the Aboriginal community under strict control with the excuse of ‘protecting’ and taking care of them. Errol’s desires to protect Dolly and give her a ‘better life’ may also be interpreted as a reflection of paternalistic attitudes, with the exchange meant to symbolise how paternalism takes away the agency of Indigenous people like Dolly. 

The playwright also exposes the indignant and traumatic consequences of assimilation. The Rent Collector and Inspector are perhaps the most obvious embodiments of assimilationist values, and are both represented as threats to the Dears family; specifically, they always appear as a threat to the children (first Dolly, and then Dolly’s child), as the playwright alludes to the history of the Stolen Generation, one of the greatest consequences of assimilation policies between the 1800s-1970s. Gladys’ rhetorical question, “why do we have to prove we can live like whitefellas, before we get the same opportunities?,” further illustrates how assimilation forced Indigenous people to leave behind their culture to reap the scarce rewards offered by white Australian society. 

At the same time, Australian society continued to be highly segregated, something which Harrison focuses on through the experiences of Nan Dear, who is served last at the butcher, or through Errol and Dolly’s relationship, which Dolly “knows cannot work” (p. 55). The hessian fence also appears as a symbol of segregation, preventing the Queen from seeing the humpies of the Aboriginal settlement. Furthermore, Harrison also critiques the scapegoating of Indigenous people for the living conditions imposed upon them through segregationist policies; this is best seen through Gladys’ sarcastic remark “as if we chose to live on a floodplain” (p. 120). 

Sovereignty 

Sovereignty also takes the centre stage within the play’s thematic realm. Set in the only commonwealth nation which to this day lacks a formal treaty with its First Nations peoples, Rainbow's End arguably seems to emphasise continuity rather than change. The play continuously alludes to the bitter irony of Indigenous people being treated like foreigners on their own lands, seen when Gladys objects “I’m not an interloper - I belong here - this is my land!” (p. 120). Through the voice of the radio broadcaster, who proclaims Centennial Park to be the “birthplace of the nation” (p. 15), the playwright exposes the pervasiveness of the myth of terra nullius, the false and racist belief that civilisation in Australia did not exist prior to British colonisation. From the regular inspections the Aboriginal settlement is subjected to, to its eventual bulldozing by the end of the play, it is clear that both the characters and the land are at “the whim of government, at the mercy of Protection Boards, at the vagary of landlords and property owners'' (p. 48). Gladys’ tautology here perhaps speaks best to the numerous institutions that Harrison condemns as robbing the agency and independence of First Nations peoples. 

Gender and sovereignty

While we often think of sovereignty as associated with political rights, Harrison also navigates the theme of sovereignty in relation to Indigenous women’s bodies. An intersectional analysis is pertinent as female characters suffer the intersecting consequences of being mistreated both on account of their gender identity and race. Harrison exposes Australian society as governed by misogyny as well as racism, resulting in a culture which produced relentless violence against Indigenous women such as Nan Dear, Ester, and Dolly. In their experiences of abuse, these women are denied autonomy over their own bodies, in two cases by white men. Nonetheless, Harrison elucidates that violence against women can also be indiscriminate, as Dolly is assaulted by her own cousin – in all of these circumstances, the author exhibits the violence of the patriarchy. Even when sexual assault is not present, such as the scene in which Errol grabs Dolly’s arm, the tense stichomythia of their dialogue and the stormy sound design aim to emphasise Dolly’s loss of agency and autonomy as she attempts to wrestle back control. Thus, in exploring intersections of race and gender, Harrison navigates the theme of sovereignty at a personal level, condemning the way it has been denied to Indigenous women.

Innocence and Coming of Age 

Given that one of the protagonists (if not the protagonist) is seventeen year old Dolly, we may also consider ‘Rainbow’s End’ to be a coming of age story. One of Dolly’s central struggles is to be treated like a ‘woman,’ and to not have her family (especially Nan Dear) hide matters from her. Towards the end of the play, she wins this privilege yet the stage directions suggest it has come at a cost, the loss of innocence: “DOLLY smiles – she’s finally a woman in NAN’s eyes. But her smile is tinged with sadness” (p. ??) It thus appears that the playwright critiques the way in which the rite of passage into womanhood is associated with pain rather than joy, as the parallels between Dolly and Nan Dear suggest that they represent a common reality. 

Overall, ‘Rainbow’s End’ offers an opportunity to reflect on what it means to dream about the future as a First Nations person in Australia, and on the difficulties of fighting for that future. We hope this study guide has helped you better understand the most prominent themes of the play, and how Jane Harrison has chosen to represent this national struggle within the microsetting of a family. 

Important Stylistic Features

As outlined in the VCAA guidelines, an A+ text response essay needs to:

  • Demonstrates a close and perceptive reading of the text, exploring complexities of its concepts and construction 
  • Demonstrates an understanding of the implications of the topic, using an appropriate strategy for dealing with it, and exploring its complexity from the basis of the text 
  • Develops a cogent, controlled and well-substantiated discussion using precise and expressive language
A thorough understanding of the play’s construction, including its use of setting, lighting, sound, will aid the development of arguments and improve the quality of your essays. It is also common amongst mid-level responses that metalanguage is not correctly used or lacks range. The list below provides a brief definition of different stylistic features, with examples included illustrating how particular devices can be analysed to convey meaning.

Setting

Setting creates a sense of place, so it is important to reflect on how Harrison’s sets reflect or emphasise ideas about land, history and heritage. 

  • Rough countryside dwellings are juxtaposed against white, pristine and yet ‘unloveable’ spaces as audiences are invited to temporarily occupy the oppressive places that Indigenous people struggled to make home. 
  • A key (and tragic) turning point in Dolly's life is set against the backdrop of a dramatic, thundering storm, reflecting the characters' turbulent struggle and loss of innocence.

Lighting

Lighting is also employed strategically throughout, both for dramatic purposes and importantly, to signify the characters’ ‘dream sequences.’

  • The dreamy lighting of the 'dream' sequences signifies their distance and detachment from reality - these are hopes that are often unrealisable within the limits of the play and the characters' societies, yet they bring joy to those who dream them. 

Sound

Sound features heavily in the play, both in diegetic and non-diegetic forms. Diegetic sounds such as loud and rough noises, or rain and thunder, intensify scenes of conflict and the inner psychological turmoil of the characters. In contrast, non-diegetic sound such as the use of the song ‘Que sera, sera’ prompts reflection on the thematic aspects of the play, as the lyrics suggest the terrifying yet hopeful notion that the future is uncertain, and that we are not always in control. 

The following excerpt and analysis demonstrates how sound, setting and lighting can all combine to create a powerful narrative effect and climax. 

Stage direction [Dolly]: She wails like a banshee. Rain, thunder, darkness. Time passes. The waters rise. END OF ACT ONE. 

  • Use of sound to create animal imagery and portray the attack on Dolly as barbaric and inhumane
  • The setting of the storm and river emphasise and reflect Dolly’s predicament as she feels like she is drowning and powerless. 
  • The dark lighting obscures the indecent act from the audience and emphasises the horror of the scene

Character Transformation

Character Transformation: In the final scene, Gladys takes back her agency – in her father’s absence she takes a stand on the stage to speak about  sovereignty, better housing conditions, and an end to segregation. Her “demand” represents the culmination of her transformation from the beginning of the play, where a dream sequence had represented her kneeling gracefully in front of the queen. The speech is also directed at us, the audience, transcending the barriers of time to remind us of the ongoing relevance of Gladys’ words as we watch the performance from lands whose sovereignty have yet to be ceded. 

Dialogue

Dialogue: Early on, Nan Dear explains that the government “forced [them] to leave Cummeragunja. Our home” (p. 15), alluding to the Soldier Settlement Scheme which forced Aboriginal people to move after their lands were given to returning white soldiers after World War Two. Whilst she later declares that “least here we do things our way” (p. 22), these dialogues suggest that the freedom espoused by this place comes at a cost – the trauma of displacement and the daily struggle of living in a hostile and stigmatised landscape. This is why Gladys clings to the promise of Rumbalara, an Aboriginal housing project in development. 

Symbolism

Symbolism is also employed by Harrison within the lines of dialogue, and a number of important symbols should be noted for analysis. 

Hessian Fence

The first is the hessian fence which separates the ‘humpies’ from the main roads during the Queen’s visit. The fence symbolises segregation and a willed blindness to the shameful conditions enforced upon Aboriginal people by white settlers. Gladys refers to it metaphorically as being like “a bandaid over a sore,” suggesting the avoidance of white authorities to address the housing situation. 

Colour White

The colour white is also used symbolically, and white objects such as the gloves that Gladys wears, Dolly’s shoes, the Ajax cleaning agent, skin whitening cream and the white walls of the Rumbalara housing all serve as reminders of white hegemony within Australian society. In other words, whiteness is always presented as superior and desirable, as ‘cleaner’ and more dignified. Harrison symbolically employs these white objects to criticise assimilation policies and attitudes which promoted the idea that Indigenous and non-white people should aspire to be more like white (Anglo-Saxon) people.

Encyclopedias

Another symbol to consider is the encyclopedias, which represent white epistemologies (ways of knowing). They are written by Anglo-Saxons and contain the body of knowledge accumulated by white people, which is again presented as objectively superior. It is because of this reason that Gladys believes her daughter will be more academically successful if she reads the encyclopedias, as she acknowledges that these are the forms of knowledge valued by white institutions. It may also be said that the encyclopedias are symbolic of Gladys’ dreams to see her daughter achieve an education and succeed in society. Nonetheless, through Nan Dear’s ironic comment “Encyclops boy and he knows nothing!” (p. 55) Harrison challenges the superiority of white epistemologies and exposes how Indigenous knowledge (especially of the land) has been undervalued and ignored.