Dave Graney looks at the hardworking investigative genius of Barry Dickins, the playwright who wrote about Australia’s last hanging in Remember Ronald Ryan.
Word went out on social media from a city bookshop that playwright-artist-author Barry Dickins was going to be reading from his 1994 play Remember Ronald Ryan on the 49th anniversary of Ryan’s death. Ryan was hanged during a state election campaign on February 3, 1967. There were protests and a vigil outside Pentridge until the execution was carried out. The last time I’d seen Barry he was in a low trough and I was glad to see him full of vigour as we came into the shop. His book in 2009 was called Unparalleled Sorrow. He stared at his life’s new lack of shape and drive and wrote about it. He always brings the pain. I’d seen his plays over the years and enjoyed his writing and illustration. I once briefly lived in Carlton, next door to a pub which often saw men shuffling in with all their possessions in brown paper wrapping, straight from either the nearby remand centre or from Pentridge itself. Barry enjoyed writing from the barrooms of Carlton and had the charge of a Christopher Marlowe/ Ben Jonson type liquored-up word hacker about him. He played it up. In one of his books, with accompanying illustration, he described the regulars of that pub as “human shit in cardigans”. I took that to the bank. The bookshop he was to read in was Collected Works, a home for literary events and the place to find all sorts of small press poetry and arcane literature arranged on shelves by period, location in the world, gender and other more subjective generic co-ordinates. A dozen hardy, true believers were wandering sheepishly about the shop, hiding from themselves and the occasion. Rather like any in-store used to be in the days of touring rock bands and record shop signings. Barry eventually took the bull by the horns and invited everybody to sit around him and he talked individually and generally to us, before launching into his reading. He asked if anybody had seen the 1994 play at the Malthouse and I was surprised to see that myself and my partner Clare Moore were the only ones who had done so. It had been a great production, using the overhead lighting scaffolds, as well as actual walkways to and from a real scaffold. The play had been awarded the Premier’s Literary Award in 1995. Barry had been a feted and “made” guy. The years in between had been interesting and less connected. But here he was, back in the ring and punching again. He began talking of the production and the research he put into it. How the story had grabbed him. His own reactions as a Reservoir-born 18-year-old to the events of 1967. The Premier Henry Bolte, the election campaign and the protests which fed into the ensuing years of civil disobedience around the Vietnam war. The public reaction eventually leading to the repeal of the death penalty in 1975. He went to talk with the warders at Pentridge. Men who were there when Ryan was hanged in 1967. Perhaps some had been there when he and his accomplice, Peter Walker, escaped in 1965, killing a warder in the process of that mad dash. For whatever reason and for whatever demons Barry stirred up in these men, he was beaten up by them before being let back out onto Sydney Road, Coburg and had to call his publisher to pick him up. He wrote down some of the words the men spoke as they beat and kicked him and used it as dialogue in the play. As words for the warders cleaning up after the execution to speak as the play closed and the audience filed out. Details of the formality of the state execution came out as Barry filled in the necessary background to the story. This was to be the last execution in Australia, though that was not known at the time. The most recent hanging had been that of the last woman executed in Australia, Jean Lee, in 1951. She had been hanged with two male accomplices, all on the same day. Sixteen years later, whatever ‘processes’ were involved in state execution were wheeled into action, in the hot atmosphere of an election. The hangman wore some garden gloves and some sort of cap and goggles. Had he had any experience? Had anybody? The rope and the beam had to be tested, the knots tried out and the height and weight of the prisoner established. The hangman would have had to have rehearsed, with a dummy, on and off site. Invitations were sent to journalists to witness the execution. “Please admit the bearer…to the execution of Ronald Joseph Ryan, on 3rd February, 1967.” As if it was actually a theatre show. In the early 90s, Barry talked to whoever was still around. He’d had a few long, boozy sessions with Father Brosnan, the Catholic priest of Pentridge, who was present at the execution. A witness described the hangman entering the cell to handcuff Ronald Ryan and leading him to the sca ffold where he looked around at the small gathered crowd before the final rough movements of the hangman brought the hood down over his face and then that hangman made his swift and violent leaps to bring the trapdoor open beneath Ryan swiftly and “cleanly”. Ryan looked into his eyes as the hood came down and asked him to do it quickly. Barry alternated from the story of writing the play to reading out sections of it. He also read from the “one man, one act monologue” called Ryan. This was pretty raw theatre; he looked directly at us as he spoke the words of Ronald Ryan, Ronald’s wife and his daughter. Sometimes it was Ronald being his daughter or his wife. There was no darkness for us to hide in and take it in; the light was stark and bare. He spoke without a microphone, a metre away from us. You got the sense from Barry’s telling of the story about how much real blood, guts and bone a writer has to get arm deep into to get a story. It takes its toll. A world away from writing classes as a career option or as a way to a second income. Way distant from old media weekend puff pieces about sexy young and emerging writers banging away on antique typewriters in inner city cafes. It was a world where you dealt with rank, everyday poisons and toxic, heavy waters. You got beaten up and then had to get down and get pissed with people, then put your head under a tap in somebody’s front yard, smooth your hair down and front up to life’s court. Heroic stuff. It was an amazing piece of raw theatre. All of it. The lives and the story. The people in the story and the man who got to it. All the way through he gestured in the direction of the streets where the events took place. Richmond where Ronald and Dorothy had gotten married, Pentridge in Coburg where they’d taken flight from, Kensington where they’d hidden out. And being on the same day he could also summon up the weather of the time in a few words. It would have been rather like the warm, humid air we were bathing in inside that bookshop, almost five decades in the future. Bravo! Remember Ronald Ryan and the accompanying Ryan have been re-issued by Currency Press. It includes a foreword by former Labour politician Barry Jones, who writes of the time and the protests when he was involved deeply as secretary of the Victorian Anti-Hanging Committee. @davegraney