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Breaker Morant: a study in myth, history, and performance

posted on 08.02.2017, 03:59 by Kelly, Vivienne Madeleine
This thesis uses the case of Breaker Morant to explore the relationship between myth and history, particularly in an Australian context. It argues that the Breaker occupies a quirky place in the Australian mythic pantheon: his story is well-known, and is significant to many people; at the same time he is not a classic Australian myth in the sense that Ned Kelly is. He is neither so widely known nor as enthusiastically supported as Kelly. The thesis examines Morant's biography -or what is known of it -as well as the legends that have clustered around his figure. It collects and analyses the ways in which Morant has been depicted in various media or genres (for instance, biography, fiction, history, theatre, poetry, film, and painting) and traces the development of his represented persona through the last hundred years, making distinctions where these are relevant between the mythic figure and the historical one. To place the Morant narrative in a theoretical framework, the thesis examines a number of studies in myth, and explores the ways in which they are relevant to an understanding of Morant's status. It also places Morant in a specifically Australian context, scrutinising two central myths -the Anzacs at Gallipoli, and Ned Kelly -to elucidate questions relating to nationalism, warfare, the ethics of killing, the acceptability (and under what circumstances) of killers as national icons, and the ways in which societies invent what they wish to believe. It also examines the extent to which it is relevant to speak of the Anzacs and ofNed Kelly as performers, and the ways in which their capacity to perform might influence their impact on history and myth. The argument locates the transformation of myth to history in the nexus provided by performance. It posits three different kinds of performance -that created by historical figures in the course of living, that which interprets history through deliberate performative techniques, and that which people employ to re-enact historical events. It distinguishes between these phenomena but draws attention to their similarities, and shows that performance plays a crucial part in creating myth from historical narratives. The thesis concludes that Australians have developed particular ways of observing war and lawlessness, and are prepared to admit certain kinds of violence to, and exclude others from, ideologies of national personae. It argues that Morant achieved a degree of mythic presence in Australian culture because of the manner in which he performed his own life, injecting it with continuous intrinsic theatricality, and making it accessible to being performed by others. The thesis argues also that Morant has never achieved a mythic status comparable with Ned Kelly or the Anzacs because his narrative contains elements which do not conform with Australian notions of national character and ethos, nor with an intuitive need for sacredness in mythic beliefs.


Principal supervisor

Peter Fitzpatrick

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Centre for Drama and Theatre Studies


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts