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Kenna, Peter Joseph (1930–1987)

by Richard Waterhouse

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Peter Joseph Kenna (1930-1987), playwright, was born on 18 March 1930 at Balmain, Sydney, eleventh of thirteen children of James O’Connor Kenna, carpenter, and his wife Agnes Charlotte, née Horne, both born in rural New South Wales. Peter was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School, Lewisham; during his schooldays he performed as a boy soprano and in a concert party to entertain the troops. After leaving school at the age of 14, he worked in a pickle factory, as an apprentice window-dresser at Mark Foy’s Ltd and as a `juvenile’ in radio serials. While selling art materials in a shop, he acted and made props for the Genesian and Independent theatres; in 1954 he auditioned successfully for the Australian Eizabethan Theatre Trust. He also wrote eleven plays, none of which was performed.

In 1958 Kenna’s entry in an Australian play competition sponsored by the trust and General Motors-Holden Ltd won the first prize of £300. The Slaughter of St. Teresa’s Day (revised version published 1972) constituted, in a later assessment by the critic H. G. Kippax, a `vivid and idiomatic depiction of a slice of the Irishry of old Sydney life’. One of the judges, Kylie Tennant, praised Kenna for his practical working knowledge of the theatre, appreciation of character and ability to make his creations walk and live. The play opened at the trust’s Newtown theatre in March 1959. Critics commended Neva Carr-Glyn’s performance as Oola Maguire, an Irish-Australian underworld leader, but were more equivocal about the play—although later it would be widely performed and studied.

As a result of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s interest in this play Kenna travelled in 1960 to London, where he worked in an art showroom. The Hampstead Theatre Club performed his new work Talk to the Moon (published 1977) in 1963. He wrote plays for radio and television including Goodbye, Gloria, Goodbye for the BBC. Back in Australia, in 1966 he directed the Independent Theatre’s production of his play Muriel’s Virtues? , a farce set in a suburban lounge room. Although the Sun-Herald described him as `one of Australia’s leading dramatists’, a reviewer condemned the play as a `catastrophe’. He worked as a stage director and performed in pantomime. In search of better treatment for his kidneys, damaged by the large doses of Bex powders that he had taken for tension headaches, he went back to England and began dialysis.

Kenna returned to Australia in 1971. Listen Closely (published 1977), a play about the generation gap between a university-educated young man and his bush-town-dwelling father, was performed at Sydney’s Independent Theatre in 1972. Next year he received a three-year grant from the Literature Board of the Australian Council for the Arts, and the Nimrod Street Theatre staged A Hard God (published 1974), directed by John Bell. The play dealt with the Cassidys, driven off the land and into Sydney by drought. In Aggie Cassidy, movingly performed by Gloria Dawn, Kenna created perhaps the finest tragic role for a female actor in the Australian canon. The play attracted large audiences in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, was televised by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and became a school text. After he received a kidney transplant from his sister Agnes in 1974, Kenna’s health improved temporarily.

In 1975 the Nimrod Street Theatre staged Kenna’s one-act play Mates (published 1977), the story of a confrontation between a shearer and a drag queen. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted (published 1977) opened at the Jane Street Theatre in 1976; its theme was the cruelty of conventional society in its treatment of outcasts. In 1978 `The Cassidy Album’, his trilogy consisting of A Hard God, Furtive Love (published 1980) and An Eager Hope, opened at the Adelaide Festival of Arts, before moving to Sydney’s Seymour Centre. Heavily autobiographical, the second play, in particular, extended the theme of A Hard God to focus on Joe Cassidy’s struggle to reconcile his Catholic faith with his homosexuality. Kenna’s health deteriorated in the 1980s. He wrote articles for the Sydney Morning Herald and created the screenplay for the film The Umbrella Woman (1987).

The Irish, Catholic, working-class and rural values that his parents embodied influenced Kenna. John Bell described him as acerbic, passionate, sincere and generous. In a series of contrasts Kenna wrote about the ordinary but revealed it to hold beauty and inspiration; he found comfort in Catholicism, but agonised over its compatibility with his homosexuality; and although he lived most of his life in inner Sydney, he was haunted by the `bush’ legend that perhaps inspired his spirited nationalism. He died of hepatitis and liver failure on 29 November 1987 at St Leonards and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bell, John Bell: The Time of My Life (2002)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Dec 1958, p 5, 19 Dec 1958, p 2, 23 Feb 1959, p 2, 12 Mar 1959, p 5, 30 June 1965, p 2, 15 Apr 1966, p 12, 9 May 1972, p 8, 26 Aug 1972, p 20, 20 Aug 1973, p 9, 11 Jan 1975, p 8, 31 July 1975, p 10, 24 Nov 1976, p 11, 25 Mar 1978, p 16, 3 Apr 1978, p 8, 30 Nov 1987, p 3
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 11 Dec 1966, p 112
  • National Times, 23 Dec 1978, p 44
  • New Theatre Australia, Feb 1988, p 5
  • H. de Berg, interview with P. Kenna (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Richard Waterhouse, 'Kenna, Peter Joseph (1930–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kenna-peter-joseph-12727/text22951, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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