Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan

by Jennifer Bryce

I admit that I can remember when, 50 years ago, a homosexual university lecturer drowned when thrown into the River Torrens. No one has been convicted of this crime. It was whispered that he was on a notorious gay beat – I’m not even sure that we used the word ‘gay’ then. Now there is an oratorio commemorating this event. The music is by Australian composer Joe Twist and the libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas.

An oratorio rather than an opera is appropriate (quite apart from requiring less stage space). It provides a certain reverence and restraint – there’s some action, but also the Adelaide Chamber Singers who, in a subdued choir-like way sing: ‘The night’s offerings are of sweat and spit and cum’. In those days gay sex was illegal, all very hush hush. Dr Ian Duncan (he used the name Ian, not George) was a quiet, studious loner who had recently taken up a post at the Law School of the University of Adelaide. The curtain rises to an ingenious set with a foreground of water and a screen onto which are projected appropriate images – photographs of the scene and newspaper accounts. A Jesus-like man descends on a cable – crucified, I wonder?

Back in the 1970s, even the New Scotland Yard Report describes the incident as a ‘frolic’ gone wrong. And there’s some lyrics about whether or not ‘faggots’ can float. There seems to be absolutely no respect for queer love.

I left the Dunstan Theatre thinking, on the one hand, of how far we have come from those days of clandestine whisperings: Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, etc… and that Dr Duncan’s death – the death of an academic – at least motivated these developments. But then I was absolutely gutted to think of all those young men who drowned in the river in complete anonymity. As the lyrics say, only the river remembers their names.

My only reservation about this oratorio is that it is very localised. It has a message that is pretty much universal, but would it work in Melbourne or Sydney, let alone New York or London?