Jim McNeil (1935-1982), playwright, was the youngest of four children born to a blue-collar Catholic family in Melbourne, Australia. He attended parochial schools from the age of four, and although his family was not well-off, he never characterized himself as having a deprived childhood.
While he did not enjoy school, preferring truancy over academic achievement, it is not to say that the young McNeil was uneducated of unread. In his own words, when he wasn't stealing cigarettes from the Yanks, he would often go "down the beach and crawl under a row boat and prop it up a little bit so I could get some light and just lay there and read all day." Among his earliest influences was the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. He also enjoyed the works of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. McNeil's mind later centered around the writings of Nietzsche and other German philosophers whose influences he also retained in his later life.
Dropping out of school at age thirteen, McNeil went from job to job, never really settling down. His attitude toward school seemed to spill over to his attitude toward honest labor as well. McNeil became an expert con man, living off his wits and charisma. "Wherever there was a quid I would try to get it without doing anything too awful."
After he left school he mixed with an underworld group in a Beer House, stealing from men who were in "for a quickie." McNeil describes his five-year affair with the madam of the brothel: "I was completely dominated by this lady... In that house was an entire lifestyle... and a whole set of people that was different from my family." Looking back, McNeil later stated that his adolescent experiences on the Melbourne waterfront "just about ruined my whole life," but at the time he was content to emulate the gangsters he found there.
McNeil married in his early twenties and had six children. However, this new domestic life did nothing to slow his criminal one. "Once you become part of that way of life you don't know any other," he later explained. Needless to say, McNeil spent his young adult life in a vicious cycle between criminal activity to prison.
In 1967, at the age of thirty-two, McNeil was sentenced to seventeen years in Parramatta Gaol. There he was introduced to "a little bunch of battling crims who wanted to read literature... and do a bit of mental stuff." He joined the Resurgents Group which got men talking about their violence and he began to write plays which were performed first in the prison then outside in the early 70’s.
McNeil was one of the most improbable playwrights to emerge during the early stages of Australian drama in the 1970s. He wrote his three best-known plays while still in prison. Although his artistic career was short, and his number of credits small, his role in the development of Australian theatre is an important one. He wrote about life in the Australian prison system, but more significantly, he was following in the footsteps of playwrights such as Peter Kenna and David Williamson in writing distinctly Australian plays employing the Australian vernacular.
Like Peter Kenna, McNeil's working-class Catholic background is evident in his plays, and despite the narrowness of his subject matter, his theatrical craftsmanship, the universality of his themes and technical achievements with language, combine to place his work in a position of real significance in contemporary Australian drama.
Jim McNeil's plays are not mere protests about conditions, nor are they sensational exposés of the violent and inhuman worlds that lie behind prison walls, which we often find in prison literature. Free of theatrical gimmickry, his plays capture realistically the daily situations and issues faced by the inmates of prison cells. His is no sanitised view of life in prison; it is a tough world, but a world which in its own way mirrors the one outside. The men who inhabit his plays exhibit all the vices and virtues of men in society at large.
Objectively and without self-pity, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice examine life in prison. There is hypocrisy, violence and bitterness, and also comradeship, humor and resilience. His plays are important social documents for their vivid presentation of institutional life with its rituals and disciplines, but they are more than mere period pieces or sociological studies. With an impressive craftsmanship, McNeil explores the need we all have for affection, for codes of conduct to live by, and above all the necessity to try to shape our own destiny. With wry humor and sparse dialogue, McNeil's plays rely very little on plot and provide minimal background information or explanation. Rather, his vivid characterisation and constructional skill demonstrate an innate understanding of the essence of drama. The authentic language in his plays at times reaches heights of lyrical and poetic beauty.
Beneath the humor, however, there is always an undercurrent of violence bred of boredom and frustration. Both The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice display McNeil's craftsmanship as a playwright, but their central purpose remains to present prison as it really was in McNeil's time. The Chocolate Frog was his attempt "to explain to the outside community that prison values are just faithful reflections of some of society's own attitudes and inclinations" - unpleasant as some of them may be.
The Chocolate Frog was performed at Sydney's Q Theatre in July 1971, followed by The Old Familiar Juice, both to excellent reviews. "I suddenly realised what I was doing," McNeil said, "what I wanted to do all my life. I'll just keep writing plays now as long as I live, I think."
Encouraged by friends, McNeil completed his Higher School Certificate while still in prison and commenced work on an Arts degree externally through the University of New England. Those who knew him during this period described him as a humane and caring man, helpful to other prisoners and an influence for good in the inhuman and antiquated New South Wales prison system. With the receipt of a Literature Board grant, McNeil became a media celebrity and public pressure helped secure his parole in 1974. A witty and charismatic figure, he lost no time in finding himself a wife. Three months after his release he married the actress Robyn Nevin, who had played the only female role in the Nimrod production of How Does Your Garden Grow?. The marriage lasted two years. His writing career reached its highest point in 1975 when the play won the Australian Writers' Guild award for the most outstanding script in any category.
However, the years after his release were not productive ones for the man known as the "Prison Playwright." He was encouraged to expand the one-act play Jack to a full-length play but no new plays were completed by him. Freedom and its attendant celebrity status made demands upon McNeil that his previous life had never done. Prison had provided him with discipline and a reason to write: factors absent from his new lifestyle. Although obsessed with his release, he had thrived in the institutionalised security which prison provided. Freedom had no such limitations. Fashionable, and without effective authority figures to limit his excesses, McNeil indulged himself in extreme amounts of alcohol and erratic behaviour. McNeil possessed a violent and destructive side to his nature which surfaced with alcohol. He became less and less able or willing to write, and alcohol alienated him from all but a few close friends. He became a derelict and embarked on what Peter Kenna termed a "slow suicide by alcohol." The last years of his life were marked by frequent bouts of hospitalisation and in sleeping on park benches. He died of alcoholic poisoning in St Vincent's Hospital on May 16, 1982.