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September 02nd 2008 print

Michael Connor

On David Williamson

Behind me the ladies ate Maltesers, in a satirical manner, while talking of crumbling bones and ABC reruns of As Time Goes By.

Behind me the ladies ate Maltesers, in a satirical manner, while talking of crumbling bones and ABC reruns of As Time Goes By. Seats ahead a Lily Brett novel was being waved about and animatedly discussed. We were waiting for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of David Williamson’s new play Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot to begin. Taking off, it delighted the near-capacity audience. The smooth production, the joke-studded script, the cast and the star gave pleasure. As the smiling-faced audience left, someone near me said, “It was wonderful, wasn’t it?” Where they found delight a critic caught fleas, for the Australian had called it a “dog”. The Age whined about a “lame script” producing “bathos and farce”. The critics failed Williamson for his play and audiences for enjoying it.

Thirty-six-year-old Scarlett O’Hara (Caroline O’Connor) lives with her mother (Monica Maughan), an aged but still functioning single mother who complains of crumbling bones and could be a poster girl for the illicit joys of euthanasia. Scarlett works as a waitress in a failing restaurant, the Crimson Parrot. Centre stage was the gleaming restaurant kitchen. Stage right were a couch and shelves suggesting Scarlett’s home, and she was found here at the beginning of the play. When she goes to work she moves centre stage into the busy restaurant kitchen. Later, moving stage left, she walks through the wrong side of the kitchen’s swing doors, colliding with everyone and everything in her path, and the set slides smoothly sideways to bring into view some of the restaurant seating. In this newly revealed playing area O’Connor demonstrates her impressively improbable waitressing skills. As the restaurant moved into place the living room slid seamlessly into the wings. Dominating the back of the stage was a giant screen.

Dreaming of romance and love, Scarlett seemingly owns Melbourne’s best collection of black-and-white, dream-factory romantic DVDs, and as she watches the movies and delivers their familiar dialogue they appear behind her. From time to time the on-screen characters are replaced by the play’s actors. Fifty to sixty dollars for theatre seats is expensive but it was surely worth something to see a giant image of Caroline O’Connor, as hair-in-plaits Judy Garland, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.

The characters were deliberate clichés and the situations hackneyed. Around this backbone, Williamson placed an affectionate send-up of romance, Hollywood great movies and even himself. He did so skilfully.

The actors filled out the stereotypes they were given to play with enthusiasm: Marney McQueen as the attractive blonde slut waitress; Bob Hornery the kitchen hand, an ageing film buff and thespian queen; Andrew McFarlane as randy wog assistant chef; Matt Day as Alan, the pleasant, lost and helpless customer but accomplished computer whiz; Simon Wood as Gary, the owner of the restaurant. The critic from Fortress Fairfax said Wood played “an arrogant masculinist” entertainingly. Scarlett may long for the virile Gary but it is foreordained that she will end in marriage-ever-after with the possibly Viagra-needing nerd Alan.

Director Simon Phillips provided imaginative and professional direction, Shaun Gurton’s set was smart and interesting and functioned smoothly without drawing attention away from the performances. The filmed inserts were carefully integrated into the onstage action. The critics’ bitchiness was overdone.

BUT. Though the play was written for O’Connor, and allowed her to clown, sing, tumble (carefully) and enjoy herself, it missed fully and deeply exploring her theatrical talents. On stage and in film O’Connor has played Piaf, Merman and Garland and been in more musicals than there are stars in the gutter after Logies night. She and Williamson are at home on different stages and he doesn’t seem to warm to the great roaring musical theatre she enjoys. It is hard to imagine him, shampoo-bottle microphone in hand, giving a rendition of “Tomorrow” in the shower, nor is he known for praising “well drilled Australian dancers [doing] segments of American musicals” on cruise ships. O’Connor is musical theatre. In the best of all possible worlds Peter Allen could have given her a show, Jerry Herman (not Lloyd Webber) could have written Germaine: The Musical for her, even the play’s theatre queen might have been able to run up something like the Elaine Stritch one-lady show of reminiscence, dance and song called At Liberty (worth seeing on DVD). What Williamson could have given her was a David Williamson play. Instead he offered an enjoyable but slight entertainment which dipped into her world but gave us too little of his. Caroline O’Connor was good in Scarlett; in a real Williamson play she might have been brilliant.

The newspaper pundits reviled the clichés, but a real-life Scarlett would probably be fat and unwieldy and dreaming of the shirt-offs of her own generation, not black-and-white romance. The critics hated the play and loathed the happy audiences because of two words—David Williamson.

Williamson has walloped his way through various literary stoushes and has accumulated serious enemies among critics and academics. The cultural pond is small and the pond life bites. The reviewer who called the play a dog was Alison Croggon. She did not need a free ticket to find that out, she knew it before going to the theatre. In 2004 she called Travelling North “his last decent play”—Williamson wrote it in 1979—and summed up his work in one word—“boredom”. In 2007 she wrote of the “boredom and irritation, which is my usual Williamson experience”. Unsurprisingly, in 2008, Scarlett was a “dog” (bitch?). At interval my back-seat ladies offered everyone within earshot a free, accurate and witheringly unkind evaluation of the critics—thankfully the ladies didn’t seem to be Quadrant readers.

In destroying Scarlett O’Hara Croggon attacked Williamson’s professionalism, his leftist moral vanity, and his audiences: “Williamson’s entire dramatic craft is prefab: at no point do we see through cliché to real feeling. This makes it insidiously comfortable to laugh at wogs, or footballers raping stupid blondes, or lonely old women.” This misrepresented the play. The wog and the old woman produced laughter because they were funny, and no blondes (stupid or otherwise) were raped or otherwise harmed by footballers in the making of the play.

Williamson’s 1995 play Dead White Males satirised postmodernism. It has been set as a text in a New South Wales HSC unit on postmodernism. Study notes were prepared by Axel Kruse, from the University of Sydney. In one activity students have to continue this dialogue:

Character One: “I’m sorry, but Dead White Males is a pollutant. I mean, I’m sorry, but it’s an intellectual pollutant.”
Character Two: “You’re not listening to me.”
Character One: “I don’t know how you can read this stuff.”
Character Two: “It says here he’s a great stylist.”
Character One: “So?”
Character Two: “And he really does identify important social and cultural issues. I think someone else said that as well.”
Character One: “Yeah, well, he’s a pollutant.”

Both the play and the author are described as “pollutant”. Was the choice of words mere malice or a carefully crafted academic reference to his conservationist religion? Another of Kruse’s essay topics is this: “‘Dead White Males is basically conservative in its view of men and women.’ Do you agree?” Say yes to that and you have banned Williamson from polite company. At the end of the schooling system are those who exit childhood unable to read or write, and those educated into barbarism.

Audiences like Williamson for writing plays and film scripts they enjoy, and for being wealthy. The elite envy his height, loathe his ability to write plays and films that people enjoy, and detest him for being successful. Williamson sees himself as a principled tree hugger yet some on the Left treat him as an enemy. They think of him as being French—talking Left and living Right.

Back in 1972 Katharine Brisbane was wrong, and set many future discussions awry, when she wrote that the people in Don’s Party were “familiar, funny and real”. They are funny but they are not familiar and real. Audiences respond to them because they are so completely different from our normal experience. It is amusing to think that such people exist but I have never encountered such monsters. Williamson’s appeal to audiences is not because he offers familiarity but because his characters are exotic, wonderful exaggerations of reality; he is an artist, not a camera. On the stage they don’t speak Australian, they speak Williamson: it is a personal linguistic creation. The non-naturalistic language serves him superbly. His plays can be dull to read but they come alive onstage—this is his art.

In 2005 Williamson gave a talk, “Cruise Ship Australia”, which was published and delightedly mocked for its foolishness by conservative writers. When he gave the John Sumner Lecture at the Arts Centre Playhouse in February 2007 he counter-attacked. Speaking on the set for the MTC’s revival of Don’s Party, Williamson seemed never to have left 1969: “The attitude of our right-wing warriors is that the free market has delivered us a living paradise, and that writers or filmmakers who suggest otherwise are seriously un-Australian.” This classic stage-left misrepresentation of our conservative conversation could have been voiced by Mack, played in the film of Don’s Party by Graham Kennedy: “Come on. I’ve never met a person who voted Liberal in my life. Can’t think why they keep winning.”

Yet Williamson’s leftism has changed since the 1960s, for he has joined the climate change cult. He lashes Andrew Bolt not just for criticising a play by Hannie Rayson, in which a Peter Costello-based character kills a refugee, but also because he is “the last writer in the world to deny that global warming is a reality”. Wrong again. The climatology zealotry (though he does not seem to realise that the words of the hymn have changed, it’s no longer “global warming” but “climate change”) is linked to old-fashioned anti-capitalism. Phony of course—skim the theatre program for the capitalist corporations who helped Williamson get his play on by financially contributing to the production costs. Williamson, who is not badly off, criticises “our wealthy” and refers to “our well paid warriors of the right”. If only.

The lecture offered the everyday distortions the Left’s vanity feeds on. It is untrue, for example, that “After over a decade of conservative rule contemporary film, plays and novels are fast becoming an endangered species.” Or that, “If it is a fact that more artists consider themselves on the left of politics than the right then it might be just that human behaviour which is driven by curiosity, altruism, courage, and determination is more interesting and attractive than behaviour motivated by unscrupulous and insatiable greed.” Inserted into a Williamson play that bit of dialogue would have been in character in the mouth of a decayed Labor ex-Minister for the Arts—like Sir Les Patterson. Try a real “fact”: Australia’s conformist artists are Left because of fear, greed, self-interest, and an uncritical intake of the zeitgeist.

It is hard to believe that the user of this delusional and self-admiring rhetoric (leftover stock from Willi Münzenberg’s bankrupt Word Factory) is the same man who wrote Dead White Males and Heretic, a play which explored Derek Freeman’s exposure of the lies and fables in the work of Margaret Mead. It is almost as if, at the crossroads, Williamson, after several interesting and establishment-questioning plays, surrendered and turned left, back into the safety of ideological conformity. In 1995 Keith Windschuttle wrote an introduction to the published edition of Dead White Males. Windschuttle came to Quadrant and Williamson moved to Noosa.

Williamson also questions the obvious: “I’m not convinced that our conservative commentator’s belief that just about all our artists are of the left is valid.” Any established artist in present-day Australia outed as a conservative would be snubbed. There is no place for new artists who are also conservative. Being Left is a necessity for a successful career path in the arts just as it is an absolute necessity for having a social life.

Williamson himself offers a chilling insight into the Australian reality which contradicts all the Left platitudes he has expressed. It may also explain the road his creative life has taken in the new century. He gives examples of major artists who have protested and, in some cases, been punished for having spoken out: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Elia Kazan, Tom Stoppard—and himself. “I was subject to ostracism by many leftists for my plays, Sons of Cain, which looked at corruption in a fictional New South Wales Labor government in the eighties, The Great Man, which examined the loss of idealism in the Labor Party, and Dead White Males, which strongly satirised modish leftist post-modernism.”

He does not draw the obvious conclusion, that in each case the individual was in conflict with the Left and, in most cases, punished by the Left. Solzhenitsyn was maltreated by a communist government and maligned by the international Left. Elia Kazan was shunned by the American Left. David Williamson was ostracised by some of the Australian Left. One person on his list is different. In Britain Tom Stoppard is a productive playwright. If his family had migrated here his conservatism would have led to exclusion. In Australia he is protected by the cultural cringe; his international reputation opens doors which would otherwise be slammed in his face.

Williamson is a prominent member of Sydney PEN and his lecture was published in their journal. Leftist PEN is well organised when it comes to holding drinks or lunch (imagine Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” passing a motion to Free Tibet between mains and dessert, then doing Free Speech in China after coffee) or taking part in an international meeting to support the women of Kyrgyzstan, but they are a bit short in the commonsense department. There was no protest from them when Williamson, who they describe as “Australia’s leading playwright”, was, as he says, ostracised in this country for daring to criticise the Australian Left. The most fearful tool in enforcing Left conformity is the public affection and support they offer each other. Question their ideological positions and the warm fellowship turns frigid. The word chosen by Williamson to describe what happened to him, ostracism, is spot on. When the loving stops, the chill, as seen in the lives of some well-known intellectuals, is too much and they retreat. The threats to free speech in Australia, dear Sydney PEN, are where they always are—on the Left. Care to put your well-known names to an essay questioning climate change? Submit it to a Fairfax publication and see what happens.

The arts in Australia is a one-party state, a dictatorship of mediocrity. Williamson, a tall poppy and much-loved playwright, may have found himself ostracised “by many leftists” but his plays were produced. He already had an established reputation and he always sought to remain within the dysfunctional Left family. If they had been written by an out-of-the-closet conservative they would never have made it onto a stage. If any young and promising playwright was known as a conservative, or climate change sceptic, his work would never be staged. In Williamson’s speech his admission of the brutishness of the Left was added in for colour and the usual display of moral vanity but there are others in Australia for whom this is not just a passing annoyance. Sydney PEN obviously finds this normal, that a writer is ostracised in our Australian democracy for criticising the Left. During the Howard years it was convention for the artistic Left to include a Howard-hating comment in every public utterance, and for this they were applauded and rewarded, not jailed or ostracised. Howard never turned his back on the intellectuals but the intellectuals did this to him. Those in Australia who share the conservative views of the majority of the community are excluded from the nation’s artistic life where the Left are the censors and cultural gatekeepers.

Scarlett O’Hara at the Green Parrot was fun, but unmemorable, forgotten five minutes after leaving the theatre. Far more memorable was Williamson’s John Sumner Lecture, not for its play-acting demonising and distortion of conservatism, its colourful self-promotion and vanity, but for its admission of Left cultural thuggery even as its author stood in the spotlight making a public act of submission and conformity. The stage curtains moved and the audience, for a moment, caught a glimpse of fear in the wings.