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September 01st 2008 print

Michael Connor

The Follies Bizarre: Australia’s political theatre

The hero of a Stephen Sewell play, and clearly his creator’s alter ego, says: “People change.

The hero of a Stephen Sewell play, and clearly his creator’s alter ego, says: “People change. I still hate the cunts, but I guess I just don’t think killing them is the right answer anymore”. The victims of the character’s loathing are conservatives, assorted non-Left dissidents, Green sceptics, individualists, and the sort of people who read Quadrant. In Australia’s political theatre, in a theatrical landscape in which subsidised theatres are the ruling houses, Sewell is representative of a state-funded assault on the principle of tolerance in liberal democracy.

The current political theatre presents a mirror image of Australian society — everything in it is reversed and it only touches truth when all its pronouncements are turned about. In Sewell’s play the character having second thoughts about killing us is named “to evoke America’s own great liberal tradition”, and facing death delivers a defence of Reason. Sewell typifies a harvest of state supported playwrights more familiar with lecture theatres than real theatres.

Australian theatre is monopolised by the Left; a fact so taken for granted and so widely accepted that it elicits no comment. Also taken for granted is the absence of self-criticism — Left playwrights are licensed to be silly. Here is John Romeril, giving a prestigious lecture, just after the 1996 election, twelve years on it seems even more phoney than it did then: “but I condemn utterly the opportunistic and Machiavellian behaviour of the Liberal party, and not just in these past seven hellish weeks, but for decades.”

The Left political plays are sucked into the educational marketplace and their propaganda influences young minds. A recent leftist book on political theatre for the education market by Hilary Glow, entitled Power Plays: Australian Theatre and the Public Agenda (Currency Press, Sydney) offers a background study. She talks of the Communist Party of Australia’s New Theatre, and of playwrights like Communist Party member Mona Brand, without exploring the influence of Communism, or even mentioning the word. In this theatre, as in the minds of its audience, the Left crimes of the twentieth century fade away in a general vagueness so that supporters of death and torture are depicted as benevolent progressives.

In the 60s and 70s the Western Left was overtaken by a variety of liberalism which may be called vanity-liberalism. You see the changeover in sensibility which occurred in the career of Gough Whitlam, the opportunist member for Werriwa, between the mid-1950s and 1975. You see the difference between Labor leaders Arthur Calwell and Paul Keating, and you cannot understand the modern Left playwrights without taking account of their moral vanity. Unembarrassed self-publicising is common and Stephen Sewell says this about himself:

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a member of Australian theatre which, of all the arts, has taken such a strong stance in support of peace, justice and freedom.

The reality is the mirror image. Theatre director Neil Armfield spoke to his “Dear Friends” when he gave the 1998 Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, then approvingly described an historic moment of cruelty and arrogance:

The saddest sight of all was the entire audience of the Australian Reconciliation Convention turning its back on Howard when it became clear that he wouldn’t apologise on behalf of the Australian Government for the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children. Who will forget that image — one of the most chilling and memorable events of our history. But Mr Howard reacted to his shame angrily, like a child. Mr Howard, there is no gap. Use the love that lurks inside your frightened body, the love you feel for young children, for your parents, for your language and make the leap. Identify. That’s what you can get from the theatre. It teaches you how to identify.

At the Reconciliation Convention, John Howard was heroic, he was right, and he was brave — the conformist bullies were wrong.

Armfield’s words have all the charm, and menace, of a welcoming speech to a desert re-education camp. His praise of cowards, and lack of compassion should not be quickly forgotten but his words and those of Romeril demonstrate the accepted and instinctive attitudes of the theatrical establishment which commissions and stages political theatre. The political playwrights are infected and protected by this intolerant Left groupthink. They are taken seriously and no one laughs even when they say the silliest things.

Political theatre is manufactured around particular topics that interest the Left intelligentsia at any time. Typically a cause is selected by theatre bureaucrats, the authors are commissioned, they “research” and write their plays, the dramaturges rewrite them, the directors stage them. Political theatre produces uncontroversial plays because the texts illustrate currently fashionable attitudes. The plays flatter their audiences for holding correct attitudes and reaffirm their beliefs, they do not challenge them. People come out at night and sink into comfortable theatre seats to cheer staged versions of what they hear on Radio National.

When Kenneth Tynan attacked censorship of the British stage in 1965 he gave several examples of the Lord Chamberlain’s instructions to playwrights: “For ‘wind from a duck’s behind’, substitute ‘wind from Mount Zion’”; “Delete ‘postcoital’, substitute ‘late evening’”.

Post-censorship political theatre uses obscenity and insults to demean opponents and reaps Left applause. You are more likely to upset elite good taste by suggesting that police sniffer dogs should mingle with first night audiences at the Sydney Theatre Company.

A biographer of the loathsome Soviet prosecutor Vyshinsky gave examples of his courtroom invective (modest by Australian theatre standards) saying:

these were the kinds of terms constantly used by this top legal authority and scion of a cultured family as substitutes for the only true weapon a lawyer can ever have — indisputable evidence. There was no evidece, but the abusive language created a psychological illusion of there being some.

The observation applies just as strongly to the contemporary Left political theatre in which obscenity and abuse conceal the lack of substantive arguments.

Since 1998 Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, a production combining four plays by four different authors, has been very well received. The Sydney Morning Herald reviewer was typically enthusiastic:

With intelligence, well-judged humour and the searching qualities of truly memorable theatre, the play peels away political propaganda and notions of correctness to present a candid, difficult, searing portrait of the poor and the marginalised.

It won a prestigious Gold AWGIE, a Victorian Green Room Award, and a Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. Draft funding has already been provided by the Australian Film Commission for preparation of a film.

The “Kennett Boy Monologue” by Christos Tsiolkas begins this night of much applauded entertainment. In this piece a boy crudely fantasises about a sexual encounter with — Jeff Kennett. In demeaning and derogatory language he abuses Kennett, and John Howard. Kennett’s penis is described in detail as are several imagined acts of homosexual intercourse. This is not undergraduate abuse but postgraduate obscenity constructed to hurt a liberal democratic political enemy. The playwright’s loathing even extends to “some suited, young, wog guy I saw on the Channel Nine News.”

In general, Left critics granted the obscenities erudite applause. As an example, Hilary Glow writes:

It is a measure of the play’s sophisticated handling of the complexities of these changes [Kennett’s economic programs and their social results] that its opening scene contains a discussion of precisely these issues from the perspective of a young working-class man who idolises Jeff Kennett. In this monologue the young man not only sexually fantasises about Kennett, he tells us why he supports him politically.

Glow’s “young working-class man” is a paedophile fantasy. A boy in his mid-teens, and not old enough to vote, is depicted with the vocabulary and sexual tastes found on an Oxford Street toilet door. The sophisticated political discussions of Kennett’s policies that Glow discerns are simply expressed: “He’s a cunt. It’s obvious.” Glow’s book is based on her PhD thesis, and it will be used widely in schools and universities.

To compliment Tsiolkas for his cruelty and viciousness, as Glow does, is like praising Auschwitz for its flower gardens. The obscene language is intensely personal and the sexuality exhibitionistic. Interestingly, Glow plays down this aspect by bowdlerising the text when she quotes from it. Taking the opening paragraph she deletes five central sentences of obscenity and fundamentally misrepresents the work, which is far more enthusiastically pornographic than political. By not exploring the nature of the pornography, and the debasing uses to which it is put, Glow ignores the obvious parallel with Tsiolkas’s literary forebear Julius Streicher.

What would we find if we compared the ant-Semitic pornography of Streicher and the anti-democratic pornography of Tsiolkas? The question is serious. Surely even in the Third Reich there was no public theatrical performance which attacked a political enemy with such crudity and sexual cruelty? It is instructive that none of the Left admirers of this piece have noted that in using homosexuality to attack a conservative enemy the author has produced a fundamentally anti-gay piece of writing.

The other plays, by the way, were just as awful.

Freedom from censorship was meant to be liberating, but writers like Tsiolkas debase liberal democracy with a climate of brutality which locks a new prison about us. Quite by accident one of Stephen Sewell’s characters said something worth quoting — even if out of context – “So this is how low Australian intellectual life has sunk.” Publication of the script, by Currency Press, was supported by an Australia Council grant.

Foul language you hear for free in shopping centres you pay to hear in posh theatres. If customers used obscenities to the staff of Qantas, Sofitel or Medina they would be swiftly dealt with. Yet these companies sponsor the Malthouse Theatre which even has a policy, they call it a “Vision”, defending blasphemy: “Theatre makers must not beg permission to blaspheme in order to squarely face the contemporary.” Nothing could be more contemporary than a certain eastern God but do you imagine that these brave people would dare utter the slightest insult to His name? or that of His Prophet? And how long would their sponsors remain sponsors if they did so?

At the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Playhouse the actors in Hannie Rayson’s prize-winning play Inheritance come onstage — and you wish they hadn’t. Act One begins with the entrance of a man and woman:

Julia: Fuck, [Pause] Fuck fuck fuck fuck [Their car has broken down.] Fuck.

Felix: Fuck!

Julia: Felix!

The script needlessly points out that these two characters “are clearly inner-city folk.”

If you have been to any subsidised theatre and suffered through a commissioned play you could, with your eyes shut, correctly guess that the main speaker above would be female. You would also learn in these opening moments that the female character is knowledgeable about car engines, while her male companion is ignorant. Despite Rayson setting her play in the Mallee she has unmistakably bought us to the Land of Feminist Platitudes, again.

Rayson does not know much about Australian history but has been browsing the postgraduate websites: “One of the major themes in this play is about the white silencing of our history, and how this has completely and utterly disempowered Aboriginal people.” She might have been closer to the mark if she had looked at how the Left has deconservatised our culture and silences dissident voices. Inheritance silences and misrepresents country Australians who have no defence before this elitist attack.

The “research” Rayson took credit for in writing her play was that over two long years she made trips to the Mallee. Left writer Alan Marshall went off in a horse drawn caravan and wrote a book called These Are My People: Rayson wrote Inheritance. She could have stayed home and picked placenames from an RACV map for her play is a collection of town names punctuated by expletives and the usual fashionable topics. If you saw the title of this play and noted it was set in the country what would you think it was about? Aborigines, land, racism, blah blah? You are right, nothing much here except a successful attempt to create and accentuate a divide in our society.

Rayson perspires confusion and platitudes: “Politics exists and is manifested in how we live … People think about politics as being quite separate from the way they live their lives, and my entire raison d’être is to bring the two things together.” And she will succeed, in schoolrooms where Inheritance is taught as reportage, not propagandising fiction. Rayson has written:

Like most people in my particular circle … I was furious and frustrated by Pauline Hanson and her escalating power base and so really there was no alternative but to go and find out where that support was coming from, rather than simply saying: those people must be a sandwich short of a picnic.

What commendable command of language the playwright has when she delves into what she knows. I, for one, would never have dreamed that people in her circle sat around saying things like “a sandwich short of a picnic.” And yet, despite the lofty intentions, the reality is that the Hanson character is played like the late Gordon Chater in drag. That’s revenge, not intelligence.

Andrew Bovell stopped over in Rayson’s Land of Feminist Platitudes for his play Holy Day. Bovell is an accomplished playwright whose writing credits include the films Strictly Ballroom and Lantana, and he contributed to Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?

Bovell is an establishment writer and Holy Day is stage Tarantino with blood over our past but without the jokes. You can tell it is a history play because it covers all the perversions the playwright can spell. Early on an Aboriginal girl called Obedience (I’m not joking, I wish I was) is told to “keep your tongue to yourself until I get back” — at the end of the play her tongue is cut out. It’s that sort of a play.

The women are unbelievable, idiotic, feminist caricatures. The men are unbelievable, idiotic, feminist hate figures. The history is a travesty, the melodrama noisy but boring. Normal Australian theatre. What also makes it typical is that it is not enough to write Grand Guignol, it has to be accompanied with quite unbelievable, intellectual sounding program notes.

Part of the reason is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It has been studied in Australian schools for several generations at least. It, the film not the book, leaves a profound impression. Sitting in the dark the bit that recruits the young to vanity-liberalism is near the end when Gregory Peck leaves the courthouse. On the upper level of the courtroom are gathered the town blacks. As Peck gathers up his notes and briefcase, before heading out into the phoney southern set on the Universal back lot, they all rise silently and respectfully as his film daughter is earnestly told by a dignified older man: “Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise. Stand up. Your father’s passing.” That’s the good bit they remember — it is the public reward for right thinking, for accepting voluntary intellectual serfdom.

This extraordinarily compelling advertisement for liberal self-love explains Australia’s academic historians and their Aborigines. If you have a passing acquaintance with the History Warlords you could possibly name those who see themselves in Peck’s role. The Mockingbird is a vanity-liberalism primer. Pat them (insert women/Aborigines/gays as required) on their heads like well behaved children and bask in their respect. Did I mention that Peter Singer highly rates the Mockingbird? or that a popular film guide says that it “only gains in stature as time passes”? It is part of the intellectual furniture of many Australians. They may not be able to read and write but they remember the Mockingbird — but do recall that when they talk about it, they are referring to the film.

In the fantasy world of vanity-liberalism respect is given to the lonely dissident standing up for what he believes in. In the real world vanity-liberals are followers, they go with the mob, support the bullies, denigrate the dissidents. Post-1972 Australian writing has produced Writers Union hacks, not Pasternaks.

Back to Andrew Bovell. Patting Holy Day on the head he wrote that “It’s as though we fear that the landscape itself will take our children and therefore our future away.” Come off it. That is history as it is taught at a certain university which he has borrowed for the program notes.

The play’s director, Rosalba Clemente, called Holy Day a “brave new work” and said it was “a dark parable of our past, with its resonant implications for our present and future position as a nation, not only to the truth of the holocaust that occurred in this nation, but to the ongoing hierarchy of abuse and racism we encounter today in so many shapes and forms.” You have to learn to write language as hollow as that. The sources for such pretentiousness are a bad education, Fairfax newspapers, bad historians, Radio National — and filling in Australia Council applications.

Katherine Thomson’s Harbour was commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company for its inaugural season in 2004. Again the Sydney Morning Herald provided Currency Press with a back-cover quote: “It’s a robust and wondrous play, and a fitting Australian drama to open the magnificent Sydney Theatre”. Politics à la mode is very popular at the STC. They recently made Giorgio Armani a patron, thus indelibly linking expensive frocks and Left politics.

Harbour was a predictable broadside about the 1998 waterside dispute, but what was unpredictable was the name Thomson gave the evil stevedoring company, modelled on Patricks. She called it Reynolds, a choice of names I found inspiring. To be moonstruck, as Thompson is, by the Maritime Union of Australia is taking a taste for rough trade a play too far.

The published edition of the text calls the central character “a battler, with a burning desire to unite his family and set the past to rights.” I wonder if the blurb writer ever saw the play? For the phrase “burning desire” really hits the mark. At the end of the last act he dies and is cremated onstage. As this Beau Geste campery takes place another cast member sings “Joe Hill”! Even in 1956 at the New Theatre that would have been embarrassing. Seriously, can you imagine a sophisticated Sydney theatre audience sitting through this, uhm, experience? They did, and they applauded. Not only did they applaud the melodrama, they applauded the politics, and the union thuggery. Maybe it is time to send in the sniffer dogs.

In 1993 Jane Harrison was writing Dolly Fiction and published a book called Chasing Fame. In 1998 her play Stolen was performed. The lessons for writing formula fiction had been well learnt. The children’s book market is slick and professional and its publishers know what sells to adolescent girls, and school librarians. In Stolen, Harrison again came up with the goods her employers wanted.

Stolen, like these other political plays, is ideal classroom fodder. It is easy, so easy, to teach. There are themes to discover, characters whose motivations are easy to discern. It is unsubtle and simplistic with crude ideas. No that is wrong. There are no ideas, it teaches sensibility, a way of feeling, a way of hating.

Teachers using this play pass on belief, not intellect. They are transferring their own mushiness as values. Right thinking is to be imitated and absorbed so that at any time, in any argument, what comes to the surface is an inflexible self-righteousness which represents any challenge as badness. All part of the vanity-liberal recruiting crusade.

Stephen Sewell is probably the most important of the political playwrights and his plays suggest that he has assimilated the formula writing rules of agitprop theatre. Typically, opposing points of view to his own are distorted or ignored; the characters are marionettes representing points of view he wishes to praise (rarely) or attack (often); there is a certain show-off element in which he displays references to popular Left authors like brand names; the volume is loud to keep the audience awake; real world logic is ignored and the world itself is completely recreated by his distorting squint. Unfortunately, the agitprop models he has used seem to be East German or Soviet, which presumed the existence of compulsory audience attention. For a paying audience Sewell commits the two cardinal sins which prevent his reputation climbing, even among Left admirers, to that of well known British publicist David Hare: he lectures and he bores. Unfortunately, being boring never stopped a Left political play being used in schools or universities.

Like Bernard Shaw, Sewell has a willingness to expound his views in public and the following are a group of representative citations which display exaggeration, conspiracy theory, paranoia, distortion, and sheer stupidity — unless he really has found a communicative abyss. Notice that he attacks the official culture of which he is part and which has supported him financially and personally over the years. No matter how far inside the system vanity-liberal intellectuals go they have a need to claim the role of victim and outsider. It is very strange.

One: “Of course, this cultural agenda is only one arm of an overall policy aimed at remaking Australia, now considerably advanced and which has led to artists being replaced by hacks, drones, spin doctors and media manipulators as the generators and regurgitators of an official culture.”

Two: “As is apparent from the fate of the ABC, we are entering the world of the whispered conversation, where the only people who can speak loudly — shrilly — are the ones endorsing the official line, and the vibrancy and diversity that once marked Australian society is being replaced by a dull conformity spiced with gossip and scandal to make everyone think they’re still alive.”

Three: “Theatre is politics and politics is theatre, and so long as the rulers control the other forms of mass media, theatre will remain the avenue through which we can inform one another of how we really feel. And how we feel now is angry, frightened and confused. How we feel now is bewildered as the world we have known of laws and rights and democracy is stripped away and replaced by an Ancient Regime of arbitrary power we thought died centuries ago.”

Four: “America isn’t the way it is because Americans are mad; America is like it is because the owners of property have an uncontested and almost incontestable monopoly of power that was historically brought about by the murder of trade unionists and anyone else who opposed the rise of the filthy rich. We are now headed in the same direction.”

Five: “The choices are stark, the options are few and diminishing, the real, so long denied, excluded and repressed, has returned, and now in the theatre at the end of history, we confront yet again that same question that has haunted us throughout the eons: what does it mean, and pausing with trembling heart, we look into the abyss and await the answer.”

While we wait for the abyss to reply ([email protected]?), remember I did not invent Stephen Sewell — he really is a major intellectual figure of the Australian Left.

Sewell’s words clearly don’t mean very much to him but they should. He refers to the ancien régime. As an ex-Marxist he may recall the words of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in 1918 when he too complained of the ancien régime, but for a different reason. He railed against what he called “the nitpicking legalism of the old school of the ancien régime.” And then Dzerzhinsky unleashed the Red Terror which immediately killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people. In two months perhaps three times more people were killed than had been executed by the ancien régime Tsarist government over 92 years.

The cruel quotation which opened this essay came from Sewell’s play Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America. It has won the most awards of any Australian play in our history. It says much for the strength and commercial value of anti-Americanism and anti-Catholic prejudice that it has been performed in England, Scotland, Germany, and the USA. It has even been broadcast on the ABC.

Set in the USA after 9/11 it represents liberal (!!) American academics as being hell bent on not understanding what has happened (good) but in getting revenge (bad) and shows how the US state silences a critic (very bad). Sewell presents a skewed portrait for purely propaganda purposes. Depressingly it is said that a film is on the way — hopefully it gets lost.

Myth”, says Sewell, “tells the story of Talbot Finch — a name chosen to evoke America’s own great liberal tradition, in the name of Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.”

What this play, and all the others, tell us are the attitudes of the vanity-liberals themselves. Finch, for instance, says: “All this shit about terrorists is bullshit — they exist, sure they exist, but they exist because we made them, and everything we do to get rid of them just makes more of them.” It’s boring because we all knew this argument before going into the theatre. It’s been the refrain of Radio National since 9/12.

The play’s paranoia is based on a complete inversion of America and American values: “Who gives a fuck? When the whole of the United States is hitting the wall; when blacks are being disenfranchised, Supreme Court judges are being bought off, and Presidential elections are being rigged.” And then the hysteria turns to almost mysticism, or more rough trade eroticism: “You want to know what America is, you go to the prisons, you go to the execution cells, you look into the eyes of the men on death row, you’ll see what America is!” For a reality check, imagine the author actually booking into the nearest Death Row to stare into the loving eyes of a rapist or child murderer or serial-killer. Could be a play in that: draft title — Playwright Dates Reality.

The distinctive feature of elite Australiaphobia is a desire to hurt, inflict pain, and wound Australian society. Sewell offers this overheated contribution for future textbooks:

Australia’s finished, mate, we’re fucked. The abos ran the place for sixty thousand years and it only took us two hundred to root it. We’ve had the longest drought in our history — you know that? The longest drought — and the Government still doesn’t believe in global warming. It’s fucked mate; we’re fucked.

A favourite, favourite part in Sewell’s Myth is where poor Finch has his book project dropped by a university press because it is against the War on Terror. In real life, as opposed to Sewell-life, the US university presses have been flooding the market with this stuff while manuscripts supporting President Bush are the ones which have trouble finding publishers. The rejection occurs in a phone call taken while a speech by the President is being broadcast in the background. This creates a wonderfully Wagnerian sense of destiny or something incredibly kitsch. My own rejections return home in the stamped, self-addressed envelopes I sent out with them.

Hysteria, present throughout the play, breaks through even in the stage directions. A character encounters the play’s strange and menacing villain, who is only known as MAN, and the stage direction reads: ‘We can’t see his face, but it looks like an Irish priest in full black get-up is moving towards her”. When MAN then asks a question the direction states: “It’s him … Oh, my God, its him …” — the punctuation is as it appears in the text.

In the next scene, after the Left McCarthyism, the conspiracy theories, the fear and loathing, Sewell’s Myth reaches its summit. Finch is tortured, and given a half page monologue to praise Reason before he is carted away to his death. Not exactly the script followed by torture sessions in the Lubyanka cellars. More than ever the character is his author’s alter ego. The speech is entirely consistent with the earlier quoted snippets of confused Sewell-thought and the empty phrases display the ego-publicising nature of vanity-liberalism.

The staging of the scene is simple, dramatic and perverted for Finch is tortured beneath “an enormous American flag” by the MAN, wearing a cassock — American flag, torture, Catholic Church. This, and not the speech to Reason, is Sewell’s final response to Muslim terrorism and 9/11, anti-Americanism and tyke bashing. Myth brings anti-Catholic hatred into the twenty-first century and the awards Sewell has won make it respectable.

The quotation of hate which opened this essay was Sewell in 2003 but for a long time conservatives have suffered from his prejudices. In 1988 he wrote Hate, which was directed by Neil Armfield at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney and the Playbox in Melbourne. Both seasons were supported by the Australian Bicentennial Authority and the objects of the hatred were again conservatives. It had some memorably silly scenes — if you saw it you may remember Scene Six when cast members picked up spilt “Right to Life” leaflets. You may also remember, it was near the end, when the right wing politician villain (he wore a cravat) made a passionate short speech in favour of hate: “Hatred! The hatred that flows through this country! The hatred that gives it its being!”

Sewell’s Americans and Australians are not real Americans or Australians; Rayson’s country people aren’t; Bovell’s history women aren’t. The characters are solely representations of attitudes and have no reality. People like us who hold dissenting views are depicted as unhumans or, in the Leninist phrase, “enemies of the people”. Vasily Grossman’s masterwork Forever Flowing linked exactly this type of language misuse with the killing of kulaks and Jews:

To massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings, just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin say: kulaks are not human beings.

Myth despises and attacks the imperfect (but better than anything else) law-freedom societies of America and Australia and argues instead for a confused utopianism.

Put Sewell’s Myth on a traditional pair of moral value balancing scales. On one side place his utopian text with the awards and rewards he has gained from it, on the other an artefact from a real-life utopian society — a small, worn photo of a handsome young boy. Sewell is an ex-Marxist, perhaps he knows the names of the victims of the regimes he supported over the years. To us the frightened boy in the photo is only prisoner No. 17 at Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia. Look, the number was pinned to his chest for the photograph – being bare-chested they pushed the safety pin through his flesh. After the split second it took for the camera shutter to wink he was tortured and killed for the pleasure of other Marxists, possibly ex-Marxists by now, who had been taught the utopian dream in Paris by Jean-Paul Sartre that terror could give life to “humanism”. The photo is on your bookshelves, in The Black Book of Communism. How shabby Sewell’s play is, so ignorant of history and so meaningless it could float away — except, of course, that his message of hate, like that of Sartre’s or the vanity of the Mockingbird, propagated through classrooms and tutorial rooms may attain its intended consequences.

On his dining-room mantelpiece Bernard Shaw kept framed photographs of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin and Stalin. The horror of picking at vegetarian meals under the eyes of torturers, terrorists, mass murderers and famine makers eluded him — or gave him an appetite. Behind Shaw’s idols, and others like Hitler and Pol Pot, were half-baked ideas influential when the monsters were young and impressionable. Bad ideas do not die of common sense. The Left tends them carefully and makes them grow. Some of these plays, ably marketed by Currency Press, are on school and university reading lists. Obscenity, conservative hatred and intolerance are already in the syllabus.


Michael Connor will be writing on the theatre regularly for Quadrant. His website is www.michaelconnor.com.au