David Williamson by Mrs Williamson

Kristin Williamson, David Williamson: behind the scenes, Penguin Viking, 2009

“I hope you get wiped out by a bloody bushfire.” Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband, David Williamson: Behind the Scenes, attracted media attention for the bonking revelations, and the attacks on the couple’s favourite enemies, and a few friends. The angry speaker was advertising man Phillip Adams. His new, executive-toy, silver Maserati had just broken its low-slung exhaust system on the dirt road leading to David and Kristin Williamson’s Melbourne house, and it all happened years ago.

David Williamson has never forgotten an insult, or a good grievance. Unhealed bitterness over Adams’s later comments on the film of Don’s Party are avenged here by remembering them: “Phillip Adams had poisoned everyone against it. But then he declared Crocodile Dundee was a dud too. And he said Breaker Morant was ‘not releasable’.”

Bonking and bitchiness aside, Kristin Williamson’s book is serious and does deserve attention. It describes, with sophistication and artlessness, the corrupting Leftism that captured and captivated the artistic elite of the post-Auschwitz generation in Australia.

In 2004 the Williamsons hosted an election night party for their friends:

Then Latham finally lost badly, David and I told the guests we were going off to Cuba to see how Castro ran his country. This was not in fact a joke—we did fly off to Cuba, among other places, a few days later. We discovered that Castro ran his country repressively and in material poverty, but [!!!] in a way that was genuinely egalitarian, with good health care and education for everyone. It was a place full of music and laughter. It felt like the complete reverse of modern Australia.

How an affluent, successful, respected literary couple could exhibit such callousness to the sufferings of the Cuban people and how little they know their own country is explained by Kristin’s book. It charts their lives together from the “excitement of waiting for Gough Whitlam” through to the present. It passes through “the joyless populism of Howard” to last year and the knocking of a critic, whose name Kristin misspells.

Raised in a Liberal-voting home, young David was befriended by the son of Communist Party sympathisers. The parents contributed to the direction of his politics in the 1950s by talking of the wonders of communism and the evils of capitalism. Their well-trained son parroted their views and pointed to newspaper reports and photos of starving Chinese which he explained away as “blatant propaganda being presented as news”. The real story, he explained, was in the happy snaps of smiling peasants in his parents’ copies of the propaganda magazine China Reconstructs.

At this early point in the story a biographer could have pointed out that the Left propaganda was lies and the despised capitalist media was telling the truth. Kristin seems to approve of the deceit. She could also have pointed to the growth of Leftism as a popular cultural fashion which influenced the lives of David and herself.

When Kristin and David met they were married to other people and both had children. The pain caused to the children by the marital break-ups was hardly mentioned until some thirty years later and neither parent, in the book, seems to assume any responsibility for the hurt they caused.

Time has not made the Williamsons gentler. David’s mother, who Kristin draws as a Bairnsdale Clytemnestra, receives a kicking. Describing an emotional scene in which she, not unfairly, attacks and blames Kristin for the havoc their relationship had caused, Kristin says of herself: “I turned away to wipe the grin off my face.” In a Williamson play those words would have delineated a selfish and wilful fictional character.

The book recalls slights and insults traded years and years before which would have been better forgotten. Kristin worked on David’s papers held in the National Library of Australia. God knows what malice they hold. Either the Williamsons have never heard of matches and bonfires or the NLA offered a price for David’s waste paper too good to refuse.

At the Williamsons’ 1972 election party the artists present discussed the money Whitlam would send their way. Recounting the event, Kristin adds a pious and pompous epilogue: “Politics mattered and could make a difference to our country. And we were going to be part of that change. This was the first day of a new era in which everything seemed possible.” Believe that and you will find the rest of the book just as plausible.

The election of Whitlam was a victory for the emerging “new class” which, though they did not know it, marked the defeat of the old working class and their values. Sometimes political power but always cultural dominance was passing from the old Liberal-voting parents to their ALP-voting children. For this greedy new class, personal interest and politics combined most profitably. The Whitlam victory is remembered by Left survivors with wet grandstanding. “For the first time I could remember,” says David, “I didn’t feel ashamed of being an Australian.” And Kristin comments: “Many people felt the same way.”

There are interesting things about David the playwright along the way but this, unfortunately, is not the core of the book. As he wrote and had his first plays produced in Melbourne in the early 1970s, Kristin gave him copies of the highly approved Tulane Drama Review and explained who Grotowski was, not to inspire him but as “some tools with which to defend himself”. It is an anecdote which neatly captures the takeover of the theatre by the theorists.

The dominance of the directors over the writers in modern theatres is often accompanied by fictions about how the dead playwrights, whose work is being destroyed, would have loved the new productions. Williamson has consistently hated the attacks directors have made on his plays. At the first London production of The Removalists he was distraught when he found that Jim Sharman had set it in a boxing ring and revved up the violence. The living playwright told the director exactly what he thought. In Sharman’s recently published book of memoirs the Williamson production is not mentioned.

Heretic, David’s play about Derek Freeman and Margaret Mead, was trivialised by director Wayne Harrison. At one point Harrison had Mead turn into Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy birthday, Mr President”. Williamson was on hand to tell the director what he thought.

David Williamson has talked and written about the roles of the writer and the director in our theatre. What he says is important and worth listening to, though some critics have treated it as petulance. This homemade biography would have been an ideal platform for him to present his case. It was a lost opportunity. The book may have kept the royalties and revelations in the family but an outsider might have given us a more interesting book about Williamson the playwright.

Little things offer insights which deserved greater attention. Williamson’s view of Patrick White as a playwright is direct: “David found White’s plays too bizarrely black and his characters gross stereotypes.” Something everyone shuts up about when grants are discussed is how quickly plays are written. “He could toss off the first draft of a play in two weeks, but I wasn’t supposed to tell the theatre company that had commissioned it in case they thought it was rubbish.” Not untypically, a writer received a grant in 2008 to “research” a play which is scheduled for a performed reading in 2009 and production in 2012.

The book is full of boring Whitlam love. The drama of his sacking is again recounted though, as always, there is no consideration of why Malcolm Fraser won a fifty-three-seat majority. The incident allows Kristin to exhume a story illustrating the casual brutality of the Left. She tells how, some months after the dismissal, she joined a group of bullies in a theatre who sat in the steps blocking the access of Sir John and Lady Kerr to their seats.

The Williamsons have gone fashionably green, and an incident from 1975 is retold in the light of their new religion. Backdating the conservationist jihad to this period, Kristin remarks, when one of the children cuts down a tree for Christmas, “As we were lovers of native trees, we didn’t mind losing the non-indigenous pine tree.”

An aspect of Williamson which his wife does not explore is his skilful use of publicity. Kristin fails to examine how the constant media exposure and public media rows have served as a publicity tool for selling theatre tickets. Behind the Scenes was launched by Cate Blanchett in March. In May Williamson was in the media criticising Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton for their management of the Sydney Theatre Company—at the same time as he had a new play opening at the rival Ensemble Theatre.

The use of real people in his plays, and the betrayal this implies, is not explored deeply by Kristin, even though her own experiences of David’s artistic cannibalism may have warped their marriage as much as his sexual exploits. The pain he must have inflicted on her is unimaginable. His 1976 play A Handful of Friends has a female character called Sally. Kristin both denies and admits that the character is based on her. At one point she writes: “Sally—ambitious, arrogant, insensitive actress turned journalist—is a monster, one of David’s most outrageous roles … Of course I knew I wasn’t really Sally.” At another point she admits that the suggestion Sally is based on her is “closer to the mark”. Tactfully Kristin does not mention some of the character’s sexual peccadillos. If this play is biographical, which it probably is, David has been astoundingly indiscreet and disloyal, and Kristin may be more revealing of her feelings when she reports her reply to an interviewer’s question: “It is not egos that have caused clashes between us but David using friends and even me as the basis for characters in his plays.”

Bob Ellis was unflatteringly used in A Handful of Friends and this detonated a noisy, enjoyable and famous public controversy. Ellis has a starring role in the Williamson story. Once David even took legal advice about suing Ellis for suggesting he had plagiarised Alex Buzo. Though assured he would win, Williamson declined to continue and deprived us of what could have been a great Australian drama. The disputed and unforgettable masterpiece of literary wordsmithing was: “a long thin streak of pelican shit”. What expensive wigs would have done with that would have been worth a mini-series, at least.

On the Williamson–Ellis bust-up, Kristin was too involved and is too discreet. Offended by David’s portrayal of their friendship in A Handful of Friends, Ellis wrote a lively portrait of the unfaithful playwright to which both Williamsons responded: “It described what Ellis saw as David’s hypochondria, racism, cowardice and lack of the most basic literary knowledge.” She ignores the most notorious part of the ensuing jelly-wrestling—Ellis’s revelation that the play’s orgy was based on a real-time romp involving the Ellises, the Williamsons and a billiard table. The wild controversy raged across the media and the whole mess was published in Frank Moorhouse’s Days of Wine and Rage. Kristin says she was “relieved that it was out of print before our children were old enough to want to read it”, but does not mention that when it was republished in 2007 she and David refused permission for the texts to be reproduced. A few weeks ago, as Louis Nowra, writing in the Australian, operated without anaesthetic on a new Ellis book, Nowra brushed aside Kristin’s dusty macrame-and-beads recollections to push the billiard table and orgy back under the spotlight—though he ignored Ellis’s deepest stiletto thrust, a claim that the confused matings “left us all in some sexual doubt”.

In the same year, the Williamsons travelled to China. They were innocents abroad who “knew nothing about the truth of what had happened at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution ten years before”. Kristin had prepared for the trip by reading propaganda books. Their pilgrimage changed David’s political beliefs, says Kristin, for he became “much more critical of the authoritarian left of the ALP”. It is not clear how many more millions Mao would have had to kill to make her husband open his eyes. The more memorable result of their trip was that Kristin took an interest in Chinese cooking.

The self-conscious importance of politics in their lives is constantly emphasised, even in the bedroom. Plotting the first sexual campaigns in a civil war waged against her husband in response to his serial infidelities, Kristin presents herself as a social worker armed with clipboard, Biro and lust: “I made a list of the possible men I could bear to sleep with. They had to meet certain criteria—to be intelligent, not too ugly, not married to or involved with any women I knew, and left-wing.”

In 1978 the Williamsons spent six months at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. David was ostracised by the academics:

They told me that since inviting me they’d read Don’s Party and realised I was really a bourgeois writer. They must have realised they’d made a terrible mistake inviting me to lecture at the University of Aarhus, which was pretty much a Marxist, feminist seminary at that time.

They just don’t get it.

In her account of the play Dead White Males, which was critical of academic postmodernism, she writes that Williamson had a supporter who stood beside him: “One Sydney academic and writer thought Dead White Males David’s most daring play—‘a direct intervention in an intellectual debate’.” To find the name of David’s champion against Left intolerance you have to go into the footnotes to discover that it was Keith Windschuttle. Nor does Kristin mention that Windschuttle provided the introduction for the published version of the play. Kristin is blind to the fact that even as she rages about conservatives, the “new Right” and John Howard, many of her husband’s detractors and enemies were and are firmly on the Left. Nothing wakes the walking dead.

When Keating made his widely applauded joke about “Balmain basket-weavers”, humourless Balmain responded by inviting Keating to dinner at the Williamsons’ house. “With a bravery that I still admire,” writes Kristin, “Paul and Annita accepted our invitation into the basket-weavers’ den.”

The Whitlam love affair merged into Keating flattery: “In many ways Keating represented the right sort of idealism—his vision about how to make the country a better place was sometimes electric.” There is a blindness to the society around them which they mistake for wisdom: “During the so-called ‘Howard Years’, David’s plays registered some of the general social trends in the country: an increased materialism, the decline of the media and the coarsening of public debate.” The responsibility of the intellectual Left for the debasement of public debate eludes them.

Nothing seems to have ever truly broken through the Williamsons’ rigid and protective Left carapace. Not the realities of China, the corruption surrounding the Whitlam government, the beastliness of Castro, or the Islamic terrorism of 9/11. Kristin recalls their phone call to Peter Carey in New York just after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Days after the tragedy the Williamsons had already learnt the approved Left script: “But then we asked the question that had been puzzling us. ‘Do Americans ever ask themselves why there is such bitterness against them?’” Kristin Williamson is herself something I never really believed existed in real life—a character from a Williamson play.

David Williamson has several times in his plays touched on a criticism of the Left but then quickly retreated before their outrage. Nearing the end of his life, he has not found the courage to speak out. The publicity for his latest play reveals that “Toby (William Zappa), a maker of hard hitting documentaries, flees Sydney in shame when the press finds out he inadvertently used a bogus witness in his latest film.” “Inadvertently”! What a copout and abysmal grovelling before Left self-esteem and self-interest. It is a pity that in his address book there is not a famed Left documentary maker whose work he is willing to examine truthfully—what a play that would make. Williamson has travelled from the teenage boy flicking across the lying pages of China Reconstructs to become the storyteller and mythmaker of the Left. What a wasted journey.

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