Theatre

A Stolen Prize and Some Unwritten Plays

Welcome to Melbourne, the corrupt City of Literature. The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards are the nation’s wealthiest writing prizes and administered for the Victorian government by the left-wing Wheeler Centre. In January, guidelines for the 2019 awards were overturned by competition judges to protest against the government’s border security policy which protects the Australian community. Established “to honour Australian writing” the eligibility rules are simple, clear and fair: “Authors must be Australian citizens or permanent residents of Australia … Breach of the conditions of entry will render an entry invalid.” In Maduro dictatorship-mode two prizes totalling $125,000 were given to an ineligible author. The book was No Friend but the Mountains (Picador Australia) by Behrouz Boochani, an Iran-born refugee activist on Manus Island. The Wheeler Centre shrugged off muted criticisms of cheating with a rejoinder that the book “was completely consistent with the intention of the awards”.

Boochani is a familiar favourite of the Left establishment. Since 2016 the awards he has collected include the Diaspora Symposium Social Justice Award, the Tampa Award, Amnesty International Australia Media Award, STARTTS Humanitarian Award, Voltaire Award, Anna Politkovskaya Award, and the Ronald Wilson Human Rights Award.

The prize winner, commenting on his good fortune, used the familiar and well-worn idiom of international progressive doublespeak: “the literature community has also empowered Australian civil society against unjust political structures”. The injustice in this case was that he unfairly won an award because the judges discarded competition rules to make a political statement which cost them nothing, and taxpayers a lot.

Public criticism of dishonesty was almost invisible. The Australian Society of Authors was silent. Quadrant Online drew attention to the scandal. A not-well-known writer dared a letter to the Age. On Twitter, Hitler’s Table Talk without the jokes, virtue signallers sympathetic to the plight of a refugee, and the plundering of a state-funded literary award, ran an un-virtuous and vicious attack against this brave person. The language of October 1917 barbarism passes from generation to generation of the Left; amid the personal and hurtful insults the defenceless letter writer was libelled as “a bitter angry psychopath”. None of the competition judges offered a protective defence of her lonely protest; the Wheeler Centre didn’t whistle back their attack dogs.

Boochani’s book was entered for the awards by Picador Australia, which is owned by the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Were they advised to pay their entry fee by judges or the Wheeler Centre? The guidelines are clear and the penalty for non-observance is in standard English. When they submitted the book they knew it did not comply with the competition rules. On their own website the publishing company deals with accepting submissions from authors, and here they are very strict: “We will only review submissions that adhere to the guidelines.”

The drama award is a $25,000 prize for playwriting, not performance. The winner was Kendall Feaver for The Almighty Sometimes (Currency Press, in association with Griffin Theatre Company). This first play by a young playwright is about “mental health and the medication of children”. Though written in 2012 it was only recently staged and published in Sydney after being performed and winning a writing competition in the UK—cultural cringe, anyone? It played in a very small subsidised feminist theatre, and the words were only published because they were incorporated into the printed program for the short season—a money-making publishing scheme. The subsidised publishing company’s costs are subsidised by subsidised theatres. You will probably never, ever see a copy of this play in a bookshop. Well funded and highly publicised playwriting awards around the country are intended to help Australian writers but none of the major book companies are interested in a play script, unless it is based on a story written by J.K. Rowling. Bookshops profit from literary competition book publicity and author promotions but seldom stock plays, and only take a book-ordering interest when one of these texts, by surprising means, makes its way on to school book lists.

Given the blacklist which applies to conservatives, we should write and stage our own plays. I’ve seen some, it can’t be hard to do. There is no help to be expected from the Left-exclusive, state-funded theatre establishment, who aren’t much help even to the parishioners of their own parish. In late February the cheerful Submit Here button for new play submissions on the subsidised Australian Playwriting site still doesn’t actually lead anywhere useful, though there is a job vacancy for an Associate Director. It is always better to be an arts bureaucrat than an artist and the subsidised Left pay well, in this case $60,000 per annum for a four-day week at a fashionable Sydney address. Advertising the ugly and conformist face of statist theatre is a spiel on the same site for a playwriting master class for “emerging playwrights” to be held in Melbourne for a few hours in March. It is being conducted by “one of the Australian greats”, they say. If learning to produce vulgar and spiteful theatre from the authoress of SHIT and Slut doesn’t appeal, you would be better off starting by yourself, and there are good books to help get a play moving in the right direction.

Begin with playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playwriting (2002) and then Comedy Rules (2011) by Jonathan Lynn, a co-author of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Actually both books are hopeless. Once you start reading you will forget about writing and just enjoy the pleasure and company of the writers—like buying cookbooks for the pictures and cuisine chat.

Ayckbourn starts promisingly by referring to writing and directing:

I see both activities as purely practical ones that can never in the strict sense be “taught”. They both rely ultimately on a spontaneity and instinct that defies theory.

The Australian dogma is that theatre is a purely political activity that must be taught and enforced and, for audiences, endured. Ayckbourn’s book is an attempt to “point out the obvious”; Australian state-subsidised theatre is a flight from the obvious.

In the beginning Ayckbourn asks “Comedy or drama?” then confesses that he doesn’t make the choice, he simply sets out to write a play: “The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter. And vice versa.” Sounds good.

In the civilisation war, theatres are prizes worth recapturing. They are one of the few places where ideas can be presented and where, by forcing the audience to disconnect from their electronics, they pay attention. The dominant Left use theatre to exclude and impose intellectual conformity decorated with obscenity and stupidity.

In our own particular situation there are two American plays already written and ready to stage to aid cultural renovation: Ferguson: The Play by Phelim McAleer and The $18-Billion Prize: The Dark Side of the Environmental Movement by McAleer and Jonathan Leaf. Race politics and corrupt conservationism are staged in plays constructed on the principles of “verbatim theatre”. Both play texts use the actual words from court cases—a valuable lesson in what should be done locally. Ferguson is entirely taken from the grand jury deliberations on the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a white policeman. In Los Angeles half the Left cast walked out before opening but the play went ahead.

McAleer, with his wife, Anne McElhinney, makes truthful films offensive to the US liberal establishment. Leaf, co-author of The $18-Billion Prize, also wrote The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties. The plays are worth staging, and master classes from their creators could inspire and strengthen presently excluded voices. Their staging would be an appointment with reality well overdue in Australian theatres.

“Never start a play without an idea,” says Ayckbourn. Here are four ideas for unwritten Australian plays.

Stolen 2. The first Stolen was a 1998 propaganda play. Stolen 2 melds the words of real court cases, real evidence and fictional non-fiction. Cast of three. The light-skinned Aboriginal man is wrecked and scarred from a city life of violence, prisons and drugs. A pretentious and privileged WAP (White Aboriginal Princess), an expert on the Stolen Generations, is preparing the man for a court case alleging that his being removed from loving parents was the cause of his evident misery. Her PhD, Black Hurt, White Lies, was published by Blak Inc.; though shortlisted in the Premier’s Awards it wasn’t her turn that year. Ahead she sees history and fame, he sees money. Incredibly they learn the man responsible for “stealing” him is still alive. They plan a meeting, a confrontation, as their phones secretly record everything. The calm, blind old man is innocently oblivious to modern language rules. His storytelling reaching into his desert past is Homeric and utterly uncompromising as he relates the story of a light-coloured kid persecuted, brutalised and abandoned to dingoes. The boy was signed away and saved in return for a bag of flour and a packet of smokes, and offered possibilities for lives he never chose to live.

The Tale of a Tale. At the heart of the play is a woman who lies. She is a simple good woman. She wants to do the right thing, and her lies lead to very bad things. There is a campaign, a local squabble in distant country community. It involves a historical Aboriginal massacre story. The woman is a local elder, a key part of the campaign, for she is the holder of the oral history which is the only evidence of the event. A university professor involved in the campaign becomes aware it is a fabrication. Yet as the story moves towards a public hearing he/she helps the woman recover ever clearer false memories, for he/she also wants to do the right thing. The lies are ripping the town apart. There is another character, a townsperson who sees what is happening and protests; a lonely and tragic figure. When the woman who lies finally gives her dishonest evidence it is as dramatic and stunning as prize-winning non-fiction in the Premier’s Awards, and surely suitable for reprinting in The Conversation—or is that where I read it?

The Best Man. Jonathan Lynn’s Comedy Rules holds the idea for a play and the 150 rules, helpfully listed in standout black type, needed to write it. The idea is rather revolutionary—male friendship, neither homo nor the degrading “bromance” the feminists invented to infantilise men. A Guardian reviewer of the new Ned Kelly opera in Perth sets the tone: “This Ned has the potential to become a transcendent stage figure, a deeper wellspring of flawed Australian masculinity—hero, myth or otherwise.” Keep that in mind, do precisely the opposite and you will have a good play. At the centre of the staging is Lynn’s account, from his book, of his friendship with Leonard Rossiter, who was a great actor and a difficult, touchy, cantankerous person to work with. Sensible though: “No Method shit here.” The two men slowly developed a friendship through their work. It is a story told without sentimentality.

Though he died nearly thirty years ago I still miss him. And I still wonder what really killed him. I believe it was all that anger which he couldn’t quite repress, and which made him so funny.

Find a great actor, not presently in court, and it could be a great performance.

The Man in Suede Shoes. Christmas morning fifteen years ago. A retired and always very famous politician and his wife and adult children are preparing for Christmas lunch. The family ritual is disturbed when the old man reveals he is flying overseas, to farewell the stones of Greece, on New Year’s Day. Going with him, for company and assistance, is a young man he has met in an internet chatroom. The family implode. The young man has been invited for lunch. Some interesting revelations about the 1930s when the ancient ones were young. For his children a too-familiar photo of their father, with youthful Robert Taylor good looks and looking smart in his flying uniform, takes on a changed importance when they look anew at the other man, also in uniform, standing beside him. They thought he was an uncle who died in Changi. Their mother’s knowing reaction is unexpected, to the children. The doorbell rings announcing the arrival of the young man; the curtain descends. When it rises it is Boxing Day morning. What follows is dark and serious reality with bright comedy of camp asides, teeth grinding and Coward wit—the House of Representatives circa 1975. Family confusion and old-age reflections by husband and wife on the personal prices paid for trading inconvenient sexuality for power. There is also the immediate problem: Will dad and new friend take a jet plane, jettison the conventional lies, or will he remain a Great Australian Icon spending his final days planning his state funeral? I can see the old man’s 1930s suede shoes and his tickets to Athens, but haven’t quite worked out his name.

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