The Williamson Syndrome ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Williamson Syndrome

So, David Williamson has announced he's retiring: it's time, he tells us, that he made way for new blood. And naturally, the tributes are dutifully rolling in. I have been reading so many nice words about David Williamson that I feel a bit misanthropic. It's not that I have any personal animus against the man; I wish him only the best in his new, stress-free life in Noosa. Neither do I believe that Williamson's plays shouldn't be done: he has an audience, and they have every right to see his plays. What gives me a pain in the cerebellum is the broad implication that Williamson is Australia's most important playwright, and if only those nasty critics would leave him alone, why, he might even be Chekhov.

Williamson is not, by a long shot, Australia's most important playwright. He isn't a patch, for example, on Patrick White, and he has never matched the craft of Peter Kenna's or Richard Beynon's plays, nor the imagination of Dorothy Hewett's. Every time I pick up one of his scripts, I am amazed afresh at how badly written it is. Since Travelling North, his last decent play, Williamson has churned out a series of formulaic duds: he picks a topic out of the newspaper headlines, and then fashions a drama around it which includes the usual set of vaguely glamorous middle class characters - journalists, footballers, socialites - who look at paintings and say things like "That's an Arthur Boyd, isn't it?", in between cracking an endless series of one-liners. Any subtext is usually worn on the outside, like Superman's underpants. When I watch stuff like this, I get a numb patch in the middle of my brain, about where the third eye is supposed to be. I think it's called boredom.

None of this would matter if people came clean and didn't try to pretend Williamson was writing great theatre. Williamson writes commercial plays, pure and simple, and his barometer of success is their popularity. This is not in itself a problem, or it wouldn't be if Australia had a healthy commercial theatre sector and a subsidised theatre which was funded sufficiently to pursue a truly artistic agenda. It is a problem when Williamson is placed in the same category as Chekhov and Shakespeare and when, to survive at all, our subsidised theatres are forced to program commercial plays.

Aubrey Mellor, artistic director of Playbox Theatre, compares Williamson to Chekhov; as indeed, Williamson does himself. Mellor says this is because Williamson has "a kind of humanism and genuine curiosity about people". I can walk down to the local supermarket and meet any number of humane, curious people, but this doesn't make them Anton Chekhov. Chekhov is a great playwright because (as reading his exquisite short stories confirms) he is, in the first place, a great writer: formally curious, subtle, perceptive, with a kind of lyrical wit which can blaze suddenly into moments of extraordinary passion. And crucially, behind all Chekhov's comedy is the consciousness of a tragedian.

David Williamson, on the other hand, is a journalist of the theatre, and his oeuvre is by no means tragic. He writes popular plays which aim to chronicle "relevant" issues and to present a middle class audience with reflections of themselves. When you compare Williamson's theatre to the equivalent writers elsewhere (the English playwright Alan Ayckbourne, for example, or Stephen Sondheim) the poverties of his writing become absolutely clear. Ayckbourne is a popular playwright with sufficient skill to sometimes write a genuinely interesting play. Williamson has never matched Ayckbourne's technical wit in, for example, the intricate structure of The Norman Conquests, nor the adventurous formality of A Woman in Mind, a dark theatrical exploration of mental illness. This is because, for at least the past decade, Williamson's theatrical world has taken its values almost wholly from the mass media: the factual issues-based universe of current affairs and the aesthetic of television naturalism.

This is one reason his plays are so popular: the conventions are as familiar to us as our own lounge rooms. Williamson's plays fulfil perfectly Peter Brook's famous definition of "the deadly theatre". They are examples of extremely conservative, even reactionary, theatre which challenges nothing; despite its claims to grapple with contemporary issues, its outcome is merely to confirm all the middle class values it represents.

The fact that our major theatres are funded so poorly explains why Williamson is a fixture on our subsidised stages. The MTC receives only 15 per cent of its funding from government sources, which leaves 85 per cent of its budget to be raised by box office and sponsorship. In 1996, the most recent figures I could find, the comparable flagship companies in France, the National Theatres, received 73 per cent of their funding from the State, 21 per cent through the box office and the remaining six per cent from other sales. (This doesn't count other indirect forms of funding, like the unemployment benefits for itinerant workers. The Chirac Government's decision to cut back these benefits, which take into account the seasonal nature of their work and is a major resource for French performing arts, has caused rolling strikes by arts workers across France over the past year, that among other things forced the cancellation of last year's Avignon Festival. Such activism is as impossible to imagine here as the existence of such funding in the first place.)

But even conservative governments in France acknowledge the central importance of culture, and French artists, true to their revolutionary tradition, are prepared to go to the barricades to defend it. In Australia, the very assumption that culture matters beyond its economic value has to be fought for, and for the past decade the arts have been losing badly. Hence the dilemmas faced by our major companies. Williamson brings in crowds, and the big theatres need hits; they can't afford to operate without them. Williamson is a commodity, and he has been - in Australia, if not elsewhere - an extremely successful commodity. But what is important about art is precisely what can't be commodified, and under the dominance of the Williamson aesthetic it has become much harder to argue for that non-commodifiable, indefinable, essential factor.

Because the big state companies which mount Williamson's plays are subsidised, they have to maintain the fiction that somehow his works contribute to Australia's cultural richness. My view is that for many years his work has done precisely the reverse, that Wiliamson has contributed to the creation of an orthodoxy of Australian theatre which is stiflingly narrow, to conventions which owe more to television naturalism than any theatrical tradition or innovation, to an ersatz convention of social critique which in fact challenges nothing. The terms in which theatre is discussed are those which fit Williamson's aesthetic; the diverse, unruly universe of theatrical form is divided neatly into two - "naturalism" and "non-naturalism" - and plays are judged by their "relevance" and "topicality". Words like "beauty" or "imagination" are off the agenda. You get the idea that they might even be considered embarrassing.

Once upon a time, Williamson's plays would have been, rightly, the province of commercial stages. When our subsidised theatres began to produce commercial plays that were previously put on by companies like Hocking and Woods, it signalled the beginning of a new era of conservatism in Australian theatre. For one thing, independent play producers could not compete with the funding of subsidised theatres, and disappeared: now commercial theatre is almost solely the province of musicals. And more crucially, the space for innovative theatre on our subsidised stages has grown more and more restricted. In New York, the ontological theatre of the bizarre Richard Foreman, or the Wooster Group, are so famous to be practically regarded as mainstream; in Paris, Ariane Mnouchkine and Peter Brook work on main stages; in English theatre, which has lost the lustre it possessed in the '60s and '70s, you can still point to Sarah Kane. The only Melbourne director with anything like that stature of innovation, Barrie Kosky, is now working in Vienna. When a mildly experimental play by a writer like Harold Pinter is dismissed by a major company as a "fringe play", as happened a few years ago, you know you're in trouble - if even Pinter's recent work hasn't a chance of being performed on a big stage with major resources, what chance is there for any of our young, innovative theatre artists?

To be fair, this is hardly Williamson's fault; his dominance is not a cause, but a symptom of a much deeper malaise in the Australian arts. A large part of this problem is simply financial. I am all for the arts having economic recognition (ie, artists being paid). I agree that arts companies ought to be fiscally savvy and that, if they are to be given public money, they need to be accountable. But while they are important, those pragmatic considerations, it seems to me, should serve the arts. Most often, it seems to work the other way around. The arts are considered to have utility value, as educational aids, as employers, as tourism promoters, as generators of economic exchange. But the idea of the value of the arts as an expression of human imagination and intellect, as a vital arena of human activity which challenges and questions received realities, seems to have disappeared almost entirely.

Part of the problem resides in the issues of what form public accountability ought to take, and what arts advocacy might be; and these are genuinely vexed questions. I can remember when people started talking about the "arts industry", back in the early '90s. I thought at the time it was a harbinger of doom. The argument used to lobby for arts funding was almost exclusively economic: the arts created employment, generated tourism, and so on. (There was, I think, a little discussion about social capital.) This focus seems to have modelled almost all subsequent advocacy for the arts. And what we have created is a monster, to which all the arts must now pay tribute: the arts industry is here to stay, and arts companies are expected to function like other economic entities, and to justify their existences by making a profit for their "stakeholders". As the former Arts Minister Richard Alston breezily said in connection with yet another review of cultural funding aimed at cutting it back yet again, "You've got to look at results." Alston makes clear that he means financial results. It is more than a tired truism that in these terms, much of the most significant art of the past three centuries - from Paradise Lost to Madame Butterfly to Ulysses - failed dismally on its first appearance. This is not to say that great art and commercial success are mutually exclusive; Shakespeare is a case in point. But more often than not, artistic triumph does not translate to instant commercial success; that's why we have arts funding in the first place.

Cutting arts funding is most often censorship by stealth; it was one of the policies, for example, of Ceaucesu's totalitarian regime in Romania. Ceaucesu whittled away the funding of the eminent Bulandra Company by 90 per cent, a more effective way of stifling its voice than even the extensive censorship to which it was subjected. Ceaucesu did not dare to ban Shakespeare, despite the fact that his plays were staged as expressions of revolutionary freedom, but he could easily deprive the company of the resources to stage him. The Howard Government's campaign against the arts is the same mechanism under less extreme circumstances and, as our rights are gradually cut back under the pressures of the "war on terror", these issues go to the heart of our democratic freedoms. It is worth remembering here that cultural rights are enshrined as basic human rights under Article 27 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that the UN notes the responsibility of the State to "respect the freedom indispensible for scientific and creative activity" and to promote "the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture".

Given its devastating impact on these ideals, it is not surprising that the idea of the "arts industry" has been attacked recently by several eminent Australians, including Donald Horne. Horne says the "economisation of culture" is a fundamentalist creed. "It's not supported by public stonings or beheadings but its effect can be pretty ruthless," he said in a speech in 2002. "It's the kind of language that turns our society into 'the economy', our citizens into 'the consumers' and our public funds into 'taxpayers' money'." He described the phrase "the arts industry" and the adoption by arts advocates of the vogue-ish terminology of the markets as a Trojan horse. "How is it," he asks, "that people concerned with speaking up for 'the arts' and other cultural activities have been reduced to that kind of twaddle?"

Twaddle it is. But as long as theatres are forced into the kind of doublethink which requires them to talk up David Williamson as a major artist, as long as commercial values masquerade as tacit synonyms for artistic significance, there will be no change. What happens when "popular" is conflated with "good" is that you get the worst of both worlds: serious art loses its nerve before the exigencies of the "bottom line", and commercial art puffs itself up with pretensions to an artistic significance it does not possess. In this falsity, both lose their focus and vitality. Everyone is cheated - audiences, theatre companies and, perhaps most sadly, the artists themselves.


Fund artists, not buildings - The Age
Funding in the spotlight - The Age


Casey B said...

It's odd that this piece hasn't attracted more notice, so let me be the first to throw my two cents in here: spot on, Alison.

My excursions into mainstream theatre have become less and less frequent; indeed, I don't think I've attended anything at the Arts Centre since "Masterclass", and that's a couple of years ago now. Part of the reason for that is the inevitable build-up and disappointment associated with seeing "the new Williamson".

I'm not pinning it all on David, understand; most of the problem was in the hushed tones that preceded any season of, let's say, "Dead White Males", "Brilliant Lies", "Sons Of Cain" etc. The MTC would lead you to expect enchantment, and what you'd get is a succession of pat two-dimensional characters designed to fit around the plot; a long way from the subtleties of "Travelling North" and many miles from the sustained darkness of "The Removalists" all those years ago.

David Williamson's recent plays are the theatrical equivalent of "Blue Heelers". That's not necessarily a bad thing - hey, folks *like* "Blue Heelers"! - but it's exactly the kind of playwriting from which you would retire "to make way for new blood"; if you haven't got anything important left to say, it's probably best not to waste the space.

With this in mind... bye.

Nazid Suburban Sufi said...

Hi Alison,
Can't argue too much with your assessment (especially since I'm not as well versed in contemporary theatre as your good self), but I also see this from another 'wavelength' I guess. The increasing commodification of culture seems tied to many other socio/cultural occurrences. Neo-Liberal co-opting of culture as utilitarian (is it useful syndrome) I feel only reflects the increasing marginalization of language itself - which for me equates to poetry and the status of the poet in a society. Do people buy poetry books? Do we go to readings? That is, do we partake in the preservation and cultivation of language? I know this is a theatre blog, but I feel the subjects interwtine and you quite often speak of the 'poetry' or poetic attributes of theatre. I'm not an expert on French culture but the 'activism' you describe might be part of how serious the French take their language - perhaps intuitively connect it with the culture and its vitality.
From my own background I can say that in Pre-Islamic and even early Islamic/Arab culture, the poet was central, language was sacred. In fact when one tribe went to battle another, on the front lines were poets! Yes, the poet was the main armament and could virtually 'kill' an opponent with the beautifully worded insult. I'm not advocating the enlisting of poets on the 'war on terror' but you get my drift.
I think Alison you spoke about it in your review of Brian Friels work, that the destruction or subjugation of language, is an attempt to destroy a culture - just look at current day Palestine (or anywhere colonisation took place)what am I getting at? Well you mentioned the avoidance of 'beauty' - in the current climate and thats spot on, generally the love of language and the poetic 'reality', has been eroded somehow, the Ahhh... moment when the veil is lifted from the humdrum has been given an admission we expect the pay off without investing in it - either culturally or economically.