Billy Maloney ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Billy Maloney

Billy Maloney by Bill Garner and Sue Gore, directed by Denis Moore, designed by Shaun Gurton, lighting by Nick Merrylees. With Don Bridges, Jim Daly and Ruth Schoenheimer. At North Melbourne Town Hall until December 10.

Billy Maloney left me cogitating about the connection between art and politics. This is a much more difficult question than it might appear to be in this play, which overtly sets out to celebrate the life of a fascinating early Melbourne radical and to rouse the audience to emulate his exemplary idealism. But in assuming that art can be unproblematically political, in the way that, say, a political rally is, I fear that Bill Garner and Sue Gore may have missed the point.

The play itself is a biopic of Dr William Maloney, a part of Australia's history that John Howard's government would prefer remained forgotten. MLA for West Melbourne from 1889 -1903, he was a dyed-in-the-wool progressive: an indefatigable campaigner for free speech and social justice, who introduced one of the first bills for female suffrage in the British Empire and organised the first May Day march. He was a medical reformer who founded the Medical Institute, which gave free health care to Melbourne's poor, and championed issues to do with women's health.

As an obstetrician, he was able to see first hand the consequences of women being unable to control their reproductive lives, and was a vocal supporter of Bessie Smyth, founder of the Australian Women's Suffrage Association and an early campaigner for women's health and contraception. The illegitimate son of a wealthy and unconventional woman, Jane Maloney, he also changed the legal definition of children born out of wedlock from "illegitimate" to "ex-nuptial".

But Maloney was much more than an earnest social campaigner. He was a colourful figure, a 19th century Melbourne Bohemian, who dressed like a Baudelairian flaneur. When he was in Paris, he attended Victor Hugo's funeral, and he corresponded with the 19th century Christian philosopher, art critic, artist, social critic and teacher John Ruskin.

Garner and Gore deal with what is clearly a complex life of commitment with a conceit: two historians, Ian (Jim Daly) and Jocelyn (Ruth Schoenheimer) are about to present a commemoration for Billy Maloney when, all of sudden, a foppishly dressed elderly gentleman - Bill Maloney (Don Bridges) himself - appears and insists on re-enacting crucial episodes in his life. Ian and Jocelyn play along, playing different parts as Maloney demands, doing various business with the audience, exhorting the audience to sing along, and so on.

I can't say that it's not entertaining - the quality of the performances from the fine cast and Denis Moore's sharp direction ensure that everything bounces along brightly. But the effect is rather like a cross between a Methodist meeting and Playschool; on the one hand, some heavy-handed, rather moralising underlining of the parallels between Maloney's time and ours, in case we didn't get them first time, and on the other a lot of "business" between the actors to set up the artifice ("It's your turn to play the Speaker!") . After a while I wondered why the audience - largely grey-haired and perhaps themselves refugees from the Old Left - didn't object to being treated like children.

This kind of theatre stems from the nationalistic idealism of the '70s, including the rather sentimentalised idea of a knockabout larrikin Australian rebel, eccentric and quixotic and deeply warm hearted, a truly Bob Hawke-ian "man of the people". The form - schematic biographical sketches, overtly theatrical and quasi-Brechtian - echoes a play I saw in 1989 at The Church (which in fact starred Denis Moore in the title role), Essington Lewis: I am Work; and it has the same kinds of problems. While I am all for the invoking of cultural memory that this work embodies, and my political sympathies are all with the subject matter, I had a great deal of difficulty with its approach to theatrical form.

I am no expert on Billy Maloney, but allusions to Goethe, Hugo and Ruskin suggest an aesthetic component to his idealism that the script barely touches on. And it made me wonder how much Maloney's achievements and - perhaps - contradictions are diminished by an infantalising aesthetic which panders to a fear of an audience being bored by anything too "serious" or too depressing. There are, for example, asides about the kinds of poverty which Maloney encountered and which no doubt radicalised him, but they are no more than hints. There are gestures towards the kind of intellectual idealism Maloney seems to have embraced, but again, nothing too difficult.

The issue goes deeper than a question of emphasis. Maloney several times quotes "There is no wealth but life!", which comes from John Ruskin's series of essays on Political Economy: "There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its powers of love, of joy, and of admiration..." These essays are in part a discussion of value, which Ruskin anthropocentrically concludes "is the life-giving power of anything": which in effect means that true value is not monetary but aesthetic.

This places aesthetic squarely as a political and economic issue, and also suggests that politics is, in part, a question of aesthetic. The true utopian asks not only for bread and water, but demands nourishment for the soul. And while Billy Maloney fulfils one of Ruskin's demands of a work of art - that it "preserve and communicate the knowledge of facts" - its text barely scrapes the surface of the other, which is to excite "vital or noble emotion and intellectual action". There are moments - a quote from Victor Hugo about freedom, or a wonderful image of Maloney as Don Quixote - which teasingly suggest what might have been possible but, for the most part, we stick with the comedy. The profounder possibilities of art or, indeed, of politics, are assiduously avoided in favour of a cosy and nostalgic sense of togetherness.

I recall that rebarbative English playwright, Howard Barker, and his fulminations against this kind of liberal, humanistic theatre: "There is great safety and security to be enjoyed in the exchange of conscience-ridden observations, affirmations of shared values, humanistic platitudes," writes Barker. "But the stage remains essentially sterile." There is none of Brecht's alienation, which is the challenge to think, here. Brecht, the political playwright par examplar, was never afraid of stirring the emotions of his audience ("Get them by the balls and their hearts will follow"). And being unfairly gifted, he was also a great poet, and a great deal of the potency of his plays lies in their tough poetic.

Fresh from a marvellous performance of Brecht's Mother Courage in LA, it's hard not to compare the devastating effect of his essay on war in the context of contemporary politics with the exhortation to a singalong that is the main affect in Billy Maloney, and not to conclude that Brecht has the more radicalising effect. On the one hand, a heartwarming affirmation: on the other, heartbreaking and pitiless analysis of hard realities. One shouldn't abuse Gore and Garner for not being Brecht - nobody but Brecht is Brecht - but theatre should be more than a history lesson. I can't but wish for a deeper faith in the possibilities of theatre than was on show in this play.

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