Review: Don Parties On ~ theatre notes

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Don Parties On

Every time David Williamson writes a new play, the Australian theatre world launches into one of its favourite games. It goes like this.

There's a flurry of pre-publicity in which we hear, again, that Williamson is our best-selling playwright, a "national myth-maker" who takes the pulse of our times and touches the receptive hearts of the masses. We hear that "the critics" are unkind and out of touch with ordinary folk, and that the only reason people dislike his plays is because he's too popular. We hear that the theatre world is continually chanting that "you can't have naturalism on stage". Preferably, somewhere in the middle of this, someone mentions Barrie Kosky.

Then a good chunk of the theatre community gets dressed up to the nines and heads off to the premiere. The play occurs. Some people laugh. Some people leave at interval. A sizeable proportion of the audience applauds rapturously. Another sizeable proportion emerges in various states of crankiness and flees for a debriefing session over a stiff drink.

Then the fun begins. Some critic, bristling with righteous fury, writes a slashing review of the Williamson phenomenon. Said critic is in turn accused of general nastiness, humourlessness and elitism. Williamson fans point once again to the box office. Various right wing pundits weigh in to opine about Williamson's leftiness. Various left wing pundits complain about his lack of leftiness. Someone (often it's me) says something plaintive about art. And everyone, his or her expectations satisfyingly met, has a marvellous time.

Lather, rinse and repeat.

So it is with Don Parties On, the sequel to Williamson's 1970s mega-hit Don's Party, which opened at the Melbourne Theatre Company last Thursday. And here's my contribution to this particular circle of Hell.

In Don's Party: The Sequel we meet the central characters from the first play 40 years on, as they gather around Kerry O'Brien for the ABC telecast of the 2010 election. As Williamson says in his program note, he's doing a Seven Up on his fictional characters. Baby Richard (Darren Gilshenan) is now a Generation X advertising executive with marital problems. Don (Garry McDonald) is still married to Kath (Tracy Mann), who brings up a decades-old infidelity every two minutes or so. We hear that Don finally did write his novel, which sank like a stone after offending all his friends, and is the cue for some self-referential jokes about commercial writing not being proper art.

Don's mentor Mal (Robert Grubb) and his sharp-tongued wife Jenny (Sue Jones) have divorced, and Jenny has subsequently built a political career. Cooley (Frankie J. Holden), as lascivious as ever, has turned into an obscenely rich right wing lawyer with emphysema, and is married to a patient woman with a social conscience, Helen (Diane Craig). There's a sententious grand daughter, Belle (Georgia Flood), who watches Twilight DVDs and calls herself a Greenie, and Richard's lover Roberta (Nikki Shiels), a redhead whose histrionics are apparently explained by her Italian genes.

At the beginning of the play, Don and Kath are, once again, preparing tidbits for an election night party. Mal turns up early and asks Jenny along, to Don and Kath's dismay, as they haven't spoken for decades after a disagreement about Twisties. Meanwhile there is much rhubarb about Richard, who has left his wife for Another Woman. Richard's daughter Belle is displeased. Richard's wife makes a suicide attempt and ends up in hospital, and is promptly forgotten until the end of the play. Cooley turns up with an oxygen bottle and mask and his wife Helen, and lusts after the grand daughter until he has to put on his oxygen mask.

The actors watch 30 seconds of Kerry O'Brien and then mute the tv for some expository dialogue about the good old/bad old days. There are in-jokey references to Play No. 1. Richard turns up and makes the entire audience wonder how a whiny, hysterical boy-man could possibly be holding down a mega-buck job in advertising. There are revelations, a couple of heart-unwrenching confessions and some reheated scandal. Belle overhears it all and is displeased. Richard's lover turns up in high heels and low-cut dress and has conniptions. Belle is displeased again. And so on. And on.

Well, I practically went to sleep writing that. Williamson's great gift is that he is incapable of surprise. He is at once so popular and so reviled because he knows exactly how to meet the expectations of his audiences. It creates a dilemma for me, because I hate repeating myself; so forgive me for pointing to some earlier essays. In 2004, when Williamson announced his retirement, I wrote an essay on the Williamson phenomenon which basically sums up my responses to his work. You might also be interested in my review of Peter Evans's sparky production of Don's Party for the MTC in 2007, which incidentally features the same designers and the same set - for this production, Dale Ferguson's hyper-real evocation of a 1970s Lower Plenty house is updated to 2010.

In the 2004 piece, I discussed how troubling it is that state theatre companies, forced to make commercial decisions by their financial bottom lines, are so anxious to bruit Williamson as not only a best-selling playwright - which he undoubtedly is - but as a great playwright - which he emphatically is not. Harry Kippax did Australian theatre no favours at all when he compared Williamson to Chekhov. And this claim to artistic quality is my beef about Williamson, although the beef is smaller these days.

One of the things that seems clear in this round of the Williamson Game is that the theatrical conversation has shifted markedly. For instance, it seems (even more) ridiculous to claim that naturalism isn't allowed, when so many young companies are exploring it themselves. And I can't get too exercised about state companies making commercial decisions, given the paucity of their subsidies; although it could be I'm just tired of the argument. And really, who cares? Nobody said that people will be shot if they like going to Williamson plays. Some people merely objected when Williamson was promoted as the ne plus ultra of Australian theatre.

Recently, some defenders of the Williamson oeuvre have begun to say that Williamson is not a naturalistic playwright, a la Chekhov or Ibsen, but more a playwright of heightened social satire, a crafter of comedies of manners. This is in fact a much more accurate placing of his work, but it means that one has to assess him in the company of Sheridan or Feydeau or his contemporary Alan Ayckbourn, all masters of stage business. One of the things that has puzzled me for years about Williamson's reputation is that he is such an inept theatrical technician. Popular, as these other playwrights demonstrate, doesn't have to mean bad; but in the Dan Brown-Charles Dickens continuum, Williamson is definitely thumping the tan.

In Don Parties On, all his writerly clumsiness is writ large - the dire expository dialogue, the stereotypical characters, the almost neurotic repetitiveness, the constant machinations of getting people on and off stage. Much of the dialogue - the pronouncements on baby boomers, greenies, Australian politics and so on - in fact sounds as if it's been cribbed from some of Australia's more active political blogs. The people-moving is about as clunkily done as I've seen - characters are constantly announcing that now they must go into the garden to show each other photographs of their children, or to the bedroom to check on someone hysterical, or to the study to watch a DVD, so that two or three people can be left on stage to reminisce or reveal something shocking. Alternatively, you get rows of frozen actors standing on stage watching as two or three others do their dialogue.

Robyn Nevin's direction makes as decent a fist as is possible of this stylistic rubble - I left feeling that it could have been a lot worse. The actors fail to make the characters credible, but it's hard to blame them given that they are all written as walking cliches; although Sue Jones gives some feisty life to the character of Jenny. But for me, there was no escaping the creeping numbness as the evening wore on.

Naturalism this certainly isn't. Considered as a comedy of manners, it lacks the grace, wit and formal mastery that gives the form its champagne fizz. A direct comparison with Don's Party starkly demonstrates how stale Williamson has become: the lively colloquialism of the original, its chief virtue, has long leached out. This really is zombie theatre, devouring the brains, not only of its audience, but of its own playwright.

Yes, some people love it. The guy next to me, for instance, was having a super time: he kept up a running commentary and walked out happily humming the Credence Clearwater Revival song that is the subject of one of the running gags. As always with Williamson plays, it will continue to please those who like his work and annoy everybody else. He's still making the box office go ka-ching, and as long as people keep buying tickets, companies will keep programming his work. And there it is.

Picture: Don Parties On. Top row, l-r: Frankie J. Holden, Garry McDonald. Bottom row: Sue Jones, Diane Criag and Tracy Mann. Photo: Jeff Busby

Don Parties On, by David Williamson, directed by Robyn Nevin. Set by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Matt Scott, sound by Russell Goldsmith, costumes by Jennifer Irwin. With Diane Craig, Georgia Flood, Darren Gilshenan, Robert Grubb, Frankie J. Holden, Sue Jones, Garry McDonald, Tracy Mann and Nikki Shiels. Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until March 8.


Anonymous said...

While he definitely ain't Chekhov, there is something tragically Chekhovian about his career, his striving for an immortality that's not going to happen. One feels rather melancholy for him.

9fragments - ClareJStrahan said...

Thoughtful review, thanks. I am always confused about what is really meant by 'naturalism' in theatre, given the circumstance of space, audience, 'suspension of disbelief' etc ... especially in relation to Chekhov & Ibsen. I have been in a production of The Cherry Orchard (directed by Suzanne Kersten from indie company "One step at a time like this") and the text's 'natural' complexity of character, relationships and subtext did not necessarily lead us to a 'fourth wall' naturalism. Those playwrights were breaking new ground despite the then popular melodramatic style. I remember studying David Williamson's The Club at school and much of its press and appeal was the colloquialism and the 'guts' to speak of (then) taboos. Perhaps that's the connection?
Alas - sequels are rarely pleasing...

Boris Kelly said...

Couldn't have said it better. I had no intention of seeing the play but if I had seen it I know I would agree completely with your review, AC.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, EP, that has a painful sting of truth.

9Fragments, naturalism and realism in theatre have long and contested histories. It was originally picked up from from the 19C novelists and was a an aesthetically and politically radical form (it still can be - check out reviews here of Tom Fool or The Nest). However, its contemporary usage (in relation to DW anyway) most often refers to television naturalism, which is kind of a debased version without the poetry.

Boris, you're naughty

Boris Kelly said...

Well, when I hear the word "Williamson" I tend to reach for tomato. Difficult habit to break.

Anonymous said...

I always imagined it spelt 'ker-ching'

That is my contribution.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Boris. A messy habit, too, I imagine...

Anon, the OED isn't very authoritative on this question. So I guess we can make like Chaucer and spell it how we like.

9fragments - ClareJStrahan said...

Ah, 'Neighbours' and the like: no reality I've ever experienced! The delicious history of theatre - contentious conceptual boxes 'realism' 'naturalism' 'art' 'ker-ching'

Alison Croggon said...

None of that stuff in literature, of course. (Neighbours, I mean). (Or is there?)

9fragments - ClareJStrahan said...

Please note: the 9fragments commenting here is Clare J Strahan and not connected with the theatre production 'Sappho in 9 Fragments. Thanks.

William said...

Hi all, long time reader, but first time poster.

I suffered through Don Parties On last monday and second your review entirely, it was the most mind-numbingly dull piece of theatre I've ever seen, although I did . The thing which hit me most is David Williamson's inability to capture a young character. As a 17-year-old, I felt that Belle was an alien disguised as a teenager, trying to hide the fact that the alien underneath understood little of the modern teenager. Not because of the actress, Georgia Flood performance did the best with the play, rather the writing. The verbal structures that Williamson gave to her and the lexical choices he made were painful and inaccurate. The way she expressed herself and the things she said were merely condescending of our age group and showed a lack of care in the construction of the play (although I realised that seems to apply to all his plays after seeing Let the Sunshine). For example, his comment that any 15-year-old boy would do anything for a hand job from an attractive girl is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

One of Don's comments towards the end of the play is that hope for the future lies in the younger generations, but the treatment of Belle would offend more than empower those of our generation. Including those who are active in the environmental movement, such as those who are active in groups like the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). One can be reasonably sure that as the next generation of theatre-goers continues to grow, Williamson's so-called (rather, questionable) ability to capture Australian vernacular and the views of an era will be outdated and his relevancy to the theatre cease. It will certainly be interesting whether Simon Phillips' successor will preserve the MTC's fondness for Williamson's work.

Does anyone of the age group of Roberta or Richard feel the same way about how he tries to write for those generations?

Alison Croggon said...

Hi William

Great to hear your perspective. And given Williamson's stated intention - to create characters that "remind them of somebody they know" - it's interesting to consider this aspect of it.

I don't have a lot of time for generational generalisations, as I've said before: I think they lead to egregious and misleading bullshit, such as is seen in this play. But to take it by its own measure, I'm a Gen X person, and for me the "disguised alien" description works as well for my age group as yours. Certainly I've never met anyone like Roberta and Richard, and hope I never do, though perhaps I've led a sheltered life. What they do seem to be, and perhaps this is its insulting edge, is representations of what Williamson thinks people my age are.

Sadly for me, if not for them, my kids are too savvy to accompany me to Williamson plays. But if they did, I've no doubt they would find the character of Belle as ridiculous as you do. (And yes, the observation about the 15yo boy is worth taking umbrage at.)

As a side note, I find it striking that in both Don's Party and Don Parties On, the least likeable character of the whole lot is a woman artist. Worse, they're actually different characters. I don't want to speculate why that might be so.

What unarguable is that Belle, Roberta and Richard are by far the most caricatured of all the characters in the play. I don't know what that means for the "people like us" aspect of the Williamson equation, because the Boomer generalisations don't work for me either. Maybe I had the wrong sort of upbringing.

Anonymous said...

As a young person, I'd like to say that I found Williamson's depiction of the youth of today entirely accurately.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch my 'Twilight' DVDs while my girlfriend gives me a handjob.

William said...

I get the feeling that the boomer generation would not be insulted by the way Williamson draws their characters.

Being the first monday after the opening, the show was followed by a forum (though with Aidan Fennessy sitting in for Robyn Nevin who would have been receiving what was a very well deserved award for Long Day's Journey Into Night). Such a forum lacks Tony Jones to recite his catchphrase as the legions of Williamson fans consistently raised their hands not to ask a question, but declare their love for the play. Each one of these being followed by another unnecessary round of applause

The pertinent comment was that Don Parties On was such a tremendously good play that it was considered better than Don's Party (this comment then received a particularly hearty secondment of applause and "oh yes" from the audience). I'd assume that this indicates they take no offence in the way they are portrayed, although I don't see what the men would find inspiring, they are all portrayed as either failures (Don and Mal) or heartless — from the two Williamson plays I've seen (this and Let the Sunshine), it's obvious that any Liberal voter has to be selfish and greedy.

And for pure entertainment's sake, I'l relay that there was the jab at yourself and fellow critics (part of the inevitable cycle). When asked why there was such a gap between the audience reaction and the critical reaction, the cast responded by saying how wonderful the audiences had been since opening. They then moved on to state that the critics didn't try to enjoy it and that the critics "don't get it".

I assume that this "not getting it" applies to myself and the minority of the audience who didn't enjoy or appreciate the piece. Then again I don't think "not getting" a play which is quite obviously a commercial piece is anything that I feel disappointed about.

The cycle of events that occurs when a Williamson play runs is in some ways represented in the plays themselves. Don Parties On seemed to be this monotonous repetition of scenes each one the same as the last: silly excuses to leave the room, Don speaking one-on-one to a different friend in front of the kitchen, watching ten seconds from the broadcast and then making essentially the same comment about how the ALP has failed and the vision has been lost. Though I doubt that Williamson is capable of referencing himself with such complexity. The feeling I got from Don Watson's Party in the Wharf Revue was that every Williamson play is characterised by such repetitions.

It's interesting too that Jason Whittaker's post on Crikey has not drawn Williamson into the debate. Are we heading for a future where online discussion between playwright and audience are a necessity...

And apologies if this has already come up, but my computer seems to tell me that despite hitting a publish button, it has not, if it has, feel free to delete the second iteration. Id' rather not look like a Williamson play

Anonymous said...

Actually William, if you have another look at Whittaker's post you'll see Williamson's now posted quite a few comments: starting at

Whether they contribute any more to the debate, I'll leave others to decide.

William said...

Sorry, I meant to type:
It's interesting too that Jason Whittaker's post on Crikey has now drawn Williamson into the debate

Apologies for any misconceptions this has created

Anonymous said...

"from the two Williamson plays I've seen (this and Let the Sunshine), it's obvious that any Liberal voter has to be selfish and greedy."


L said...

I've done quite a bit of Williamson sneering myself over the years, and agree with Alison's excellent description of the cycle that greets each play. However having been to Don Parties On with a 20-something friend (I'm in the boomer category), I do think the criticisms here are too harsh. For a start I would like to see a more extended comparison of Williamson with Ayckbourn, which I think is a much more apt comparison than Chekhov et al. Some of Ayckbourn's better plays (such as Absurd Person Singular) really nail the comedy/sadness well, and it is a mistake to judge the characters mainly in terms of how rounded they are, or how identical they are with our friends. The relationship is more to television sit com, and I know a lot of we regular theatre-goers are not fans of that, but sometimes we allow exceptions for one or two. The point is to amuse and get laughs, but at the same time to also show some elements of what is poignant or important to the kinds of people there. And merry-go-round relationships and infidelities are a big part of the genre. I agree that Don Parties On is not a perfect play, and it was slow to get going. But to my mind it had fewer of the clunky one-liners that sometimes over-litter other Williamson plays. I also do agree that it is better on the boomer characters than the others - Belle and Richard in particular were embarrassing. (Roberta however I think worked as a comedy caricature.) With the boomer characters what I thought this got was the yearnings about relationships they had got wrong. and I thought Sue Jones was terrific.

Richard Pettifer said...

An entertaining review, Alison, (under the circumstances).

`Then you keep moving round, I suppose?' said Alice.

`Exactly so,' said the Hatter: `as the things get used up.'

`But what happens when you come to the beginning again?' Alice ventured to ask.

`Suppose we change the subject,' the March Hare interrupted, yawning. `I'm getting tired of this'

Alison Croggon said...

4Conffins, you are teh funz. We must be running out of plates soon...

L, thanks for your comment. I do think if you took the scripts of Don Parties On and, say, The Norman Conquests, and read them side by side, you would notice how a clever playwright can hide his seams.

Unknown said...

There is a knock-down-drag-out about this going on over at Crikey right now. Including some great posts by the playwright. Highly recommended!

Alison Croggon said...

There is indeed (live link here. And Williamson has also posted a defence here, although that is only open to subscribers.

Lively, indeed. But mainly fascinating in the way that car crash reality tv is. DW has compared himself now to Euripides, Aeschylus, Bach and Shakespeare. That's probably enough to be going on with...

Richard Pettifer said...

Oooooo, just read Crikey discussion!!!!!

A man very much "of his time" and in beautiful crisis about it. His responses are loaded with (fascinating!) contradictions.

In amongst all of the horrible car crash there was a politic about the Baby Boomer generation, and I think unfortunately for David he will go down as captain of this ship rather than rescuing anyone from anything.

Jason's responses seemed fair enough given that DW is used as a whipping boy and political fodder since the 70s, so perhaps the worst he can be accused of is being uninventive.

Alison's is the sad comment because it suggests a circularity, which is surely not good for anyone, even my Dad who likes his routine very much but when you get the same satisfaction from theatre as you get from your nightly cup of tea something has gone wrong.

At least David is participating in a discussion with heaps of people he doesn't know with new ideas - surely a novelty thing, and might induce change???

"Don Parties On-line"

Complete the Triptych!! True revolution.

Greg said...

I like DW's writing style, it flows and bounces around the characters brilliantly. Some of the criticisms are valid but not terminal. The on/off stage merry-go-round was annoying and yes how could that nervous wreck of a son be a successful advertising exec. Cooley had no redeeming features. Same too with Mal but he had some funny lines. Jenny was the only character with emotional depth. The point though is that I had a good time and was entertained.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Greg - thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you were entertained. Myself, I've been much better entertained in that theatre. Horses for courses, as they say.

Alison Croggon said...

...and hi, 4 Coffins. "Don Parties On-line"... hur hur hur. Some twitter wit has suggested that Williamson is probably right now thinking about a play about bloggers and the interwebs. I can see the crass dichotomies looming already.

the scorpion said...

bring me that box office take any day. I mean you can make all sorts of backyard abortion art that perhaps breaks even, perhaps even on govt cash, but to actually make a profit, a serious profit, to be financially rewarded for the expense, the labour, the backbreaking soul searching game you play... well that is something.

Surely to be an artist is not to wallow in financial shit? Surely there has to be a place for artistic expression that is not the design on a softdrink label, but one where ideas and trains of thought are expressed in such a fashion that lead us to our own conclusions.

My conclusion therefore is that which I introduce this masterpiece of commentary with: Bring me the cash, show me the money!

Ker ching bada bing!

the scorpion

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Scorpion

In the absence of a utopian society, I am firmly in favour of being paid.

the scorpion said...

Scorpion says being paid is why we spend our lives pursuing it as a profession, and not just as something we do on the weekends.

Bring me the money and show me them old folk, handing it over in shovels full.

The conceit of this is brilliant - williamson has to be taking the piss, the controversy is fantastic, the old folk, old rich folk, fork over their hard earned to support him, and we all join in by bagging him out, which only raises the temperature and the bucks keep rolling on in.

Brilliant. Bloody brilliant. It's arts subsidy by subterfuge.


Alison Croggon said...

If Williamson were taking the piss, I might respect him more. There's no doubt he's a good publicist. But yes, you're more or less right.

Except that if being paid is all there is to it, why not become a banker?

the scorpion said...

because bankers are fuktards who offer nothing to the development of human civilisation.

I think it is because artists, like scientists, actually want to contribute to the way we operate as a civilisation. Contributing to the development of our species. Contributing to our reading of our place in this universe. I think it is because artists and scientists imagine this universe and our place in it, as something that matters.

Unlike religious zealots, worker drones, bankers and GP's. They merely wish to be a part of this life, contribute to the running of this life, but anything more than that they are as flotsam on the ocean of irrelevance.

Bankers therefore, are nothing. They are completely expendable.
Easily replaced.

An artist or a scientist, in pursuit on the other hand is entirely original. An explicitly finite thing.

Bankers are what an artist would therefore call a nothing. A dag on the arse of human civilisation. A disease and a pox.

To illustrate this, if you were to be stranded on an island, with two other people, would you choose an artist or a banker?

Alison Croggon said...

Re your last question, it would depend. There are some artists I would never want to be trapped on an island with. I mean, imagine building a log hut with Celine... And if, for example, I am admitted to emergency, I'd far rather have a GP examine me than a playwright. A doctor in a situation where you think you might die is very relevant indeed.

I don't think artists are superior to other people. In any way. They are people.

As for the development of human civilisation: one lives in hope.

scorpion said...

But a gp prescribes drugs and follows the manual. Plenty of them.

Two artists will imagine two challenges differently.

And by challenges I mean how do we make the sun exoplode and what does it mean?

An imagining of what has never before been imagined. Or imagined it can even be imagined.

The gp in that example looks within the common rules/knowledge/accepted wisdom to find a solution.

And Sarah Woods the burn specialist in WA is very much a scientist. A doctor would apply her skin graft technology, but a scientist actually imagines that technology.

No Alison. The artist is not a person, you are a person, expendable. But the mind you bring to the world and the consequences of that mind on our development as a species is absolutely singular and irreplaceable.

Alison meat on bone. Allison Croggon as an artist, a hope perhaps.

(now don't let me down!)

Alison Croggon said...

You can bring the same capacity for creativity (or the lack of it) to any human activity you care to name. Raising children. Solving climate change. Diagnosing illness. Writing a novel. Whatever. I respect it wherever I see it.

I also find it hard to draw a line between being a "person" and being a "mind". Same thing. And I get nervous when there's talk of people being "expendable".

(Can't I claim to be an artist already? All those books surely mean something.)

Casey Bennetto said...

the scorpion:

With such respect for 'artists', you seem surprisingly deaf to the sound of a bell tolling...

Casey Bennetto said...

actually the Scorpion reminds me of seeing Mandy Patinkin's masterclass at Adelaide Cab Festival a few years ago, in which he held forth that performers and artists had "an elevated understanding of the human condition". I think I threw up in my mouth a little then as well.

Alison Croggon said...

"Elevated understanding of the human condition". Gosh. I thought that phrase went out of fashion in 1910.

Richard Pettifer said...

Yeah Scorpio Alison's a bit of a poet, she writes heaps of shit about humanity, you might even say she has an elevated understanding of the human condition (by the way I think the human condition is "fucked", cynic that I am, and don't wanna understand nuthin no more).

Seriously though stop being such a pair of Aussies you two - we're the only country where that kind of elitism is frowned upon and it can be really useful motivating ideal, if impossible to actualise. Let's say I am Picasso, and churning out cubisms, which people like and it effects stuff, if it helps me to think I have an elevated understanding of the human condition, then that is the way I'll think, and whatever pretentiosness is the offshoot of that can be suffered as long as the art is good. For all we know the Scorpion is Jeff Koons.

A bitta ego never hurt anyone. Just look at David Williamson. He drives a European car! Stylish.

SMD said...

I want to hear from the bankers out there!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4 Coffins - just to disentangle a couple of thing: to say that artists are not inherently superior human beings with a superior understanding of The Human Condition - a classic position of 19C Romanticism - is not at all the same as dismissing art as a pretentious wank. I'm not sure that Picasso, for all his ambition and arrogance, would have agreed with the idea that the Artist is above everyone else.

I don't have a problem with elitism per se, in terms of distinguishing between qualities of work - what is this blog about, after all, but a continuous speculation about these distinctions? I do have a problem with the elitism that claims special virtue for particular classes of human beings, whoever they are.

I think it's particularly toxic for artists to cultivate that sense of superiority. Perhaps it's understandable in a culture that really doesn't value art, but it's deluded. I've seen real casualties from this idea. And what kind of ambition is it that depends for its sense of self-worth on saying everyone else is sub-human?

Richard Pettifer said...

Hi Alison - not sure I want to talk about this... just because something tells me you've been over it so many times before? Surely it bores you. But perhaps I'll learn something I usually do :)

My lady-friend was at MONA on Tuesday and she was excited about the gallery so I told her she should hunt David Walsh down and get him to hire her for curating or to get her work exhibited. She said she wasn't gonna do that (I think she thought I was an idiot) and after hanging up the phone I got a text from her saying "David Walsh was sitting across from me listening to the conversation. He had a T-Shirt with 'You know who I am' written on it. We had a chat."

I dunno... funny story? Funny that he was wearing the T-shirt. Ego coupled with a comment on Ego? Apparently he's like this - his curating reflects an attention-seeking personality. But returns me to my point - if his curating is good, who cares?


(Possible T-shirts along this line:

"I'm better than you because I'm an Artist"


"Art is the new Banking")

I can feel why you're taking the humanist line (and I do agree), but I also know there have been times for me when it has been ego that has aided progress, and I know I have become better since listening to my Narcissus rather than pushin it down.

These days I think a seperation from society in whatever form must be read as ironic for the same reasons you and Casey had a laugh about it and why I don't want to talk about it, it feels like a conversation from the 1910's or something. But it pays to understand the context in which Ego/Elitism (yes I am conflating them) occurs in Australia is one of Tall Poppies (dare I suggest Williamson here?) having the shreds torn off them - what a wonderful country it is, I do love it.

"Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not." - Picasso

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4 Coffins - no, it's interesting. Just that I ought to be doing something else.

I think you're conflating several different things here.

What I'm arguing is not so much humanist (although my inclinations are humanist, along an Edward Said line of critique). Thinking about this question, which I was this morning, it's more conditioned by the modernist revolt against humanism and Romantic ideas of art and the artist. I tend to assume notions of culture as embedded in society and economies rather than Arnoldian ideas of transcending the muck of life with ineffable truths.

I also suspect that this desire to fantasise that art is superior to other activities and makes an artist a special sort of sensitive flower comes from a nagging sense of art's uselessness. It's not surprising that some might overcompensate. I think there are more interesting ways to think about how art might matter.

I'm not saying that artists shouldn't have a lively sense of themselves. Perhaps it might be worth pondering the difference between self-belief and vanity. They are different things: vanity measures itself always by the estimation of others.

My speculations here have very little to do with the sport of cutting down Tall Poppies, which is another issue altogether. I don't dislike Williamson's work because he is a Tall Poppy, but because I don't think it is very good. David Malouf is also a Tall Poppy, but I think the man can write like an angel.

If you're thinking about Williamson's popularity in this context, mightn't it have something to do with how his plays demonstrate that ideals and ambitions are all just a wank, anyway? That can be very reassuring to some people.

Born Dancin' said...

Alison, I reckon you really, really nail it with your last paragraph there. I don't have a great problem with Williamson plays or their popularity or the continued programming of them, but my heart really sinks at the fatalism they allow, if not actively encourage.

Reading Williamson's comments over at Crikey really put my reaction in relief. He seemed to be arguing that Don Parties On is intended in part as an apology from his generation to later ones - the various characters make clear what an awful legacy they've bequeathed their children. In the same breath he bangs on about how age has allowed him more compassion, so these characters are written as ultimately forgivable.

This is where I raise a brow or two: can you apologise to someone and then decide that you've been forgiven? If Don Parties On challenges its older audience members for the mistakes they've made, it then reassures them that they're still good people and shouldn't go about feeling guilty or able to still make changes or anything.

I also get a bit miffed that it's only his hideous right-wing caricatures that get all the funny lines - his lefties are miserable and rarely draw the laughs from the audience, which might say something. You could argue that they're laughing *at* these people, but it often doesn't feel that way...

Preston Towers said...

I was in a production of Don's Party last year, produced by a community theatre group at the Parramatta Riverside. It struck me at the time that the play featured a lot of clunky lines, underwritten stereotypes, didactic political discussion and stilted emotional development. However, the (mostly) young cast breathed life and humanity into the lines I simply thought weren't there. It appears that this play, from the sounds, has similar difficulties.

The best moment for me was being pulled over by a couple of theatre goers who enjoyed our production more than the professional STC one 3 years earlier. Perhaps it was the warmth we brought to it, who knows. However, as a group, we are seeing this play during its Sydney run, to see how the characters have developed. Or not. As people who know the original so deeply and well, the group will bring a different perspective to those who see so many great plays from around the world, then goes back go a playwright who may well have seen better days. It will be intriguing.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi John - yes, quite. Particularly on the question of pre-emptive forgiveness. Quite aside from the absurdity and moral deafness of that, what perhaps grates more than anything is the entitlement and sense of aggrieved victimhood that goes with it. I can never quite get over it when I read DW's screeds; it's almost as astonishing as his so baldly comparing himself to Great Artists From The Past. Certainly, his self justifications are more offensive than his plays.

But I think you're right: the major reason why people flock to his plays - which happens to be the same reason they leave me cold, or worse than cold - is that they are reassuring. The world is legible - there is no point anywhere where you are in any doubt as to what is happening on stage (a major reason I suspect for those hammering repetitions) and ideas are drawn in sharp binaries, which acts as "conflict". The characters with whom his audience will identify (as opposed to the fall guys) are, for all their flaws, quite lovable really. Importantly, nothing really transforms on stage, and the world view with which the plays begins remains utterly unchallenged - nay reinforced - at the end. In every way - aesthetically, politically, morally - it's deeply conservative theatre.

Which is to say no more than has been said on many occasions, and about better writers than Williamson.

Hi Preston - a lively production can do a lot. And Don's Party has more liveliness than its sequel, I think. I'll be interested to see your responses.

the scorpion said...

casey you reference the sound of a bell tolling... perhaps I don't comprehend what you are trying to say in that comment, but for me this is interesting as it makes me think of church bells. Religions seem to exist to offer us a framework within which to understand life, is it any wonder they have such stunning architecture and works of art, music etc that stand the test of time?

"elevated understanding of the human condition" I think I would have puked too, either that or shat on a plate and served it to her... 'explain this at an elevated level beyond it being a plate of shit'. I am not saying an elevated understanding, I am saying the very place to imagine and attempt to even have that understanding...

the brain surgeon I would say, or the intensive care nurse, or the outreach worker, or the refugee camp guard or what have you would probably have a far greater elevated sense of understanding of the human condition. The mother with the sick child, the victim of something, the proud parent, the judge who sits

artists though make that striving quest, to understand the abysmal accident that shears off a leg or a limb or what have you. Not so much from a perspective of policy, but in understanding the event. The scientist develops ways to grow that leg back. The artist imagines the idea of growing it back in the first place.

creativity is art isn't it? I mean you can have the discussion about what is art, but its a moot point, it's what anyone who creates it considers as art. Yes doing the washing up in a certain fashion is therefore an act of creativity and thus an act of making art (but only if they consider it art of course!!!). That joy, that journey, that embellishment of what is otherwise a practical and necessary part of living is the facet of being an artist I am talking about. For in that moment the human is free. Unlike 3 hours earlier as they swept the factory floor.

Thus, my point is again clear. Artists and scientists offer us new means of imagining a human civilisation beyond what we can already imagine. They are therefore worth more than the automaton.

I mean, do we even need to get into the whole william gibson thing and all those ideas he first proposed in his sci fi novels?

The sheetmetal worker that does their job then on weekends plays with their metal press and tools at home, inventing a machine for some purpose... that sheet metal worker when devising that weekend machine is the artist. Their day job is necessary for all sorts of reasons, and in conducting their job during the week they contribute to society. But in creating a new machine, they truly have worth. They push the bounds of what is possible for machines made of steel.

Oh and is every artist worth saving? No, not one. Not Picasso, not Mozart, not any one person. We are all expendable. Nature makes that quite clear.

There is no choice in that expendability and death is inevitable. Our time on earth is here now. And there is nothing more important to humans than this planet.

So who is it precisely that is taking care of the planet? Yep, scientists and artists.

In brief: The artist formulates ideas, the scientist makes them work. The planet lives on. So do we therefore.

the scorpion

Richard Pettifer said...

Alison, I think the kind of position you outline for yourself is neccessary for a cultural theorist/commentator (just one of your hats, of course) and also makes it extremely difficult to create anything. It is much easier to make work when you are convinced of its brilliance, in fact perhaps it is a requirement. When you sit down to write poetry, do you not have to block out those voices of logic, reason and rationality, in order that the creative voice might flow? You cannont 'view' and 're-view' at the same time. Or perhaps you disagree.

While struck by the pragmatism of the latter part of your response I wondered if we might all be justifying our own positions, including Williamson. I went to see his work on Friday night, I found it to be a problematic but not uninsightful work of theatre. Everyone knew exactly what it was, writer, actors, audience, possible exception: the actress playing the 'vampire girl' (this is what she became in my head as it was the only trait she was allowed). I admit in some ways I thought the whole thing was a pile of horse, and especially when a character would drop some kind of bombshell that was later completely forgotten about (abortion?????) which lessened the play's relationship with real life and make Williamson come across as a much less observant and honest playwright. In real life when someone reveals they have had an abortion 30 years ago to one of the men in the room while they were swinging we don't just continue dancing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival. We probably have a really really tense time.

But this is not a play about abortion. This is a play about nostalgia. Abortion, like everything else in this play, exists not as a real thing but as something we might relate to through the happy fog of distance. The motif of "well I guess we just party on" (add/substitute - remenisce on the good times) is the playwright's (and many of his contemporaries) response to the situation he finds himself in. He poses this as a position to be critiqued both within the play and for the audience.

Whilst I am completely familiar with nostalgia as a tool for bourgeois theatre, what can set the BBP (Baby-Boomer Play) apart is its sense of self-consciousness and whether it actually opens itself to attack or not. For my mind, whether Williamson deliberately created the pleasure all the oldies in the room experienced when Creedence came on and they RECOGNISED THE DANCE MOVES GARRY MCDONALD WAS DOING????? or not, it was an interesting moment in the theatre for me because I relised then how hell-bent on nostalgia the older generation are, and that perhaps this comes from an anxiety about their current political positions.

I had a very interesting discussion with my friend at half-time about whether or not our generation (Y) were prone to the same nostalgic pandering, or if not, if it was only a matter of time. If the play on stage I saw was about Ren and Stimpy, Power Rangers and Global Warming, I would probably find pleasure and empowerment in that. Which made me inherently forgive Williamson. He knows the MTC audience, he knows their age bracket and he knows what they want and how far they can be pushed. I am sympathetic to this play. I don't think it acheives anything, but I understand why it was written, and I forgive it, in much the same way that I forgive the older generation for the mistake that were made...

...And at the same time, am filled with irrefutable fury about all of the above which I appropriate to take my responsibility for this world, and inspire myself into believing that change is inevitabile, so that I might take action. For some reason I believe David Williamson knows this, wants this, and so wrote this play and not something with more pretence to empathy with a political position that is not male, white, mid-50's, and exclusive of anything that is not.

(p.s Alison there is no need to respond to this do the things you have to do but thanks again for the forum it was helpful to air my ideas :) )

Alison Croggon said...

(Housekeeping note: if there's a bit of delay in your comments appearing, it because for some reason they're going to spam filters or moderation, even though moderation isn't turned on. Don't ask me why, I don't know...)

I'll just respond to the first part of your comment 4Coffins, because it's the easiest to respond to. Yes, time...

I'd turn the question around, and ask how it it really possible to create anything if you don't bring your critical intelligence to what you do? Perhaps this reinforced by my present reading, which is all the intellectual and artistic ferment that occurred in Russia in the early part of the 20C: Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Shklovsky, Jakobson, Khlebnikov, Blok, Gorky and countless others, all of them not only making brilliant work but arguing fiercely about its critical - political, aesthetic, moral - provenance. Do you just switch off part of your mind to make things, or do you rather attempt to employ all of it?

A certain amount of self-deception occurs in writing anything - you fool yourself in order to make it possible - but for me it's not about convincing myself that I'm brilliant (what has that to do with anything? I can either achieve what I wish to, or not) so much as distracting my mind with all sorts of formal investigations and questions so the really painful things that your conscious mind doesn't want to attend can occur in the writing. Because it will, if you let it, but there are lots of self-protective devices the brain employs to keep you from your own truths. Vanity is a big one. But all that is a terribly complicated dance, and I'm sure it's different for everyone.

Richard Pettifer said...

Hmmm... so it's okay for you to persue your own personal truths, but not broader social ones, which do not exist? ;)

My (obvious) counter-question: are not your personal explorations to be repeated on a broader scale in their performance (as writing)? In which case, I see only two possible results - introversion, or elitism.

Of course only a Sith think in absolutes - just a suggestion

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4Coffins -

Hmmm... so it's okay for you to persue your own personal truths, but not broader social ones, which do not exist? ;)

I'm a bit baffled that you'd take that meaning from what I wrote, when I was saying more or less the opposite! Perhaps you thought I was commenting on DPO, when I was only addressing your thought about a supposed impasse between critical thinking and creative work. All the writers I namechecked were, after all, pretty much obsessed with "broader social" questions, what with the Revolution and all... although that didn't stop even the most revolutionary of them from writing love poems.

Introversion and elitism are two questions that galvanise contemporary poetry in English, fwiw. Especially contemporary innovative poetry. Nobody really knows what to do about it. (Spanish and Arabic poets don't seem to be bedevilled by the same doubts). Could be why I began to write popular novels for young people, perhaps?

Anyway, I rather suspect we're talking at cross-purposes here.

Although, regarding DW, I don't know why forgiveness has to enter into it, really.

Casey Bennetto said...

"Artists and scientists [are] therefore worth more than the automaton."

Not to the automaton's partner, I'd wager. No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

"And there is nothing more important to humans than this planet."

Except their tax bill.

Richard Pettifer said...

ok I probably slightly misread you Alison - an interesting idea that you distract yourself with formal/social questions to reveal personal truths (unless I'm misreading you again... for the record I was referring to Scorpion's earlier 'Elevated understanding' comment, which you disregarded, and I took as meaning a rejection of pursuit of social truth when in fact it was probably just a bauk at the pretension of the statement but anyway, hairs, I'm splitting them). It's a complicated web, because perhaps the best response is always personal, and yet perhaps we run dangerous games of self-expoitation in the process of 'mining ourselves'. I never used to understand why older artists were so protective of their personal lives (unneccessarily so I felt) and yet perhaps it reaches a point where this is the only way to continue existance, although concurrently it means withdrawing slightly from your investigations, in itself a sacrifice. But no-one wants the journey to end in failure and nothingness, so I guess we do what we have to.

Novels for young people is easier?? Surely there's even more at stake? Is it that the self-journey can end, and the fantasy begins? A way of averting the introversion/elitism?

I think that's what you're suggesting but I might be baffling again...

Alison Croggon said...

What this conversation requires is a good bar.

Casey, that is THE QUOTE!!!!

4C, I get very offended when people read my poetry autobiographically. Mainly because such readings are usually impertinent and not about the poetry at all. But the fact remains - as the wonderful Roman Jackobson pointed out in the essay I was only just now reading - that it's just as foolish to think there is no connection between the "person" and the "poet", and to assume it's all masks. Poets, in particular, tend to mean what they say.

Writers make all sorts of wrigglings about this, because who wants that kind of self-exposure, really?

Literally living on one's wits can be exhausting; but, seriously, what else have writers to live on? It's why Mishima described writing as "the stomach that eats itself". It's a good idea to have some balance, like looking after children or gardening or selling insurance. (Though Mishima had martial arts for his balance, and look where that got him).

And yes, this is so much more complicated than I can say here. The act of writing is private. The act of being a writer is public. One has to find some means of walking the tightrope, and it's not always easy. But I think it's crucial to distinguish between the two things.

Fantasy novels "easier" than poetry? Indeed no. My speculative fiction (this is a true confession) is actually poetry in disguise, but it reaches a much wider readership - sales of hundreds of thousands, as opposed to a few hundreds. And that can be liberating when the poetry world, which is so aware of its minority status, feels like a stifling belljar: that sense of marginalisaton can be, in a general sense, culturally embittering, and bitterness is a corrosive, soul-destroying thing. I don't mean to libel my poetic colleagues, many of whom I respect highly, in saying this: the ones I respect know exactly what I mean. But now I'm completely off-topic, whatever the topic now is.

the scorpion said...

Not to the automaton's partner, I'd wager. No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


Alison Croggon said...

Donne FTW.

Jake said...

No plans to see this, but did you catch Craven's line in his Spectator review about "the Williamson who once transfixed the world"? I had to read it twice to be sure it was really there.

Alison Croggon said...

No, but I just did. Irrefutable proof of the multiverse thesis.

Anonymous said...

Just saw Don Parties On at the Sydney Theatre: your review is an expanded and elucidated version of the mutterings I made driving home from the venue.

I love the way you've written this, most especially because you've gone about explaining exactly what makes this ultimately unsatisfying theatre. Being at the event tonight with the audience studded with many of the politicians referred to in the play added a glittery frisson to the evening, but I can't imagine how soulless it would be without that element of entertainment.

Especially love your comments about the Richard character - what a freaking travesty, lacking any resemblance to any person born between August 22, 1967 and August 21, 1968.

Everything else in your review is equally admirable, and it gives me great satisfaction to head to bed having seen the play and knowing this review of it exists.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Elissa. Yes, now it's YOUR turn!