Last night playwright Andrew Bovell delivered the keynote speech at the National Play Festival at Sydney’s Carriageworks. Harold Pinter at the Ivy covers the current state of Australian playwriting, theatre’s place in broader political discussions and society, as well as some moments of triumph and humiliation from Bovell’s career. Bovell most recently won acclaim for his adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River (pictured above), for which he won the Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work and Best Play. He’s also known for his play Speaking in Tongues, which was turned into the award-winning film Lantana.
Bovell’s entire speech is reproduced below, but if you’d prefer to listen, we’ve embedded the audio from last night at the bottom of this page.
I look up from my table.
And there he is. The playwright. Harold Pinter. Having dinner with his wife, Antonia Fraser.
They eat in silence. Conversation no longer necessary between them. Perhaps all that needs to be said has already been spoken. And in their silence, only love remains.
He looks lonely. He looks frail. Death hangs about him, like an unwanted guest at their table. She keeps glancing at him. Anxiously. Her glance asking “Are you alright? My love. Are you coping?”
And they are alone. No raucous group of actors with them after a successful opening night. No group of friends celebrating a birthday. Or anniversary.
They are alone.
And I think is this it? After all that you have done? After all that you have achieved? Is this what the end of a great playwright looks like?
I want to approach him.
I want to thank him for teaching me that a line of dialogue can mean one thing and its opposite at the same time. I want to thank him for teaching me how to use subtext and the power of a well-placed pause.
And for teaching me that a play can begin with the answer to a question rather than the question itself.
In “Old Times”, he begins with the word dark. It is in fact the answer to a fairly banal question. What was the colour of her hair? Or something similar. We never get the actual question. Only the answer. And the answer is Dark. And with that one word he sets a tone. A mood. An atmosphere. An intention. With one word he has already engaged his audience because he has withheld something.
And it is knowing what should be withheld and what should be revealed that goes some of the way towards explaining why Pinter was such a good playwright.
And such a great teacher.
So I want to approach him and thank him for all this. But most of all I want to thank him for the speech he gave on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. His speech was titled “Art, Truth and Politics”.
And it was not so much the subject that he chose to speak about but the fact that he spoke that I wanted to thank him for. And that he spoke with clarity, intelligence and anger about something that mattered.
For those who know the speech you will remember that it was in 2005 and that he spoke against American Imperialism but particularly about the American invasion of Iraq and on the lies that were used to justify it. But America was not his only target. He also spoke about his own nation, Great Britain describing it as a “bleating little lamb tugging behind (America) on a lead, the polite and supine Great Britain. What has happened to our moral sensibility?” He asked. What has happened to our nation’s conscience? “Did we ever have one?” And you will remember that Great Britain was not the only little lamb on a lead at the time. Australia was bleating just as loud.
Harold Pinter told the truth.
George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard lied.
They lied. And not one of them has been held to account. But that was yesterday’s politics.
Pinter did nothing exceptional in telling the truth. That, as I see it is the playwright’s job. To tell the truth.
Interestingly, he argues that the truth within drama and the truth within public and political discourse are different things. In drama the truth should remain elusive, just out of reach. It is the reach for the truth and never quite finding it that can make a play so compelling. The shades of grey. The moral ambivalence. The contradictions of the human condition. This is the stuff of our best drama.
He was wary of a playwright who would impose her or his politics on an audience or be definitive in their conclusions. He wasn’t interested in demonstrating a partisan position. He refused to encapsulate his work by describing theme. He would never say for instance that this is a play about class. Or this is a play about race or corruption in politics. Or this is a play about the human condition. All Pinter chose to say was that in this play this is what was said and this is what happened. Make of it what you will.
And as it turned out people made a great deal of it.
But in the public discourse he took a different approach. He understood that there is a difference between something that is true and something that is false and the playwright’s role in society, any writer’s role was to distinguish between the two.
And so here today, that task falls upon me.
To tell the truth.
So whilst we leave Harold and Antonia at the Ivy in London in 2007 to finish their meal in silence I would like to borrow his question.
“What has happened to our nation’s conscience? Did we ever have one?”
The city was alive. It was unseasonably warm and people were out and about. Drinking outside pubs. Crowding the restaurants. I walked across the Millennium Bridge to the Young Vic to see a production of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge”. It was directed by the Belgian director, Ivo van Hove.
In his production the play was delivered as written and in the dialect of the Brooklyn Italian-American community and yet it was utterly contemporary in its directorial and design and performance approach. And it was electrifying – to see a classic play, written in the 1940’s seem so relevant to now. As if it had been written yesterday.
In part, the play tells the story of two refugees. Marco and his young brother, Rodolpho who escape the poverty of post war Italy to find a new life in America.
A story about refugees. It couldn’t be more contemporary or relevant to us today.
So word was out that this was something worth seeing, that this was as good as theatre can be and the crowd was buzzing in anticipation before the show. And it was packed. You couldn’t move. I squeezed through to the bar and brought a glass of wine and managed to score a table out on the terrace just as a young couple moved on.
A few moments later a woman approached. English. Mid-fifties. Maybe a little older. “Do you mind if I share your table?” “Of course not. Please”, I said. She placed her bag down on the chair and took her wallet and said I’ll just get a glass of wine. “No worries, I said. I’ll mind your spot.” She went to go and then hesitated and looked back and perhaps it was because she had heard my accent and established that I was Australian that she asked, seriously. “You won’t steal my bag, will you?” And I said. “No. I have my own bag. I don’t need yours.” And she laughed. Not quite sure whether to believe me. And I’m thinking. Really? Do you still think we’re all thieves and convicts?
Anyway, she returns with her glass of wine and we fall into pre-show conversation. And I like these conversations with strangers in cities where I don’t belong. So we talk about the weather, about the play we are about to see. And she has a niece who lives in Sydney and she’s visited several times. And it was a lovely city. But it was just so far away. And I say “From Where?”
And she paused and thought about it and said. “Well from here”. Well, yes it is a long way from London but these things really depend on where you are. “I suppose so. She said”. And we chatted some more. She asked me what I did. And I said I was a landscape gardener.
As it turned out so was she.
And so we talked about gardens for a while and landscapes. Which was a little tricky because I didn’t know much about either and she knew a great deal about both.
But I just didn’t want to talk about writing.
I didn’t want to answer the inevitable question “So what have you written?” I would tell her a title and it would mean nothing to her. And so I’d tell her another title and she wouldn’t have seen that one either. And you try one more and no, she hadn’t seen that either. And then she starts looking at you suspiciously, as though you might be lying. Or if you are telling the truth and you are a writer, you’re obviously not a very good one because she hasn’t heard of you or your work so it is always better, when faced with this question to say you’re a landscape gardener.
At this point you might be thinking what’s he talking about? Wasn’t he going to talk about the truth? Or the national conscience or something? Why is he going on about landscape gardening?
But here’s the thing. Here’s the moment. This is it.
This woman. This English woman. She leans across the table toward me and she says… she says…. She says
“Why is Australia such a racist country?”
And I’m silent. And I feel a knot in my stomach.
“Are you talking about the situation with indigenous Australians or asylum seekers?” I say.
And she says… “Both really. I mean there’s a bit of a theme there, don’t you think”.
And the knot in my stomach tightens. And I want to vomit.
I want to explain. I want to say we’re not all like that. I want to say we’re actually a very multi-cultural society, very progressive really. Just like Britain. Very tolerant. But I can’t. I just can’t. Because it occurs to me in that moment that it’s just not true.
And I’m thinking this is how we are known now. This is how the world sees us. Not for our larrikin sense of humour. Not for our distrust of authority. Not for our good healthy looks or our cricket team or our irreverent sense of humour and certainly not for our films or theatre, or our literature or our pristine beaches.
We are known for our racism.
And in that moment I feel utterly ashamed to be Australian.
And then the bell for the theatre rings and I can escape the scrutiny of the woman’s question.
For a moment. I can escape.
And I can hear the voices. The chorus of disapproval. You tosser. You arty wanker. You Leftie black-arm bander. You playwright. Who goes to the theatre anyway? If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else. How dare you say you are ashamed to be an Australian? With the centenary of Gallipoli, just around the corner, too. Don’t you know what they fought for?
And I think I know. At least I think I know what they thought they were fighting for. I think they thought they were fighting for the mother country. And for security. And for national dignity.
But most of all I think they thought they were fighting for an idea of Australia as a democratic, just and compassionate society.
And I believe we have let them down. Those men. Those boys. Who shed their blood for us. Because we are neither just nor compassionate, and if open and public scrutiny of government policy is a key component of democracy then we are not democratic either or at the very least our democracy is currently being seriously tested.
I am talking about the government policy to turn people back at our borders, people in need who are seeking refuge. And should they get through, I’m talking about the government policy that detains these people in facilities off-shore in circumstances that harm them. And then leaves them there for many years before they either send them back to their countries of origin or, as intended settle them in a nation far less prosperous and secure than our own. This all designed to deter others from following in these people’s footsteps.
And this is not simply a partisan position. The previous government was no more compassionate in their treatment of refugees but they weren’t turning people back and what they were doing was being monitored and discussed and judged as it should be in an open and democratic society.
The current government has shut down the scrutiny necessary to ensure we uphold our international obligations. What is being done is being done in secret. And there is no place for such secrecy in a democratic nation.
There is no place for secrecy in a compassionate society.
We are told that they have stopped the boats. But how would we know? George Bush lied. Tony Blair lied. John Howard lied. Why would we believe Scott Morrison?
Why would we believe anything that government tells us…. It has lied previously or at least it has concealed the truth in order to serve its policy agenda. So why would we believe government unless we can test what we are being told, unless it can be placed under rigorous scrutiny by a robust, objective and impartial media and by the institutions of a civilized society.
Our government refuses to answer its own people’s questions. And this is a serious breach of trust between the citizens of this nation and those whom we have entrusted to govern in our name.
I know that a great deal of anxiety has been created in the minds of the Australian people around the issue of “unauthorized arrivals” as they have been named. And that this taps deep into a national psyche, a fear of unchecked inundation by people who don’t share our values and history. By people who are different to us.
And let me be specific. We are talking about brown people. We are talking largely about Muslim people.
And I know that I am in a minority by opposing these policies. Most Australians are relieved that the government has seemingly succeeded in its Stop the Boats policy and can now get on with their lives without having to think too much about the plight of these refugees. And I suspect that despite the growing disquiet around the implications of the budget, the government will win the next election on the perceived success of this policy alone.
The policy may well deliver the government another term but the argument has not been won. Yes, I stand with the minority but it is not a small minority and it is not without influence.
The society we want to be is not yet determined. It is contested ground and it is being fiercely fought over. I refuse to live in a country where this is seen to be ok but my desire to leave is overcome by my refusal to hand the country over to those who think it is… either through complacency or something more malign. Something called racism.
And so our argument for the soul of the nation continues. And I as an Australian playwright am up for the fight.
A few weeks ago a man self-immolated in Geelong. His name was Leo Seemanpillai. He was twenty-nine years old. And he was a Sri Lankan Tamil. He was on a bridging visa and had come to believe, like many of his fellow Tamils that he was to be deported back to Sri Lanka where he feared being persecuted by the military. Like many refugees from Sri Lanka he faced the assumption that he was simply an economic refugee. Even though he had fled Sri Lanka with his family during the Civil War.
Leo spent many years in an Indian refugee camp before arriving in Darwin in 2013 by boat seeking refuge. His parents remain in the Indian refugee camp and were unable to be at their son’s side as he died. And as of early this week the family were unable to obtain the necessary visas to attend their son’s funeral because they lacked the necessary travel documents and no exception would be made by the Minister and the Department of Immigration.
No exception would be made.
This man burnt himself to death in our country. Not in Vietnam. Not in Tibet. Not in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. But in Australia. Now. And the Australian government has refused entry to his parents to attend the funeral because of a lack of paper work.
This is where we are. This is our country. Now.
Meanwhile, in 2013, the same year Leo arrived in Darwin our government gave Sri Lanka two patrol boats so that their military could stop people fleeing the country. This is referred to as stopping the problem at its source. And recently the Sri Lankan government thanked Australia for re-fusing to co-sponsor a UN bill to establish a war crimes investigation into human rights abuses toward the end of the civil war.
And in one the most punitive measures in the budget the government removed the core funding from the Refugee Council of Australia. The Council is an advocate for the rights of refugees and a leading critic of Refugee policy in this country. It was a sum of $140,000. Let’s measure this against the $245 million to put Chaplains in secular schools. And let’s also measure it against the 12 billion spend on 58 military aircraft and a further 12 billion on their maintenance.
In the scheme of the budget the sum that they have taken away from the Refugee Council is nothing. This is about punishment. This is about silencing an effective critic of government policy.
And I ask as Pinter asked
“What has happened to our nation’s conscience? Did we ever have one?”
Harold and Antonia are still at their table at The Ivy. Harold is having desert. Apple Pie and cream. He likes a good piece of apple pie. Antonia isn’t having dessert though she is enjoying the last of her glass of wine. I haven’t yet summoned the courage to approach them. I don’t want to impose. Not during dessert. It might be awkward and the pie might get cold. And the conversation at my table is hard to break away form. I’ll wait until he finishes. And then I’ll go and speak to him.
The Greeks have a word. Philoxenia. Philo meaning friendship and xenia meaning stranger. It translates as the “love of strangers”. I think it’s a beautiful word. A powerful word. I can’t think of an equivalent word in English. We have the word hospitality. And compassion. And empathy. All fine words. But none of these on their own embraces the notion of the stranger or “the other”.
The Greeks also have another word. This one we are more familiar with. Xenophobia. Xeno meaning stranger. Phobia meaning fear. The fear of strangers. We know this word because it has become a part of the English language. Why we have the need of one and not its opposite is a mystery. But language arises out of need and so it would seem that we, we in this context being white people with an English language heritage, have found it necessary to describe our fear of strangers whilst having no reason to describe its opposite – the love of strangers.
This says something about us, I think.
Of course we have another word closely related to xenophobia. Racism.
This fear of strangers goes back to the time of the arrival of white people on this continent, where relatively quickly, by 1859 a state of terra nullius was established in law. Terra Nullius being a Latin term used to describe “a land belonging to no one”. And upon this law we occupied this continent, called it our own and turned those that were here into strangers in their own land. And ever since we, as a nation have argued whether this was morally right or wrong.
And the argument has been at its most fierce and vitriolic in the last thirty years. The “History Wars” is one of our great national themes, one of the most volatile fault lines in our society. At one end of the argument the story is told of a peaceful and gradual settlement, a noble and benign act of nation building and at the other end, a story of violent occupation and resistance culminating in massacre and genocide.
The former version dominated our national story for more than a century. It was the story that I was taught at school. Most now accept it not to be true. The white settlement of this country was violent. It was resisted. It did involve the illegal dispossession of land from its rightful owners. No treaty was ever entered into. And although Indigenous cultures and peoples have survived this invasion, its consequences have been felt throughout the generations that followed.
This is an undeniable truth.
However, there are many who still refuse to accept this version of our history. Including many members of our current government.
The point is that our history is contested ground. There’s a reason it’s called a war. We are fighting over the story that will be told to our descendants. And the stakes are high. It is after all the story of who we are and what was done.
The Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne knows how important this story is. He has recently called for a review of the current history curriculum taught in schools, which was implemented as recently as 2011. He has stated his preference for a curriculum that emphasizes the achievements of western civilization and celebrates Australia. Captain Cook’s arrival. Federation. Anzac Day. Gallipolli. These are the great moments of our history, according to Mr. Pyne. He has appointed Kevin Donnelly, an ex-Liberal Party adviser and Professor Ken Wiltshire to review the curriculum. Both men have been outspoken critics of the current curriculum and particularly its emphasis on an indigenous perspective of history.
It has taken experts in education and history years to arrive at a more balanced story that includes a broad range of perspectives and experiences for our children as they study history. But according to the Minister this is a Left wing perspective and needs to be undone and rebuilt according to what – his world view?
Politicians need to stay away from curriculum development. They can’t be trusted with our story. Australia is in danger of stepping back into the silence that hung over our History for well over a century.
The question for us, as writers is what story will each of us tell.
In June 2000, Kate Grenville was one of two hundred thousand people who walked across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the “Walk for Reconciliation”. A chance encounter with an indigenous woman, “an exchange of smiles” as she describes it prompted her to search into her own past in order to discover the story that she needed to tell.
In researching her own family she discovered a reference to her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman who was said to have “taken up land” on the Hawkesbury. Her curiosity and instincts as a writer led her to investigate what this phrase might entail. The result is the novel “The Secret River”. By the end of the book we have an understanding of exactly what the “taking up of land” means.
Clearly, the indigenous owners of the country around the Hawkesbury, the Dhurag people paid a terrible and unforgivable price for this. But Kate also alludes to a price paid by the novel’s protagonist, William Thornhill. It is a moral price. It does not compare to the loss of land and life the Dhurag people in the story suffered. It never can. But Thornhill’s choice to participate in a massacre does not leave him unscarred. At the end of the book he is a haunted figure in an ill-fitting gentleman’s coat watching the surrounding hills for signs of the Dhurag’s return. Perhaps he fears that they will return and claim their place back, knowing that his own claim is tenuous. And yet, I think Kate is hinting at something deeper. It’s as though their absence from the landscape is a psychic wound he and the generations that follow will carry.
In the theatre adaptation of The Secret River we leave Thornhill maniacally painting a fence on the back wall of the set to mark his land as his own and to keep those others out. And yet the fence starts to resemble prison bars and it’s not entirely clear which side of the bars Thornhill is standing on.
Whilst Ngalamalam, one of the central Dhurag characters in the play who survived the massacre, sits by the fire and places his hand on the earth. “This me… My place”, he says.
They are the final words of the play.
An undeniable truth.
During rehearsal I came to know Mark Howett, the lightening designer of the show. He has Irish and indigenous heritage, belonging to the Noongar people of the South West of Western Australia. His family comes from the area of Busselton. As it so happened this is where my own family comes from.
I don’t know much about it but I know there were three brothers called Bovell who had arrived from Northern Ireland and settled in the South West in the Vasse district, which is Busselton. They were free men and not convicts. When I told this to Mark he gave me a long look. Almost as if he was reading my face to see if we were distantly related. The families down that way all married each other. So we could have been.
But he had something else on his mind. He asked me if I knew about the Wonnerup Massacre in 1841. I didn’t. I knew about the Pinjarra massacre that had taken place further north but I hadn’t heard of this one. “When did your people come”, he asked? I wasn’t sure but I thought it was some time in the first half of the nineteenth century.
“So they could have been there.” And we were silent for a moment both knowing the implications. “I’ll ask my Aunty. She’ll know if they were involved”, he said. We didn’t say anything more about it. We got on with preparing the show. But as opening night approached, we found ourselves sharing a smoke at the back of the theatre and he said “I spoke to my Aunty.” And I feel a knot in my stomach. “You’re alright. You weren’t involved”. And he smiled.
And I thought it was interesting how he said You. He made no distinction between me and my ancestors. “My Aunty said that your mob helped clean up.” Clean up? What the hell did that mean? “There was someone called Bovell who had a cart. And he helped bring back some of the bodies into town but he wasn’t involved in the shooting.”
And I’m stunned. I’m reeling. And I’m thinking about this Bovell who has a cart and he’s involved in transporting some bodies after a massacre.
“It was the Bussells, who did it”, Mark said. The Bussell family being prominent in the district.
And I’m so relieved that my ancestor was not directly involved and I think fondly of this fellow from Northern Ireland with a cart and history feels so close, as though I could almost know this man, as though I could almost be him and I’m thinking did you try and stop it? Did you know about it? Did you intervene?
What’s fascinating is that there is a parallel history, an oral history, an indigenous history that has been passed on from one generation to another and that it can throw up the fact that a man called Bovell had a cart and he helped transport the bodies back to town. That is not written down but it is known.
Some time later I did some research into the Wonnerup Massacre.
A white man named George Layman was speared to death by a Noongar man named Gaywal in a dispute over two women who were believed to be Gaywal’s wives or close relations. This was the culmination of growing tension between Layman and the Noongar people of the region. In the search for Gaywal it is said, that between five and three hundred people were killed in retaliation.
The Perth Gazette from the 13th of March, 1841 says a retaliatory party led by a Captain Morely, The Bussell Brothers and (unnamed) troops undertook the mission and that five people were killed.
A history of Western Australia by Warren Burt published in 1897 quotes contemporaneous white sources as describing The black men were killed by the dozens and their corpses lined the route of the march…their bones could still be seen years later.
Another reference refers to oral histories, which I take to be the Noongar account, and which have the deaths at between 250-300.
I don’t know if any of the perpetrators of these killings were prosecuted in law. But the Bussell Brothers clearly did alright as the town of Busselton is named in their honour.
This is our history. It is contested ground. 5. Dozens. 300. And it doesn’t feel so long ago.
And again I think of that man with whom I share a name. And I think of him coming from Northern Ireland seeking a better and more secure future than his native Ireland could offer him at the time. I wonder if he was fleeing poverty, or lack of opportunity, or a class system that kept him in his place or worse, civil war and British occupation and as I write this a sharp needle of pain goes through my guts because I think of another man who is very similar to this man called Bovell. Leo Seemanpilia. In coming to Australia he was seeking nothing more than my own ancestor sought. And yet we were unable to give it to him. And I am sorry. I am so terribly sorry.
If my family were not directly involved in the Wonnerup Massacre am I free of any blame or responsibility? Not entirely. The Bovell family clearly prospered in the Busselton area. They became landowners. Shipping agents. Publicans. And the branches of the family spread out through Western Australia. And my father’s Uncle, Sir Stewart Bovell became a respected member of the Western Australian parliament. A pioneer success story. Except that the family prosperity was clearly based on the dispossession of Noongar country.
I do not carry this around as some heavy burden of guilt. But I am mindful of it and endeavor to make restitution in quiet and private ways.
In The Secret River, Kate hints at the possibility of a different history between black and white. It was a theme we took up in the adaptation. This other way was personified by the character of Tom Blackwood. It was a matter of give and take and knowing your place. Respect their place and their ways and they were likely to respect yours, goes Tom’s argument. It was a vision of co-existence in which two very different understandings of land ownership and usage could have existed side by side. It’s advice Tom tried to give to William Thornhill. But he couldn’t see it. This man who had owned nothing couldn’t share now that he had the chance of owning land he could call his own.
Since Mabo and Native Title we are once again reaching for that co-existence, that parallel understanding of land ownership.
I hope that we get there. As Alexis Wright, the Australian novelist said at a writers Festival in Darwin a few weeks ago. “We just have to keep fighting”.
I think white Australians have to decide where we stand and who we’re going to be in The Secret River story. Some of us are like Smasher Sullivan, consumed by hate and fear and hell bent on annihilation, even in its more seemingly palatable form, assimilation. Some of us are like Tom Blackwood and young Dick Thornhill, willing to learn from the indigenous way of doing things – prepared to give a little and take a little. But most of us, I think are like William Thornhill. We know that a wrong was done. But we think it a necessary price to pay for the building of our nation. And we’re not prepared to give up some of what we have to put it right. And so we will remain silent. We will carry this wound. No matter the price.
Kate Grenville dedicates her novel to the Aboriginal people of Australia, past, present and future. In adapting the novel for the stage I kept this dedication in mind. In talking about a history of invasion, massacre and genocide it’s important to acknowledge that a forty thousand year old culture survives and flourishes. It is central and unique to what it means to live on this continent.
In finishing this section of the address I’d like to quote Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an Aranda Arrewya Female Elder from Utopia from her appearance on Q&A last week.
Five simple words.
“I am not the problem”
When I began to prepare for this address I thought that I would discuss the question of our theatre. What are its current trends? What stories are being told? What is the changing role of the playwright within our theatre? All good questions. However, following the budget the question shifted for me from what sort of theatre do we want to what sort of society do we want and by extension how does our theatre reflect that.
The budget articulates a vision for Australia that I feel compelled to oppose. It seems to me that in this context the onus is on us, in the theatre to broaden our discussion to the bigger questions.
I continue to regard the theatre as a vital progressive force in our culture. It’s task as I see it is to entertain, certainly, and to engage audiences in spectacle and vivid story telling. But there is another role for our theatre to play. In the stories we choose to tell (and by tell I mean the stories our theatre companies commission, develop and produce) our theatre can give expression to our national conscience by reflecting the society in which we live in all its complexity.
Australia is not a white nation. It never was. That’s just the story that was told. And Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Successive waves of migration have ensured that it is much more than that. And Australia is not a Christian nation. Many faiths are practiced here. And whilst all are respected none of them define us. We are a secular state, which is why the government-sponsored initiative to place chaplains in our secular state school is so utterly offensive.
Australia is a dynamic and evolving society of many colours and many faiths and many ethnicities. It seems to me that the government and its ideological supporters are acting to re-assert a definition of Australia around those three points of a triangle – white, Anglo-Celtic and Christian. In this view everything else is placed outside of that triangle as an exception to the rule and everything within the triangle is ruthlessly defended.
This reassertion of “whiteness” is not only taking place in Australia. In Greece it takes the form of Golden Dawn. In France – the National Front. In Great Britain it’s the UKIP. And in America The Tea Party. What’s common to all these social and political movements is the belief in the superiority of “whiteness”.
I won’t argue that LNP is a fascist party. It is not. Though some elements of it are clearly aligned to the American Tea party and some elements of it clearly hold to the view of the supremacy of the white triangle.
So in this Australia there is a white triangle placed at the centre and all those other shapes and colours float around the outside on the margins.
And now I ask with great respect for my community and industry of artists and thinkers, who I know to be fair and passionate people, what picture does our work reflect? What story do we tell? The dynamic and still evolving shape of a country or the great central white triangle that has dominated its past.
I don’t have an overview of all the work that is being done in this country but I can point to many encouraging initiatives. Here at this Festival we have the Lotus program of Asian writers and Singapore Calling. The Indigenous Dramaturgy Program, Songrites by Casey Donovan, Troy Brady and Abe Wright and Moth, Michele Lee’s play. The Balnaves Foundation commissions in partnership with Belvoir Theatre are a vital initiative. Jadda Albert’s play “Brother’s Wreck” is currently playing and Leah Purcell has just been awarded the next Balnaves Playwrights Award. Her intention is to re-imagine Henry Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife” by making the central character an indigenous woman. By so doing she places an indigenous presence back into the historical landscape, which our literature has so often whited out.
Malthouse gave us an intriguing take on King Lear with “The Shadow King” with Tom E Lewis in the key role. At QTC Wesley Enoch re-imagines Brecht’s “Mother Courage” with an indigenous cast. “The Secret River” at the STC makes a powerful statement about the consequences of the white arrival on the Hawkesbury on the local Dhurag people.
Indigenous theatre companies such as Illbijeri in Melbourne and Yirra Yaakin in Perth are doing vital work. And whatever happens we must not to lose these companies.
I will march in the streets if such companies go down. I will throw bricks through windows if we lose these companies.
Outer Urban Projects facilitates the performance and story telling of youth from Melbourne’s Northern Suburbs most of whom come from migrant backgrounds. There are similar initiatives and companies doing this kind of work all around the country.
It’s vital and empowering work that reflects our complexity as a people and our cultural heritage but the fact that I can talk about all this work as an exception to the rule suggests that we have a problem.
I wonder whether we don’t reflect the very picture of Australia that I find so disquieting and backward. That there is a central triangle that is white and anglo-saxon and that anything beyond that paradigm sits on the margins. Occasionally, we let it in. We give it a central place in our story.
And then we fade back to white.
And again I can hear the voices… but that’s who most of us are. It’s inevitable that the majority of our stories will reflect this. What’s the problem?
Well, this is the problem. Australia is not a white nation. Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Australia is not a Christian nation. We are much more than that.
So why does our theatre look so white and Anglo?
There is the question of class and access and privilege and training to be asked but I want to pose a further question.
And maybe this will be the most controversial thing I will say today.
I wonder if a part of the explanation is that we have become too preoccupied by the Western Canon. The great European and American plays.
Re-imagined or not, I wonder if the classics take up too much space and too much air on our stages. And even when we cast them from outside the white paradigm it is only a gesture, a political moment perhaps.
When we re-visit the classics do we simply continue to draw on a vast history of whiteness that has dominated and shaped western theatre? Does it in effect entrench the privileged position that whiteness holds in our theatre and in our culture?
There will always be a place on our stages for Shakespeare, Brecht, Pinter, Chekov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Miller, Williams et al and of course we should not cast aside our theatre history but I wonder as we re-visit this canon again and again, season after season, as each director has his or her go at a new production, as each playwright does his or her new adaptation whether we are not missing something.
Something vital and particular to our time and place.
And simply doing the classics with an Australian aesthetic or in Australian accents doesn’t answer my craving for a theatre that is particular to our time and place and past and future.
I mentioned earlier that a new and powerful production of Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” seemed so relevant to now. I was stunned by its theatrical brilliance. So I am not denying that the classics still have something to say and that audiences have a desire to see them. It’s just that they have said it and said it and said it. If there was to be a play about the refugee question I would choose a new work, about Leo Seemanpilai for instance over Miller’s “View From the Bridge”. I would choose it because it was about here and now. I would choose it because it would be about us.
In the continual re-visiting of the classics, it seems to me that what the plays actually say, their content, is secondary to the directorial and design approach. I find myself watching what this particular director and design team has achieved with this well-known work. I am often entertained. But I walk away with very little. I retain very little. And what I retain is often about the stage-craft, the design, the skill of a particular performance.
In this theatre does style overwhelm content?
Is there a kind of shared knowing between performance and audience? Almost a smugness. A kind of in-joke. A “Oh, I see what you’re doing. That’s clever. And that’s not how it was done before”
You know, I’m not interested in the in-joke. That’s not the conversation I want to have.
At this moment in our history I find myself hungry for content…. For plays that are saying something. I want meat on the bone. I want to think. I want to be upset. I want to be shocked and shaken. I sense a rise of conservatism in this country. A narrowing of opportunity. A widening of the gap between rich and poor. Between black and white. A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. I want to challenge it. I want to get in its way. And I don’t know if we can do that with Chekov anymore.
But surely the space can be occupied by the classic and the new. Yes, it can but if we are to continue be a progressive force within our culture then we must challenge the dominance of the white-triangle paradigm. If we are to truly reflect who we are then we must ensure that our stages don’t reflect that more narrow vision of what this nation is.
We must make room for the new. We must place it at the centre of what we do.
In my twenties I thought that I would write hundreds of plays. I had so many stories to tell. In my thirties I began to suspect that maybe I wouldn’t get to tell them all and by my forties I knew that that was true. I simply wouldn’t get to write them all.
And I feel a sense of grief about those stories I won’t tell. I mourn them. As it is I write and have produced a play about every five years. Two a decade. Some writers are more prolific but I’m not. Though there are films in between those plays so it’s not like I’m not working. But theatre is my first love and so I know the number of plays left is finite. I can probably count them on one hand.
And so I have resolved to make each one count.
Making plays count is what an event like this festival is about. The playwrights and their work are put through a rigorous development process with actors, dramaturgs and directors in order to allow them to write the best version of their play that they can.
In this brutal budget the arts took a hit. Our Minister for the Arts maintains that he protected “Culture” and that we should be grateful we got off so lightly. I think the cut to the Australia Council over four years is around 30 million dollars.
I’m thinking of those planes and those god-dammed chaplains but apparently we got off lightly.
Tom Grybowski, the Council’s CEO has indicated that the cuts will result in fewer and smaller grants to individual artists and cuts to small arts organizations.
So we will feel the cuts most acutely in the independent theatre sector, that great engine room of new writing and story telling. As a community we need to brace ourselves and put our heads together otherwise we risk losing our best and brightest of a new generation of writers for lack of opportunity and support.
If we fail to nurture them and challenge them and produce them all we have left is Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Miller, Williams and so on.
All fine playwrights but it’s tomorrow’s canon we need to look after.
For one less plane we could avoid the cuts to the Australia Council and Screen Australia. We could maintain funding for the Refugee Council. We could maintain the funding to the “Closing the Gap” projects between indigenous and white Australia that this budget will defund. We could in fact increase our funding to indigenous health, education and equity programs. With one less plane.
With one less plane we could address the fact that we have the highest suicide and incarceration rate in the world amongst indigenous youth. With a few less we could fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme as it was intended. With half their number we could fund Gonski properly and deliver the National Broadband Network that the Australian people want. We could do all this.
But instead we are purchasing 58 war planes at a cost of 24 billion dollars.
And I ask: What has happened to our nation’s conscience? Did we ever have one?
The only fight I ever had with my father…. Except when I stole his car when I was fourteen and crashed it into the carport… but apart from that the only fight we had was over racism. I was 18. He must have been in his early fifties. I declared that Australia was a racist nation.
He didn’t agree. In fact he regarded such a suggestion to be offensive. Even unpatriotic. Being a man of his generation and of a small-l liberal political persuasion, he held the view that we, the white people were a superior race and that we needed to look after the aborigines because they couldn’t look after themselves. Not any more, anyway, after all that they had suffered. It was a commonly held view at the time, well meaning but patronizing and harmful. We had lived in country towns throughout WA. Kalgoorlie. Narambeen on the wheat belt. Waroona in the diary belt. And before I was born. Mt Barker. Bolgart. Coolgardie. So Dad had had a lot to do with black fellas. So he was speaking from some experience and would rightfully have thought that he knew more about it than I did.
Anyway, it became heated. And I pushed him. And he stepped back and fell over a chair. And I was shocked. Probably not as much as him but all the same I was shocked at my own violence. I was also ashamed. Because my father was a gentleman and a gentle man. But what was even more shameful was that I walked out of the room without helping him up. I left him floundering on the floor.
Later, he quietly said “You need to watch that temper of yours, son.”
My Dad’s name was Peter. Most knew him as Pete.
He stood on the station platform waving me goodbye. I was leaving the town I had grown up in and was moving to Melbourne to become a playwright. His eyes misted up as he shook my hand. No kiss. No embrace. That wasn’t the way then. But he was crying. I had never seen him cry before. I didn’t quite know what to say so I lied and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be back soon”.
He took me at my word and waited patiently for my return. He reassured himself that this “writing caper” would be over soon and that I would come home and get a real job. Better not to have such big dreams, he thought. Then you won’t be disappointed.
Three years later, when I had still not returned, he got on a plane to find out what was going on. His visit worried me. I was no longer the boy I was three years ago. Or at least I was trying not to be that boy. There were parts of my life that my father wouldn’t approve of. But also, I am ashamed to say there were parts of my life that wouldn’t approve of him.
His visit coincided with the production of a play. It was a black comedy called After Dinner about five lonely and sexually frustrated people looking for a good time on a Friday night out and not finding it. My father and I had never talked about sex. We had settled into that comfortable position that fathers and their sons often do of avoiding the subject. This play, however talked a great deal about sex and in the most graphic terms.
At one point one of the characters described how her husband woke her in the morning by jabbing his erection into her back. She would lie there with her eyes closed pretending to be asleep until she felt the wet spurt of his ejaculation soak through her nightgown. And that was their sex life. It was a fairly tragic account of marital intimacy but in the context of the play was also quite funny.
You can’t help but reveal yourself when you write a play. Not the biographical detail of your life, I should point out but in writing, you reveal how you see the world. The young man revealed as the writer of this play was not the son my father knew and I just wasn’t sure how he would respond to this version of me.
I was sitting beside him and my eyes slid sideways trying to see the expression on his face. It was contorted. I thought he was in pain and then I realized he was trying his best not to laugh but in the end couldn’t help himself. It’s a great joy to cause a theatre full of people to laugh, even more so when one of those people is your father.
I introduced him to the actors and some friends after the show. Being theatre people they all kissed him and hugged him and congratulated him as if he had written the play himself. I even heard him say to someone “He must have got his sense of humour from me”. My father was glowing with pride and I love those friends who made him feel so special that night for being the father of the playwright.
One of the actors in the play was my girlfriend at the time. Eugenia Fragos. Actually, she is still my girlfriend. But now we have three children together and a lot more history but then our relationship was fairly new.
As the three of us walked home from the theatre that night through the streets of St Kilda, Dad told us that he and mum had sex before they were married. Several times. Perhaps it was the cheap wine after the show or the sexual frankness of the play that had loosened him and prompted this confession but I felt so gentle toward him, so protective of him at that moment thinking that this was probably the greatest transgression of his life. Perhaps.
Who knows their father’s secrets really?
We had given him our bed in the house that we shared and we slept on a mattress on the floor in the lounge room. As I made him comfortable and said goodnight and turned off the light he said, “I think you might have something… with this writing caper” “Thanks Dad,” I replied. “I suppose this means that you won’t be coming home.” “No, I don’t think so” “You’re mother will be disappointed but she’ll get used to it.” I knew that my mother had well and truly come to terms with my absence. It was him that was disappointed. That was the way he expressed emotion. Mum was his proxy.
As it turned out the first play of mine that my father saw was also the last. He did that thing that fathers do to their children. He died before I really got to know him leaving me with so many unanswered questions. I was too young then and too self absorbed to know that I even needed to ask them.
Since then I have stood in airport terminals and bus stations and watched my own children leave for other cities and other lives. And now I know exactly how my father felt on that day of our first parting and I’m hoping that I don’t die before my children are ready to ask their questions of me.
Harold has finished his desert. And Antonia is ready to go. This is my chance. I excuse myself from my dinner companion and I rise to approach Harold’s table and he and Antonia suddenly have words.
All night they have sat there in silence and now they are having a domestic. Not a big one just a moment of tension between a married couple but clearly not the best moment for me to arrive on the scene.
So I pass their table and go to the bathroom. I have a wee, a quick one, wash my hands and go back into the restaurant ready for my big moment and Harold and Antonia have gone.
And I feel so sad.
I didn’t thank him. And I should have. He died a few months later.
One great writer. One great Dad. And I didn’t thank either of them. And I should have.
The moral of the story… seize your moment. Don’t hesitate. Decide what story you’re going to tell. And be bold in the telling.
We as a country have many stories that we need to tell.
Thanks for listening.