“U jst got a ref x D Will-son on 7.30 Rep!”
I got a few texts, emails, etc, to this effect one night a couple of weeks ago.
Apparently in Kristen Williamson’s new book, Behind The Scenes, there is reference to a critic David had publicly throttled at some major public event. I downloaded the interview later that night and found Kerry O’Brien asking: “Can I ask who was the critic?” David mentioned my name, adding hastily: ‘But we are friends now…”
I was impressed, given the hammerings I gave some of Williamson’s work in my more arrogant years, that David could muster any kindness of spirit towards me at all. Especially in light of the fact that, along with Richard Wherrett, Williamson was one of the two major theatre artists in my reviewing heyday, who were ultra-sensitive to criticism. Anyway, years later the feeling is mutual: and I too enjoy the luxury of easy and agreeable conversations whenever we meet up at an opening night do.
Kristen Williamson did contact me about the ‘alleged’ incident some time during the writing of her book. Unfortunately I was being assaulted by leading theatre artists so often back in those days, I cannot recall this particular incident. The assaults have not stopped, though fewer from actors, writers and directors and more by Tongan teenagers these days. It’s all Mr G’s fault: he just cannot control those kids from Summerheights High. Though I do recall Judy Davis entrapping me on a level crossing in Kings Cross once. How could anyone forget those burning kohl-lined eyes coming at you! Anyway she was right to pull me up on that occasion.
The above said, now David has publicly admitted to the ‘alleged assault’ maybe I can at last initiate ‘caught’ proceeedings. I’m fairly sure David has a few more bucks in the bank than the Tongan teenagers who jumped me on the Midnight Train from Bogan. Or maybe we should just go Dutch over a nice harbour view lunch one day?? Emerald City, that kind of thing!
All this is leading to a recommended reading if you have not already been alerted. Of course there is Kristen’s book, which I am saving up for. But you all MUST READ Louis Nowra’s review in the Australian Literary Review. Whether you agree or disagree, it is absolutely brilliant reading – and wipes the floor with any and all of us who think we are commentators on Australian Theatre. I have printed it in full below. Nowra, by the way, is as tough on Kristen Wiliamson’s book as I was on some of David’s plays. I hope in years to come, on some other 7.30 Report she can ring herself to say: “But we are friends now….”
PHOTOS FROM ROWAN GREAVES’ 1997 NEW THEATRE PRODUCTION OF DON’S PARTY
recently uploaded on facebook
When a famous man’s wife is his biographer the result can be a revelation or a laundry list: this is both, writes Louis Nowra | April 01, 2009
THE history of wives or former wives writing biographies of their famous husbands is not a pretty one.
Victorian explorer, linguist and translator Richard Burton was certain it was a bad idea because “a man’s wife knows perhaps too much about him”. Burton’s widow, Isabel, did not heed his advice and wrote an unintentionally hilarious hagiography of her husband that proved she hardly knew him at all.
Although wives may protest they are trying to write an objective biography of their husbands, essentially every such work is really a biography of two people: the wife and husband. And she is also claiming something else. Because of intimate connection to her husband she is saying she knows more about him than anyone and can explain him better. The problem is that his talent and career can be submerged under a blizzard of domestic details, which may have been important for the couple or wife but provides little satisfaction for readers trying to understand the husband’s achievements.
So it is with some trepidation that one sits down to read Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband David Williamson, Australia’s best-known playwright.
Make no mistake, David Williamson is one of the most significant figures in the history of Australian theatre. There have been equally famous or more famous individuals during the past 200 years, such as Gladys Moncrieff, Barry Humphries or Cate Blanchett, but no one has contributed to our theatre as he has. It has been an astonishing achievement. For nearly four decades he has rarely had a flop, if at all. He has helped theatre companies stay afloat, made it essential that Australian plays are performed and has become a household name.
He has written a play a year and it has almost become a ritual for his audiences to make an annual pilgrimage to a new one. His plain-spoken, naturalist style has remained the same through the years and his concerns have closely matched those of his faithful middle-class professional audiences. For years I found Williamson’s immense popularity difficult to fathom. It wasn’t that I didn’t like his work, it was that I couldn’t relate to its subject matter and style. I preferred work that made me see the world anew, not validate it. His plays have none of the verbal fireworks of Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton, nor do they explore the terrible or the magical as Shakespeare does in King Lear and The Tempest. Characters do not experience nights of the dark soul as do Tennessee Williams’s or the disintegration of their world as in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
It was only when I went to see his 1991 play Money and Friends that I understood his success. I watched an audience laughing with recognition as the story unfolded and it occurred to me that Williamson was probably one of the few Australian playwrights who didn’t talk down to or at his audiences. He was one of them and he and the audience were engaged in a conversation as equals. His work was one gigantic affirmation of their lives and ideas. He didn’t undermine their beliefs, in fact, he corroborated them. One could say that, for his audiences, familiarity bred contentment.
It was imperceptible at first but an unholy trio of demands began to change his work in the 1990s. His insatiable need for success, theatre companies’ greed and a growing complacency of his ageing audience had their effect. His plays seemed merely based on some sort of left-wing dinner table topic. His characters vanished under the theme of the play. It’s hard to remember any great characters of the past 15 years but one can recall the plays’ themes and whether they were about sexual harassment, mateship, art dealers, political corruption, wanky academic theories or the power of shock jocks.
Despite this he remains an important writer. His preoccupation with the Australian male identity is in the great tradition that stretches from Henry Lawson to Tim Winton. Like other writers who emerged in the 1970s he has burnished our national mythology. Just as Peter Carey and Rob Drewe polished the legend of Ned Kelly, so Williamson wrote about Phar Lap and refurbished the legend of Gallipoli. He also made the middle class, which had gained unparalleled affluence and influence from the ’60s onwards, seem the real Australian identity rather than an idealised working class so beloved of our literature.
I don’t know Williamson. So it came as a shock when he sent me a fax in the early ’90s. He was furious because I didn’t mention him when an interviewer had asked me to name my three favourite Australian playwrights. (If memory serves me correctly, they were John Romeril, Jack Davis and Stephen Sewell.)
Williamson’s missive was an almost incoherent rant. It amused me more than anything because it was obvious that his very healthy ego was deeply rooted in an unhealthy sense of insecurity. So knowing little about his personal life I was interested in Kristin Williamson’s take on her husband. From the outset she makes it clear that the book is about the work, the times, the man, the family. It begins with David’s birth in 1942 to lower middle class parents in Victoria. His father was a banker who hated his work and his mother was one of those women who are an all too familiar feature in our post-war society. She thought she was better than her husband, belittled him when she could and showed little love for her children. It doesn’t take much to imagine her as ridiculously self-centred and acerbic as comic creations such as Edna Everage and Germaine Greer.
David was very tall and therefore conspicuous and so he developed a sense of inferiority, which meant it took a lot of courage, despite initial rejection, to want to be part of the developing theatre scene in Carlton in the late ’60s. Those arrogant young turks of the time made him feel a philistine and an outsider. He didn’t come from the arts but was a lecturer in mechanical engineering. He had been married early, had a child and lived in suburbia. He was ridiculed for his ignorance about the avant-garde theatre practices and trendy intellectual theories of the time. It’s obvious he never forgot their contempt or their hypocrisy.
The left-wingers in the Pram Factory mocked his naturalistic style and his subject matter. They talked of revolution and social upheaval. His characters were more concerned with power games, getting drunk and hoping for a root. A play such as Don’s Party financially saved the Pram Factory, but if he expected thanks from the apparatchiks, feminists and socialists who comprised most of the theatre company, then he was mistaken. They despised him even more.
At the same time his life underwent a profound personal change when he left his pregnant wife for Kristin, who was also married and had children. This is some of Kristin’s best writing as she describes, with a sense of remembered embarrassment and humiliation, the awful emotional messiness of such a situation. After some time living in a Victorian rural retreat they shifted to Sydney, where he soon became popular, wealthy and developed a circle of friends that included politicians such as Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating and writers such as Carey.
Their marriage survived some infidelities on both sides, but seemingly more from David. He is part of a long line of nerds who couldn’t get girls as a teenager but who, when he becomes famous, suddenly finds he is attractive to women and decides to catch up on what he felt he had missed out on.
A strongly heterosexual man, he began to chafe at the omnipresent homosexual coterie in Sydney theatre and a direct quote in the book finds him squirming as he tries to avoid the term gay mafia:
The arts in Sydney were dominated by a cultural group including Patrick White, Neil Armfield, Wayne Harrison, Jim Sharman, Leo Schofield and Barrie Kosky. I often went to their productions and events, and I admired them. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a gay mafia but it certainly felt odd to be a heterosexual in Sydney theatre.
What can a poor straight boy do but flee such a hideous environment, as Williamson did in 1996, heading to the Queensland Sunshine Coast where, nursing a dicky heart (a contributing cause of his present Melba-like retirement), he could pick up the soap from the shower floor knowing he was out of harm’s way.
Kristin Williamson is not very good at describing people. Generally they are just name tags who seldom say anything interesting. So it’s a relief early in this 536-page tome when imperious film producer Margaret Fink enters the story. When she is not barging in on the Williamsons ordering David to stop playing with his children so she can talk business, she is haughtily telling some poor waiter in a posh English hotel room that the champagne he is offering her “looks like cat’s piss”. Mrs Williamson’s bitchy take on the woman she cuttingly calls Mrs Fink is very droll. However, I should mention that I spoke to Fink about these incidents and she denies they happened. (Although I have to add that the first thing she ever said to me, when she met me in my agent’s back yard, was: “You look like a Lebanese labourer. I thought you’d come to clean the pool.”) Bob Ellis also spices things up when he pops up at odd intervals in the Williamsons’ story like some bargain-basement Iago who privately luxuriates in David’s friendship but publicly lampoons and savages him as much as he can.
Perhaps the best story is of Madonna starring in Williamson’s Up for Grabs on the London stage. Although not meeting the singer during rehearsal and communicating through a go-between, David behaved like a good lapdog and changed her character’s lines. Kristin quotes a speech her husband had to write for the singing piece of gristle and it’s one of the worst things he’s written, full of American bombast, faux revelation and cheap optimism. But as writers who have experienced the egomaniacal behaviour common to American musical or film stars can attest, it is a horrific experience yet morbidly fascinating and, of course, it provides a fund of amusing anecdotes once you’ve sufficiently recovered from the ordeal.
There had been rumours that Williamson’s plays were semi-autobiographical but Behind the Scenes was a revelation for me. Kristin quotes many extracts from the plays that seem almost verbatim transcripts of their marital woes.
The characters based on him were made a little stupid but her stage doppelgangers were invariably shriller, bossier and generally more unsympathetic than their original model.
There’s a delightful moment when Robyn Nevin sighs at the end of a first reading and says to Kristin, “I suppose I’m playing you again.”
There are times, too many times, when this book seems to be about critics. Great hunks of reviews are quoted, good ones and those where the reviewers had the temerity to find a Williamson play not to their taste. This theme runs through the pages like a Trojan virus. It’s a preoccupation that reaches a ludicrous crescendo when David writes to five theatre reviewers begging them for a fair go. It makes him sound like a spoiled brat who whinges to his teacher that he should get 100 for his exam rather than 99. If there is anything worse for the couple, it’s being at an opening night when the audience is filled with critics and “failed playwrights”.
At times like this the Williamsons sound petty and not a little pathetic. I’m glad I never went to one of his first nights.
It’s bewildering that someone as successful as Williamson paid attention to any of the reviewers who, except for one shining example, were pedestrian at best and soon forgotten. No reviewer ever stopped people coming to a Williamson show. Near the end of the book Williamson is still obsessed by critics. Even his vision for the future revolves around his tormentors. He says he has one great hope: “That Sydney drama critics be a little more generous to the next Australian playwright who continues to attract large audiences for 35 years.” You can almost see his trembling bottom lip just before the tears of self-pity roll down his cheeks.
At times David disappears from the story for long sections because this biography is also about its author. We learn that being married to a famous man can be hell and a woman feels her identity being swallowed up by her husband’s needs and fame. Kristin goes into considerable detail about how she began to find a sense of self-worth through writing journalism and then fiction. We get synopses of her articles and books, plus extracts from reviews, “some saying I had done for Australian readers what Mary McCarthy and Marilyn French had done for American readers”. It becomes clear that one of the main reasons for this book is Kristin setting out to prove she is more than a submissive adjunct to her husband’s career.
David comes across as a good bloke with a volatile temper (abusing cab drivers, waiters and, of course, reviewers), frequently stressed, paranoiac at times, and with a pungent streak of jealousy. (One can’t help but feel that Kristin enjoyed these demonstrations of jealousy and she makes sure we know about the incidents in cringe-making detail.) Above all, what comes through in this biography is his bravery in being so honest about his failings. There are not many men who would have allowed some not very flattering personal moments to be put into the public domain.
Politics is important to both Williamsons and Kristin is proud of their liberalism, her feminism and the fact they are socially aware (“Our house had its share of left-of-centre visitors”). David’s journey from political idealism to pessimism and then back to a sense of hope is carefully detailed. At times they comes across as precious members of what the English call the chattering classes and there are occasions when their self-importance loses all sense of proportion and irony. Just after the September 11 attacks, “David and I signed and circulated a petition to be sent to President Bush and other world leaders, urging them to avoid war”. Sadly, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard didn’t listen to the Williamsons’ advice.
To illustrate just how much Kristin thinks her husband’s works mirrors the politics of the times, she frequently stops her narrative to give potted histories of political events such as Whitlam coming to power, Whitlam being sacked or the dreaded Howard becoming prime minister. These lessons in political history are written so blandly that its difficult to concentrate on the content.
The copious domestic trivia is also yawn-inducing. It may have been important to the Williamsons but Kristin’s constant reference to the meals she cooked and ate or restaurants she and David visited seems never-ending. Do we need to know that for a dinner they ate “coq au vin, mashed potatoes, peas and beans, with chocolate mousse, strawberries and cream for dessert”? That they ate Chilean, Arabic and African food in Europe? Or that Carey’s wife makes a good red pepper salad? The antics of her children may have been interesting to the family but not for this reader. She also mentions their cars and their mechanical problems, parking fines, their floor coverings (Afghan rugs at one time, if you want to know), birthday parties, renovation problems and the fact David’s culinary efforts have “passed into family lore”.
The monotonous drone of such things is not helped by her writing style. Segues from one aspect of their lives to another are rendered clumsily; for example, “As I said in an interview a few years later …” and “I turn to someone else’s words for an account of what happened next …” That’s one of the main problems with the book: there doesn’t seem to be a structure or focus. Kristen gives the same weight to everything, whether it is their personal lives, profuse extracts from reviews, letters, domestic minutiae, political history or the reception of David’s plays.
Her prose style also lets her down. There is no precise, telling detail nor is there a memorable metaphor. She litters her text with lacklustre adjectives. “Wonderful” is ubiquitous: “The shoot was wonderful fun”, “We thought the whole weekend quite wonderful”, “The music was wonderful”, and “This was wonderful news”. When they drink wine its always good (strangely they never seem to have bad wine) and rather is used as a limp qualifier: “I was rather grumpy with David on the long walk home” and “I was rather indignant”.
But it is the cliches that wear down the reader. Speeches are heartfelt, movie stars are glamorous, islands are impossibly beautiful, critics are pre-eminent, there are gales of laughter and there is the night he was a basket case. When there’s grief it’s an outpouring, people wipe the grins off their faces, successes are great or huge and writing is therapeutic. In the Williamsons’ world there is a potential spanner in the works, locals are interesting, people swallow their pride when there is not a fire in the belly and theatre audiences draw in shocked breaths. David, Jack Thompson and Keating are charismatic. Not content with this gush of hackneyed adjectives and cliches, Kristen tries to provide insights but her prose is as sharp as a prop knife. It’s tricky to grasp exactly what “It was also Chekhovian in that it had subtle moods” means, and phrases such as “Spirits were dampened by the political climate” and “The airwaves were saturated with war” are just sloppy.
It’s hard to know if this is her usual prose style or the product of haste, but the structure and writing probably needed a more ruthless editor. There is no doubt that this book is well-intentioned and a generous love letter to her husband, but it’s a sprawling mess. The good thing is that it will offer David’s eventual, more objective biographers an excellent source of information, although his warning that his life has been basically uninteresting and uneventful seems to be true. There is also no doubt that I am now on the Williamsons’ long list of their writer “enemies” and “wretched” critics.