by Paul McGillick
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The controversy which invariably surrounds the premiere of each successive play by David Williamson now seems so much a matter of course it could easily be a clever dramatic device. Serving either as a prologue to the play itself or as an accompanying fringe event, this coup de théâtre has often been a dust-up between Williamson and the critics, and at least once a pre-emptive strike by the playwright against those same curmudgeonly opinionists. More recently, as Williamson has transmogrified into a theatrical polemicist, his very subject matter has been sufficient to provoke controversy
As with all fame, Williamson’s is symbiotically linked to the media. Like Sydney’s annual Archibald Prize for portraiture, the annual Williamson play is now an event which can always be relied upon for some kind of public scandal. Normally, this has nothing to do with artistic significance. The de rigeur controversy which erupted around Heretic, however, had all the appearance of a genuine artistic brawl. Williamson came out after opening night effectively dissociating himself from Wayne Harrison’s production for the Sydney Theatre Company. On opening night itself, he refused to join the cast on stage for a curtain call. In previous premiere productions, the Williamson/Harrison team was something akin to a successful circus act. Now it was sundered, Williamson claiming that Harrison’s directorial interventions had no justification in the script.
Things became curiouser. Williamson was reported as being previously reconciled to Harrison’s production, the two reportedly “agreeing to disagree”. But less than a week after opening, the Sydney Morning Herald (2 April 1996) reported that Williamson was again bitter about Harrison’s liberties with the script–especially Mead’s transformation into Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Streisand and a gigantic rubber head which looms over the set in Act 2–leaving Harrison saying that he felt like “Alice who has fallen through the looking glass”. A further article in the same edition expatiated on the falling out between Williamson and Harrison, ending by quoting Harrison as saying that Williamson directors “have a shelf-life, a use-by date” and that “since the election in this new age of beige, he finds he needs to move on to someone a little more conservative”.
Williamson’s heresy has always been that he is commercially successful while still laying claim to membership of the left-wing serious playwrights’ club. In the lead-up to the recent federal election, a variety of public statements appearing to reposition him at some distance from small-l liberal orthodoxies raised a few eyebrows. Harrison’s remarks seem to confirm that Williamson’s final heresy has been to challenge the received truths of social democratic complacency.
In fact, Williamson has long been something of a “class traitor”. Emerald City and Money and Friends, for example, held up the chattering classes to ridicule. But with Dead White Males in 1995 he also began to question intellectual and moral orthodoxies. Heretic continues this trend with his sights now trained on cultural determinism in particular and political correctness in general.
His hero, Derek Freeman, is Williamson’s alter ego. Both are heretics and proudly so. In the play, Williamson has Freeman point out that the original meaning of the word “heretic” is freethinker, while the current dictionary definition describes a heretic as one opposed to orthodox doctrines, a definition that sits comfortably with Williamson’s agenda in Heretic.The heresy of Williamson’s play, however, has now become obscured by Williamson’s own heresy–perhaps apostasy–together with what is an altogether convenient public dispute ostensibly about artistic issues.
Heretic is a dramatization of anthropologist Derek Freeman’s campaign to expose the fallacies in Margaret Mead’s influential 1928 book, Coming of Age in Samoa. A subplot is the fictionalized portrayal of Freeman’s marriage to Monica, which not only lends a “human interest” angle to the main plot but also serves to tease out the broader implications of this otherwise obscure academic dispute. Williamson depicts Freeman as so involved with his professional ambitions that his wife becomes a mere accoutrement. In fact, Freeman is a relic from the 50’s and the painful evolution of his marriage into true mutuality becomes an ironic counterpoint to Freeman’s fight against Mead and her status as an icon of female emancipation and social upheaval in the 60’s.
Like its predecessor, Dead White Males, Heretic is theatrically ambivalent. One part of it wants to be a drama. To put the matter rather fancifully, this part is Williamson in the midst of a theatrical mid-life crisis searching to find his way back to being a genuine dramatist. But it is the other part that wins out. This is Williamson the ringmaster with a social conscience summoning up Socratic dialogues at the crack of his magisterial playwright’s whip. Onstage Socratic dialogues can only be self-conscious. Not surprisingly then, Williamson’s dramatic devices creak like the stairs at night. This is no way to sneak up on someone.
Rick Cooper is an anthropologist pal who seems to have had a bet each way throughout Freeman’s acquaintance with him. He is our onstage narrator and commentator, armed with enough Brooklynesque one-liners to jolly things along.
Rick talks to the audience, but he also talks to the Dereks–for there are two Dereks, young and old, with old Derek trying like Mrs Muir’s ghost to get through to young Derek and set him right. And all of this, would you believe, is a dream. Perhaps Williamson has been studying Citizen Kane because, like Joseph Cotton, old Derek falls asleep in his armchair in Canberra and drifts in his dreamboat back to exotic Samoa, retracing every step of his journey, trying to make sense of it all.
Since his 1983 book, Freeman has unearthed more material to support his critique of Mead and is, in fact, about to publish a sequel which demonstrates that the young and inexperienced Mead, pressed for time to finish her research, was duped into a vision of free-loving, adolescent Samoans. He also has evidence to support his contention that Mead, under the influence of her supervisor, the eminent German émigré anthropologist Franz Boas, saw only what she wanted to see–namely, evidence to support the cultural determinism which underpins modern anthropology and which, in turn, was being used to drive a quasi-Marxist political ideology.
Williamson wants to dramatize this debate and, in so doing, take some potshots at the kind of political correctness that, because it holds that we are all victims of our upbringing, implies we are not responsible for our actions. He sincerely wants to tackle major issues. Unfortunately, he also wants to be liked, hence the one-liners, the parodies so often mistaken for satire, the comic straw men set up to be knocked down in an appeal to the baser instincts of audiences.
This equivocation is a feature of Williamson’s recent work and sufficiently present in Heretic for Harrison to feel justified in turning the play into a high camp cabaret, a Carmen Miranda version of the Pacific, a meretricious send-up of the Mead-Freeman dispute. Freeman’s dream becomes a psychedelic trip complete with yellow submarines, 60’s pop music and onstage impersonations of cult figures of the time. It is a shallow vision of the 60’s, but more seriously it is an implicit denigration of Williamson’s concerns. By indulging in cheap laughs and garish effects, by laying everything on with a trowel, Harrison not only patronizes the audience, but shows contempt for his playwright’s seriousness.
Which brings us back to the Wiliamson/Harrison tiff and the wonders it has done for the box office. Williamson thinks the production a travesty, but Harrison thinks he has only drawn out what is actually in the script. Both are right.
Paul McGillick is a visual and performing arts critic and Series Editor and a Producer/Presenter with SBS TV’s arts programme.
This piece has been extracted with permission from the June issue of Meanjin. For further information contact the editor, Christina Thompson.