David Williamson: For Good or For Ill

September 29, 2021
This week sees the release of Home Truths, a memoir from David Williamson, one of this country’s most successful writers.

Born in the ‘40s, Williamson grew up when Oz culture was dominated by American movies and TV, and there was no ‘Australian theatre’, to speak of. By the early ‘70s, that had started to change and Williamson, a compulsive writer, found himself right at the centre of the action: “there was a great sense of relief,” he told FilmInk, remembering his early plays and films like The Removalists and Don’s Party. “It was a sense of release! At last, there was a chance to show the truth of my own culture. It was an opportunity to tell it like it is for good or for ill.”

Known for his sharp wit, brutal dialogue and fierce politics, Williamson’s book is savage, funny and tender in equal parts. It’s also first-class eyewitness cultural history. Here, he captures the excitement and possibilities of the Australian ‘new wave’ on stage, and screen in the 1970s and ‘80s and into the ‘90s.

As fans already know, Williamson wrote the screenplays for many of the films that defined an era: Stork (1971), Petersen (1974), which helped make Jack Thompson a star; Gallipoli (1981), Phar Lap (1983), and many others.

His most famous plays include Dead White Males, Sanctuary, Money and Friends, Emerald City (also a film), Brilliant Lies (also a film).

A keen social observer, Williamson’s Home Truths tracks the shifts in cultural fashion – the bedrock of his satirical plays since his debut fifty years ago. Post-modernism, gender wars, the excesses of political correctness, and the rise of Trumpian type politics are all part of Williamson’s story.

Below he talks to us about his life, the book, his films and plays, and ‘wokeness’.

What do you like to watch?

“I like quality TV. That’s where the real storytelling is going on at the moment. It’s controlled by writers. The film industry refuses to learn that lesson and refuses to believe that great stories come from great writing. I like The Crown, though I’m no fan of the Royals.”

Tell us about the memoir.

“It was a lot more work than a play. [Laughs]

“It took about two years. I had to do a lot of research. Luckily, I had my wife, Kirsten, and her diaries to check dates. The editors did say, ‘give us yourself. We don’t want a superficial work. We want to know how you really think and feel’.”

It’s pretty candid. You are hard on yourself to the point where it’s wince inducing…

“I hate reading memoirs where the authors have airbrushed all their faults from history and keep it light ‘n’ bright. I did not want to excuse myself from stupid and regretful behaviour that I have sometimes indulged in. I think throughout my writing career, the impetus has always been to keep the audience awake.”

Of course, that unflinching look at ‘bad behaviour’ – your own and others – has been a feature of your plays and films from the very beginning, fifty years ago. Don’s Party (1971) was made into a now classic film by Bruce Beresford in 1976…which the memoir recalls was based on you and your friends…talk about the roots of that…

“I grew up lower middle class, in the fifties, and my father hated Australian pub culture. We’d be driving past the local and he’d say, ‘don’t waste your life in that place, Son’. I grew up with a deep suspicion of Australian male ocker [tradition]; bravado bullshit, anti-intellectualism. I thought that the Australian celebration of brute behaviour was almost Fascist. ‘We hate intellectuals, we hate everything but sitting in the pub talking about the footy and we hate anyone with aspirations’…and being a Collingwood supporter, I was surrounded by it every time I went to the football!”

Don’s Party, which seems so Australian, ran in one Manhattan cinema for a year, we believe. What was going on there?

“[That Upper middle-class art house New York crowd] thought it was very funny, simple as that.”

On the other hand, a line like ‘you’ve been swingin’ your dick at every woman at this party and missing by yards’, transcends cultural boundaries…

“[Laughs] Yes! The famous German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder saw it at the Berlin festival [where it won a prize] and I think nearly fell off his seat laughing.

“A lot of the men in Don’s Party were acting out impulses that the male audience would never do themselves. The gold mine [for my dialogue] was going to Collingwood matches and hearing the vulgarisms.”

What’s striking about the memoir is how those early plays like Don’s Party and The Removalists (1971) were so ‘freely’ interpreted. The Removalists (filmed, 1974) has a man beaten on stage by two cops. This was seen, you write, by the cast and company at La Mama, who produced it originally, as a protest against police brutality. It was the time of Vietnam, and street marches…

“I think that was the only reason they put it on! [Laughs]. The atmosphere at La Mama was very Left-wing. But the play was very black satire about the worst aspects of male behaviour. The audience understood the play. Humour is, to some extent, about watching bad behaviour – the characters don’t realise it, but the audience does. The critics were baffled.”

Any more thoughts on comedy?

“I think there is an aggressive impulse in a lot of comedy. You are making fun of some pompous twit. You are deflating pretensions; it’s also a relief we all have made fools of ourselves so many times in our lives, it’s a pleasure to watch other people making idiots of themselves. It’s humbling.”

A lot of that has found itself into things like The Club (play, 1977, film, 1980). Graham Kennedy has this beautiful, moving speech about how much he loves footy, how he dreamed of being a player, it’s heartbreaking and funny…

“That was the young me wanting to be a star footballer and never having the talent.”

One strong theme throughout your work is the distinctive nature of Australia, its society, culture, outlook. You wrote for Hollywood, was that confronting?

“The fundamental difference is that America is a society of self-advertising. They are taught from a very early age to present well, speak up in class, list their achievements… and what they are being groomed for is an intensely competitive social society with a lot of ethnic differences.”

One of the best bits in the book is about working with Madonna on a play (Up for Grabs). The prima donna anecdotes were sort of predictable but her desire to fashion a vicious satire into a heroic redemptive tale of self-realisation seems, so, well, ‘American’.

“[Laughs] Yeah, being cooped up with Madonna for a week was an experience. She’s a force of nature… but ‘Making it’, is a huge thing in America. That was very foreign to my youth, because self-advertisement was the worst possible social sin. The social falseness is another thing; they never say what they mean… everything is ‘fantastic’. In Australia, it’s the opposite… ‘this project will never work David, it’s hopeless.’ [Laughs]”

Now there’s a whole generation here eager to embrace roles like ‘influencer’…

“Younger Australians have much less hesitation about self-promotion than my generation. The accent is changing. The old Australian accent is almost gone. The younger generation have a new accent and it’s part American.”

You are Australia’s most successful playwright. Yet, it has not always been easy going with critics. Some people see you as prickly, as your fame and fortune grew. It’s interesting to read in the memoir how isolated you felt…

“I came from engineering and teaching. I was good at it and the students liked me and I had never experienced hostility; suddenly I was in this arena that was intensely competitive. The Arts field is a scrambling for prominence… I was an easy target in the early years ‘how dare they think they can write!’ But [in the beginning] I thought I was doing something unusual in Australian theatre by getting an audience to come in large numbers to see plays when we had been dominated for so long by drama from overseas – and I thought that was an admirable thing.

“I thought the reason I was able to do that was that I was actually very good at what I was doing. I have no compunction in saying that. You don’t get audiences as large as consistently as I did throughout my career without doing something right.”

As in your plays and films, in the memoir you don’t shy away from controversy, topical politics like climate change and ‘wokeness’.

“The work to some extent has been an exploration of universal social behaviour, but they’ve also been an exploration of the state of the nation – what is happening in this country at this time…have you seen The Chair? That show was so indicative of what’s happening [here]. One of the strongest emotions we are gifted with is outrage. It makes it quite uncomfortable, the thought of being misinterpreted. Self-censorship [for creatives] is inevitable. Those minority groups who feel aggrieved have a basis to feel aggrieved and I’ve never doubted that. The hair trigger rage that has been released is disproportionate to the crime.”

You are now officially retired.

“Fifty years is enough – I’ll let the woke wave carry on without me. [Laughs] I was always pretty safe [from attacks]. I was always satirising middle class privileged whites. I wasn’t deriving humour from attacking minority groups. I was attacking the indulgences and excesses of my own group.”

David Williamson’s memoir Home Truths is published by Harper Collins 29 September

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