David Williamson

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“Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
Shall one day assume the part
Of Australian playwright”
~ Maria Ouspenskaya
David Noosa Williamson
No image
Date of birth: 19 February 1942
Place of birth: Bentleigh, Victoria, Australia
Nationality: Australian
Occupation Playwright
Religion Neo-apologist
Children Felix Williamson
Casper Williamson
Underdog Williamson
Preceded by: Ray Lawler

David Williamson is Australia's tallest and most recondite playwright. His influence on Australian culture, politics and waste management has been celebrated in song and story. Though a mechanical engineer by training and sexual orientation, he has overcome this and the drawback of barracking for Collingwood to reach retirement age with a body of work unsurpassed in the annals of Australian literature.

edit Early Life

David was born to two parents of varying gender sadly one day before he could've been a Pisces, a loss which has affected much of his work throughout his career. Before he could grow up in the suburbs he was whisked away to the littoral splendour of Bairnsdale, then a quaint country town that still burnt witches and thought paper money the work of the Devil. His father was the manager of a series of banks for the State Bank of Victoria and , on moving to Bairnsdale was perforce obliged to take up animal husbandry, as pigs and daughters were the main currency in Bairnsdale.[1] David's mother played the part of a dutiful bank manager's wife until the townsfolk rose up with pitchforks and burnt their house down in 1958. Williamson saw the outrage of the peasantry when confronted by their first motor car and resolved to study mechanical engineering at his earliest opportunity.

"I knew that if I could channel that fear, that hatred into political aggression there was little that would stop me." He started learning mechanical engineering at the University of Melbourne in 1960 but, mysteriously, graduated from Monash University five years later. The heavy drinking and light course load at Melbourne gave him time to write bitter and twisted revues about witch-burnings and the Collingwood Football Club. The latter of these two freshman obsessions would come back to haunt him as the 1970's drew to their midpoint. His first satirical revue, Hail, Satan was written in 1963 and performed with a group of friends, including Graeme Blundell, Rivka Hartman and Hermann Goering, but the witch-burning scene at the end set the Union building on fire and killed several Law students, inconveniencing several Carlton hotels.
On February 14, 1966 the Australian Government, which had become capitalised in 1962, introduced decimal currency. The townsfolk of Bairnsdale took up pitchforks again, storming the 'nexus of evil' at the State Bank which it believed was the cause of 'this monetary reduction' as one particularly well-spoken pig fancier said at the time. There had been eight Imperial coins in the old £sd system, but only six in the decimal one, and the loss of two coins was treated as theft. Williamson's father was imprisoned in a large wickerwork statue and burnt to death at sunset. Williamson's grief drove him to lecture in mechanical engineering at Swinburne Institute of Technology (later Ho Chi Minh University, Hawthorn Campus).

edit Early Plays

Williamson's first full-length play[2], The Bank Manager, was performed at the Melbourne University Law Enclave on 17 May, 1967 to puzzled grunts and occasional wolf-whistles. Audience members still willing to talk about it point out that it shows many of the features that would typify Williamson's work in the following years. Most notably, it steals from events in Williamson's family and personal life. A young Ron Haddrick, fresh out of his cricket creams and rearing for action played 'Dennis Billson' a refined bank manager stuck in a one-horse town. His son, 'Daniel', played by a giddy Ray Barrett just back from doing Stingray for Gerry Anderson, teeters about the stage on stilts to suggest he's both off-balance and out of step with both his father's ideals and the rapid and manifold changes in Australian society in that tumultuous time between the death of Harold Holt and the birth of Skippy. A young Briony Behets played the mother character, 'Lydia Billson'. The play also showed Williamson's excellent ear for the Australian vernacular, a talent he was to refer to many times over the coming decades.

DANIELI want more than the things you can give me. I want to see with my fingers, taste with my mind, narrow the forces growing about me, catch up with the world and not just wait for it to catch up to me. I want to tenderly touch the tentative triggers of trauma, wantonly and willfully wiggle the wee willy winkie, try to touch all the tender tidbits teenage T-shirts try to take time about tempting teen teams tonight! I can't be you! Burrowing blindly into banking, barricading your bourgeois brotherhood and blindsiding bucolic Bairnsdale with baking, bacon and brilliantly bona fide beneficence brought by belonging, yes belonging, belligerently to a bastardised brew of benedictions, bank balances and bankruptcy!
DENNISAlright.
Notwithstanding the public's opinion of this piece, Williamson wrote The Engineer in 1968 and The Lecturer the same year. He wrote Bundoora Blues, a biting comment on a new, outer Melbourne suburb in late 1968 and again the following year. After going out to get the paper in mid-1969 he noticed that the brisk Winter breeze was blowing his dressing gown around the place and he wrote The Indecent Exposure of Anthony East that morning rather than going to work. Telephone Call was an attempt at a one-man stage show a la Barry Humphries and consisted of a man on a telephone having a conversation with an unseen presence on the other end of the line.
DONALDMm hm. Yep. No. Try it again. No, the rope. Well, you'll just have to gag her.

This proved disconcerting for Australian audiences at the time and it closed on its third night, not without some investigation from the Victoria Police, who had realised by now that Williamson simply used his plays as a means of recording his real life.[3]

In the summer of 1969, a Sydney-based copywriter called Phillip Adams became the first person to wear a black skivvy to a public event in Australia. At almost the same time, Alan Finney 'accidentally' (or so he claims) used the word 'space' where he meant 'room', stupefying other attendees at Jack Hibberd's Howyagoinmateorright?, based on the John O'Grady romance of the 1950's at Melbourne's Abandoned House Theatre.
The 1970's had begun.

edit The 1970's

Williamson almost literally exploded onto the 1970's theatrical scene in Melbourne with a small and shambling part as 'Streaky' in Alexander Buzo's 'The Kangaroo Lantern'. A gas heater in the Corner of Elgin St Theatre on the corner of Elgin St in Carlton had failed to ignite properly and in the middle of the intermezzo Williamson in his role lit a cigarette. The consequent explosion left audiences 'dismayed and singed' according to The Age review of the following Monday. It was the end of Williamson's acting career for the next two decades, but he turned his hand to his first love, describing aspects of his own life in a naturalistic and often cramped theatrical manner.

The Stalking of Come was his first attempt at describing complex multi-charactered interactions between people who were 'educated, articulate and able to express more than a sinking horror at the aspects of society we were supposed to be shining a spotlight on'[4]. Its story of a young and shy misfit who comes to live in the city with some ex-schoolmates and falls afoul of the wiles of a particularly shapely blonde struck a chord with audiences at the La Mama Theatre. In particular the 'football orgy' scene shocked and surprised many audience members and would be a cause of contention in conservative circles until 1973 when the film adaptation dispensed with it and concentrated on gratuitous nudity instead. Williamson had originally been cast in the role of 'Egret' Wilson but impresario Pat Lovell cast a Hibberd ensemble player called Bruce Spence instead. Spence's ability to remember his lines and cues without long pauses where he stared wistfully into the cleavage of his co-star proved to be a successful change and made Spence's career. This first full-length production once again showed Williamson's good ear.
EASTYHang on, I know I never touched her.
DAVOIt might've been you.
AMYIt might not be either of yours. It might be Egret's!
SIMMOBugger that!
EGRETYeah, I don't think it can be mine.
The following year Williamson wrote another play for the La Mama, once again starring Bruce Spence, this time with veteran angry actor Peter Cummins in Angry Cops, Angry Cops. Williamson had worked a brief stint as a furniture removalist for a gang of actor-cum-burglars in Northcote and Croxton Park and his experience with the police after a failed acting job in the autumn of 1968 provided yet another diary entry for dramatisation. The characters of hardened cop and ingenuous cop proved confronting for Melbourne audiences, but the post-homicidal danced number at the finale and gratuitous nudity from Barbara Stephens and Candy Raymond as two sisters who might just be Lesbians brought popular acclaim and ticket sales. Alan Finney also regarded the use of 'found' furniture in the set design to be innovative and cheap. Unfortunately for the production, the police found some of the furniture to match descriptions provided by burgled persons and the production closed amid controversy. "A little crime is necessary for true art" said impresario Pat Lovell in the ensuing court case. The magistrate took pains to disagree and several La Mama employees, who had carried on the 'removalist' tradition since the late 60's did some time in gaol, as it was spelt then.
By this time, early 1972, the potential for local and semi-professional theatre to be used as a front for local and semi-professional crime was just beginning to be realised. Jack Hibberd's innovative The Robbery, in which members of the audience were relieved of their valuables for the price of a ticket fell afoul of Victoria's strict laws against robbery in 1972. Subsequent productions were more subtle and a short piece by Alan Seymour, who at the time was regarded as a legitimate playwright, was wildly applauded. The Blackmailer was the first play to be performed with a completely nude audience, who subsequently received demands for money in the post. Against these surrealistic interpretations of drama and crime, Williamson's naturalistic style began to be deprecated. It seemed that the audience had lot its taste for merely watching plays and wanted to get deeply and penteratingly involved. Then late in 1972 came a change in Australia that was as significant as Williamson's contribution to theatre.

edit The Whitlam Era

Edward Gough Whitlam became Australia's 18th Prime Minister at the cessation of electoral hostilities on December 5th 1972, bringing an end to fifty years of religious persecution and rule by witchcraft under the Liberal-Country Party Coalition. As head of the Parliamentary Labor Party, Whitlam wielded more power than was really good for a man raised on raw oats and political diatribes and was soon breaking down old traditions and social conventions with a vigour and obsessiveness that endeared him to Melbourne's radical elite and pompous theatregoing crowds. Williamson saw his own political leanings crystallised as Australia moved from being a clean and wholesome cultural backwater to being the Sweden of the South Seas. With taxation, medical benefits, education, public debt and decency all going utterly berserk and the removal of television license fees in 1973, a bewildered Australian population began to flirt with expressions of this new fixation with the liberal arts, sciences and cuisines. Wife-swapping and nasi goreng flourishd in equal measure and frightening new concepts in everything from dining[5] to marriage[6] were being entertained by some people in the suburbs and forced on those who at first declined. Australia underwent a 'real good look at themselves' and decided they wanted something more colourful and L-shaped.[7].

Williamson's dramatic response to this wave of frantic patriotism is unusual in his career. Don's Party 1973 is set in 1969, the previous time Gough Whitlam had attempted to seize control of the Commonwealth by electoral means. In fact, this attempt had been unsuccessful and it is that setting of abject failure and the characters' response to it that is typical Williamson. Why he didn't do a play celebrating the success of his favourd party remains the subject of much conjecture, not least by Williamson himself. "In hindsight I should've written a play set in contemporary Australia, with all the confusions and wife-swapping that was prevalent at the time, but in my own experience there wasn't any of that, my wife being both reluctant and unpopular."[8] Don's Party discudsses the humble but depressing realisation that holding any kind of social gathering in Melbourne's Northern suburbs in the late 1960's was virtually guaranteed to be a complete debacle, or at least socially awkward.
DONGood to see you, Mal.
MALSomeone's got to take this government down, you pedagogical bastard.
COOLEYI supppose that's gonna be you, is it, you ideological pederast?
JENNYWell, I -
MALShut up, you gynaecological shitbag.

'Mal' was a thinly veiled portrayal of new Liberal Party leader, and leader of the Opposition, John Malcolm Fraser who arranged to have the Whitlam Government dismissed in 1975 by then Governor-General, Vlad the Impaler. Fraser had been referred to as an ideological pederast in many of the more apologetic daily newspapers and Williamson's character of Mal represents this view. Some critics have argued that the entire group of characters can be seen as portrayals of members of the Parliamnent in that heady three years of enlightenment, though this is of little interest to modern day students of Williamson or his works.

Following the dismissal in 1975, and the placing of Fraser as Supreme Warlock in the caretaker government of 1975-77, Williamson became so disillusioned with the Australian political and dramturgical scene that he left the country for Denmark, vowing "Never to return."

edit Denmark

The Sweden of the North Seas being a bit out of his price range, Williamson settled for that other crystallisation of 1970's philosophy, furniture design and sparse living, Denmark. He and his wife settled in a two room apartment in Copenhagen, across the road from where, it was claimed, Anton Chekov and Oscar Wilde had had a brief flirtation. Denmark's culture of tolerance and woolly jumpers was 'a pleasant place to live, but sadly lacked inspiration'. Williamson's lack of Danish and his insistence that German was a workable substitute didn't endear him to the locals, who had suffered years of brutality at the hands of other German tourists and Williamson was politely and later violently shunned by the Danes. After two years of trying to get into a social crowd for any kind of dramatic inspiration, Williamson packed himself and a fresh wife, obtained during a progressive marriage organised desperately the previous Winter by some Australian friends, and moved back to Australia.

edit Politics

Williamson's political leanings were apparent from his early days in Bairnsdale. In 1953 he established the Bairnsdale Socialist Workers Party and contested the 1955 Shire Council elections, surprisingly polling 135 votes. He would not have been eligible for a seat on the Council but his inflammatory rhetoric polarised Shire voters on the subject of waste management. Williamson had proposed that the custom of storing untreated sewage in large barrels 'in case of a rainy day' was both unnecessary and unsanitary' and instead advised that filth be thrown into the street to be collected for storage at a central depot run by the Council. Ratepayers quickly realised that hurling offal and ordure out of a second-story window gave greater range and added an element of surprise to walking the streets and the consequent building boom invigorated the local economy.[9].

Williamson became more orthodox and politically active once he attended Monash University, a hotbed of political intrigue and rhetoric in the 1960's. He became disenchanted with the Liberal Party and its policy of burying domestic waste in pipelines before flushing it down to the Werribee sewage treatment plant and he considered its policy of removing waste at the public expense and burying it in future low-cost housing sites to be reprehensible. The Australian Labor Party offered a podium for his outspoken criticisms of Australian society, education, manners, dress sense and the national obsession with football teams that weren't Collingwood. As he grew taller he voiced his criticism of any social system that wouldn't subsidise clothing for the extreme ends of the 'spectra of human frailties', a phrase he had thought he'd borrowed from Herman Marcuse but which was a poor translation. He loomed his way into a student union conference in 1965 and stood as President, despite not having won the election, until his graduation. The intrigues and political machinations of that era are described in The Compartment, where the first act of the play details the interactions of eight people on a committee to put a lift in the Menzies wing at Monash and the second act what happens when they are stuck in it.
In 1972 he stood for the Federal seat of Scullin, where, surprisingly, he polled 135 votes. This was well short of the civil majority needed to gain the seat, but an undaunted Williamson arrived at the next session of Parliament and perched on the edge of the seat. When he Speaker questioned his presence he replied that having got five percent of the vote he would only take up five percent of the seat. This was not how the electoral system operated and a disappointed Williamson began a private campaign to make voting in Australian elections rigorously proportional. By 1975 the fruitlessness of this endeavour had penetrated even Williamson's dogged persistence and obsession for social justice and his political endeavours became more orthodox.
He retains an active involvement with the Labor Party, managing local branch stacking in Queensland and continuing to propose radical solutions to 'nationalised waste appreciation'.

edit Branch Davidian Cult

Williamson has no involvement with the Branch Davidian cult and is curious and annoyed that mention of it should appear here.

edit Popularity

Williamson's popularity has been referred to as staggering, inexplicable, 'an indictment on modern culture' and 'deviant'. In the early days of his career as a playwright he was very much the big fish in a small pond, but as Australia became wealthier and more tolerant of crap, the pond got bigger. Yet Williamson still remained popular and got even taller. By 1982 and the performanbce in Sydney of The Confectionist, he was 11' 7" (3.53m) and had to stand at the back of the Opera House.

He has written seven of the top ten most popular plays in Australian history and movies adapted from his plays are among or amongst) the most popular of Australian movies. (He denies that he ever claimed to have written 'Mad Max.)

edit Decline

edit Playography

  1. Retired Nicely, Thank You (2009)
  2. Kevin Rudd – Superstar! (2008)
  3. Threat Potential (2005)
  4. Amigos (2004)
  5. Flatmates (2002)
  6. Charitable Intent (2001)
  7. A Conversation (2001)
  8. Up for Auction (2001)
  9. The Great Man (2000)
  10. Van Aangezicht tot Aangezicht (2000)
  11. Corporate Vibes (1999)
  12. Apés Supape y Flotteur (1997)
  13. Mathematical Blues (1997, An Adaptation Of Jugglers π)
  14. Heretic (1996)
  15. The PC Solution (1995)
  16. Sanctuary! (1994)
  17. Brilliant Lies (1993)
  18. (A Fistful of) Money and Friends (1991)
  19. Sirens of the Lambs (1990)
  20. Top Spot (1989)
  21. I ♥ Sydney! (1987)
  22. Sons of The Caine Mutiny (1985)
  23. The Confectionist (1982)
  24. The Journo’s Lament (1980)
  25. Travelling North (1979)
  26. The Pub (1977)
  27. A Fistful of Friends (1976)
  28. TheCompartment (1975)
  29. What If You Push This? (1973)
  30. Jugglers π (1972)
  31. Don's Party (1971)
  32. Angry Cops, Angry Cops (1971)
  33. The Stalking of Come (1970)[10]

edit Footnotes

  1. Bairnsdale claims to be the home of the ugg boot, invented by Percy Ugg, who walked along a freshly tarred road in a pair of fluffy slippers. Many other Victorian towns also claim this honour.
  2. The length of plays is often exaggerated and many excuses are made for why the play appears shorter than advertised. Mood change, temperature, humidity and "I don't know what it is, love, but you just don't give me the horn" are some.
  3. This was in the days before the Internet and 'blogging'.
  4. Interview with Michelle Grattan, The Age, 13 October 1970
  5. The progressive dinner, in which people moved from house to house to have each course in a multi-course meal
  6. The progressive wife, in which wives would move from house to house in a multi-course mariage
  7. Singleton, J It Was Exaactly The Way I Told It, Penguin Books, 1980
  8. Inteview wih George Mallaby, TV Week, September 9, 1978
  9. Building standards were not all they could've been and the Great Fire of 1960, which followed quickly on the Great Sickness of 1959 destroyed many of the second stories, which were in any case rickety and splattered with hardened droppings.
  10. An earlier play, The Indecent Exposure of Anthony East is never referred to in any Williamson biography, except this one.
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