The Silence Of The Williamsons (2)

For three days now The Silence Of The Williamsons has had the most readership, of one hundred to two hundred hits a day, in these columns and the other Williamson pieces have done healthily too.

But very few people are writing responses to it, saying yes or no to the basic argument over whether or not theatre managements have spent too much money on David and Kristin’s ‘relaxed and comfortable’ notion of theatre and too little on better writers like Sewell and Gow and Rayson and Doyle and Gurr and Elisha and Hibberd and Romeril and, while they were alive, Kenna and Enright and Buzo, and whether or not a number of great plays have gone unwritten because of this neglect.

It would be good to see a few more people write in and say what they think. They need fear Abu Chowdah no longer, as I will print no more of his copraphagic interventions and I will be most vigilant and most punishing when he changes his name.

The Williamson matter goes to the heart of how our democracy is run, alas, and raises questions of our civilisation’s duty to quality over blandness, genius over brand-name competence, excitement over what used to be called ‘Deadly Theatre’, excellence over comfortable, cushioned mediocrity.

This does not mean that certain subject matter is not worth writing about. In Williamson territory Geoffrey Atherton with Grass Roots, Hannie Rayson with Hotel Sorrento, Alex Buzo with Martello Towers, John Upton with The War Horse and Stephen Sewell with Myth, Propaganda And Disaster In Nazi Germany and Contemporary America have done better work.

It is not a question of middle-class conversation but it is a question of what that middle class conversation brings us. From Nothing Personal we achieved the insight that publishing brave new books may be a good idea, and flying with one’s boss in his private jet to his luxury house in Byron for a weekend of champagne and career discussion may incur some risk of sex on the carpet that one had not, if one was a fucking idiot, considered a distant possibility before one boarded the plane.

There are I think more interesting things to say than this in the theatre, as eighteen Wharf Revues have shown, and the Williamsons should get up to speed on some of them. The meltdown. The boat people. The Labor Party.

Or not. They could like Ayckbourne and Cilento buy their own theatre and premiere their next plays there, improve them in performance and occasionally put on plays by other writers. It is possible the Baby Boom will be loyal and stick with them, applauding listlessly and grumbling minimally, into their eightieth year and beyond. Or not.

These are questions anyway worth raising, and it would be good if others contributed in these pages to the careful discussion of them; and if the Williamsons, of course, supplied some answers, either here or in a public debate in, say, the Sydney Theatre some Sunday afternoon.

I await the next contribution with interest.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Mr Ellis, you say that this issue “raises questions of our civilisation’s duty to quality over blandness.”

    But why does civilization have such a duty, and who decides what is bland and what is quality? There is no Star Chamber in the arts. Decca famously rejected the Beatles as not being worthy of a record deal; Elvis (see your excellent tribute) was often dismissed as nothing more than swaying hips and other people’s songs, but we know different.

    Quality can only be recognised in comparison to blandness. If everything is’quality’ then how can any of us tell the difference?

    Put another way, in your writings, are there not articles, essays, scripts etc that you feel are better than others, and if so, isn’t that ability to benchmark and asses a critical component of art and criticism?

    Further, does not this distinction/view change with age and understanding. Regarding Williamson, Don’s Party meant a lot to me as Whitlam’s election was the first I was active in, yet looked at from today’s perspective, perhaps it seems dated or stale or not as inspiring. I suspect anyone who looks over their artistic production sees flaws in earler works.

    Civilization has no ‘duty’, it is us, the public, the recipients of what is, after all ‘entertainments’ (to use a Graham Green analogy) who make the decisions. And that’s what renders art so interesting and frustrating - it is not for you or me to tell the ‘people’ what is quality or should be performed or viewed or seen - we can only guide and critique and suggest and urge; but people will still go to crap films, read James Patterson thrillers, support Manly and view Chanel 9 news!

    You might find his work fails the test, but others apparently don’t. I celebrate and enjoy the difference and the argument but I don’t think either view is ‘right’.


    • I recognise the sincerity of your contribution and I note with gratitude the clarity and skill of your prose. But you are wrong.

      Any drama of any worth comes from the taxes of the people. The BBC, The Royal Shakespeare Company, Bell Shakespeare, the MTC, Svenskfilmindustri, the Comedie Francaise all run at a loss and put on shows they think have quality. And this, in any country, is the Star Chamber of which you speak.

      The only question is whether they got it right. Of COURSE they got it right when a taxpayer funded, loss-making theatre company, NIDA, put on Don’s Party in 1972. Like you I was blown away by it.

      The only question is whether, forty-one plays on, David’s latest play, which nobody much liked, should have been put on when twenty better Australian plays were immediately available, and a hundred better existing Australian plays had not been put on for decades.

  2. I thought Williamson had his own venue in his home town. The Noosa Arts Theatre regularly put on premiere performances of whatever he comes up with. I’m sure he’s giving back something to that local community, mentoring junior playwrights, directing actors, speaking at school speech nights. One school I know in Noosa named one of its team houses after him and other local celebrities like Pat Rafter etc. Whether his plays are any good - I don’t know as his subject matter holds no interest for me. A while back he wrote a ABC TV series called something like Dogshit Bay which was dull and limp and certainly needed more effort. It was unwatchable. Maybe his theatre plays are better.

  3. Dog’s Head Bay had Kristin’s name on it, and she might have written the lion’s share of it.

    This was why in part I suspected her of having written a good deal of Nothing Personal, which is very nearly, but not quite, as bad.

  4. Hi Bob

    I’m not sure of how it works for professional playwrights - but isn’t the playwright’s income derived as a percentage of the box office? Therefore doesn’t David Williamson earn his money directly from the public? I’m aware that his work is put on in theatres which benefit from public subsidy - but as I understood it, only a small portion of income from the Ensemble and the STC comes from the government - the rest is from the box office and corporate sponsorship. (I could be wrong about this but that’s what people from these companies always seem to be saying.) I know he’s benefited from tax-payer funded things like education and institutions such as NIDA, Swinburne and the AFC (as has everyone who works in the arts in Australia) - but wouldn’t he have more than matched this with the money he brought in from private sources, and with the taxes he’s paid? And at least he worked for his money unlike some second or third generation millionaire.

    Isn’t the predominance of Williamson productions more due to the financial conservatism of the theatre companies? Isn’t it their job to promote new Australian writing rather than David Williamson - aren’t they the targets you should be aiming at? Or if not them, then organisations which are almost completely funded by the tax payer - the ABC, universities?

    I think it’s unfair to expect the Williamsons to act as a two person Australia Council. Sure, he’s made money. but not mining money - or even Wiggle money. He pays his taxes, has sat in various positions for the Writers Guild for years, helped set up the Noosa Long Weekend Festival and has mentored young writers (not me, I don’t know him), has presumably given to all the nice causes like Oxfam. That’s a lot more than many people. It’s a little unrealistic to expect him to be Santa Claus. And who wants to risk their nest egg has they head into their seventies on a theatre for cheap plays? You of all people should know how they can gobble up cash.

    We could and should do more to promote new Australian writers, absolutely, but aren’t the more appropriate targets of your anger the government, funding bodies, theatre companies, those landlords and insurance companies who make running a theatre such an expensive proposition, and people on the BRW Rich 500 list? There are lots of things the cultural life of this country could do with - a theatre in every city devoted to new Australian work, more touring companies, cheaper ticket prices, more cheap theatre, spaces for independent productions, a quota for Australian films at our cinemas, etc. - but I honestly don’t think bagging Dave W is the answer.

    I should add that I do enjoy your plays, Bob, and hope you find a place for ‘Intimate Strangers’ soon.


  5. Who are the young writers? Please answer this.

    It’s not only realistic he be Santa Claus, it’s appropriate. Cate Blanchett is. Diane Cilento was. Nick Enright was. I was. Patrick White was; is.

    It’s not really a question of how much money he’s making out of bad or dim or dull writing, but how many good plays and good writers he’s keeping off the stage; Intimate Strangers is one in a hundred, a thousand maybe.

    In all that I’ve written lately on this I’ve always said that most of the fault is the Williamson Laziness not of David but the theatre managers whose fondness for the Relaxed and Comfortable platitudinous theatre of Shaftesbury Avenue of the late nineteen-fifties is what the Kristin-David operation most reflects and supplies. It’s a form of bludging, and it ought to stop.

    Or perhaps you disagree.

    I don’t believe you don’t know David.

    Who are you?

  6. Mr Ellis
    To continue this fascinating discourse…

    In Canberra this week the ARC cinema is hosting a Henri-Georges Clouzot festival. Now I’d argue ‘The Wages of Fear’ is one of the greatest movies of all time, but while a few stragglers will see it, the Dendy will be packed with multiple screenings of the awful ‘War Horse’ and other Spielberg inspired dross that you’d be hard pressed to sit through.

    It’s not Spielberg’s fault the Dendy is screening his crap movies or the other remakes, sequels, 3D shit and the rest that is produced these days - it’s the cinema chains who will only show Hollywood movies, big pictures with advertising budgets and guaranteed kiddie attendance.

    So while one of the most masterful movies ever filmed goes all but unseen, dull, lazy crap dominates our cultural domain.

    Forgive me if I have misinterpreted your view, but isn’t this like blaming Spielberg et al for making dull, vanilla dross rather than look at why cinema chains (with the exception of the larger cities with truly independent cinemas, not accessible to us who don’t live within a day’s drive!) won’t risk screening ‘alternative’ or foreign films, or at least not giving them equal weight and screen time?

    I see your argument as having a wider connotation, that is the way cultural ‘investors’ back what they know rather than support the new, the novel, the unseen, unread and unheard.

    You’re absolutely right, theatres should be investing in new authors and new plays and not the old and lazy, but that isn’t the fault of the old and lazy, for that is what they do. To me, as the other blogger said above, the blame lies at the feet of the theatre managers, cinema chains and publishers who’d rather show ‘Mission Impossible 3’ or publish the 56th Lee Child thriller than the Clouzot masterpiece or the work of new author.

  7. I don’t agree that what is happening in the complexes is ’3D shit’ or ‘vanilla dross’. The Alice In Wonderland, Christmas Carol and Captain America films were very, very fine, and Werner Herzog’s cave painting film a complete astonishment. In the history thus far of all of cinema —- and I cite this week Melancholia, The Artist, The Descendants, Hugo, The Ides of March, The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, Midnight In Paris and Albert Nobbs — we are arpt this point five years into a Golden Age; the best I would say since 1944-52; and The Wages Of Fear I would argue is okay but overrated.

    If you were to say The Armies Of The Night by Jean-Pierre Melville you might begin to intrigue me. But what you have said suggests you don’t go to new movies much, and your idea that Williamson is in the class of Spielberg is pretty overblown.

    I mean is The Last Bastion as good as Armistad? Or Phar Lap as good as The War Horse? Or Don’s Party as good as Schindler’s List? I don’t think so.


  8. What I see as a major problem for Australia is the size of the market. Sydney and Melbourne are the obvious places for major productions, and the main venues can be monopolised by big overseas plays and re-runs of the ‘classics’. Not many theatre owners are willing to take the hits, or the risks Bob took in staging new Australian plays. If we had a market of the size of New York or London, more productions with niche markets would be viable; but the temptation is to stage ‘reliable’ plays by name playwrights such as Williamson.

    I sympathise Bob, but I see no way forward except that reviewers write good reviews, as you do, and we go forward incrementally.

    Please give me your further thoughts.

  9. Your invite to discuss spurs me.

    Armies of the Night, maybe, but The Godson (le Samourai) was a masterpiece and one of the finest films ever. And yes, I have seen Ides, Midnight in Paris, Albert Nobbs, the very compelling Skin I Live In, the fraught We Need To Talk About Kevin and Iron Lady to name a few. Not sure about the US version of Tattoo as I enjoyed the ‘original’ and while Fincher is a very skilled director, I have a ‘thing’ about American remakes of European cinema.

    So Mr Eillis, it is a Golden Age as you rightly say and you’ll get no disagreement there … my point was more that the cinema chains will screen what comes from major distributors and outside of the inner city arthouse theatres, there is little in the way of the alternative or non-mainstream, which was I believe the starting point for the debate about Williamson.

    I defer to your knowledge of theatre and cannot offer any views on many of the plays you cite and know. I take your word on the value of the productions and am not defending Williamson here. In short though, my position is that the fault for dross lies with the ‘safeness’ of those who finance the arts; that’d they’d rather a ‘name’ like Williamson (or a Spielberg) than to gamble on the new and innovative.

    I’m not sure we are at odds on any of this, perhaps just a difference in where we see the problem begins. To me, it’s not with the writer/author/director but those who chose the same old lazy things over again, rather than the writer of the same old lazy things!

    PS, I think you underrate Wages of Fear, so much of which has been appropriate by American directors and writers over the years, including Friedkin’s dreadful remake.

    Finally, I can’t say I enjoyed Phar Lap, War Horse or indeed Sea Biscuit. The horse genre is one that fails to excite, as do most films where dogs, penguins, monkeys or kangaroos are the star attraction.


    • On your recommendation I’ll go back to The Skin I Live In which seemed to my wife and me to be nonsense unexpectedly from cinema’s current Shakespeare (Ingmar Bergman for twenty years, Preston Sturges for five, Leni Riefenstahl for five and DW Griffiths for seven previously held the accolade), but not to We Need To Talk About Kevin which is a well-made, ‘evil’-brandishing pack of denialist lies about childhood and what happens to kids who turn out badly. For my response to The Iron Lady see elsewhere in these pages my irritated admiration for and disappointment with it.

      I sense you are about sixty-four years old. Am I right?

      It’s good to talk to you. It is a genuine conversation. And indeed a Golden Age.

      I again ask ‘Bob’ to identify himself, and to name the young playwrights David has helped.

      Who are you?

      • No answer from ‘Bob’ yet. He sounds so much like David one might suspect he was a Williamson relative. Or a lawyer perhaps. Or a Sunshine Coast neighbour. It’s unlikely someone unacquainted with David, or his business affairs, would write this letter.

        Perhaps it’s David himself. Will the real ‘Bob’ now identify himself and allay this unruly suspicion


        • The prose flows too well to be David. The internal clues suggest that ‘Bob’ may be a ‘young writer’ - and at face value, not a friend or relation. But the silence is deafening.

  10. I don’t blame Williamson. He brought massive box office incomes to the theatres, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Ensemble, the Melbourne Theatre Company.

    He gave them lines of people at the box office, who came for whatever reason into the theatre and by doing so, gave the theatre companies opportunities to finance the development of young playwrights.

    But they didn’t. Their efforts were at best tokenistic and instead they squandered the best opportunity in years to create a vibrant arts scene.

    Blame the theatres. Blame Nevin, Berthold, Hodgman, Gow, Phillips, Armfield, Bates and the rest. The state of the sector is their legacy.

    They created an industry that is a closed shop. And still is.

  11. A shop closed around the brand name Williamson. It’s as if Screen Australia only funded films by Peter Weir.

    I invite David to say what he thinks about all this. And if he is, or one of his children is, or his agent, or his accountant is ‘Bob’.

  12. Agree that it’s a good time for cinema at the moment, certainly a lot of fine films being made.

    The whole back-and-forth between you and Terrance over where the problem begins is quite interesting. Who is the arbiter of good art? Surely at some point everything becomes somewhat subjective. New artistic movements often arise through rejection of the prevailing style of the time, eg the romantics rejecting the cold rationalism of the enlightenment, punk being created in reaction to prog-rock, etc.

    You can’t truly say that one film is better that another in the same way you can say, eg, that iron has a higher atomic weight than helium. That being said, most people would probably agree that Citizen Kane is a better film than Big Momma’s House 2.

    As for the whole relaxed and comfortable mediocre nature of things, I think that’s just Australia. I feel as though our country is in love with bland, suburban mediocrity, as if it’s the greatest virtue one can possess.

    I can’t really comment on the whole Williamson closed shop thing as I’m not too familiar with the theatre industry, something I should really try and change.

    Sorry for the slightly disjointed post, I’m knackered from a week of snowboarding. Will post more once I sleep for a few days

Leave a Comment

* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here:

8,094 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>