A brief talk on the plays of Patrick White, which I delivered yesterday at the Melbourne Writers Festival as part of the event Remembering Patrick White. My fellow panelists were David Marr, Rodney Hall and Peter Craven, chaired by Sophie Cunningham. Readings by Benedict Hardie and Edwina Wren.
Playwrights are a very particular breed of writer. Anyone who has read the plays of James Joyce or Leo Tolstoy will know that the ability to write transcendent prose doesn’t guarantee the ability to write for the theatre. Nor does a gift for writing plays necessarily transfer to other forms: Jean Genet’s and Tennessee Williams’ forays into poetry were generally dire. All the same, there are writers who have created significant works across different forms – Samuel Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek and Bertolt Brecht all spring to mind as writers whose plays are equally as significant as their poetry or novels. Patrick White is another.
|L-R Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Hayley McElhinney in Benedict Andrews's The Season at Sarsaparilla. Photo: Tania Kelley|
Playwrights differ from other writers because the demands of their form are different. Writing a play requires another kind of imagination to that of a novel: a precise sense of the spatial dynamics of a stage, a musical intuition for the rhythms of spoken language, a certain fondness for the necessary vulgarities and strict limitations of theatre.
Above all, a playwright is a writer who collaborates: she profoundly understands that writing is only one aspect of the complex process of making and receiving a work of art. This is true of all writing, of course: publication is a long process of negotiation, from contracts to editing, from writing to book design. But in the theatre these processes are naked, and challenge the illusion that the writer is a solitary figure making a solitary work of art. The successful realisation of a play depends as much on the other artists who collaborate in a production as it does on a writer: the production crew, the lighting and set designers, the director, the actors. This is, as many playwrights have said in different ways, both the misery and the joy of theatre.
A playwright, in other words, is a writer in the theatre: she is a writer enamoured by the form in all its complexities, not someone who thinks that a play is simply a novel animated by breathing meat. When a writer of the formidable literary abilities of Patrick White turns out to be a theatre writer as well, you get something special. White’s relationship with the theatre was as fractious as it was with everything else, but it produced some of our most stunning plays.
White’s plays broadly fall into two surges: the four premiered in the 1960s by John Tasker and John Sumner, and the later plays, written after a 13 year gap between 1977 and 1987, which were premiered by Jim Sharman and Neil Armfield. It’s wholly unsurprising that he should only write for theatre when he found collaborators who might realise his work, and the fact is that his writing presents challenges that can only be met by artists who attack them with equal imaginativeness. But that’s as true of Beckett as it is of White.
From the early expressionism of The Ham Funeral and A Cheery Soul, to the heightened naturalism of Big Toys, to the audacious, highly wrought theatricality of Netherworld and Shepherd on the Rocks, White’s plays show a writer constantly exploring and pushing at the limits of his form. He is highly aware of the several languages of theatre, of how visuals and performance reinforce and complicate the meanings of speech, of the metaphor of the stage. He has a novelist’s gift for character, and, crucially, a poet’s ear for the sensuous properties of language.
I’ve never understood those who dismiss Patrick White’s plays as secondary works. Is it simply that we like our artists to fit neatly into pigeonholes? As Dorothy Hewett, another shape shifter, said: “I’ve discovered that literary critics are very, very suspicious of people who change genres. They think there is something suspect about it. … you are a Jack of all Trades or a Jill of all trades and master or mistress of none.”
Or is this dismissal, more depressingly, a literary illiteracy about theatre itself? Like critic John McCallum, I think that White is “one of the most important Australian stage writers of the 20th century”, and like him I regret that “it has taken Australian theatre nearly forty years to catch up with White’s early plays”. We seem not have caught up with his later works at all.
These plays show a writer alive to the imaginative possibilities of the stage, exploring its fluidities as physical embodiments of spiritual and philosophical ideas. He loved its artifice, jamming together lyric beauty and vaudevillean vulgarity. He wrote sublimely for actors, and his plays have starred many of our best – Kate Fitzpatrick, Kerry Walker, John Gaden, Geoffrey Rush, Zoe Caldwell, Robyn Nevin. He has stimulated the imaginations of significant directors, from John Tasker to Neil Armfield and Jim Sharman, to the new generation of Michael Kantor and Benedict Andrews. He remains one of the few playwrights of his generation to capture the imagination of contemporary theatre artists.
Despite such champions, White’s plays often seem to exist in a weird cultural netherworld. As University of London academic Elizabeth Shafer commented in an essay on the direction of his work, “there has been little sustained discussion of White’s plays in performance”, even though the process of producing a play for the stage is among the most relentless of critical inquiries.
White’s plays appeared on the Australian stage in the early 60s like aliens, bringing into an Australian idiom a theatre that was already well-established in Europe: a theatre of philosophical tragi-comedy, grounded in physical expression. Watching Michael Kantor’s production of The Ham Funeral in 2005 at the Malthouse Theatre, perhaps what struck me above all is how Australian it is: it may have been written in London in 1947, anticipating the later plays of Ionesco and Beckett, and it may have been written in Cockney, but its idiom, its humour and, perhaps, its audacity, are deeply and indefinably Australian.
Perhaps White’s misfortune was that he was a parochial playwright with an international sensibility. I mean parochial in the best sense, as Chekhov was parochial, his work located in and responding to parochial conditions, and bringing to them a wit and insight that was anything but petty. But his plays emerged in a culture that was parochial in the worst sense, as was very clear when The Ham Funeral was rejected by the 1962 Adelaide Festival of the Arts.
It’s interesting and sometimes depressing to read the contemporary reviews of the premieres of his plays: the metatheatricality and excess of his dramaturgy often caused puzzlement or hostility, and there is much bleating about their “literariness”, as if lyrical writing is somehow mutually exclusive to theatre. And yet it’s those very qualities, rendered then as faults, that make his work exciting now. His plays never quite found a home here, just the odd little lighthouse, and you can’t help wondering what might have happened if they had.