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.