September 01, 1996

Writing and Re-righting

Dead White Males
by David Williamson

Sydney Theatre Company
in association with the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust
Her Majesty’s

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There is nothing that David Williamson won’t grab by the tail and swing into the theatrical arena. Whether it is the protocols of the New Rich, the ethical obligations of lawyers and journalists, the complexities of sexual harassment procedures, the truth of anthropological research or-as in Dead White Males- the arcana of cultural and literary theory. It is this which makes Williamson remarkable and unique. For twenty five years he has been our Ibsen, almost singlehandedly presenting the middle-class to itself, an anatomist of our manners and follies. He has diced and sliced us into epigrams and one-liners, a bite-sized satirist for a large and mainstream audience. It is an extraordinary achievement, unrivalled in our theatre history.

But in recent times he has been less our Ibsen and more our Oliver Stone, seizing the big issues and reducing them to cartoons and unctuous homilies. Williamson has a brilliant sense of dramatic situation but too many of his plays collapse in a melange of sentiment, oversimplification and evasion. No-one says that he has to solve the thorny questions he raises but very often the imperatives of plot lead to a kind of summary dismissal which subverts much of what has preceded it. It is as though he is drawn to complexity ultimately only to resent it.

This is certainly observable in Dead White Males. His most ambitious work to date, it is both broad reaching in theme and for Williamson, theatrically unorthodox. Its immediate target is highly specific- the excesses of postmodernist literary and cultural theory, and in particular its challenge to the Top 40 canon of “dead white males”. But the larger concern, delved by earnest quester Angela Judd, is the condition of the Australian family twenty years on from seventies feminism. Angela is at uni and enrolled in Literary Theory IA under the thrall of Dr Grant Swain, a spivvy iconoclast who favours the “multicultural feminist project.” Undertaking a research project with her own family she interviews everyone – grandparents Col and Grace, her parents Martin and Sarah and aunts Jessica and Monica. She also has a series of conversations with William Shakespeare.

This is potentially rich territory and Williamson lays his ground convincingly. Swain’s lecture on the construction of ideology and the unexamined dominance of liberal humanism suggests that the playwright is intent on tangling with ideas as someone like Tom Stoppard likes to. Similarly, the seventy-seventh birthday gathering for Col Judd has all the potential for detailed characterisation and family dynamics. Unfortunately it soon emerges that both Williamson’s text and Wayne Harrison’s direction are taking Dead White Males into a very short circuit.

Let it be said that contemporary academic literary theory offers plenty of rope for a hanging. It has, in its extreme, developed a masonic language and a pharisaical politburo to enforce its orthodoxies. But Dr Grant Swain is even more the straw man than Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury’s seventies version of the History Man. Perhaps Williamson begins his case too well. Swain’s opening lecture is not unreasonable. Instead the playwright resorts to easy caricature and the audience’s distrust of all specialist language. And anyway, what must we think of the man who in the opening scene has murdered William Shakespeare before he can even finish his sentence.

Thematically, Dead White Males is a kind of cultural fightback. Although surely the playwright protests too much. Despite vigorous debate on the merits of Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare is scarcely under siege from the academy nor are the Swains casting their pearls to more than a minority. The notion that the intellectual life of the nation is hostage to feminists and PC cops is a fantasy- although given the enthusiastic responses from the opening night audience it is, undoubtedly, a convenient misconception.

The questions raised – about gender identity, about the nature of the contemporary family as a power vacuum with competing breadwinners – are very real. We have a transformed work force which is at odds with our domestic structures. Williamson is right to ask where all these changes have taken men and women and boys and girls. But the trouble with Dead White Males is that it is loaded with grumpy, disillusioned career women and wimpy, don’t-know-how-not-put-their-feet-in-it blokes. The play hinges on a kind of special pleading located in three key speeches- from Steve, the student who would be a mechanic, from crusty old digger Col, who turns out to be a lifelong benefactor to a struggling family, and from Martin, retrenched, emasculated and disenfranchised snag hubby to Sarah. And forsooth, I almost forgot, William the bard has his say as well. Prithee, he thinketh it all to be a load of ye olde bollocks.

Wayne Harrison has apparently decided that it is his task to rescue David Williamson from the grip of TV naturalism so he has enveloped the production with a feverish theatricality. John Senczuk’s set, from the opening pyramid of light to the repetitive use of red curtaining, is full of flourish, while the representation of Shakespeare and all his works, uncomfortably impersonated by Michael Fry, is also misconceived. As for Swain’s final visitation by demons, it is far too much, far too late.

The direction hampers a number of the performances although Jillian O’Dowd has a pleasing freshness as Angela as does Joel Edgerton as Steve. John Diedrich’s Swain is a too much of a seventies throwback to convince as a nineties zealot. It is a valiant performance but he is abandoned by the text almost immediately. Similarly Barbara Stephens’ Sarah is set up for the stocks and as her mother and sisters, Maggie Blinco, Gillian Hyde and Susie Edmonds are forced to play panto dames. Williamson’s family banter – artfully handled by a more restrained Robert Alexander as Martin- is generally turned into a kind of Edna Everage shrillness. As Col, Ron Graham deals manfully with the long and winding apologia in Act Two but no-one could escape embarassment in the corny Lear sequence.

Dead White Males is a disappointment. Williamson begins with a debate but he is not really interested in letting it run. Instead he gives himself -and the audience- easy options and easy rationalisations. It is easy to think that a crisis in liberal debate could be solved by firing all university post-structuralists and quitting the place to become something useful like a car mechanic. It is easy to say that, finally, Kate wants Petruchio not the wimp. It is also a very popular thing to say, judging by the first night cheers. But it isn’t very engaging or interesting. Having given us so much to think about, Dead White Males gives us very little to think with.

The Adelaide Review, September, 1996.

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