Don Parties On is doing gangbusters at the box office so it’s obvious not everybody hates it. In fact sitting in the three preview audiences it was even more obvious that not everybody hated it. The laughter and applause was genuine. This play was relating to many lives out there.
It’s not often that a young deputy editor of a news outlet, who has just given you the worst crit you have ever received in your life, invites you to respond openly and critically and I thank Jason Whittaker for that. Rather than attempt to do a Ricky Gervais on him, I’d like to reflect on the issues his crit raised and to try and do it in as open and non-defensive way as I can, because the issues are important — not just for theatre, but for the arts in general.
Part of Jason’s dislike I surmise was generational. He’s a young man; I’m not. Jason wanted to see what he sees as the vapidness of our current social and political scene not only skewered but analysed and solutions suggested for our present malaise. Don Parties On was always going to disappoint him on this level, along with many concerned and intelligent members of his generation.
I was laughing as I wrote the political utterings of Don and his friends. They, as just about all of us do, were spouting the current social and political clichés of the time. My play is saying these ageing bullsh-t artists haven’t much to offer in the way of political and social analysis.
The early boomer generation, which I’m depicting, is probably the most fortunate in the history of the world. The world’s carbon party was in full swing, eating up a fossil fuel legacy that took a billion years to create, and ignoring the increasingly pressing problems of resource depletion and climate change.
In fact the title Don Parties On has another level. As Don admits, in the end, his generation are the ones who partied on in a way that their grandchildren’s generation will not be able to. The boomers moved into cheap housing and made a fortune as housing prices skyrocketed by up to 8000% over 40 years, effectively locking the next generations out of the housing market.
This is not a generation that future generations warm to. There’s a sense that we had it all and they’ve got to clean up the mess. In fact, a central theme of Don Parties On is an apology, expressed by Don at the end of the play to the generations coming after them.
So Jason’s reaction to the play is understandable. The play, unashamedly, is about my generation. And it’s not about their political thoughts. It’s about how lives have been spent. It’s about comparing the happiness and success of your friend’s life with yours and feeling resentful if you come off second best. It’s about comparing the success of your children with the children of others and feeling even more resentful if yours come off second-best.
But it’s also about forgiveness and life-long friendship overcoming those resentments. It’s about the importance of marriage and the unconditional love of one’s children and the importance of human tolerance and love. And it’s about enduring damage done by reckless acts many years ago.
They’re themes that I think are crucial and inevitable to those of my age. But it’s expressing those themes within a framework that oscillates between drama, satire, farce, melodrama and comedy, which Jason also seems to have objected to.
From the start of my career I’ve always mixed genres within the one work, which tends to delight audiences but often alienates critics. The original critical reaction to Don’s Party and The Removalists, now regarded as classics, was that the characters were disappointingly two dimensional. The plays were initially seen as failed naturalism rather than mixed-genre works whose bedrock was satire.
I have always been less interested in peeling the layers of the onion to see what lies beneath, as classic naturalism demands, than letting the outer layers of the onion bounce off each other in the endless social dance for status, power, love and recognition.
Ah well, I’m too old a dog to change my tricks, but Jason’s attack did bring up broader aesthetic issues that have always interested me. He said: “The Melbourne Theatre Company should be condemned for allowing ‘mainstream’ theatregoers … to believe that the art form isn’t any better than this.” He seemed to be saying that the MTC should make the decision, on the basis of his opinion of my work, not to program me. But he went on to make it clear it wasn’t just his opinion. He said: “Elites should exorcise him [Williamson] at once.”
“Elites” of any epoch have always made the judgement as to what is “serious” art and what is trivial entertainment. The problem is they’re often wrong. In his brilliant book called Serious Art, the philosopher John Passmore shows just how difficult it is to decide what is serious art and what isn’t. He gives examples of how time and time again the serious art anointed by one epoch’s elites is the pretentious and forgotten art of the next epoch and how the entertainment of one epoch becomes the venerated art of the next.
Bach was considered old-fashioned and pedestrian by the elites of his time, but he’s now commonly regarded as possibly the greatest composer ever. Shakespeare was regarded as a popular entertainer and his scripts not even worthy of keeping for future generations. When he retreated back to Stratford in his early 50s he was sure his writing career had achieved little and strove to remake himself as a provincial property owner. Luckily some of his fellow actors, years after his death, wrote down his complete plays as an act of homage to a man they venerated. Moliere churned out his comedies in order to finance his “real” art, his tragedies. Now no theatre in its right mind would perform anything other than his comedies.
I’m reasonably sure that in the art form of sitcom Frasier will be judged a masterpiece by future generations, a view certainly not shared by our present artistic elites.
So for the “elites” to exorcise me, as Jason urges them to do, they’d need to be sure they’re right, which history shows is harder than it looks.
Personally, I prefer the ancient Greek method of assessment where the whole audience voted for best play of the year by dropping marbles into barrels. Interestingly, the plays they chose are the ones that have survived.
I guess I’m saying that I’d prefer history to judge me rather than a group of self-appointed Philosopher Kings.
Simon Phillips, the artistic director of the MTC, put it this way when under pressure from our present coterie of theatrical Philosopher Kings to drop me from his repertoire on aesthetic grounds: “It’s kind of annoying to create a paradigm which implies that MTC audiences aren’t allowed to see a playwright whose work they clearly enjoy.”
How can I not agree?