David Williamson, again, really? How do we — by which I mean 19 people across the country, and all three million citizens of Melbourne — get so hung up on Australia’s most overstretched playwright? This time around it was prompted by an explosion by Jason Whittaker here, replied to by Annabelle Crabb defending the tall one against all criticism, which gained a response from Alison Croggon. Today, even Miranda Devine has weighed in.

Whittaker’s response had been an example of that peculiarly Australian disease Williamsonatus Inflammatus, which occurs whenever someone who loves theatre encounters a late Williamson play, and has an involuntary reaction to the thin gruel being served up. Crabb’s defence was a bit of an own goal, given that she wrote it the day before she saw the play, and has maintained radio silence since. Croggon’s response on The Drum (and which seems to have disappeared) to Crabb was that popularity does not equal quality — true, and lucky for Croggon, given the audience numbers for her work.

Your correspondent has acquired immunity to Williamsonatus Inflammatus, passing, as every theatre-goer does through the five stages, which match those of dying: anger, depression, denial, bargaining, acceptance. Curiously, they occur in each individual Williamson play, as in one’s reaction to his oeuvre. Eventually, you make your peace with them. They’re meh scripts at a middling romcom level, that gain an oomph from being enacted live. Their audience could get similar drama from an episode of Packed To The Rafters for free, but they choose to pay 60 bucks to see it enacted on stage. The STC was right to dump him, just as Ensemble was right to take him up, as a paying proposition, and MTC right to keep him, as a cross-subsidy. They’re well-made, and they speak to people who like butter chicken and Kenny G, no one gets hurt, leave it alone. Acceptance.

The lingering refusal to reach that final stage comes from two sources. One is Williamson’s repeated insistence that he is in fact the Australian Moliere, which tends to cancel any generous allowance one might make for the plays’ limited ambitions, because he keeps implying that it’s our fault we’re bored and dissatisfied 15 minutes in. But the second emotion is a genuine disappointment that Williamson didn’t develop after The Club (1976), and give us plays more deserving of a Molieresque/Chekhovian label.

Every successful realist playwright faces the challenge Williamson encountered after The Club, that of facility. Command of form has been achieved, so the close relation between form and content characteristic of early work — where one is trying to find a way to say something — has come apart. The playwright has effectively created a machine into which any material can be plugged, and adequate content extruded, to be chopped off in play-size lengths.

There are two responses to that. One is that of writers such as Arthur Miller and Simon Gray, which is to successively re-invent form for new content, while remaining in the realist framework, never letting your talent settle and set. The other is to accept it and go into TV and movies, where facility is all. Williamson, somewhat anachronistically, has chosen facility but stayed in theatre, a latter-day Arthur Wing Pinero. The particular structure of Australian theatre subsidisation has had more of a hand in this than most of its participants and beneficiaries are willing to admit.

Does Williamson have one great play left in him? He has already written the treatment for it, in his famous article about a Sitmar-esque cruise he took en famille — which largely involved him berating the sort of people who form his audience for enjoying their holiday at the casino, and not visiting the folk museum, etc, etc. In the play (with a hat tip to JM Barrie), the raddled passengers spend more and more time hiding from the William Davidsons, the terrifying couple talking about global warming and giving novel readings in the Aloha Lounge, until the ship hits a reef and sinks.

When the desperate survivors drag themselves onto the atoll, the crew dead, who will lead them? None other than the tall playwright, voice booming, lecturing people about which berries are edible. By the end of act one, they exalt him as a hero. By end act two, like many a hero, he has been crucified as a sacrificial offering to appease angry gods.

But in act three, set centuries later, when the lost island is finally discovered, a strange thing has happened. The playwright’s collected works, (which he retrieved from the sinking ship) the island’s only literature, has become its holy texts, its Hammurabic code. All moral questions are resolved by recourse to The Administration, or Mansard’s Folly or Christmas in Esk or similar works. Meanwhile, Mrs Davidson’s coming-of-age novels have become the society’s sacred myths of origin, intoned at ceremonies. At all other times, the entire population speaks in Davidsonesque dialogue. The title? Davidson’s Island. Dude, you’re on it.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off