David Williamson Essay - Critical Essays


The early honors marking the achievements of so young a playwright must have been gratifying and encouraging to David Williamson as he battled against the established Australian theater. He comments on that battle’s victorious outcome in an article that appeared in Meanjin (1974), a journal that has long challenged Australia’s traditional approach to art. Although titled “The Removalists: A Conjunction of Limitations,” the article includes, in addition to commentary on the play, some frank observations regarding the state of Australian theater when Williamson and his contemporaries decided that the country needed and deserved its own dramatic literature.

Theater in Australia, Williamson noted, has always flourished but only as an import business that considered its sole purpose the presentation of what was good from Europe and that would therefore educate and uplift “the barbarous beer-swilling populace” of Australia by showing them Europe’s “more refined and sensitive values.” Until the early 1970’s, Williamson pointed out, plays by Australians about Australians held low priority, relegated as they were to coffeehouse theaters and small audiences. Such had been the fate of his first works.

By 1974, however, attitudes had changed so wholly that he could write: “As far as drama is concerned, the battle has been won.” General audiences and the administrators of the large state-subsidized theaters had recognized at last the need to explore Australia on the stage and to support those dramatic explorations. Not many years earlier, when plays like Williamson’s The Coming of Stork were enjoying “short weekend seasons” in small theaters before meager audiences, such a reassuring outcome to such a long-standing conflict must have seemed unlikely. The work of Williamson and other playwrights who came into their own during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s now holds a secure place in Australian theatrical repertory. That their work has been made available in reader’s editions also shows that the literary value of these dramas is appreciated and recognized.

The plays of Williamson are distinguished by their naturalism, which they attain through disciplined structure, exact sense of place, honest and sympathetic treatment of characters, vivid language, and comedy. In each play, these elements combine to reveal believable characters caught up in familiar human conflicts. Yet the dramas consistently reach beyond the limitations of specific incidents, time, and place; in this reaching, however, they sidestep moralizing or didacticism, relying instead for their meaning on the mundane actions and often muddled responses of ordinary people.

In stage directions, Williamson stresses that the plays are “naturalistic” and should be produced accordingly. What he means by naturalistic critics have debated, but notes from directors who have worked with Williamson reveal that naturalistic to the playwright means exactly what it says: The plays should be performed in a natural manner. The scripts, even when read, do display a remarkable degree of naturalness, an outcome dependent in part on their disciplined structure.

Until Travelling North and The Perfectionist, Williamson followed the dictates of the well-made play, which makes his work more like George Bernard Shaw’s, Henrik Ibsen’s, or Anton Chekhov’s than like that of many contemporary playwrights, who rely on fragmentary scenes, unpredictable shifts of time and place, role doubling, and so on. Williamson constructed these two plays with a series of short scenes set in varied places, but he did not permit this departure from his usual method to shatter the sense of reality for which he strives. Whether the action takes a few minutes or an hour, he maintains the tension and conflict essential to his kind of drama. Believable characters come into conventional rooms, carry out everyday activities—eating, drinking, smoking, fighting, and entering into conversations that may lead nowhere, that may be interrupted, or that may erupt in anger—and then leave the stage to continue their lives elsewhere. Rarely does a resolution take place.

Williamson has accepted the maxim that writers should write about what they know. He knows urban Australia, especially the two major cities, Melbourne and Sydney; he knows Australians, too, particularly the middle-class, educated, city-dwelling ones; and he understands and sympathizes with their ambitions, frustrations, and quirks. He has put this thorough knowledge and understanding to good use in each of his plays.

Whether the action of a Williamson play takes place in a suburban living room or in a cluttered engineering laboratory at a technical college, the setting for that action is exact, made so by street names, references to climate, distance, city districts, commercial names, and so on. Many people outside Australia know only of the country’s Outback—those vast stretches of land sparsely inhabited by sheep, kangaroos, weathered bushmen, and Aborigines; few realize that 70 percent of Australians live in its five large cities. In part, this misconception stems from the tendency of Australian dramatists and fiction writers, until the 1970’s or so, to set their works in the Outback, thereby giving the impression that Australia lacked an urban life. Williamson has helped to dispel that myth.

Australians have often been depicted by both their own writers and those abroad as bumptious colonials bragging and swaggering to hide their innate sense of insecurity. Williamson avoids such parody and stereotypical portrayals. Granted, his characters often swear and drink excessively, display crassness and greed, treat women as chattel, praise and indulge in violence, mouth racist slogans, and display all the other attitudes purported to be the mark of an Australian. Those characters caught up in the conflict of a Williamson play, however, never suffer unabated ridicule, for Williamson shows sympathy toward them in spite of the disagreeable habits and attitudes he takes such pains to reveal. He makes it evident, first, that such qualities are not peculiar to Australia alone but typical of many Western nations. Second, he lends characters more than one dimension, so that they emerge as troubled and pained humans striving to grasp their predicament, a predicament shared by all men and women at some time or another.

The plays’ language, like their structure, settings, and characters, never veers from the naturalistic tone Williamson demands of his art. The dialogue abounds in Australianisms, such as “poofter” for homosexual, “daks” for trousers, “uni” for university, and so on. An uninformed playgoer or reader might at first long for a glossary, but these words meld so perfectly into the dialogue that their meaning becomes evident in context. The words add color and capture the unique rhythm of Australian speech, which Williamson reproduces so splendidly.

Profanity, too, is excessive, almost at times to the point of annoyance, which may well be the purpose of all the “bloodies” and four-letter words. In The Coming of Stork, the play’s namesake is notably foulmouthed, and after he suggests that one of his friends “piss off,” that character analyzes the command: “There you are,” he says. “Piss, a simple colloquial word meaning ‘to urinate’ and off, another simple word suggesting movement, but put them together and there’s a rather telling forcefulness about the phrase.” When in anger Stork shouts the words again, his friend replies: “Yes that’s, er, very good Stork, but if you say it too often it does tend to lose its impact.”

Australian critic Roslyn Arnold sees this profane and abusive language as more than superficial; in her 1975 article “Aggressive Vernacular: Williamson, Buzo and the Australian Tradition,” she observes that the language “strikes down into the preoccupations and motivations of the characters, sheds light on social rituals, and raises questions about contemporary Australian life and the traditions informing it.” At the conclusion of her discussion, however, Arnold finds it a “pity” that the new playwrights do not “extend that language to explore the possible depths” of relationships rather than their “width.” Williamson seems to have done exactly that, for his later plays depend less on the “aggressive vernacular” and more on language that leads its speakers to probe the mysteries of the human involvements with which they wrestle.

Although comedy may not seem appropriate for naturalistic theater, it remains a staple in Williamson’s plays, to the extent that critics have accused him of relying on cheap gags, one-liners, and farcical situations. Disputing this charge, Williamson has said again and again that his work may be humorous but should neither be played for laughs nor taken as purely comic. The disparity between Williamson’s subject matter and his comic treatment of it is best illustrated by the comments of a reviewer for the International Herald Tribune. He describes The Removalists as “a brutal play and also a hilarious one, an extraordinarily funny treatment of violence”; he then admits that “a comedy in which a man is beaten to a bloody and lifeless pulp” might seem “unlikely or contradictory,” but the reviewer concludes that...

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