Drama and the Dark Art of Biography
In this creative presentation, Timothy Daly and actors will show how dormant historical material is turned into viable and exciting contemporary theatre.
Timothy Daly is one of Australia’s most internationally-produced playwrights with a string of national and international productions to his credit and featuring leading companies and actors, including Geoffrey Rush in The Don’s Last Innings, Cate Blanchett in Kafka Dances, and Jacki Weaver in Derrida in Love. Kafka Dances has won over a dozen national and international awards since its première and is the most internationally-performed Australian play of all time. Timothy Daly specialises in the complex and difficult art of dramatising significant cultural and political figures, including Franz Kafka, J.Edgar Hoover, conductor Eugene Goossens and most recently, Donald Friend, the subject of his 2017 National Library research.
Refreshments will be served in the Foyer following the event.
Timothy Daly is the 2017 Friends Creative Arts Fellow, supported by the Friends of the National Library
Image: Balinese Shadow Puppets, Eden Pictures, flickr.com
*Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Jerry Hearn (J), Lexi Sekulus (L), Timothy Daily (T)
K: Well good evening. We might get our evening underway and for those of you who don't know me, I'm Kathryn Favelle, I look after Community Outreach here at the Library. And one of the perks of my job is that I'm also one of three library representatives on the committee of the Friends of the National Library of Australia.
Tonight we're going to be exploring creativity and culture and how you work with the past to create something new and exciting. Yesterday I had the privilege to attend the opening of a new Indigenous centre prize called WINYA and to see how this design company is working to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through business but also through adapting cultural traditions for a new and contemporary audience. So tonight I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and I honour their ongoing culture and creativity. I pay my respects to the Elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present and for any of our first nations people here tonight, I'd like to welcome you to the National Library.
We're here this evening, thanks to the Friends of the National Library, who very generously support the Library's Creative Arts Fellowship. Like all our Fellowships, the Creative Arts Fellowship enables the researcher to spend time exploring our collections. What makes this fellowship a little different is that the researcher is someone with an ongoing professional creative practice and their goal is to use the collections here at the Library to inspire a new work or works of art. This year's Creative Art Fellow is Timothy Daly, a playwright with lots of experience in a string of national and international productions to his credit. These have featured actors including Geoffrey Rush in the Don's Last Innings, Cate Blanchett in Kafka Dances and Jacki Weaver in Derrida in Love. Kafka Dances is a play that you're probably quite familiar with, if only because it's won over a dozen national and international awards.
So what happens when we let an experienced playwright roam freely amongst the Library's collections. Well we're about to find out. Tonight, Timothy's going to reveal the outcomes of his research with a little help from actors, Lexi Sekulus and Jerry Hearn. Please join me in welcoming Timothy, Lexi and Jerry.
J: Let me tell you how I live. From 8:00 until 2:00 in the office and then I have lunch until 3:00 then a sleep, more often sleeplessness until 7:30, assuming I don't have to help my father in the shop which isn't often. And then 10 minutes' of exercise, an hour's walk with friends then dinner with the family and finally at 10:30 I start to breathe freely again. Sometimes I write until 3am, or I used to when I wrote. Once I went until 6:00 in the morning. That was when I could write. Everyday was the same, unable to write but condemned to try and then I sleep for an hour, or try to. Usually I lie there wondering if the most important event of the day will occur.
L: And what's that?
J: A letter from you.
T: That excerpt, ladies and gentleman, is from a play of mine called Kafka Dances which Kathryn referred to then and I'm very pleased to say in the last 20 years it's become the most internationally produced Australian play of all time and yet it's not an Australian subject. This is one of the many paradoxes we're going to encounter tonight; what is Australian story-making. The fact that there was a Czech writer who wrote in German, was written about by an Australian playwright might tell you something about the complex and bizarre world you are going to experience for an hour. You won't necessarily have seen a lot of my work although I've had over a dozen plays produced in Australia, because in the last couple of decades I've had many more international productions than local ones. This is not necessarily a problem. A friend said to me, where do you want to produce, Paris or Parramatta, and I thought for three seconds.
So it's only a problem if you don't like airplanes. Fortunately I do. So fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentleman, once and we're in for a bumpy and complex ride into the dark art of dramatic biography. The story of my involvement with the National Library started over a year ago with a single delightful email.
L: Dear Mr Daly, on behalf of the Friends of the National Library I have the pleasure of informing you that you have won the 2017 Creative Fellowship to be conducted at the National Library, Canberra.
T: Imagine my delight, gentle readers. Well what I said before isn't quite true, I've been a fan of the National Library for over 30 years, in fact as long as I've been writing. I've regarded this Library almost like a place of pilgrimage, it's the place you go to to find that book, that single journal et cetera, often as the only place in the country that had it. When I started 20, 30 years ago it was all about books, things you held in your hands, you smelled and got the sole of that book from it. So, and this is the one place that I could go. So I've been to Canberra more times than - So anyway I have a special relationship, personal relationship with the Library to use the vast resources to assist me in writing a play about the late Donald Friend, painter, bon vivant, raconteur, obsessive diarist and a lover of boys, young and old, but mostly young.
This isn't the first biographical play I've written, on the contrary I've written quite a few plays about historical figures, people like J Edgar Hoover, Head of the FBI, Eugene Goossens who did so much to create music in Sydney. Hugo Ball, the founder of the Dada movement. It wasn't Tristan Zajcew, it was a crazy German called Hugo Ball. So I've written plays about also people obsessed with historical characters too, about a man obsessed with Don Bradman, et cetera. In short I believe in the great lessons of history and historical figures. That could be a controversial thought in these subversive days of cultural relativism and anti-Western studies dressed up as oriental studies and other reductionist programs, but I believe in there's something to learn from greatness.
Now a number of these characters started, studied and wrote plays about, were not very nice people, with perhaps the very charming exception of Eugene Goossens you probably wouldn't bring any of them home to meet mum. But the creative principle's always the same. My motive was simple. Enter the darkness to find the light. Because not too simple to say that all theatre plays have as their central allegory, the clash of the inner life with the outer life. The fight between soul and society, the conflict between what's inside us and what we show to the world. Everyone's sitting here tonight has had this fundamental dilemma in your own lives that you've all had to face in so many ways as you grow and where you fit in the world, but when you do great things, important, significant historical things in the world and get very famous, the dilemma is increased, not least because the world eventually knows us, it finds out what we believe, finds out what you do or what you don't do.
On the surface Donald Friend is a very easy person to like, he had immense charm and likeability, but contemporary drama for many reasons does not really concern it with likeability. We live in an age where drama is a complex mixture of humanism, where the interest is in the human being and his or her psychology and modernism which is where the psychological dimension gets reduced because more pressing issues have to be explored, the nature of the meeting itself, whether it's paint, canvas, theatre space, whatever. And the best contemporary theatre tends to blend those two aesthetics. You don't sit there saying oh that's a fascinating blend of modernism and humanism because the work in a sense should be so overwhelming you don't even notice. But that's how the practitioners approach it, they know what cultural things are going on and they - so really, dramas become an act of synthesis of whole traditions.
Anyway the more I read about Mr Friend, the more I found this was proving difficult. As Kathryn said, I was wandering around the isles of the National Library getting lost repeatedly because if you think it's a complex thing in the Library you should try the rabbit warrens downstairs. Because I was trying to basically work out, how do you dramatise the person, this man, in a way that's both fair to the man and the artist now that he's dead. Perhaps one clue from Donald Friend's diary, it might provide a clue as to why he's a difficult person to dramatise. He was writing about the people of Bali and he made the following rather acidic comment.
J: And why is the island sad and dark and poor? Because behind the vivid festivals, behind the eccentric gods and demons, behind the huge green leaves and scarlet flowers that conceal the monkeys and imps and gargoyles and ghosts, there are thousands of concrete offices full of lieutenants and captains and colonels, all shining and smiling and neat. The sons of good families, they have neat little round arses like smooth apples, they sit on their arses and smile politely. They are the symbols of power.
T: Now on the one hand this is a very perceptive comment about the cast, the casual cast system in the inlaid corruption of Balinese society. But one looks in vain in the diaries or anything anywhere else in the special collections for a similar insight from Donald Friend into himself. And contemporary dramas needs its protagonists to know themselves, however imperfectly or delusionally. Donald Friend studiously avoids penetrating insights into his own nature succinct from his tastes, cultural preferences and painterly aesthetic. He wore in my view - I was discussing this with one of the actors earlier and often - our life is where we create elaborate masks for ourself, I'm a competent plumber, I'm a competent this or that. And Donald created extraordinarily intricate complex masks for himself. And almost airily in the final volume he mentions his dalliance with young men and boys as though the very likeness and self-deprecation of the literary touch is its own explanation.
Now for many reasons pederasty is one of the last taboos. Many other forbidden acts, homosexuality, abortion, extramarital sex, they've become tolerated and often legally sanctioned but not pederasty for very good reasons. As well as this Don Friend died in 1989 before public knowledge of his behaviour became so widespread as to need some response and that's before we even mention the last 20 years which have been such a time of reckoning for individuals and institutions. In other words in the words of a friend of mine, Donald got away with it.
Now I add two related things to this. First Donald never apologised and second Donald was never punished, even by himself, as far as we know of course. And drama requires one of these two things to happen, either the character is punished by society in some way or that the character punishes himself. As an example of bringing characters to account, I'll show you an excerpt of a play of mine that got its American premiere earlier this year, The Afterlife of J Edgar Hoover. In this play, set in an afterlife that looks very much like a Las Vegas hotel of the 1960s, a man wakes up and doesn't know where he is. He rings room service and he discovers J Edgar Hoover is still J Edgar Hoover. He's delighted. Then a moment later a very gorgeous young valet enters and they - and a relationship grows from that, they teasing, testing each other, et cetera. He's very attracted to this valet and deputise him immediately as a special FBI agent because it turns out the valet tells him he's been murdered and one of the theories at the time was that J Edgar Hoover was actually killed. This was the time of Watergate when every conspiracy theory around was there to be - had its adherence.
Anyway but this valet has a very different agenda and this is the moment when the valet reading an anonymous letter turns out the valet wrote this letter. This is the moment where a former apparent ally of Edgar's turns into his great accuser.
J: Let's hear the letter.
L: It starts with a quote. An institution, Sir, is the length and shadow of just one man.
J: Say that again?
L: That's what it says. An institution, Sir, is the length and shadow of just one man.
J: One man? I like it.
L: It's Ralph Waldo Emerson.
J: Ralph -
L: Waldo Emerson.
J: Do we have a file on that individual?
L: An institution is the length and shadow of just one man and in that same by one our nation's greatest minds lies much of the reason for most of the evil that you, Sir, have visited on our great land.
J: Proceed, with caution.
L: The American tragedy can simply be summarised, this nation is so quick to glory in the achievements, not of its warriors, but of its policemen, for that's what you are, Sir, a crooked policeman, no more and no less.
J: A horrible slander, but read on, boy.
L: The American paradox might thus be described, our nation is strong yet we, as a people, are easily frightened and you, Sir, you have for six long decades frightened and hectored and held this country to emotional ransom and outright blackmail, and the latter term I don't mean figuratively, the principal reason for most of your work was to keep yourself strong by blackmailing six of our recent presidents.
J: Just as I feared, the work of a madman.
L: It pertains to our case.
J: Are you sure of that, son?
L: Yes, Sir, I am.
J: In that case -
L: But I should begin with the smallest of crimes before I return to the highest of treasons. A single example, no Jews or blacks or even Hispanics were ever hired for the whole of your long excruciating tenure.
J: Notice the word use, excruciating. That means this note was penned by a person of some - or should I say, slight education.
L: Women were used for only the menial routine and tedious tasks that men wouldn't do.
J: Completely untrue, but moving along.
L: And the very few blacks employed by the FBI were nearly all hired before your tenure. They were used in the main as doormen and chauffeurs.
J: Notice the archaic freeze, used in the main. It could be quite helpful in finding our suspect.
L: This all begs the question, what made you like this? Your father was mad and your mother embittered. Was this the true reason for why you became the monster you were? Though you called yourself Patriot, you refused to enlist in the First World War when the nation was crying out for -
J: An untrue statement, disregard that.
L: FBI agents were used to mow your lawn and service your leaf blower and build your Christmas tree. The electrical equipment including radio, tape recorder, television and air conditioner were all supplied by the FBI engineering division. Your favourite ice-cream was flown in from New York and stored in the justice department. Your favourite toilet seat, fur lined and heated to a constant 68 degrees, was invented in the FBI Washington laboratory and then installed in your bathroom at great government expense. Shall I stop for a moment?
J: Look at me, son, I'm not even flinching. On with the letter.
L: To mention the obvious, that you are a sick little shit, and this word is quite apposite but while this is true it misses the point, which is fully to detail and then comprehend both the breadth and depths of the evil you did whose net effect was to undermine much that was decent and good in the hard won freedoms of this American life.
J: Clue number two, the blatant obscenity, sick little shit. A man with a deviant sexual illness, we're really starting to get somewhere, the higher we climb.
L: Because of your actions this country is riddled to this very day with corruption. Even at the highest levels, police, sheriffs, justices of the peace, prosecutors, mayors, district attorneys and judges, governors, council men, licensing authorities, state legislators and members of congress, not every member of all these bodies but enough to make sure that democracy belongs in theory to all but its riches belong to the privileged few. And something was broken in the American soul which to this very day has never quite healed because of your actions.
J: It's sad.
J: The person who wrote this is mentally ill, sexually broken. A picture is forming, so give me the name.
J: The name on the document.
L: One who was close to you.
J: No-one was close to me, that was the price for defending a nation.
L: There's still more to read.
J: I don't think you need to.
L: You were poorly educated and being pushed by a lonely and strong willed mother, you quickly learned that only by achieving could you become a good person, but the more you achieved the more insecure you became, first that you would lose it all and second that you would be found out for the sociopathic narcissist that you really were.
J: I'm starting to feel almost sorry for this quite mad, pathetic and sad individual.
L: I don't think he's mad, Sir.
J: Why do you say that?
L: I'll get to that soon.
J: Well don't take too long, he's starting to bore me. And you and me, boy, have more interesting things we can do.
L: But to you, Mr H, the new deal was something thought up by communists, that's why you wanted to run to be president against FDR.
J: And to this very day I firmly believe that -
L: But you were regarded as being too sinister, even for politics. Even the Republican party declined your offer.
J: They were foolish, of course.
L: In August of 1941 six months before Pearl Harbour, you were warned that a Japanese attack on our naval base was imminent. For reasons inaudible you refused to pass on this information to President Roosevelt.
J: Hah, clue number three, for the man who secretly wired me this tip-off, now this I recall as if it were yesterday. That man in fact he lived with a whore.
L: Your incompetence and vanity in this case alone resulted in the death of 2,400 men, another 1,300 casualties, 11 ships sunk and 185 planes lost.
J: Excuse me, son, I have a question. What does all this have to with my so-called murder?
L: Men could be fired for being too small, for being too tall, for being too bald, for having a limp, for being a pinhead, for having a walk that wasn't manly enough, for drinking coffee after 8am in the office, for not reporting criticism of the bureau immediately to headquarters, even if that criticism was made by his own wife. And what's more, if an agent was fired then all other agents were told they could not have any dealings with that man. In one case an agent who was fired found out his wife had cancer and two agents were suspended for offering to give blood to the dying woman.
J: Okay, I think we've heard all we need to.
T: Indeed we have. In other words, punishment for drama is an important thing. Even for today's morally relativistic audience which is less sure about absolute values and ethical norms. So the question I faced was, what was I to do, what sort of play would I write that would not be a simple moral condemnation of a significant Australian and a great painter who was now dead but couldn't answer back. Would any play I wrote about Donald Friend be a cop-out, a moral diatribe or a pretentious apologia. In other words the play I would work on was in very great danger of ending up in one of those hellish words starting with H, either as a hagiography or a hatchet job.
Now one of those - the [inaudible 20:40] artist - if I'd painted him as a special person simply because he's an artist, that's a hagiography. And the other H ignores the artistry and says that what he did as a man damns everything including the art. And incidentally any time you read about Donald Friend in the newspapers you'll find both of those ideas dominating the response from readers, still. So a theatre play should answer some important questions or at the very least ask them, and several questions come to the mind with this project. What are artists allowed to do or be simply by virtue of being talented. Brilliant artists, et cetera, as well as the troubling self-destructive behaviour of several modern Australian artists, not to mention the more recent controversy regarding photographer Bill Henson and his use of young naked models, all of these were weighing on me at the time.
I am pleased to report that I think I found a solution to these problems that respect both biographical fact and dramatic truth. Often the two, by the way, are in our tribe, opposition. For example, very few theatre goers, watching Shakespeare's Macbeth, allegedly history play, would learn from that play that Macbeth actually ruled for 11 years. It feels like three and half weeks.
To summarise, what prevented me from writing a strictly documentary play about Donald Friend were these four things; first, Donald Friend died before the great tsunami of rectification and retribution over historical sexual abuse took place. Second because he died when he did and this, as a friend said, he got away with it, at least during his life. Now Australians hate people to get away with it, whatever it is. Take two businessmen as an example of this. We love Alan Bond because Alan did the crime and he did the time. Go out there and he's a folk hero. But they hate Christopher Skase because he fled to Spain and he never got brought back to face criminal justice, which wouldn't have been much, a year or two. It's why Australians have a soft spot for Ned Kelly even, he rebelled and the law pulled him into line. So he's both a hero and he's punished by law so we're both rebels and conformists.
Now what this tells you, we're not actually the rebellious people we think we are. We like to rebel but our natural conservatism means we sanction crime as long as it's punished. But that wasn't the case with our friend, Donald. And finally because he spoke so little of his own motivations and the impulse of his inner life, which got reflected in his physical real life, I would in effect be making it up and yet be in the name of a real person. So making it up as wide as a playwright do best, of course, but I made a big decision to put the allegory of Donald Friend and maybe Bill Henson and maybe Roman Polanski, who drugged, raped and sodomised a 13 year old girl twice and maybe Harvey Weinstein and we all know what he did, just read a paper every two days. And maybe all the artists who create works of music, painting, stories that we love, but in their private life they break the law and do real harm. In other words I created a fictional character who could carry the weight of that central question, what are artists allowed.
In that way I think I've created a play that was less about my world, the world of art, imagination, amuse, all that, and more about your world. You see, artists talking about art can be very closed and even a boring experience because it says nothing about life or the world, that is the world of art is not the world itself, it's only a world within a world. And ultimately a play has to be about you, the audience that go to it, you and your world.
So, as I said, I kept a single question in front of me, what are artists allowed. What are we allowed to do, simply of course we're brilliant novelists, painters, poets, musicians, et cetera. And to do that I ask myself what would happen if it was 2018, and a famous Australian painter with an international reputation was caught up in a sex scandal involving young boys, and he refused to come home to Australia until he was sure of at least one of two things, either that he wouldn't be prosecuted or that the public would be on his side.
So he stays in Bali and that's where an investigative journalist makes an appointment to write the biography of the famous painter or maybe the painter thinks she will write his apologia, his defence of his art and life. So the journalist turns up at the painter's village in Bali, so the play I'm halfway through getting deep into the end of it is actually is called Fragrance. Fragrance, and the time is now, it's a sumptuous villa in Bali where the famous Australian painter is waiting for a visitor to arrive. The visitor is played by Lexi Sekulus, she also plays the role of Francis, the Balinese boy and the painter is played by Jerry Hearn. When the play starts a woman about 28 years old, standing in a sumptuous villa in Bali, if you've ever been there I think you'd know what I'm describing there. Lights, colour, smells; sensuous overload. Works of art are everywhere, it's light filled, feeling of scented flowers everywhere. After a moment the painter enters. His name is Simeon.
J: Stop, don't say a word. Before you even speak I want you to feel. Feel the air of this place, feel its winds and breezes.
L: Yes, it's very nice.
J: Nice. It is so much more than nice. I fell in love with this place the moment I entered.
T: The painter then shows her around his villa.
J: This is the mask of Rangda, Queen of the Witches, the scourge of mankind. Try it on, I think it should fit you. And this one, this is Barong, the hero and defender of humanity. This is my favourite.
L: Is that what you are, a defender of humanity?
J: I'd never, I'm far too humble ever to cast myself in that heroic light. And this mask here, this is an evil demon. I don't normally keep him here, he's usually kept outside to ward off evil.
L: So why did you bring him inside?
J: Because you were coming. I thought you'd be interested to see it.
L: I am, thank you.
T: A moment later she picks up a Chinese bowl.
L: I think this is fake.
J: I beg your pardon?
L: I think this bronze bowl is fake.
J: In what sense?
L: In that it's not real, it's a copy.
J: Is it lovely?
J: Is it exquisite?
L: It is. Yes but what -
J: That's all that matters, beauty. You've been to university, haven't you?
L: Well -
J: No answer needed, it's obvious. They teach you there to value the fact over the fiction, the truth above beauty, not realising that beauty has its own unique sublime truth.
T: Silvia, the visitor, is nervous and the painter is doing very little to make her feel at ease. He starts talking about the history of Bali.
J: Once the whole of Indonesia was Hindu or Buddhist, but that was before the hoards of Muslim barbarians changed the face of this nation forever, now only Bali remains. The people resisted, you see, they put up a fight.
L: Is that what you're doing?
J: It depends on whom my enemy is. Why have you come here?
L: I told you in my email, I wanted to write a long piece about you.
J: A long piece. You told me a book.
L: I thought I'd start with a long form article that meant -
J: It's the greatest art in all Asia.
L: Excuse me?
J: The art on this island, perfection in one tiny place, Parnassus in palm leaves, that's what I call it.
T: He continues to talk to her all very friendly and all very warily.
J: In essence all Balinese artists tied up with one fact; that all men are gods. We creatures are somehow bound with forces beyond our knowledge and all we know is our human self and our divine potential, that is why I love this place. I mean the whole island, it's langur and calm and also its energy, its vibrant dynamic alertness. It's quite unique.
L: You think so? In what way?
J: You know the phrase, gone troppo, that means the heat and squalor of the place have sent you quite mad, but here there's no squalor, here there is calm and out of this calm grows a wonderful excitable energy. Surely you must feel it. And out of this calm grows the most pure art, not that it's simple, they like that art complex and nuanced, just like their models.
L: On that subject -
J: In fact it's not too far fetched to say that all their stories, all their art are mostly about opposition of darkness and light, good and evil, refinement and crassness, never the one without the other, always intention, often in harmony. And this mask here, this is Prince Karma, that's what he does, he bring us all karma. Whatever we need or deserve. I ask you again, why are you here?
L: I told you before. I love your painting and I'd like to do a long feature length article -
T: More to and fro, back and forth occurs and the audience slowly becomes aware that a cat and mouse game is happening, right in front of them. Each of these characters testing what the other knows about art, about painting and crucially about what's going on in Australia.
J: What have you heard?
L: About what?
J: You know what I mean.
L: I've heard - it's rumour only, that's all that I know.
J: Let's be frank. Despite all the literary pretension of articles and books, you're a journalist, that's what you're paid for. People like you know a lot more than you ever see printed. I ask you again, what have you heard?
L: About what?
J: About me.
L: I've heard there are charges pending.
J: Hah, charges pending.
L: If you return to Australia, I mean.
J: What am I charged with?
L: Look, I'm really not comfortable with -
J: I'll ask you again, what have you heard?
L: I've heard there's a boy.
J: A boy. Go on.
L: A boy who lives here, here in this house.
J: A house boy, do you mean?
L: Something more, much more.
T: Now that a few cards have been laid on the table, Simeon pulls out his ace.
J: Francis, come forth.
T: A Balinese youth about 16 years old appears from nowhere. The boy's naked to the waist. He looks at Sylvia, the visitor, he smiles almost shyly at her.
J: Francis, greet Sylvia.
L: Greetings, be not afeared, the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give the light and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twinkling instruments will hum about mine ears and sometimes voices that if I then had waited after a long sleep will make me sleep again and then in dreaming the clouds me thought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me, that when I waked I cried to dream again.
J: Do you know what he said then?
L: I think it -
J: That was the tempest, Shakespeare's glorious masterwork, and this is my ariel, more than a house boy, more than a student. You think I'm a pervert, don't you? We can be honest, that's why you're here. But sorry I'm not, I'm only a painter, a simple painter. This boy is my subject, I paint him frequently. I'm also his teacher. Speak to her, Francis. Who were you named after?
L: I was named after Francis Saviour, the Christian saint, who helped to bring God and his civilisation to most of Asia, including this island. Blessed be His name.
J: We have a new guest, a lady from the land of my birth. See the pale skin, the nervous demeanour, the delicate fragile beauty of modern woman displaced from her world on a strange island out of her depth. She's come here to learn. I think that's the reason.
L: Look, if you don't want to do an interview you -
J: But I do, it's already started. I'm showing you the varied elements of this, my world.
L: Francis, hello. Could you just tell me -
J: Francis, our friend is wanting to know you. Answer me this, what is the capital of Argentina?
L: The capital of Argentina is Buenos Aires.
J: Francis, my boy, if I add 29 cherries to 56 apples and 45 onions to 51 carrots, how many pieces of fruit do I have?
L: Eighty-five pies of fruit in all to 96 vegetables.
J: I could go on. Do you see what I'm showing you? Not a young man, but a god in the making. Not a young student, a peerless protégé, a mind and a body in careful training, a lovely union of east and west and this is the being around whom the ugly rumours are bound and swirled. Tell me, dear Sylvia, this surely isn't the reason you came all this way?
T: And at this point Sylvia brings out her own ace. She tells him she's heard from two different sources that Australian Federal Police are preparing arrest warrant for [inaudible 34:12] historic sex crimes committed in Bali and possibly Australia as well. But Simeon counters that he's already enquired about going to Spain which has no extradition with treaty with Australia, in fact he already has an open ended airline ticket. Sylvia replies that if he flies to Spain he will just be another Christopher Skase, he'll be admitting his guilt without even a trial. So she challenges him. Tell me everything and I'll find you the best lawyer money can buy as long as you come back and fight the charges and return to Australia and as long as I have complete access to your story.
Simeon thinks about it for a moment and then comes back with a startling counter offer. He will lay out his total defence just for her as long as she acts as the prosector, for the painter suspects an act who confirms that Sylvia's not jut an impartial spectator, she too has an axe to grind. And finding out just what the nature of that acts is key to his tactics here. In other words as he's already said, finding out what's already been found out is key to his decision about what to do next. And if she knows too much well there's always that ticket to Spain sitting in the drawer.
And with that invitation which she accepts, the first part of this tense cat and mouse game where the world of moral darkness and historical abuse is laid out in full, or to put it in another way, what happens in the second part of this play is a type of modern retelling of the trial of Oscar Wilde, all dominated by the single question, what are artists allowed.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope I've given you a flavour of the work that a dark even repellent subject can be brought to light and may the subject of the play that all the sketches indicate and the work so far is turning into a type of moral thriller, tense, and it's rich in ideas, and I hope it's even exciting to watch. It only remains now for me to thank the various people, the staff at the National Library, thank you for showing me how to work the computer systems and everything else and unlock the world of knowledge in this place. Robyn Holmes couldn't join us tonight but Robyn works at this place and I tell you, she's probably the most artist friendly administrator I've ever worked with. Her simple presence makes you feel that you and your work are important and special. Thank you very much, Robyn. Thanks also to Sharon Miller, Beth Mansfield and Kathryn Favelle who made this evening possible all in lots of myriad different ways. Finally, to the Friends of the National Library, who made this stipend possible, who allowed me to spend a month in this research and creative paradise called the National Library. This would have been one of the best and most creative intellectual experiences of my career and I don't mind who knows it.
Now if you have any questions I'd be happy to answer them, but for now what remains is to first of all me thank my wonderful actors here and thank you for taking in the world of fragrance. Thank you.
K: Thank you, Jerry, thank you, Lexi, thank you, Tim. I think we've had an extraordinary spin through the creative mind of a playwright lost in the stakes of the National Library this evening. We've got time for some questions before we do that lovely traditional theatrical thing of [inaudible 37:31] to the foyer for a drink. If you have a question could you pop your hands up and we'll bring a microphone to you.
A: Thank you. Timothy, I'm going to send back a question that you mentioned earlier and I don't think you answered, which is what is Australian story-telling? What is your perspective and how has that changed as someone who's had more international productions than Australian productions?
T: Yes. It's a question, black letter law is currently in fashion in - as many of our politicians are discovering. That's where something is quite literally. Now an Australian story is on the black letter interpretation something that is written about - as the Miles Franklin used to be called which is you could only win the Miles Franklin if your story was about Australian life in some - in one of its aspects. That now has been broadened because I'm not a fan of literal. I've written more work about Australia than - I've written American stories, French stories, German, Czech, you name it, and lots of Australian stories too.
A French theatre director who directed Kafka Dances in Paris said, this could only have been written by an Australian, in other words there is something deeper at work than simple - the simple act of, oh this an Australian story. It's the Australian weltanschauung as the Germans say, it's the attitude, the way we see the world. And I think Australians have a strong, what I call - well it's what's known as a ludic quality, the playfulness. Look at the swing, now if this was written by a German, no jokes, I'm being a bit simple here but essentially the German sense of the ludic, the playful is so grim and so clenched whereas Australians, you can feel the climate, you can feel the air, you can feel the rhythm of an open and free life.
And the subject matter may be Australian or it might be American, Czech, you name it. There's an Australian way of seeing the world that I don't think we've actually totally acknowledged. And this is what the theatre companies - I'm having a long discussion with lots of them because they'd love to export a true blue eucalyptus type of Australian play to the world, but ironically that's not what the actors are doing, they're going straight to New York and what are they doing, they're playing - they're bringing Hedda Gabler or something there. So it's not quite as clear-cut as you think. Is there an Australian way of acting? I think there is, that's why they're getting all these bad guy roles in Hollywood. Is there an Australian way of writing? Yes, I hope - with any luck you might have demonstrated it. It doesn't mean it has to be - what's his name, Barry Oakley called the blue - the Occa, the blue singlet conspiracy, where we all talk like this and that is crude men beating women.
I think Australia's changed massively in the 30 years I've been in theatre and I personally have the cultural conference, I can tell any story in the world and I think well that's an Australian attitude of confidence or over confidence, if you like. But the ability to tell stories to the world, because here is the truth, Australia is two percent of the world theatre market, two percent in terms of number of professional theatres. I personally worked that figure out seven years ago and I couldn't believe that I've spent 25 years writing for two percent of the world theatre market. Why, no-one says to Cate Blanchett, Cate, why aren't you just staying in Australia? But the writers, why can't we - if we're good enough, speak to the world. Have I sort of answered your question?
A: Timothy, my question's quite similar, I'm going to bounce off Emma. Thank you, Emma. You mentioned the focus of transgression and punishment and I'm wondering in terms of a Paris audience versus a Parramatta audience, how do you balance the hooks that you and your experience know are necessary for the different audiences, or has it just come down to human universals anyway?
T: In one sense I've had many productions in foreign languages and in one sense the job of the director is to make sure the story makes sense to its local audience. I've discovered that Paris audiences are rather like Canberra audiences actually, quiet, thoughtful, deep, not a lot of extrovert reaction. I remember John Bell saying once, he said we often feel our work's failing in Canberra and then we get this huge ovation at the end. That's often how the French do, there's a quiet interaction going on. So you're not necessarily that different. And the trick - if the work's sophisticated enough, it almost should be communicable no matter where it's done. And I - personally, I'm a synthesist, I try and - I mention, I briefly referred to that, I try and blend the deep humanist tradition which is 500 more - perhaps goes back to the Greeks, so the idea of people matter in stories. But the fascination is, if you've seen the Pompidou Centre in Paris, that's pure modernism at work where the thing is a form of a structure. It's where the audiences love being given access to look at the way this work is made, et cetera.
So all these debates all around the world they're happening more or less at the same time. There's a type of cultural cold war going on around the world between humanism and modernism. A lot of American theatres are just pure humanist. And so because I travel so much I see it all happening and I've got a book coming out in New York this next month and essentially it says the only way a modern writer can actually speak to the world is to blend those two traditions so that no matter what the story is, you will end up making sense to an Prague audience, to a Paris audience, to a Parramatta audience.
A: It was really fascinating listening to your two actors in their different roles, and I think what you're trying to do is very topical, of course, but it's very important that it's actually in the public arena and it's not just being condemned but it's trying to be explained within the context of the time and I think you're trying to do this psychological analysis and not getting anywhere, much it sounded the way you're going. But I'm looking forward to actually seeing that play performed.
T: Thank you.
A: So what are you your plans in terms of finishing it and getting it produced?
T: Well I'll be having a meeting with Canberra theatre people to see whether they want the premiere, and you go where you're loved and so if Sydney wants it. There's a problem with Australian theatre that - this is one of Australian theatre's dirty secrets. Essentially heroic theatres like street theatre in Canberra make success. A lot of the theatre - the higher up they go, they just import the success so it's - you've got a very fine theatre in your midst, it's the street theatre. Because to me that's - I'm a big fan of creating success that is definably Australian in some way and sending it out to the world. Now, so it might well even have a Canberra premiere, I'm really open and that's what - as soon as I've finished the play in the next month or so that's when I motor down the Hume again and talk with people, et cetera. But by the way I started this long before the Harvey Weinstein thing because I'd been troubled for years. Even Oscar Wilde troubled me. They said about Oscar - Shaw said he's such an idiot, why did he stay and fight what was indefensible? So that's a great paradox.
You raised a very interesting point which is, am I getting anywhere? In a way I want to both mesmerise an audience with a story and paralyse them morally so they're not quite sure what to think. Because I want you to - I love an audience that brings us ethical baggage to - and leaves it at the door, or carries it in if you like, but the play ends up being too, not an easy thing to judge because it's a great liberating experience for an audience to be unsure of what its thinking and I think it leaves you with a lot of freedom. You can take that painter or find her offensive in some way but essentially it's about practicing an area of intellect that I think theatres are a celebration of surplus intellect now. That's the cultural position that theatre's got to.
Our audience are actually getting smarter so you have to tread - and that the other thing that makes my theatre and - there are about three or four Australian playwrights who get done a lot all over the world and were all - they all write very smart plays because theatre is, as I said, it's a celebration of surplus intelligence almost, intellect. And that's the sort of audience that - the Paris audience, the Canberra audience. Even at Parramatta, I've gone to Parramatta audiences, they're no fools either.
So you - and that's another thing that binds the audiences around the world, you basically say to the audience, you're very smart, you're going to follow this, aren't you. They will probably - I notice one or two people uncertain, have I just understood what he just said, but it's a challenge that I find audiences rise to if you can give them enough - if there's a compelling struggle going on in a space. Plays essentially go forward lineally, literally, and they go sideways in their ideas. That's what - I learned that from Stoppard basically. He goes - his plays go so sideways, sometimes they don't even go forward at all. So I thought what if you combined the intellectual richness of the sideways movement of a Stoppard with the momentum of a Shakespeare or a Fado or something like that, so that's how I tried to blend the modernity, so to speak, so it means something to audiences wherever.
A: Hi Tim, I've got a double barrelled question. I've written a number of biographical plays myself and the relationship between the facts and what you actually want to say with it is always a bit of an awkward mix and I wondered how you felt about how often you compromise the facts of a biographical story to fit the theme that you want to write about. And also how you manipulate the language of a particular period or maybe make a contemporary language rather than fitting in with a period. For example, I've wrote a play set in ancient Rome about Antinous and Hadrian, so I used contemporary language for that.
A: And I didn't care too much about the facts because the facts aren't very well known. I'm currently writing a play about another troubled painter which is interesting because I'm writing about Caravaggio who had a -
T: Oh yes.
A: - personal life as well. And again I'm trying to use contemporary language although it's set in the 17th century. But then I wrote a play about Louise Lovely a long time ago and I really struggled with that one in terms of both changing the facts because it was more of a recent story and also in trying to fit those facts into a theme because I felt like I needed to be very true to her real life story.
A: So I'm wondering how you see the relationship between the facts and what you want to say and how you use language within that.
T: I remember Lynn Dayton who wrote [inaudible 50:05] or those Berlin thrillers, et cetera. He would get letters from readers who say, I'm sorry but the Russian Secret Service in February 1963 used a different type of pistol from the one you described. And that ultra realism is probably more stringent in the realist [inaudible 50:22] but I don't think theatre is an entirely realist medium, essentially it's symbolic. And you can create a rod for yourself if you basically claim to tell the whole truth. I try and iconise, symbolise the thing.
There is the painter, he's - there is the outside world, they're at each other, so you simplify things until there's a brute contest in a sense and the audience - there's such a thing as a type of emotional and psychological truth. As I said, Macbeth ruled for 11 years, who would know from the play. There's a type of [inaudible 50:57] quality going on so you're boiling down all the nuances or all the permutations possible into - [inaudible 51:06] requires the gladitorial contest. So you go for the drive is my view. And the audience should - or play or modern audiences go to learn about themselves, so even if they see a play in the past it's always about now so you've got to find, and that's why the House of Cards idea is essentially - or I Claudius, that series essentially it's - that's how they spoke in Britain in the '60s. You always modernise it but you don't use weird anachronisms that they wouldn't have had in ancient Rome, it's a minor technical thing.
But there is a way of making history relevant so I generally support that idea of finding the figures from history who are there still to offer us as warnings, beacons. Was there another part of that question I hadn't covered? Thank you.
K: Perhaps we've got time for one more question, or not.
T: Well I could use a drink and I think the actors could too. I think we - there's a man.
A: I think you mentioned there were four Australian dramatists of which you were a part, but you didn't name them all so could you just tell us -
T: Yes, Daniel Keane, he's very big in France and this raises the very first question that Emma raised. What is an Australian story? In all my productions and I've read many reviews of Daniel's work, they almost don't know or don't care. Half of the review - no, about one‑third of the reviews casually mention the fact that I'm Australian. So you cross the border and you change your skin, basically. Does that mean it's any less Australian? I think it does. I think it means it's still Australian because of the outlook is inevitably Australian. Daniel Keane, Merilee Smith's doing pretty well in Los Angeles. David Winton had some big success early, much - not so much now. Have I missed anyone out? They're the - yeah they're the main ones who are - everyone else has an intermittent occasional thing. But I think we should be writing for the world, that's how culturally confident I think we should be and wouldn't you be proud if an Australian - work went to the National Theatre in London? I think yeah. We can be proud for our athletes, let's be proud for our intellectual athletes. And with that we almost definitely need a drink.
K: Well I know we're all looking forward to seeing Fragrance at the National Theatre in London, we'll all have our tickets and be queuing up on opening night. I know that I also speak for all my colleagues in saying how grateful we are to the Friends of the National Library for supporting the creative Arts Fellowship lecture. The Friends support us in so many ways and there are so many things that they make possible, and this is just one of them. We have three Fellowship presentations left for the year and next week we're turning to music so I hope you might be here next Wednesday for the 2017 National Folk Fellow Presentation Mission Songs presented by Jessie Lloyd. But now thank you for coming. Please join me in thanking Tim, Lexi and Jerry, and please join us for a drink in the foyer.