For as long as I was married, I was allowed one subscription to a cultural institution. For most of those years, I went to the Sydney Symphony – though, having had enough of the austere De Waart years, I went across the harbour and took out a subscription to the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli. It is a lovely theatre, overlooking some water and has a small restaurant. I felt completely out of place amongst the comfortably off North Shore crowd.
The plays also didn’t appeal to me – even if they looked promising in the promotional material. It was theatre for the 50 plus – people sitting in lounge rooms discussing Important Issues or nostalgia pieces that evoked Old Australia or Old Ireland. Even John Misto, a playwright I admire greatly, punched out a play called Harp on the Willow that perfectly suited the sensibilities of the audience. When I saw a David Williamson play appear in the season, I thought that this is the type of audience that has been built by Williamson and his imitators – and the fact his plays still sell out to that audience indicates they are more than happy with his range of discussions, which often include suspicion of “young people” and modern society in general. This suspicion of “young people” was a major theme of Don Parties On – one of the few Williamson plays to make it across the harbour to the Sydney Theatre these days.
Those nights spent at the Ensemble have been brought back to me via a current discussion about Williamson’s latest Ensemble play, Nothing Personal. The normally sleepy world of Williamson discussion has been livened up from the incendiary work of Bob Ellis, who claims, amongst other things, that David’s wife, Kristin, wrote the first half. The review and subsequent war of words between he and Williamson is escalating at a loquacious length. The discussion has resembled nothing so much as a battle between two ageing residents of a nursing home, fighting over issues that everyone else had forgotten 20 years previously. It features the usual rhetorical devices one sees from both combatants. Williamson says that nice people like his play – so much so that it is sold out – and that by attacking it – he is attacking them. Ellis has responded with a number of bon mots – such as “You do not rate as a writer of prose, David. Please do better in this field if you can. Take lessons. Practise. Go to Kristin for tips.” Later, he reached into the list of people he has written for as evidence of his ability to write –
“The state leaders I wrote for, Carr, Rann, Gallop, Bacon, Rees, sometimes lost elections before I worked for them but never after. The federal leaders I wrote for, Keating and Beazley, each lost and won an election, Beazley only on the numbers alas, with 400,000 more votes than Howard. I work for Bill Shorten and Paul Howes now and each is looking good; like future Prime Ministers some say. I wrote as well for Debus, Shaw, Sartor, McLeay, Bradbury, Lomax-Smith, Cicarello, Kamahl, Margaret Throsby, Bob Brown and one secret Governor-General…”
This absurd rhetorical tactic was commented upon by Melbourne writer Ben Pobjie, to which Ellis eventually replied “I’ll get to you Popjie, believe me. In the meantime, keep up the creamcakes. You know it makes sense.” For a man who commands a wide vocabulary and knowledge of rhetoric, it is puzzling why he sees the need to resort to such a childish insult.
While for someone on the sidelines, it is very entertaining – it is battle about little that has much to do with culture as most people know it. Williamson writes solely for his isolated audience, Ellis resembles, in both this argument and in his Drum articles, a clown that has been placed in the stocks, at which people can throw rotten fruit. Certainly making the claim that women can’t write good political drama has evoked this response (he needs to read Wolf Hall for a start). He has become, to use Ellis’ own rhetorical style, Twelfth Night’s Feste without lovers to sing to, Lear’s Fool without a King to counsel. Or, if you believe Ellis, he is hoping Shorten is to become his new King – offering a possible explanation for why he is so stridently opposed to Julia Gillard in his pieces.
Not many of those who engage with contemporary culture go to Williamson plays or pay money to read Ellis’ books. But people do and enjoy their work, which is a good thing. Better than them watching anything on Channel 9, for example. The Ellis v Williamson discussion and current battle, however, would make for a popular Ensemble production in the coming years. It would be a play about two men, having realised their battle to be relevant, to be noticed, has come and gone, decide to battle each other instead.