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Australian Biography -

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(generated from captions) jockeying for reputation, Most of my plays are about people

loved, admired, um... to be recognised, for status,

People are social creatures to reward them, wanting the social environment and if it doesn't reward them, environment to get their ends. try to manipulate that social most popular playwright. David Williamson is Australia's flocked to theatres and cinemas For 35 years, audiences have of contemporary Australian life. to see his depictions with his own company. My father was much more satisfied

social creature that my mother was He wasn't the sort of people's company. who enjoyed gossip, from Brunswick. My mother was solidly working class life trying to get out of Brunswick. I mean, she spent the whole of her to say "I never came from there". In her mind, you know, trying was very important to her. Um... social status she got irritated and... (Laughs) She felt she married well but then for most of the rest of the life. So gave my father a hard time a lot of bickering in the family, I did feel there was which intensified over the years. when you were little? Did that worry you, when we first got to Bairnsdale. Yes, there was this terrible blow-up This is end of marriage time." I thought "Oh my God, it's terrible. until he finally exploded Cos she goaded and goaded him and told her what he thought of her. oh, better go and comfort her. She raced outside and I thought, chuckling away to herself. There she was in the wash house, She didn't see me, seeing her. in subtext - And this was my first lesson

is not always the full truth. that what's happening on the surface I started to dread getting married, this is what had to happen. cos I thought

before she died, I finally asked... Many years later, a couple of years laughing. What was that all about?" I said "I was there and I saw you

it got really boring, And she said "Ah, well, to Bairnsdale." "particularly when we got was good afterwards." She said "But the sex back when I was 11, but, yeah. I didn't realise that part of it

How did you get on at school? and found schoolwork relatively easy I was always at the top of the class by English in particular. and I was really very turned on in the physical areas too. I was fairly robust that, so I wasn't seen as a nerd. I enjoyed the sport and stuff like

because of my excessive height. I got a lot of rubbishing "What's the weather like up there?" I was called "Lofty" and All that sort of stuff.

a foot taller than anyone else. Because in those days, I was about when you left school? What were you planning to do of being a novelist. I started to entertain thoughts this vocational guidance office. My mother had carted me into want to do? What sort of stuff?" The guy says "What do you at that stage, There were so few Australian writers you felt like, madness to say because it just didn't happen. you were gonna be a writer precious few novels being published. There were no films being made, That was the late '50s. was being a cartoonist. The best I could come up with beyond belief, That horrified my mother the vocation officer and it sort of bemused to be creative because he'd never advised anyone creativity in Australia. because there just wasn't So what did you do? to get a Commonwealth scholarship. I did well enough The three options open to me or engineering. were medicine, straight science So I chose mechanical engineering. no affinity with that. Again, I had absolutely engineering school in the first day I remember walking into the engines in the basement and seeing these great, greasy what am I doing here?" and thinking "Oh my God, electronics professor But I had a very interesting wider horizons than just engineering who insisted that engineers have and he made them do an arts subject. the electronics paper So instead of answering

couldn't stand anything electronic. I wrote him an essay on why I with warfare in our home. Because I associated it would retreat to his shed Because whenever my father and fix electronic equipment, think of some way to sabotage him. my mother would go ballistic and But he said "Look... so you'll have a qualification "Finish the engineering course your writing career "and then you can pursue in the background." "with some security I spent writing scripts So my third year at Melbourne

for the engineering faculty and edited the student magazine which really interested me. And you married quite young. your first wife, Carol? How did you come to marry Um, well... relationship, Carol and I, We were having a physical

and I was quite enjoying that. In those days, the norm was that... at about 23 guys usually got married there was... something wrong. and if girls weren't married at 21 at that time too, But I was quite destroyed was of interest to anyone. because nothing I wrote

it was wasted interest So she thought and there was tension on that level. that she thought that this... So I felt rather aggrieved of mine, that I wanted to write, obsession, or near obsession was foolish. as an engineer progressing? And so how was your career

at General Motors Holden. Well, I worked for a year a handbrake for the Holden HD, I was supposed to be designing which I dutifully did. But it never got into production they didn't want a floor handbrake, because they decided they wanted a pull-out handbrake. never made it into the car. So even my handbrake

one day and they said I got called into the office leadership potential here." (Laughs) "Look, you're not showing I could only last one year there.

that got me easily into teaching I had a qualification at that stage Swinburne Technical College, at what was then teaching the Engineering Diploma. and enjoyed it. I stayed there for seven years - I started scrawling endless novels, In the meantime, Institute examination booklets, or would-be novels, in Swinburne of all the areas of creativity, because I'd decided that I wanted to go. that writing was the way

reams of books with writing, But even though I filled I gradually realised the novel was never gonna be my forte. Your future. That's a tricky question now that you've decided not to be a fireman, a movie star, or a magician. REVVING ENGINE Engineering.

If you're interested in engineering, then Swinburne's the place. So despite the fact that you'd moved to teaching engineering, the subject itself didn't grab you. What did?

I enrolled to do psychology at the same time as I was teaching full-time at Swinburne. My obsession always has been to try and work out what it is that constitutes us, psychologically and emotionally. And that stemmed, I think, from my parents being in constant warfare. I just had a need to know... what emotional drives operated, what caused conflicts, and why. Why were people so different temperamentally from each other. So that, even though I had to go through the detour of engineering, the real thing I wanted to find out

was the nature of human nature itself. That's what's driven me, I'd say fairly constantly, through my life.

How did you start getting involved in theatre? I started going to the Melbourne Theatre Company to see their plays and some inner voice in me said "This is what you are made to do." So I started writing plays which weren't particularly distinguished

but at least they got me into La Mama and got me some actors doing the words. The first time I went along, very proudly, with some of my friends and my wife Carol, Alan Finney came out on stage and said "We've got these scripts from this guy Williamson. "They're not very good but we'll show how... "..good acting brings a dead script to life", something like that. And I thought "Oh God, what have I done this for?"

The ideology in those days was very much that writers were a thing of the past. That group-devised work and improvised work was the way of the future. So I had no real role as a writer in the group other than to suggest material that they might then improvise on.

So Alan Finney asked me to write the last scene of a play that they would then improvise up to.

So I wrote a play backwards from the scene in, and they realised that, gee, it was evolving quite int... Okay, they would do the play, they would do it, um... And so that became 'The Coming of Stork', which was the first play that worked in a significant way with the audience at La Mama back in 1970, I think it was. And then you wrote the screenplay for the film 'Stork', which was also very successful. I'm coming towards you with the 'horses doover'. As I come towards you, I stuff a smoked oyster... up me nostril, like this. And I come towards you like this.

"Excuse me, madam, but have you got a handkerchief?" Now fumble around, just fumble around. "No, madam, it's..." This was all part of a renaissance in Australian theatre and cinema. What did you as a writer learn from the experience? Bruce Spence played an exaggerated version of myself - an ultra-tall, socially awkward and naive loud-mouth revolutionary. And I realised that's what you did in drama. You changed aspects of people you observed. You pushed them in directions that intensified the drama, or intensified the humour. What's the weather like up there? Watch it, fella. So there was a satirical edge to the work right back then. I wasn't into straight realism. I was into... amplification of human traits for humour and for insight. Yes, but your next big success, 'The Removalists' had a very serious edge to it. What d'you think that proves, Carter, eh? You think that's a test of a man, that's a test? Self control's a test of manhood, Carter. Self bloody control. It was because it was about supposed police brutality, which was a big issue at the time. In fact, as time has shown, it's turned out to be... was always more a very black comedy on Australian male bad behaviour. It really worked in that little theatre in Carlton. And that's where I met Kristin, my future wife,

suddenly walking down the alleyway, looking like a vision of beauty. But she was married. And that was a complication, but I was certainly attracted. We had an illicit affair - at that stage never intending to be life partners - but sneaking away after the show, even though we knew it was dangerous territory. And I had a pregnant wife, and that's a terrible thing to walk out on a pregnant wife. And in retrospect, it is a terrible thing. Eventually I felt guilty and went back to her before the birth

and stayed at the marital home for some months after that, trying to make it work. But even though Matthew was only very small when I left, it was the lesser of two evils. I felt I had to go back to Kristin. I hope you can explain that to your children when they're old enough to know why you walked out on them. Cut it out, Irene. Pretty weak, that's all I can say, when a man leaves his children cos he isn't getting enough of what he wants in bed. You ought to be horse-whipped. You've had extraordinary success at the box office but the critics haven't always liked your work. Has that always been the case? Right from the start... 'The Removalists' was slammed in Melbourne as being a two-dimensional play of badly observed grotesques and 'Don's Party' similarly. Whatever the circumstances, you don't interrupt a man and a woman at their most intimate moment. I wouldn't like to be in your shoes if you hit me. I'll sue you. I'm a lawyer. I'm going to smash your teeth in. He's a dentist. It was received with some kind of horror from the critics. "We don't want to see this sort of life" was the sort of... This is not what the stage was for. Because at that stage, there was an acute self-consciousness amongst our... artistic, or pretending artistic classes that Australia was a rude, crude, awful country, um... And the function of the arts was to educate and uplift. And lift these bestial people out of their dreadful ways and show them the finer points of European culture and how they could be better human beings. But it's certainly not what I was writing. And I think to some extent I've been dogged by that fact ever since.

Have you been able to accept criticism easily in your life? No, I've never been able to accept criticism easily. I've got a trace of the narcissistic in my personality and I know what my personality is because I tested myself when I was a student. I want praise and I get very upset when I don't get it. So how far did the praise you received for your plays in Sydney influence you to move your family there to live? From the time 'The Removalists' and 'Don's Party' simultaneously took off in Sydney, I felt Sydney was a more lively and broadminded city, theatrically. And I think Melbourne was stridently left-wing and anti-materialist and the thought that anyone would make money

was the most horrific thing that could enter a Melbourne mind. I think the Sydney audiences sensed I was after something else than an ideological line that I was preaching. And I thought it was an exciting visual city, too. The Williamsons are a two-typewriter family. And his wife Kristin is a prominent writer in the newspaper 'The National Times.' But their family structure is as involved as some of Williamson's own plays. How did you manage the family with both of you working? Oh, I became the primary caregiver, in those dreadful terms. Not because of any deep goodness of heart but I was there when the kids came home and I took them down the oval to play and all that. Kristin would organise what shopping had to be done. I tend to be absent minded and I'd leave the meat in the butcher's and I'd forget to go back. She'd get home at night and "Where's the steak? Where's the meat?" Oh, left it in the butcher's. I was the sort of zombie who was carrying out her plans but I wasn't always very good at doing it.

Do you know what that is? Wine. What sort of a parent do you think you've been? Not as good as I should have been. I've been... too obsessed with work. It was like an addiction and like most addicts, I worked hard at it and got very anxious when I wasn't working. And that's not good when you begrudge time with your children because you feel you should be creating masterpieces in the garret. Anything that'll be to Gerry's personal advantage, he will do, irrespective of personal loyalties to anyone. The end justifies the means. The end justifies the means, and that's... What makes you decide that an idea is worth writing about? The only test for me is something that engages my emotions and gets me fired up, makes me either angry or gets me excited, amused in a dark sort of way or meeting a character that engages my emotions is the thing that guides me into whether the story is worth doing or not. When have you ever seen me drunk? At the fundraising dinner. I was sober all the evening. Oh, you couldn't get after that stripper fast enough. She asked me to take off her garter. I certainly realised my strength was to observe what's going on around me, work out the patterns of interaction, the patterns of conflict, the patterns of power, the patterns of status and... reproduce them. So I did borrow fairly heavily from life. Which I continue to do. What do you think is the essence of how you achieve your comedy?

Comedy is about self-deception, people behaving badly, but not realising they're behaving badly. And their bad behaviour is hurting themselves, just as much as it's hurting other people. If your bad behaviour is hurting other people, it's tragedy but if your bad behaviour is rebounding on yourself, it's comedy. What exactly do you mean, Mike, "she's a woman"? Looks good, wears nice clothes. Doesn't screech at you like a white cockatoo. I think I've got the comedy of recognition going. If I nail... people's foibles and weaknesses, vanities, egocentricities, um... there's immediate recognition. Not that this is like me, but this is like someone I know. That's your definition of a woman? Yep, and I'm sticking with it. Don't you think it's a little bit limited? If some women want to be pile drivers, that's fine. As long as they don't expect me to get under them. A number of your plays have been turned into film but you wrote 'Gallipoli' as an original screenplay. What do you think of it now? It's something I'm still proud of. It evokes the horror and futility of that war and it's still held up as a nation creating and bonding experience which it's certainly not what 'Gallipoli' was written about.

It was written about the immorality of forcing hundreds of thousands of young Australians and young men all around the world to die. And I feel like, I feel a bit sick in my stomach at the celebration that they have about Gallipoli now. I mean, there are better things to celebrate about Australia than the slaughter, to no avail, of huge numbers of young Australians. Your collaboration with Peter Weir

on 'Gallipoli' and 'The Year of Living Dangerously' led to both those films being very successful overseas. Did you ever get the call from Hollywood? I was often bought in by idealistic producers

who felt American society had plenty of faults and thought a foreigner could really expose those faults and go for broke but when the final script landed on their desk... their pragmatism took over and they said "We didn't wanna go that far." So it was a frustrating time. It took about eight years before I realised it was a silly enterprise, because Hollywood really doesn't make films that are hard-hitting. Did you get anything good out of that time? You do get paid well and it virtually made Kris and I secure for life, even though the process was so agonising and frustrating that it was deleterious in every other way. I preferred to keep writing plays in Australia - that were done, and done well, and were saying something to their own community - and occasionally travelling abroad. And what about your plays? Have they had much international success? I've got a lot of overseas productions. I never got one huge West End hit or anything like that, but I got a number of good, solid, well-reviewed productions

in England and the US of various of my plays. The name of the game is winning and profits, at any ruthless cost. And his comic drama has truth, intelligence and skilful plotting... But with its flaws, 'Players' has much to admire, and it's worth a visit. What's it like for you on the first night of a new play? I'm a basketcase on opening nights, so Kristin usually... For a while I couldn't even go. She'd phone me up at home and tell me what the ladies were saying in the toilets at interval. Tonight the playwright is missing. His wife, Kristin, has to suffer first-night nerves on his behalf. I think it's gonna be okay,

unless something dreadful happens in the second half. It started to seem like hard work.

It hadn't felt like hard work at the beginning? It hadn't, but after 35 years, I started to develop health problems, heart rhythm problems, which my doctor told me were definitely stress exacerbated.

I suddenly realised that the whole time I was writing, I was at a high adrenalin and stress level. And after a big session of writing was when the heart rhythm problems would start. And it was no accident, you could almost predict them. I said "I've gotta get out of that lifestyle. I'd rather stay alive." (Coughs and struggles to breathe) Has this been a lifelong problem for you because your character in 'Stork' has a kind of attack? Yes, I didn't know what they were. Just fluttering in the chest. When your heart starts missing beats and you're stressed and anxious, you tend to... suspect you're dying or something like that. My flatmates used to have huge fun with me, saying "Oh, Lofty's had another heart attack." Pump, you bastard, pump. It's controlled now with medication. But, yeah, I'm rather glad that at least I had something, it wasn't total figment of the imagination. Have you ever wondered what you might have done if your plays hadn't been so successful? If the play-writing hadn't have happened, I think I would've been an academic psychologist by now. And quite happy - it's the obsessive interest in human temperament, personality, origins of conflict, that lend me into both areas. What do you think the David Williamson collection has left for the theatre? I think there's something like 36 plays now and I've been at it 35 years or something like that.

So it's a social history in one sense of 35 years of Australian middle-class life, if I've got it right. At the other level, I would like to think I have delved into the deeper and more important questions to me, about how optimistic are we entitled to be as a species about ourselves and about our future, given our predilection for status, consumption and egocentrism? And that sense of foreboding at the bottom of my comedies, I hope resonates and says something about how I feel about the human condition. We're fine at some levels, but there are very worrying aspects about our psyches. Happy Anniversary. Thank you, Crispin. 25 years! It's a quarter of a century. Said it wouldn't last 2 weeks. Three weeks, my friends said. How important has Kristin been to your work? Kristin has been incredibly important in my life, full stop. And in my work, of course. She's still the first one to read a draft, the first one to give an opinion on it. She always has been helpful, both in allowing me the time to indulge my obsession, and in giving me feedback. She knows our life together has provided quite a bit of material for the plays, as she will testily say sometimes about all these female characters whose names start with K. And being an obsessed writer, what have you been like to live with? I'm boisterous sometimes in social situations, when I've had some good red wine or something like that, but my natural tendency is more my father's. My mother's greatest taunt for my father was, "Oh, he's just as happy in his own bloody company." And she said that as something really... disgusting. But, you know, I'm afraid I've got a bit of that. Reading terrific books or doing something by myself is... quite appealing.

Captions (c) SBS Australia 2008