David Williamson on a life of drama

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

DW             David Williamson


DW             You had to read language not just on the surface but in the subtext to get what was really being said, and language was a weapon.

AL               Welcome to The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full with humour, pleasure, meaning and love.

                   We'll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now sit back and enjoy the conversation.

                   If, over the past 50 years, Australia had a national bard it would be David Williamson. David has written 56 plays including the dark social realist plays such as A Conversation or Sanctuary, dramas such as Brilliant Lies, After the Ball, Amigos, Travelling North, Soulmates and Influence, and satyr such as Dead White Males, Emerald City, Corporate Vibes and The Perfectionist.

                   He's produced 20 screenplays including Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, and five television mini-series.

                   And now he's written an open and honest autobiography called Home Truths. Weighing in at 424 pages, it's unsparing about his career, his mistakes and his relationships. It's a real delight to have David join me on the podcast today. David, welcome to The Good Life Podcast.

DW             It's a pleasure, Andrew.

AL               So, your love for theatre you say emerged in part because of a great teacher. Tell us about Alan Boot McLeod.

DW             Alan Boof McLeod, yes, he was one of those teachers with enormous charisma. He strode into your classroom, it was like Spencer Tracy, one of the old screen heroes, and he fixed you with a stare and nobody dared misbehave.

                   And then he proceeded to bring Shakespeare to life which was amazing. I think we did Julius Caesar in Form 3 and Macbeth in Form 4, and he'd act out the parts. He'd show the emotional needs of those Shakespearian characters, the needs for love, status, revenge, envy.

                   All of those deep-rooted human emotional needs and proclivities were there in a society far distant from ours 400 years ago and I was excited by this. I thought drama gets to the essence of the human core.

AL               And it's interesting because I was speaking to John Bell from a previous podcast episode and he told a very similar story about one teacher who was passionate about Shakespeare. Do you get a sense that those teachers are still in Australian schools in the same quantities?

DW             No. We still have reunions from those particular years because we were so impressed by the quality of the teaching. And this was a country high school, Bairnsdale in Victoria, a country estate high school stacked with quality teachers. I doubt whether you'd get the same quality now.

                   In those days teachers were an almost revered profession. They were highly thought of. They were pretty well-paid. They were pillars of the community and everyone respected them.

                   I don't think it's quite the same now, although I think our state school system is a lot better than some of its critics would have it. But certainly in those days, yes, good teaching was the norm wherever you went. This was a country town in Victoria.

AL               There are two themes I think about a lot in your work of class and relationships and you see both of those through your descriptions of your parents.

                   Now, you talk about your mum, Elvie, as being especially class conscious when it came to her work in retail and dealing in particular with doctors' wives. What did she have against doctors' wives?

DW             My mother was a working class girl from Brunswick. Her father was a blacksmith. The family lived through the depression. She had sheets of newspaper stuffed between her blankets to keep her warm in winter because there was no money for heating.

                   She emerged from that determined to distance herself from that life as quickly and as fast as possible.

                   And in those days if you're a working class girl, the quickest way to social mobility was to marry well because there weren't many professions that were thought of as suitable for young women.

                   They could be shop assistants, they could be primary school teachers, they could be nurses, but the horizons were limited. So, marrying well was one way of social mobility and my mother always had a secret desire to marry a doctor but she failed.

                   So, my father got paid out for the rest of his life. He was middle class. He was a bank official but he wasn't a doctor. So yes, doctors' wives were the bane of her life.

                   And when she worked in Myers, the worst part about it was she got doctors' wives in her haberdashery department every day or every second day and she used to pay them out. She'd say they strode around like bloody lady muck.

AL               And you also, as well as talking about your own relationships, you talk very candidly about your parents' relationship. And you drop this extraordinary fact that your father carried, for 58 years of marriage, a photo in his wallet of his former fiancé. Why do you think he did that?

DW             I think it didn't take him long to realise he'd made a major mistake. I think he was going out with this, apparently from my grandmother, a lovely girl called Deborah, a schoolteacher.

                   She was charming and pretty, but he made the mistake of trying to chat up the good sort, as someone told him, in the cake shop over the road, which was my mother.

                   My mother was waiting for a doctor to come in but they didn't eat much cake, so father, she said, okay, I'll go out with you. And then she found out he had a girlfriend and her ferocious competitive instincts kicked in and she was determined to displace Deborah which she did by various wiles.

                   But I think my father realised that marriage was pretty hellish with my mother after a year or two and that photo stayed in his wallet all his life. And he said to us, look in my wallet after I die, you'll understand a lot more about our marriage. Very sad, yes.

                   But one time I said to him, well, do you regret it all? And he said, look, I can't regret it because if I hadn't have married your mother you and your brother wouldn't be here, and that was very touching too.

AL               Did you draw on your parents much for your plays?

DW             I did to some extent. I certainly didn't make an international institution out of my mother like Barry Humphries did. But occasionally I would... In a couple of my plays, After the Ball and What If You Died Tomorrow, there were clear depictions of someone not unlike my mother.

                   But in a general sense she gave me more than that because she alerted me very quickly early in life that language wasn't just a tool of communication. It was a weapon.

                   And she was super-sensitive to the attacks coming in towards her, not necessarily in the surface of what was being said, but in the deep subtext she could read it out and she knew who was having a go at her. And the old working class girl from Brunswick, her hackles rose and she fought back.

                   So, I quickly got the message that you had to read language not just on the surface but in the subtext to get what was really being said and that language was a weapon.

                   And in drama conflict is everything and my household was constant conflict all the time because my father eventually had to fight back. It was never-ending.

                   And when Kristin, my present wife, first saw my mother and father in action she thought they were highly amusing. Well, my brother and I didn't find it highly amusing, but she said after watching your parents you had no alternative but to be a dramatist.

AL               And a very Australian dramatist at that. You talk in Home Truths about the fact that when you began writing in the late 60s and early 1970s there really wasn't much in the Australian theatrical cannon.

                   There was Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, but you talk about the influence of plays like Boys in the Band as encouraging you to write about the Australia that you experienced.

                   What shaped that notion that you could put on the stage the Australia you were experiencing?

DW             Well Andrew, it wasn't just me. There were a lot of aspiring writers, actors and directors around at the time who felt angry that they were virtually being knocked off their own stages.

                   Our culture, to some extent, was controlled by Englishmen with English sensibilities. Both the major theatre companies were run by Englishmen.

                   And our academia was stuffed with English academics in the English departments who came out preaching the gospel of FR Leavis who said there are only five writers in history, all of them English writers, or one quasi-English, an American, who were worth reading.

                   So, an incredibly elitist English overlay to our culture and we just wanted to break through. We wanted our own stories to be told, our own voices.

                   And luckily Betty Burstall came back from New York, saw the off-off Broadway theatres specialising and hunting out for new exciting writing and she said, look, until we start looking for our own writing we'll never get it.

                   So, she started La Mama, a little ex-factory and started looking for writing. And that served to allow an Australian voice for the first time to be heard continuously. That was what that theatre was for.

                   And yes, I was luckily one of those voices and the plays connected and then I made my way into the larger theatres. But for that opportunity there would still be little Australia drama writing.

AL               Australia in the 1970s was a pretty violent place. We only have to look at the murder statistics to see that the Australia of today is a considerably safer place. I remember pubs being a whole lot rougher in that era.

                   A lot of that violence ends up in the The Removalists. Is that a play you think you could put on now with its violence and its chauvinism?

DW             It is revived quite often and often people see it in the context of its time, the early 70s, which is the right way to see it.

                   But I don't think... The surface veneer of Australian male behaviour might have improved somewhat, but I doubt whether some of the darker impulses have totally disappeared, Andrew.

                   We love to think of ourselves as a much more polite and non-sexist society but the amount of sexual harassment that continues in our society and the amount of actual marital violence has actually increased in Australian society since 1970.

                   So, I doubt whether we're really much better underneath than we were then. We're much better at putting on a better surface though.

                   The Removalists was a really savage black satire on the worst aspects of Australian male behaviour and as I said, I don't think they've totally disappeared, otherwise domestic violence would be non-existent and it's a huge problem.

AL               Yes, that's very true. Your plays sometimes make you laugh and gasp within minutes of one another and I guess I think of The Club as being one of those. What drew you into writing about the darker side of AFL?

DW             Well, again I've always been intrigued by the social dance, the manoeuvres we all make to thread our way through our social lives. I'd been looking for something to write about. I thought I've run out of things to...

                   And every day I was reading headlines, coach, player fury erupts or committee threatens to sack coach, star player banned for two matches for whatever. And I suddenly realised there was a lot of drama going on right under my nose in an arena I knew very well because I was brought up as a football fan, an AFL fan.

                   But it was the ferocious politicking around football clubs that attracted me because, as in your arena of politics, success is everything and opposing leaders is not unknown in your arena as well.

                   And so the imperative to succeed dominates the atmosphere and intensifies the politics. So, it's really a committee meeting where all the ugliest and funniest motives for self-aggrandisement and self-promotion come out.

                   To illustrate that it wasn't totally about football, the play ran for a year in Beijing, I never got to see it because I couldn't get over there at the time, but I wondered why it was so popular, and they said, oh, you don't understand. The Chinese spend all their lives in committees with committee politicking.

AL               So many of your plays have relationships and affairs at the heart of them, for much of which you seem to draw on your own relationships both with friends and also infidelity about which you're stunningly candid in Home Truths.

                   Has it often got you into trouble that you've drawn on your own life and your friends as material?

DW             Yes, particularly in the early stages when I just put the works on stage and there were obvious similarities to real life incidents and there were obvious parallels to life and there were some real life characters that recognised themselves.

                   So, yes, with early plays like Don's Party I did get myself into a bit of trouble. Later in my career I made sure I showed the drafts to anyone who thought they might be depicted in some way.

                   You never depict 100% the person. You pick a few characteristics, you add a few from someone else, you add your own worst characteristics, so it was never as if you've taken a photographic portrait of someone and put them on stage, but there's still enough to worry people at some stage.

                   So, when I realised that it probably wasn't a good idea to spring something like Don's Party on people before they'd read it, I was a bit more careful.

AL               Do you find that when you're drawing on your own life that that gives an air of authenticity to the dialogue that you can't get if you're just delving into your imagination?

DW             Yes. An early play I wrote was an imitation of someone else's style and it was okay but it wasn't authentic. And I suddenly realised that there are only two real sources of material for a writer.

                   That's the life they see around them and observe closely and analyse because they know that's real. They've been through it themselves. Or what is loosely called the imagination which more often than not is unconsciously borrowing from other writers over time.

                   The chances of coming up with a total gem of original thought are fairly small, so usually what writers call imagination is other people's work which they don't realise they're using, but the audience often realises they're using or they've seen that trope before.

                   So, I thought it was always important for me to draw on absolutely what I knew was authentic and true, not that I did a tape-recording of life or anything but I had seen similar processes, similar power plays, similar use of language and I knew it was real.

AL               Do you also carry a notebook and pick up dialogue when you're on the bus or in a café?

DW             No, Andrew, I've never done that except once in my life. I had to get the particular accent of an English-speaking dame which was so peculiar and funny that I thought I'd better jot that one down because I'll never quite get it. But usually no, never.

                   It all springs out of your unconscious somewhere. I tend to be able to remember the emotional patterns of past... I can't remember physical objects. I wouldn't know what was in a room when I was in there, but I do remember the emotional undercurrents and the subtexts and the power plays and the defensiveness and the envy that was on display in that particular social situation.

                   So, I can reproduce that and something in the back of my mind comes up with the dialogue, which is never quite absolutely the way people speak. As actors have always said, it's got musical rhythms and if they don't hit those rhythms the lines won't be as effective.

                   I think that's necessary on the stage. I think the stage is all about language. So, even though people think they're seeing absolute verbatim speech of the sort they'd use, it's rarely quite that.

AL               One of the really fun aspects of reading Home Truths is you do occasionally break into a little chunk of a play often, which is your way of doing dialogue, so I suddenly feel like I'm reading a play script midway through.

                   But what is there to writing good conversation in plays? You drop one hint which is that you shouldn't talk about an emotion, you should show it. Do you have others for aspiring playwrights?

DW             Yes, there are a couple of golden rules. You don't stuff too much exposition through the dialogue to let the audience know what's going on or it becomes false.

                   Like when you say, ah Jane, I saw you last week and we talked about this, didn't we, and then we did that and... That's death to drama because it's not actual drama. It's information.

                   Another thing to avoid is completely on the nose dialogue where people are expressing things, emotions that they never really would express in everyday life but the dramatist wants this full-on explanation to happen.

                   So, yes, you pick up a few things on the way but most of it just comes from the deep unconscious or somewhere, it comes pouring out. And it's subtly changed from real dialogue to rhythmic dialogue.

                   Even though the change is not huge it's there and if the actors don't get it, they don't get it. It doesn't work.

AL               There's this notion of creativity which is that those creative geniuses who produce their best work young tend to be more plot-driven and those who produce their best work at older ages tend to be more character-driven.

                   As somebody who has been extraordinarily productive at the top levels right through from a young age to an older age, have you found that plot has diminished and you've put more emphasis on characters as you've gone on?

DW             I think I was always fascinated in characters and as I say the social dance that we all go through to get through our lives. So, characters have always been very important to me, trying to work out what temperament this character has.

                   Is he obsessive compulsive, is he hostile, is he open to new experience? All the major dimensions of personality you try and nut out through your characters, so I've always been into that.

                   But I've also been very big on dramatic momentum which you could call structure. If you don't keep the story moving, if you don't keep the audience guessing what happens next, so why do people go to plays? To see what happens next. If they stop worrying about what happens next you've lost them.

                   So, yes, I'd call it dramatic momentum has always been a key feature of my thinking about a play. It's really got to drive, like learn from the masters. Shakespeare didn't waste time.

                   King Lear, okay, three daughters here, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, I'm going to split up my empire, I'll give you a third each if you tell me how much you love me. Pretty blatant.

                   And of course Regan and Goneril lie their teeth out that they love him beyond belief and Cordelia just says she loves him as much as she should as a good daughter. And he's rampantly angry and casts her out. All that happens in a page and a half and boom, the play is off and running.

                   So, Shakespeare knew how to get a play up and running and how to keep the momentum going, and I think I learnt that lesson.

AL               You say at one point that everything rests on the ending, that a play can't be a great play unless it has a great ending, but Shakespeare seems to be an exception to that. His plays don't always have cracker endings. Is it just that for mere mortals the ending rule applies?

DW             Look, it helps if you've got a satisfying ending, an ending that nobody can quite predict but when it happens they say, oh, yes, I should have seen that coming.

                   Shakespeare's endings usually were pretty good. They're usually pretty bloody as well. The final scenes often had a lot of gore and a lot of scores being settled, which is a satisfying way to see...

AL               But on the other hand the comedies, everyone gets married, the tragedies, everyone dies. I feel like I could predict the ending of a Shakespeare play I hadn't seen.

DW             Yes, but everyone getting married when we feel they should is a great ending.

                   Because Chekhov used to specialise in, what you say, the endings that weren't as satisfying but were haunting because we saw who the right two people were that should get together and he teased us all through the play, yes, they're going to get together and then right at the end, no, they don't, and you go, oh my God. But it certainly gives his work a depth and resonance.

                   But Shakespeare, no, I think that's great if the right people do get married in the end. It's a rom-com. And if the villains get their just desserts, that's a very satisfying ending. We're all waiting for that bastard to... Like Richard III, Machiavellian, ruthless, we can't wait for him to come unstuck.    

AL               I want to push a little harder on your productivity. What is the David Williamson production function? You say you've never had writer's block. You start with about a four or five page outline. You do ten to 20 drafts.

                   Is there anything else about the way in which you work? Did you have word targets? Did you have a daily routine that you felt served you particularly well in producing this extraordinary body of work?

DW             Thank you. I think there was a rhythm to the plays because the major theatre companies had to have their subscription brochures, what they were offering to the public for the next year out by about September.

                   So, I had to have a draft that the theatre company was happy with by,  hopefully, March, hopefully earlier because then they had to cast it and get good names in it to put in the brochure. So, I was working to a timetable if you like.

                   But in terms of when I started working, well, I had to get the idea that I thought would carry and that was the hard part at the start. I had to find something in my social environment that grabbed me, made me emotionally involved, and if I found that it might make the audience emotionally involved.

                   And once I had that, gather the characters around, work out the conflicts that are going to drive the drama, work out a rough outline and then the heady business of getting into the writing and things happening as you're writing.

                   David Mamet, the American playwright, said if I don't surprise myself when I'm writing, I'm never going to surprise the audience.

                   So, some of the writing evolves as it's going. You know your characters, you know the conflicts, you know roughly where it's going but you never quite know where it's going and sometimes that can get out of hand and that's why you need the ten or 15 more drafts to get it back into shape.

                   But the work habits, yes, I was a workaholic because I was addicted in a sense right from the first time I got that feeling of my words in actors' mouths connecting with an audience and meaning something to their lives. That's a huge buzz and once you've had that buzz you want it again. It's a form of addiction.

                   So, I got tense, excited and driven when I finally got onto writing that draft ready for the next year. And my wife, Kristin, luckily is a writer as well so she was a little forgiving about my level of obsession during that part of the process.

AL               When you're working well, do you work all day or do you have disciplines in terms of when you start and when you finish?

DW             When I was in the exciting phase of creating the first draft of a play, I was in that process called flow. You just don't notice that time has passed and you look at your watch and you're really annoyed that it's 5 o'clock. It can't be 5 o'clock. It must only be 2 o'clock, but it's 5 o'clock.

                   So, when you're totally absorbed you just don't notice the time going and you want to spend more time.

                   But usually I was able to break off for the evening meal, back in the old days with the family, and relax over a bottle of wine with Kristin, but not truly relaxed in that stage because the problems you haven't solved and the thoughts are still buzzing through your skull and you're trying to pretend you're listening to everyone.

                   But Kristin would catch me out and she'd see the glazed look in my eyes and say, now, what did I just say? Usually there was a circuit somewhere at the back of my brain that would record it without me knowing and I was able to say what she said. But she said, yes, but you didn't really take it in, did you? Yes, I did, yes, absolutely.

                   So, yes, a writer with a full head of steam who just has to get that work completed is a little difficult to live with as a father and a husband.

AL               You're unashamedly on the progressive side of politics, a dewy-eyed Whitlamite, but you were also struck by the way in which you talk about your visits in 1970 to Denmark and the United States. You seem equally troubled by each country.

                   Obviously your concerns over identity politics are surfaced in Dead White Males, but it seems to reflect a sense, that I get coming through your book, that class is what dominates rather than gender or religion or race. Do you have a sense that maybe that is an increasingly marginalised view?

DW             It could be. I'm not downplaying the importance of identity politics. Those groups in society who have been ignored, mistreated and humiliated, sometimes they may feel that they've been ignored and humiliated a little more than they have but obviously they have been and they're entitled to voice their anger and make a statement that the wellbeing of their identity of their particular group that is being mistreated is important above all else.

                   In the meantime we've gone from a society that had the most even distribution of income in the world in 1962, or no, the second most. I think Yugoslavia was the first most, to, I think, the third worst income disparity in the world as CEOs get millions upon millions of dollars every year and bonuses on top of that.

                   Income inequality is debilitating for a country. The bigger the spread of haves, have-nots, the more the social tensions.

AL               But I wanted to push you a little bit, David, just on the tension between those various concerns. You've got Steve in Dead White Males saying go foco yourself, but you also say in Home Truths that there's... I'll quote you here of Dead White Males. 

                   The play wasn't arguing that the patriarchy didn't exist or that women or minority groups hadn't been oppressed, but that a lot of white males on the lower rungs of the hierarchical ladder, the serfs, the slaughtered military conscripts, the mineworkers, the toilers in the dark satanic mills had also been victims of male power structures.

                   Do you think it's harder to put on plays that talk about the concerns of the white working class?

DW             Yes, it is. My plays, I have to admit, haven't concentrated on that aspect. They've been mainly about the social dance done by our middle class Anglo-Celtic Australians because that's what I've been fascinated in.

                   But yes, I think the rise of Trump was a lot to do with the disgruntled white working class males. They're a formidable force when their fury is roused and not a very pleasant force.

                   The conservatives have pulled a wonderful country since Reagan by pretending to be, like ScoMo, a good bloke, rugby player. I'm for the ordinary man. Oh yes, sure you are for the ordinary man. 

                   You're for Gina Rinehart and all the top end of town, but you pretend you're for the ordinary man because you lambast political correctness and the ordinary man hates political correctness, so we're on your side.

                   And that trick works. It's worked for years and years and years and the Labor Party has never quite pointed out that these guys aren't on your side.

                   They are on the side of wealth, power and privilege. And it's a good game for them to play that they are just one of you and looking after you and stopping these horrible feminists and stopping these horrible little ethnic groups who are whinging and complaining.

                   It is a white male working class backlash. The fact that Labor has lost so many of those votes to the conservatives, in a sense voting against their own economic interests is, as Paul Keating warned at our dinner party many years ago, if you go overboard about identity politics you've lost the white male working class who used to be the backbone of your electoral support.

AL               Ezra Klein argues that what's going on in the universities and the theatres can often lead society by a decade whereas electoral results can lag by a decade.

                   And so you get simultaneously the rise of Trump but also the Oscars So White movement which has led to now requirements for diversity for films to be considered in the Oscars.

                   There's a sense among progressives that they're losing electorally, a sense among conservatives that they're losing in the entertainment sphere. If you were putting on Don's Party for the upcoming federal election, who would be in it? What would it look like from a diversity standpoint?

DW             I'm sure diversity would be represented more highly. It wasn't in the Australia I knew in 1972 but it's increasingly in the Australia I know today. I still think our Asian Australian population is under-represented on the stages.

                   I think at long last our aboriginal, our First Nations population is increasingly represented, particularly on our stages and on our television dramas. I'm not arguing against that. Everyone has a right for their own presence on stages because their own presence is here in Australia.

                   I'd say if I was writing Don's Party now they could cast any one of the parts as someone of Greek, Asian, First Nation extraction and no-one would bat an eyelid.

AL               You have a surprising amount of home truths which are focused on reviewers and your critics. And it's striking to me, given your extraordinary success, that you care about the critics.

                   I would have thought as somebody who is packing the theatre that that would be enough. But there's a lot of discussion of the late Bob Ellis there for example and your responses to Bob Ellis. Do you feel as though you let the critics get to you a bit too much?

DW             I did but I berate myself in Home Truths for being over-sensitive to the critics. I note how much wasted effort and time I devoted to answering them back, which is a futile exercise.

                   I now in hindsight see it was, particularly at the first part of my career... Ellis was a different proposition. Ellis was loose-tongued to an extraordinary degree and could be extremely vituperative and I just objected to being his whipping boy for so long, so I protested against that.

                   That's not the ordinary run of critics. He was a personal critic whereas the other critics were critics of my work. But I do berate myself, as I say in Home Truths, for being over-sensitive.

                   It was a psychic shock you see. I was Davo, a good guy, tertiary teacher, loved teaching his students, they liked me, I liked the staff. I got on with everyone. I had a lot of friends.

                   Nobody hated me and then suddenly you become prominent in the arts and you realise the arts is a seething bed of envy and that if you put yourself up there, they're going to try and knock you down and they're going to try and belittle you.

                   All those photos of the young playwright with the long hair and the leather jackets in the glossy magazines, they were stirring up waves of hatred from all those who wanted to be in the glossy magazines.

                   And so suddenly it was a psychic shock to be not Davo, nice guy, but Davo, poser, pseudo, fraud, tape-recorder of people's private lives.

                   Yes, it took me a while to realise that if you are lucky enough to be able to write and get your work produced, you've got to be prepared for the fact that, A, some people will legitimately not like it. Nobody can please everyone. But, B, there's a lot of envy out there and a lot of what comes back at you will be because they want to be what you are.

                   But on the other hand, the legitimate critics shouldn't have worried me as much as they did. It's a sad human predisposition to worry about the negative more than you do the positive.

                   There were a lot of positive things being said about me and a lot of positive critics as I look back on my album, but you tend to take those for granted. It's oh, yes, of course I'm brilliant. Why wouldn't I be?

                   And the negative ones you're, ugh. And it's not just me. I think it's a history of arts, the story of what artists have done to their critics over the years with cricket bats and God knows what, there's a volume of them.

                   Yes, it was futile but I think I got a bit better as I got a older and realising that it was no good, spending all my life and energy worrying about the ones that were nasty.

AL               Some of your contemporaries dealt with that by leaving the country. I think about Peter Carey and Germaine Greer, Clive James making the decision that Australia of the late 1960s, early 1970s was too small to contain their creative talents. Were you ever tempted to make a permanent shift overseas?

DW             Not really because I knew in my heart that I was an Australian writer, that what I did, I'd learned a culture, I'd subconsciously absorbed the speech patterns, the behaviour, the way of use of the people around me.

                   What was the good of transplanting myself to a new culture and trying to learn it? Futile, because I'd learned it from six months up.

                   It's interesting that Peter Carey did go to New York but so many of his novels are still set in Australia. That's his heartland. That's the place that he knows. If you're a writer you can never leave your country behind.

                   If you're an actor you can adopt a wonderful American accent and transport your skills internationally with no trouble at all. If you're a director, likewise, but writers, if they're honest and truthful, they write about what they know and it's taken them a long time consciously and unconsciously to learn that.

                   You'd never see Tim Winton, a quintessential Australian writer, thinking ah, I'd better go to England because I'll get more recognition there. He knows his work is rooted here.

AL               Yes, I feel like every time Tim Winton goes for a swim in the ocean that he adds another gorgeous sentence to the next novel. So, without his immersion in Western Australia we wouldn't get the texture of it, and similarly without your immersion in Australian culture we wouldn't have gotten the plays that you produced.

DW             Flaubert, the French novelist, said all great art is provincial, and by that he meant that if you really want to make things real, you've got to get the surface details and the mannerisms and the language of your culture right.

                   The human universals underneath that will take care of themselves. Just make sure you get your culture right and it will ring true.

AL               Yes and Tip O'Neill said that all politics is local, but we've still got the United Nations.

                   So, there's different levels at which you can operate and I think your choice is very much one of being in Australia and telling our stories to an Australian audience in a particular era.

                   And without doing that I don't think you would have been the person that produced an STC play every year for decades as you were and shaped the conversation on so many of these big issues.

DW             That's very kind of you. I'm glad I stayed here and I'm glad to call Australia home. For all the faults I identify, it's a pretty good country to live in in all kinds of respects.

AL               David, let me finish off by asking a couple of questions I ask all of my interviewees. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

DW             Carry your dream of becoming a writer. Don't give it up, but be a little aware of the negative side that's going to happen when it happens.

AL               What's something you used to believe but no longer do?

DW             I must be a troglodyte because I don't think I've changed my beliefs all that much over the years. I certainly have, since I was a kid, broadened my opinions about social behaviour, gay marriage, all of that.

                   When I first heard about homosexuality when I was 11 or 12 I was horrified at the thought. So, yes, society progresses and as you say, social attitudes get more progressive and with any luck you get carried along and agree with it.

AL               And too your attitudes on monogamy seem to have shifted. You talk with some regret about the affairs in both your marriages and about how it took a while to work through to where you are now.

DW             It wasn't until I realised what I nearly lost in my relationship with Kristin, and she let me know in no uncertain terms I was about to lose it, that I realised how stupid my impulsive behaviour had been and what was under threat because of it.

                   And from that time on, that severe jolt, I've never even thought of being anything other because I'm very lucky to have her, considering what I did back then. But I must say for 35 or more years now I've been perfect.

AL               When are you most happy?

DW             With friends, family. With Kris, it's amazing how many times we dine out together and have great fun. She's got an endless stream of amazing anecdotes about her childhood that I've never heard before.

                   I occasionally hear about old boyfriends I've never heard before either, but she is a great storyteller. Most of her heritage is Irish and so of course she is. So, it's amazing how much pleasure I get out of just her company.

                   But then add the family, add friends, the social environment, we're intensely social creatures. We're also egocentric monsters sometimes but we're social creatures and that social network is so necessary for a healthy and enjoyable life.

AL               What's your ideal size of a dinner party?

DW             My ideal...

AL               Size of a dinner party. You sound like you're an aficionado of putting on dinner parties. You must have thought about the optimal number of people to have around the table.

DW             Six or eight. If it gets bigger than that the conversations can never stay focused with that group. They split into little parts and some person's got stuck with some boring person, perhaps me, all the meal. So, I think six or eight or sometimes even four is fun.

AL               What's the most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy?

DW             When I'm really wanting to free myself of stress I do a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. I was thrown recently when my little grandkids gave me a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. That was almost beyond me. I said, please, no more.

AL               Have you done jigsaw puzzles for decades or is this a new hobby?

DW             Relatively new. It's rather like creating a play. You've got to get all the right pieces in the right places and then the whole adds up to something.

AL               And finally, David, what person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

DW             A few people. One of my good university friends, who is much more principled than I am, I remember this very clearly that I wanted to get away with my girlfriend.

                   I was working in vacation work and I wanted to lie to my bosses that I had to go and get something, and he just said, look, David, why don't you tell the truth? Just say you want a couple of days off. And I thought, oh, that's a revelation. Tell the truth. And that stayed with me and I try and do that now.

AL               David Williamson, bard, storyteller and shaper of the Australian polity, thanks so much for taking the time to join me on The Good Life Podcast today.

DW             It's been a great pleasure, Andrew. All the very best.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week's episode of The Good Life, Andrew Leigh in conversation. If you enjoyed this episode you might want to check out past episodes with actor, Sheridan Harbridge, director, John Bell, and also composer, Carl Vine.

                   If we're aiming to get The Good Life Podcast out to more people, the best way is through word of mouth. So, if you have a moment to mention it to a friend, talk about it on social media or even just give it a rating or a review on your favourite podcast platform, please do. It helps the podcast reach more people.

                   Next week we'll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.