On page four of the Sydney Morning Herald, 24th October 1944, two seemingly unrelated news items were reported. The first,
Here, on the same page, was notice of two events that proved to be more than incidentally linked, and which served as the basis of a theatrical production called Art War ’44, performed in the Open Stage, University of Melbourne in October 1999. I devised, directed, and co-created the work with third and fourth year undergraduate students in Theatre Studies from the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne, who also performed the piece. This work preceded by several years a similar theatrical treatment of the Dobell trial, entitled Art on Trial, written by Robert Smith and performed early in 2002.
There is an intriguing confluence of events, themes, forces and people that swirl around – before, during and after – the Dobell trial, and others that resonated in a particular way in Art War ’44. The human agents in this confluence (as I interpreted and ‘reconstructed’ it) include Sir Robert Menzies, Sir Garfield Barwick, Sir John Kerr, and John Howard, as well as William Dobell and Joshua Smith. Other significant facets include the birth of the Australian Liberal Party and of the Australian Academy of Art, and the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ art movements in Australia. Australia’s Constitutional Monarchy, the sacking of the Whitlam Labour Government in 1975, and the Republic Referendum in 1999 (one week after the performance season of the show) all make an appearance. Of course, not all of these figures and events were involved directly. But there are a number of fascinating connections between them that provided excellent material for a work of ‘documentary theatre’ (especially one created and performed in the spirit and exaggerated style of Dobell’s painting of Joshua Smith).
In this paper, I briefly examine some of the trial’s more ‘theatrical’ elements (a detailed account of the trial can be found, for example, in Adams, 1983: 92-224 and Gleeson, 1964: 115-144) and aspects of its wider social, political and cultural contexts. I will also call to witness those later events involving both the people and the themes of the trial mentioned above, and detail how all these factors were structured into our work of ‘documentary theatre.’ This paper, then, is an analysis of aspects of the ‘dramaturgy’ of a work of documentary theatre. The term ‘dramaturgy’ is slippery, but here is taken to mean ‘the relation between the means of expression (the narrative material, stage space and time, formal organisation) and the vision of the world to be expressed’ (Helbo, 1991: 2). Dramaturgy, by combining ideological and aesthetic structures, involves active choices about what is included in the work, when, in what way, and the interpretive frameworks that are set up by these choices for a particular set of audiences.
The action against the Trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and William Dobell was initiated by two of the losers in the competition, Mary Edwards and Joseph Wolenski. They claimed that the winning entry by Dobell (‘Portrait of Joshua Smith’) was not a portrait under the terms of the competition, but a caricature. The Judge restated the charge in his Judgement:
At times, the already extraordinary cross-examinations on matters of artistic definitions, art history, degrees of likeness, and so on reached surreal levels. Barwick later recalled how another cartoonist named ‘Frith,’ with whom he was friendly, had made for him a small plasticine head of the then Leader of the Opposition, ‘whose features included a prominent nose. The identity of the model could readily be seen from the nose, but the extent of its prominence clearly indicated that a cartoonist had been at work’ (Barwick, 1995: 50). The plasticine head was produced during Barwick’s questioning of Richard Horton James for the defendants. When asked by Barwick if the head was a portrait, James responded, ‘I have seen human beings quite as deformed as that, but I think it was done as a joke,’ whereupon Frith apparently called out ‘I object to that. I made that image and it was made in all seriousness.’ He was immediately thrown out of the courtroom (Adams, 1983: 164; Barwick, 1995: 50).
In another bizarre moment, Barwick asked Dr Vivian Benjerfield, a medical practitioner he knew, whom he caught sight of as he entered the courtroom on one of the trial days (Barwick, 1995: 49), to give a medical opinion of the portrait. Benjerfield offered an opinion under oath:
Benjerfield: The complete loss of subcutaneous tissue
Kitto: You would have to put that in terms of appearance?
Kitto: That is the point you make?
Dwyer: Do you know anything about art?
Benjerfield: No (Trial Transcript, 1944: 95)
Young: Well I am called that.
Dwyer: You call yourself that, don’t you?
Dwyer: Don’t you call yourself that in the Sydney telephone directory – “Art Expert.”
Young: No, that is by accident … I personally do not like it.
Dwyer: What don’t you like about art experts?
Young: I don’t like any man that calls himself an expert … I have moved to have that removed from the telephone book.
Dwyer: Is that what appears after the name? Is it “Y-O-U-N-G”: or “Y-U-N-G”?
Dwyer: After your name – after it appears in the telephone book, do these words appear “Art Expert”?
Young: They do.
Dwyer: But you do not like it?
Young: No, I don’t
Dwyer: But you put up with it? …You have been so described in the telephone book for some 5 to 6 years. When did you become an art expert? Was it a sudden transformation or did it take some time? …Your life’s work was not completely associated with art prior to that was it?
Young: Yes, since about 1918.
Dwyer: At one stage in your career you were the proprietor of a ham and beef shop, weren’t you?
Young: That is a new one on me.
Dwyer: You deny it? (Trial Transcript, 1944: 85-86)
In yet another gloriously comic moment, Richard James for the defendants is cross-examined on the meaning of an ‘angular character’:
Barwick: Tell me what is an angular character.
James: It is a figure of speech.
Barwick: I want to know what is an angular character, as a bit of English?
James: An angular character is a person who is perhaps not immediately happy in all circumstances, but finds that he has some difficulty fitting into new circumstances and new people and so on.
Barwick: That merely describes most of us on earth?
James: Not so, some are less angular than others…
Barwick: Tell me what ‘angular character’ is – would the opposite be a ‘circular
James: You are getting quite near it – a man with no nerves and heavy figure – circular might be thought of as being the opposite of angular (Trial Transcript, 1944: 119).
There were many more exchanges of this kind which, along with most of the incidents described above, were included in Art War ’44. A final piece in this jigsaw slotted into place when, after settling on the performance dates to fit into the normal University calendar, the dates for the Republic Referendum was set for 6th November 1999, the week following our final performance. In the script of Art War ’44, we incorporated historical material relating to Australia in the 1940s, excerpts from secondary sources dealing with both that context and the trial (for example, from Adams, 1983). Headlines from the Second World War, excerpts of the new Liberal Party Manifesto and from letters and speeches made by Menzies and Barwick in the 1940s and later – including Barwick’s 1982 Menzies Oration on the value of the Constitutional Monarchy and his letter to Sir John Kerr on 10th November 1975 before the dismissal of the Whitlam Government – all made an appearance. Some choice statements on the ‘appalling condition of modern society and art’ were taken from Richard Bolton’s 1992 book Culture Wars that focuses on art controversies in America and attacks on its National Endowment for the Arts. These statements were included on the basis that a certain continuity of situation between the two periods was evident. Video footage from the 1940s concerning WWII, Whitlam’s sacking, and other relevant matters was projected onto a central upstage screen as if these were ‘exhibits’ in the trial (as we ‘reconstructed’ it). With the audience arranged ‘end-on,’ the performance space was delineated upstage by a series of five screens, arranged in a rough semi-circle. Onto these screens we projected slide images of some of the leading ‘characters’ (Menzies, Howard, Queen Elizabeth II. and so on), as well as numerous portrait paintings both traditional and ‘modern.’ A slide image of Dobell’s painting of Joshua Smith was a constant presence on these screens. The ‘plasticine head’ made by Barwick’s cartoonist friend Frith was replaced by a clay head of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. The surreal edge to some of the dialogue was complemented by the occasional appearance of ghost-like figures wearing masks that had been contorted in the style of cubist and other modern art. An oversized ‘live’ puppet (that is, with an actor inside it) wearing a similarly distorted mask, moved in and out of the action, as if ‘modern’ art had truly taken on a quasi-human shape with the menace that adversaries both in Australia and the U.S.A. had endowed it.
Art War ’44 was an example of documentary theatre in the vein of Erwin Piscator, which Favorini describes as
But documentary theatre has an ambivalent attitude to ‘facts’, as Derek Paget notes:
As Innes points out (1972: 78) in relation to Piscator, the volume of ‘documentation’ collected for this kind of work presents a structural challenge: how to keep the piece alive and engaging while presenting ‘facts selected primarily to spell out a political message.’ The Dobell trial transcript itself runs for over 190 typed pages, and the mass of other material that we felt was relevant swelled our coffers considerably. We arranged the interrogations and other material into a series of ‘environments’ that we hoped would evoke the many connections and forces (as outlined above) that I felt had impacted on the trial. At various points, we evoked the lecture theatre, theatre itself, the courtroom, the art gallery, the artist’s studio, parliament, the referendum ballot booth, and the front-line bunker. With recurring moments in the studio or in the two painters’ apartment in Kings Cross (‘Bill – Yes – Did you get the milk on the way home? – Yes’), there was a general movement through the piece from history lesson, to courtroom, to parliament, and to the bunker, with increasingly hysterical statements and antics. The last two scenes focused on the personal side of the saga, and finally on the decision the audience would be called on to make at the ballot box, a week or so later, on the question of an Australian Republic.
Tragi-Comedy: Friends and Art
This trial was not just a comedy; it was a tragi-comedy, perhaps even a painful farce for Dobell and Smith, who had been close friends for some years. They had shared a tent together in the army, spending their days painting camouflage, and had later lived together in Sydney’s Kings Cross (Adams, 1983: 90). Dobell recalled in an interview at the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1963 that Smith had congratulated him on the portrait once it was finished. The controversy that was stirred by the painting winning the Archibald, however, had changed his response to it (Dobell, 1963). In the interview, Dobell says that, after the trial, the nearest they ever got to speaking together again was when they bumped into one another in the street, but Smith snubbed his attempt at contact. He goes on to say:
Chief prosecutor in the trial, Garfield Barwick, whom Dobell (1963) later described as ‘brilliant’ (‘I hated his guts at the time, he was insulting, but brilliant’), evoked in his final address to the court the horror and subversion of modernism: ‘Everyone for the defence, except Mr. Dundas, seems to favour complete anarchy in portrait painting.’ He suggested that the modernist movement was a conspiracy, and that if you opened the door to this movement there would be no limit to its deleterious effects (Adams, 1983: 211-212). Traditional art was seen as embodying those ‘certain standards’ that Menzies promoted as the job of a ‘real academy’ to uphold. The plaintiff Mary Edwards had ‘been so affronted by the painting, she’d issued a warning to children and pregnant women not to attend the [original] exhibition’ (Hawley, 1997: 22). She claimed to have brought the action in an effort ‘to keep the cause of art lofty and undefiled’ (Adams, 1983: 217). Wolenski went so far as to state that
The conservative Australian response to ‘modern’ art was in no doubt to Menzies in 1937 when he said,
The following year, during the 1997 Robert Menzies Memorial Lecture in London, Howard again referred to these ‘forgotten people’ (Howard, 1997). Clearly these ‘forgotten people,’ or ‘the great Australian mainstream’ as Howard calls them, were just the kind of people who in 1943-1944 would be called on by anti-modernist forces to make a damning judgement on William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith.
Australia’s historical ties to Britain, including our Constitutional Monarchy, play a supporting role in the Dobell drama. Menzies had been a fervent supporter of the alliance with Britain. In a speech made in the Camberwell Town Hall, Melbourne, on 2nd September 1940, to enunciate his Government’s war policy, Menzies proclaimed,
The Struggle Continues
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the struggle against the perceived evils of ‘modern’ art continued in the United States, with prominent campaigner Rev. Donald Wildmon describing his work as ‘a great spiritual struggle for the heart and mind and soul of our society.’ The nation’s ‘moral and spiritual fibre’ has been eroded for the past fifty years, said Wildmon in 1989, and. without the active crusading of ‘good people,’ the country would go the way of Rome. Who is ‘good’, in his view, and who is not, is clearly delineated in a 1984 statement: ‘If they had their way, consumer groups, intellectuals, blacks and feminists would run our society while Christians and the military would have very little influence’ (cited in Bolton, 1992: 9).
The conservative aesthetic tastes of conservative politicians continue to raise its head in Australia. Late in 2003, senior Liberal-Coalition politicians blasted what they saw as the preponderance of ‘modern art’ in the corridors and offices of Parliament House in Canberra. Minister Tony Abbot, an ardent monarchist, is on record calling the ‘offending’ art ‘avant-garde crap.’ When he became a Minister, he says, ‘I went through the collection on offer – most of it is rubbish – and then asked if I could see anything else, like some nice portraits’ (Koutsoukis, 2003). In his office can now be seen ‘a series of portraits in oil of former MPs’ (Crabb, 2003: 4), including three former Governors-General. Amongst them is a portrait of Sir William McKell because, comments Abbot, ‘he was a good Labour monarchist’ (Koutsoukis, 2003: 26). In another spectacular twist of fate, the portrait is painted by – one could not have invented this – Joshua Smith! Smith actually painted three portraits of McKell (Hawley, 1997: 25). Other conservative politicians have referred to the modern art as ‘dreary,’ ‘dismal,’ ‘depressing,’ and ‘dark’ (Crabb, 2003: 4). With a touch of the kind of fundamentalist frenzy seen in America in reaction to works by Maplethorpe and others in the 1980s and early 1990s (see Bolton, 1992: 1-26), it has also been described as being ‘like a disease … a virus built into the place’ (Crab, 2003: 4). John Howard is known for his preference for the old masters, and has also given a prominent spot in his office to a landscape called ‘Near Antibes’ by none other than Sir Winston Churchill (Koutsoukis, 2003: 26).
And in yet another round in the ongoing culture war, on December 12, 2003, The Age reported (Morgan, 2003: 5) that John Howard’s official biographer, David Barnett, made a (formerly) secret submission regarding the National Museum of Australia. In the submission, he objected to a sculpture consisting of blue telegraph poles, which referenced Jackson Pollack’s controversial Blue Poles No. II (1952), brought by the Whitlam Government in 1973. Apart from criticising the sculpture as ‘a monument to Gough Whitlam,’ Barnett raged against the evil effects of ‘a modish academic approach called post-modernism,’ blaming it for ‘the abolition of grammar as a school subject, the nature of journalism departments…and history departments everywhere (Morgan, 2003: 5). He seems to blame philosopher Jacques Derrida for postmodernism, and cites controversial historian Keith Windshuttle as someone who ‘may have dealt with post-modernism and its part in the falsification of history’ (Barnett, 2003). Here are art, culture, history and politics all wrapped together in one ultra-conservative bundle.
The Power of the Image
Bolton remarks in the context of the 1980s – 1990s American ‘culture war’ that ‘conservatives and liberals both seem to agree that contemporary art has much potential as an agent of social change’ (1982: 24). What unifies the many facets of the Dobell trial, associated events, forces and personalities, and similar culture wars, is the power of the image. It was this power that served as the underlying basis of our dramaturgy in Art War ’44, informing not only the expanded range of material we brought into the production, but also the aesthetic nature of the piece, its emphasis on visuality as well as reportage. And it was an awareness of ‘image power’ that encouraged me to bring together the 1944 Dobell trial, the 1975 Whitlam sacking, and the 1999 Republic referendum, and also to distort and exaggerate while at the same time presenting the ‘facts’ of the case through a documentary theatre style. Many governments and lobby groups have tried to control, limit or manipulate artistic use of the image. Some have succeeded. The United States may not be the most extreme example, but it must surely be amongst the best of them, as Saunders (1999) has demonstrated in relation to the ‘Cultural Cold War’ and the manipulation of artists and writers by the Central Intelligence Agency after World War Two. In Australia, the forces of artistic restriction have been, and are, mild by comparison. But, as the Dobell trial, along with the associated events and personalities that I have explored in this paper and in Art War ’44, suggests, powerful forces can be, and are, mustered here against the power of the image. The ‘art war’ that exploded in ’44 is ongoing.
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David Barnett (2003). “Letter to National Museum of Australia Review Team” Dated 14th March 2003 [obtained through Freedom of Information and published by The Sydney Morning Herald, 11th December 2003/12/03]www.smh.com.au/article/2003/12/11/1071125592529.html [accessed 12.12.2003]
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Annabel Crabb (2003). ‘The Landscape Changes For Parliament’s “Avant-garde’ Art”,’ in The Age, 2nd December, News, p. 4
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http://home.vicnet.net.au/~victorp/liberals/nsw/Howard.html [accessed 09.12.2003]
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Trial Transcript (1944). His Majesty’s Attorney General for the State of New South Wales v. The Trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and William Dobell, in the Supreme Court of NSW in Equity (October-November)
Trial Judgement (1944). The Attorney General v. The Trustees of that National Art Gallery of N.S.W. & Anon, in the Supreme Court of NSW in Equity (8th November)