John McCallum

As I had anticipated John [Romeril] has been introduced and you all know who he is, although none of us know exactly how much he has done. It says in his biography that he is the author of eighty plays. He is also a dramaturge and a constant supporter of theatre practice of all types and all levels all over the country for many, many years.

I first met John at the playwrights’ conference in the 1970s and I more fully met him in about 1980. He came to Newcastle where I was then working to theatrically revision an old play with students. I’ll never forget the first words he said when he was talking to the class. He said, ‘Listen, we are going to do a workshop and if any of you are still with us at the end of the week, you’ve got a part, and it will be something worth doing.’ [laughter] There were thirty students. And one of the most wonderful residencies I’ve ever encountered was when he came as a visiting Literary Fellow to the university where I now work, the University of New South Wales, earlier this year. I dealt with that by coming to live in Melbourne for three months [laughter]; we swapped houses.

John Romeril

I’ll get some water; got to set up the props! [laughter]. I better not talk too bloody long. Look, thanks Denise [Varney] for that paper about The Floating World because there’s a lot in your argument that’s ‘on the money’ [Denise Varney’s paper is published elsewhere in this issue-ed.]. I finally came to learn in my dotage what Aristotle could have told me if I’d just read the bloody thing first off! That is that drama exists in a state of contention – the kind of contention that Denise drew to your attention to in her talk – and that is the tension between naturalism, on the one hand, and a much more formalised or stylised drive to theatre. That’s always fascinated me and it always, I think, gives theatre its density of attack. There’s a great Japanese playwright who I always quote on this, a guy called Monzaemon Chikamatsu who wrote more than a 100 plays between 1683 and the 1720s. His critical theories were collected in a book, Naniwa miyage, published after his death in 1738. He was the author of a great stream of double suicide tragedies, that being a Japanese genre.

He said the theatre is neither fully fanciful nor yet wholly realistic but it lives in the gap between the two, in the slender margin between the real and the unreal. So the audience will still be flashing between something that is luminescently beautiful, so beautiful, it can’t be the real and behaviour that is so well observed that it does have a naturalistic aura, even though it is being produced by actors, night after night after night. And so that tension is something that audiences are constantly going through. And a script ought to, and the players ought to, be aspiring to put an audience in that state and they themselves should be operating in that state. It’s why the theatre can achieve or get close to a real existentiality. It can matter and that’s when it hits us and works on us.

So anyway, that’s a little bit of theory that I always trot out. But I wasn’t born with it. So what I tried to do in thinking about what I would speak to here, in this gig, I thought we would talk about 1967 to 1970, for some reason. I hadn’t even written The Floating World at that time. I tried to remember the kind of guy I was in those years. There are all sorts of memories. I fled to New Zealand fearing the draft and I went and lived on a pacifist commune because I thought I’d better work out the case! [laughter] So if my number did come up in the lottery, I could object. And I wrote a couple of novels over there which seemed to have a lot of fucking in them, although I had never had any and stuff of that sort. I returned to Australia in 1967 and I think I was a bit of a lyric poet, even then, and in following the American beat circle I’d discovered the City Lights Bookshop and things like Jerome Rothenberg’s translations of the new German poets, which didn’t turn out to be terribly new, but they were to me. It included people like Karl Krolow, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hans Magnusson, so they had a bit of that sort of fuel. And you know I wrote very interesting lyric poems. I can’t remember too many of them, but something tells me there was one about ‘staggering through the foreshore at Rosebud/ I hear the tea tree whispering/ that it is over there seen on the wall of the tent/ a young girl undressing’. [laughter] Just because you come from Mt Eliza and can’t stand the local! And I know there was one about an old father coming home, sort of drunk and climbing the stairs like an elephant with another story curled up in his trunk. Things of that sort, so I thought I was a bit of all right and I would appear in places with figures like Shelton Lea and various other weird poets like Kris Hemensley. I was a poet, man, and someone who burnt his novels. At the same time there was the European stuff and I got into Lorca and God knows who else. I was also a student and found myself very interested in the theatre and I started to see shows including some of Max’s [Gillies] work, John Ellis and Elijah Moshinksky out at Monash and all that caper.

By then I was the father to three stepchildren and living with their mother and needed a job, and one of the jobs I got finally was at the Department of Agriculture Library. My job was to send out the magazines to various agronomists and herb testers who needed them for their work. I would distribute these journals and so on as they arrived and hunt up books that they wanted and so on and so forth. I ended up reading a lot of it. InChicago Chicago, for example, there was a whole lot of rip offs that I took holus bolus – ‘found’ language. It was the whole thing, yeah, I know Kurt Zwigers and I know William Burroughs and I know this and I know that; I’ll do cover versions and see how they go down. I’m quite proud of Chicago Chicago first performed in 1969. It’s one of the densest things I’ve ever written and it does manage with student casts to mop up a lot of energy and the more people you have the wilder and weirder it can seem, because it’s sort of like symphonic in its treatment, rather than the usual small quartet, sextet or octet that we’re used to in the theatre. Of course the engine of all that stuff was very much Brecht and Meyerhold and Biomechanics and a little bit of Artaud and you’d stumble into Brecht’s output on aesthetics, very interesting challenges to the head. And as you’ve been told there was the touring drama revue kicking around and all of that so I started to take some of that on board as well. So the journey of this lyric poet is that he starts doing a little bit of acting work at Monash University with both the staff and the drama club and sees Johnny Ellis’s and Elijah’s shows out there and Ian Catchlove – various fine folk. And I ended up doing a four and a half hour version of End Game as the guy who sits in the chair (Hamm). The poor fucking director nearly shot himself at the dress rehearsal: ‘I wonder if we’re ever going to get out of here, Romeril, get your lines down man.’

So I did all that and then a few of us stumbled towards La Mama because it had opened as a piece of architecture and it was a clearinghouse. I went to it first as a poet, and I also went to it as an actor. I worked with this man over here (indicating Peter Green) and my first outing at La Mama was in a Frank Bren play, The Rise and Fall of Archie Jones (1968) with Peter. You guys could figure out what that was like – it was a weird piece. And Brian Davies wanted to do all these Brecht plays and so I worked in that and then people started making films and so I had this great line with Arnie Zable to my left, and I’d say something to him and he says, ‘We should go to that gig, yeah, just the jazz would be enough of a reason.’ And I’d think that’s a weird line! Cool, so I’m acting, I’m a film star and writing, doing all that. And lyric poetry gets further and further away from me. So I sort of worked up Chicago – following the 1968 Democratic Convention and so on. The wisdom of Brecht is – those key remarks – like how do you capture the sense of the twentieth century? You’ve got to bust out of the drawing room drama. You’ve got to have a large social canvass of some sort – the impact on our lives of the stock exchange, the meatworks, the giant shifting of chattels, from corn-fed cattle up to Chicago to the stockyards. Modernism is what? How do you get the sneers of the world you actually inhabit and its impact on you onto the stage? I mean I gave George Bernard Shaw big ticks. He was the first to put a modern dentist’s chair on stage. And so on – you drag the new on to that very old arena that the theatre is. But that always was so. So there was a modernist project that I was fulfilling in some ways or drawn to. Then there was a time when I went to and Jack will remember the title when I said too often that I, but it was a play that he wrote for the Saturday Morning Club, the little Nippers associated with the MTC, a children’s Saturday morning theatre club. And it included the Burstall kids and various other intelligentsia kids who’d turn up and second string ratbag directors would be made to work and Johnny Sumner was paying for them. Or the assistant directors would sink their teeth into something. And they started playing at La Mama as well. And I think that was where I saw a show that Jack had written for them. It’s got this thing that I consider immortal lines. A guy has been conscripted and he’s about to head off for Vietnam and his girlfriend and other mates are sort of giving him a farewell. And it was Jack’s way of investigating the issue of Vietnam and what it was doing to society. And there’s this character who’s getting pissed and pissed and pissed and someone says something and he comes back with yeah, I’m a real alky [alcoholic] and that’s the sort of thing, our language, the way our people often express themselves, the very direct often very concrete, but always, the incredibly poetic English that we use. Meanwhile I’m cranking out Chicago Chicago, which we’ll see later today. 

I began to sense a project which was ‘do’ Australia. It was no longer à la Brecht or Meyerhold, ‘do’ the world. Sure, use those techniques, but apply them to your stories and that’s sort of what I began to do through the seventies. But I entered the seventies with a sense of that project but not necessarily having penned many items that could be said to be a part of it. Yeah, so that’s essentially a sense of where I was coming from.

In the Monash Library because I got a job out there as well later and I completed my degree. Like I said, I had three kids and I had to hold down jobs for most of that time, but in the stacks there, instead of reading books about herb testing I’d read other stuff and I ended up reading the first English translations of Japanese Noh plays and that would later fuel work like The Floating World. I began an apprenticeship in La Mama, like I say one element was to perform there, one element was to understand it as a venue and the APG workshops there were incredibly fecund things. I use the word apprenticeship very reverentially; it was incredibly hands on. Some of the people I deal with who are writers, well they might be when I’ve finished with them, but they haven’t even being going to plays, which is a crime. Their grasp of the terror of sitting out there in front of an audience and being animated enough to hold them; never heard of it. Like teaching a playwright how to write for the body, for the actor’s body out there, how to arm the actor, up there in that arena, with stuff that will get them by is fairly important. Sadly I don’t have too much from that period, but one of the things that I really learnt then was the importance of the body and writing for the body and playing with as much muscle and sinew and having a concrete imagination. These were the passports to playwriting pleasure. And I think that stood me in good stead and I’ll finish if I may with a little song which I think illustrates what I’m arguing:

[John Romeril sings the following song]

Is metal, is bent but it speaks all languages
It makes the world go around
You balance it, juggle it, rustle it, hussle it.
Not a place on the planet
It isn’t found.
In Spain is the peseta
In France is the franc
In Switzerland – well Switzerland is one big bank
In New Guinea they keen for the kina
Where once it was the zac and the dinar
Times change
Dirty money gets no cleaner
Australian dollar
Haven’t you heard it is a bird. It migrates.
Australian dollar, haven’t you heard?
It flies to the United States.
Woo – ah – ooo – wa – wa
Woo – ah – ooo – wa – wa.  [Imitating a bird flying] And you always have to write an exit.


John McCallum

Does anyone have any questions?! [laughter]

Jack Hibberd

John started off as a lyric poet and he’s finished as one [laughter].

Peter Green

It seems to me if I may and people under fifty please fall asleep because I’ve gone through the same generation as John [Romeril] and others. I was struck by something about The Floating World after I was lucky enough to perform in a play at the War Museum by Garrie Hutchinson, calledSleepers, about the Burma Thai Railway. I am very interested that you were reading Noh plays, because It seems to me that The Floating World contrasts two cultures very strongly: one that was in the naturalistic, that is, the tale, the story, the Lawson, if you like, and the Patterson, and one that saw the symbol and action associated with symbol as extremely critical. I think that’s been loosely called the oriental face, which is a wrong expression. When I saw The Floating World whereas I saw Les’s disintegration, and had great sympathy for him, and an understanding because Les of course, I don’t think you said this John, is a graduate of the Burma Thai Railway and survives it, what stood out was this actual clash of culture. A total misunderstanding and clash of culture.  That’s enough from me I think.

Max Gillies

I thought that paper of Denise’s [Varney] was terrific and what both of you [Denise and John] were dancing around or focusing on – and John used that terrific quote from that Japanese writer – is the connection and the dissonance but the necessity for both realism or naturalism as an element and complete anti-naturalism, the phantasmagorical symbolism and the metaphoric poet. I think that of all of the work that was done at the Pram Factory, although it wasn’t very often articulated as the dilemma or contradiction, that the best work always had that balance. That went through a number of years of work through the highs and lows of the organisation and artistic differences between people. For example, I could go from one end of the seventies, Jack’s Overcoat, to things like, I don’t know how many years before but it seems like an eon to me, Micky’s Moomba, which for my money needs to be, if the students around here could get hold of it, re-imagined somehow. But they were all kind of mad worlds I suppose or variations of a mad world and it was a voyage into that madness that everybody was taking one way or another. That’s all.

Adrian Guthrie

Denise, your conclusion is very powerful. It has been a wonderful session again today, powerful and provocative. It struck me in listening to you that what you have just said and what you wrote about the APG and about John’s play The Floating World could have equally been said about Dorothy Hewett, reflecting on the previous session today. My second observation then, is to do with my feelings about modernism, which I have alluded to a few times. You talk about a process of defamiliarisation and the tension between naturalism and non-naturalism; it could be applied to Dorothy Hewett. It could certainly be applied to much of the APG’s best output and to what we are calling today The New Wave, which could be called by other names. Modernity is about the future. John Romeril alluded to what was modern but I think I want to take the comments in Denise’s lovely presentation a little bit further. To be modern you have to have faith in the future. The APG was utopian and we as a generation were utopian. The future was what we were basing it all upon. And we were very committed to betterment, to improving the stuff that we knew was wrong. So I think Dorothy Hewett is caught between a kind of modern faith in the future and a crisis in which the future is deeply problematised. I think she’s a modern playwright – a modernist. I think we are talking modernity and its focus on the future and it’s embrace of betterment.

Alison Richards

Thank you very much Denise and John [McCallum] for that. I’d like to hear more about the ship. We’ve been talking about the tension between identifiable spaces and spaces that are perhaps more ambiguous and less defined. I can remember walking in to the front theatre of the Pram Factory for the production of The Floating World and it was probably my first experience of a really successful re-placing of the theatre. As an audience member you were both in and not in a boat, which in itself was both in and not in the theatre space. And I guess I wanted to contrast that with, for example, Jill Shearer’s much later Shimada which also dealt with the spectre of our wartime enmity with Japan and the question of how the Australian culture and particularly that generation, Les’s generation, which lived through the war, were being asked to reframe their own traumatic experience in terms of this new idea. How, where did the image of the ship come from?

John Romeril

I went to England in 1972 on an incredible travel grant from the Australia Council and I was going to be a great playwright in England, to some extent. I studied English theatre there and so on and it just reinforced my own Australianism and my view that the Pram Factory and the APG were every bit as lively if not more so that English theatre and that was cool. I came home overland and I realised that the closer I got to home, the wilder the places were that I’d been through. I mean, living in England was like I hadn’t left Moorabbin but I’d travelled half the world! But the closer I got to Australia the wilder and wider the world seemed. You pass through the Middle East and I’m in Afghanistan and Kandahar and some guy at the corner looks like he is ready to slit my throat and I think I’ll get me sandwich down the road somewhere else, and Calcutta, oh wow! ‘Can I take your bags, can I take your bags?’ and I’m trying to hold on to my luggage and voom, off things go, including your tickets on a boat that was due to leave Singapore in about a month hence.

The flight tickets from Calcutta to Bangkok were honoured and there was a train down the peninsula, you know, World War Two, the way the Japanese did it and we get to Raffles land, and the shipping company refuses to acknowledge that we ever bought these tickets. They’ve got a lot on their mind, they’ve overbooked the ship, because there’s a whole lot of English migrants who fly to Singapore and then the boat takes them to Perth. And the boat’s not really seaworthy according to the Singapore authorities, so my missus and I stow away on a boat that isn’t going to leave harbour. And it stays there for about a week while they fix and patch it up so it can get moving again, so we’re sitting around and I knew a few people who had lost their tickets in Calcutta and came across the idea of stowing away and if they need, fork out the fifty quid again – at least we’d get home and get to see the kids again.

I’m sitting there with postman Steve and nurse Di who were mates, and she gets talking about what had happened to an uncle. He’d gone on a Cherry Blossom Cruise and had been a POW. Everything that had happened to Les was also his experience. So thanks Di, I’ll put that down. And the ship itself was the rest. There was a four or five day sail from Singapore to Perth and we had a ship’s comic and an entertainment officer; we had a talent night as we crossed equator; we had all those shipboard rituals that are recorded in the play so I mean it’s just straight Wittgenstein – as far as I am concerned and whereof I know not and thereof I cannot speak. I mean I’d gone to England with a great play about the Second World War in my head. It was Australia versus Japan. The Australian side would be driven down the ranges in front of a few bemused fuzzy-wuzzies. And I had reasons for doing that because I’d grown up with a lot of stories about my dad and my uncles in New Guinea during the war.  How many people here have heard my cult Japanese story?

[Audience indicates they have not]

John Romeril

All right, I get to pull out another one! My old man was a muso. His mother made him learn an instrument and it actually stood him in good stead; it saved his life. When they found out in the army that he could play saxophone he got kicked out of the infantry and elevated to the sixth division entertainment unit, which was a lot of blokes who could play instruments. In a camp during a war there are people who, you know, really want to sleep a bit, but as a musician you’ve got to practise, get ready for tonight’s concert and so on. So the old man was often in the habit of wandering out of camp to find a place to get the old sax going. Make sure the reeds were alright and in the tropics, you know, an instrument like the saxophone is easily out of tune. And so are you. And every bloody Christmas we’d make him tell all these army stories about Uncle Rolley burning the stew. Tell us that one and I had two magnificent uncles who wouldn’t fuckin’ fire a rifle but would carry a stretcher. So they were medicos and my old man was a muso. Uncle George who was an SP bookie was mostly in gaol! [laughter] So the Romerils really fought! And the old man moves away from camp, maybe a mile or half mile and he sees this clearing and he thinks I’ll do it [practise] there. And he sort of steps into the clearing and at the same moment entering the clearing from the other side is a Japanese soldier. It’s the first and only Japanese he will see for the whole war and he thinks what do I do now? Fucking hell, I’m armed with a saxophone! [laughter] And he takes another look and something similar is going through the Japanese bloke’s face because he’s just armed with a butterfly net! [laughter] And they look at each other and turn absolute tail and exit the clearing. A triumph of cowardice.

John McCallum

We’re going to have to close it with that wonderful story, thanks John.