A speech given by playwright David Williamson at
An Evening with The Alex Buzo Company Advisory Board
in Sydney on
November 25 2008

When I look back on my life, many of the things that stand out in my memory are those moments of sudden insight, enchantment, revelation, elation, anger at social injustice, amusement at the human folly, empathy at other’s misfortunes, Aristotle’s “Pity and Terror”, and the sheer wonder at being transported into another realm that have been given to me by the creative imagination of artists. I can’t claim these are the only moments of great note I’ve experienced, as falling in love, being present at the birth of one’s child, and watching the Sydney Swans win a grand final in 2005 have been some of many other memorable moments.

But it would be true to say that creative artists have added a dimension to my life that has been hugely meaningful and that I cannot imagine a life lived without the possibility of those moments. As far back into the history of the human species as we have been able to travel, artistic expression, that attempt to harness the latent creativity we are capable of, has been an endeavour central to our lives.

The reason it is so central to humanity’s history, is, because it is capable of delivering all those things I spoke of earlier.

The arts in one sense are an experience outside of the patterns of everyday life, and deliver experiences that are often outside our everyday experiences, and yet the experiences they do provide are deeply meaningful to all of us. We hunger for the transportation out of ourselves that great artists can give to us. We are given something that we could never create for ourselves.

I wish I could write as well as Shakespeare, but even in my most deluded moments of fantasy I know I can’t. If that son of an obscure glover in Stratford on Avon hadn’t existed how less rich would our experience and understanding of life be? I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been in the theatre and had the hair stand up on the back of my neck at the sheer wonder of that glover’s son’s verbal magic. And if you think I’m laying it on with a trowel, that I’m making too much of a good thing, that I’m gilding the lily, that I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve, that I’m leading you on a wild goose chase, that my ideas are dead as a doornail, and that I’m in a pickle because I’ve not remembered that brevity is the soul of wit, that what I’m saying is all Greek to you, that I’m setting your teeth on edge, that it beggars all description that I should expect you to be in stitches, that it’s a foregone conclusion that I should be sent packing, given short shrift, and that if discretion was not the better part of valour, you’d get rid of me in one fell swoop, and outside I could prattle on to my heart’s content, before hopefully ending up sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, and vanishing into thin air.

Then more fool you, as every one of those phrases including that one, was invented by that extraordinary Shakespearean mind – and that is just a fraction his legacy.

Such is the richness of the arts that everyone will have different moments of revelation but I’d like to share a few of mine.

When I had just turned sixteen and was hopefully going to set the world ablaze as a great jazz trumpeter, I read of a trumpeter called Miles Davis and ordered one of his first albums, “round about midnight.” I can remember waiting and waiting and finally it arrived. The impact was enormous. I was literally hearing music that I couldn’t have dreamed existed. Miles’s treatment of the old standard “Bye Bye Blackbird” was exquisitely beautiful and as if that wasn’t enough the great John Coltrane came roaring in on his tenor sax, blasting sounds that I wouldn’t have dreamed possible. I raced across to share the experience with my cousin, until my uncle Col, a roof tiler, came in and ordered us to “get that Chinese music off.” one person’s artistic high point is not necessarily going to be universally shared.

Sadly, I knew as soon as I heard that record that I was never going to be in that league and I started to reinvent my future.

I can remember that wonderfully influential arts enthusiast, Ken Tribe, asking me, when I was on the Australia Council with him, if I liked chamber music. Having heard so little up to then I wasn’t sure. He smiled and gave me an LP of Schubert’s C Major Quintet. He told me that six weeks after Schubert wrote it he died. As I realised when I first played this extraordinarily rich piece of music, the world was very lucky Schubert didn’t die three months earlier than he did. I still get goose bumps whenever I hear it.

I remember as a young man in my twenties going along to see the Edward Albee play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, not knowing what to expect. What I did experience was profoundly riveting. The brutally honest savagery of this wonderful piece of dramatic poetry, which took us into lives ravaged by failed expectations, lost dreams, and cancerous bitterness, but still underpinned by memories of a love that still, faintly, endured. For the first time in my life I saw the Freudian unconscious leap from the sub text into the text. I suddenly saw what contemporary drama could do in so expressively and frighteningly charting the dark angels of our nature.

I remember going to see a film called “Through a Glass Darkly,” by the Swedish writer/director Ingmar Bergmann. A novelist watches the deterioration of his mentally ill daughter with helpless pity but is full of guilt as his artist’s fascination pushes him to use it in his writing. I had never seen such searing and powerful honesty about the ambivalence of our motives and the limits on our capacity to empathise. Years later, travelling in Sweden, I asked a group of young Swedes what they thought of his work. “We do not like him in Sweden,” they said. “he is too morbid.”

I remember travelling in a black convertible down highway one from San Francisco to LA, when my wife and I were both outrageously young, and slipping a cassette into the player. Of a Californian band we’d never heard before called “The Eagles”, and then another band called “Credence Clearwater Revival.” We both decided we were in exactly the right place at the right time and doing the right thing, and that this was the perfect music to be doing it by.

I remember finally catching up with George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” in my early forties and being astounded at the acute and ironic accuracy of her laser like understanding of human psychology.

I remember, all too recently, going to my first Australian Chamber Orchestra concert, and hearing Richard Tognetti’s wonderfully vigorous interpretation of Beethoven’s Erotica Symphony, performed with such drive and verve that it was like hearing it for the first time.

There are many many others.

One of them was seeing a play of a young Australian contemporary of mine, Alex Buzo, called “Rooted” and literally being rooted to the spot as I watched Alex capture the sad, joyless derivativeness of what passed for social life in Australia in the sixties. And yet it was hilarious at the same time. Like “Waiting for Godot”, the most powerful presence, Simmo, was offstage and never appeared. Simmo was the ultimate alpha male. The men worshipped and were terrified of him in equal parts, and the women dreamed that he would one day consent to donate to them some of his supercharged sperm.

Somehow Alex had captured the regret of the ninety nine percent of males who were not Simmos, and the senselessness of our worship of such false macho cultural gods. The latest of those gods “Warnie” is about to be deified in a new musical which I’m sure will re address the concerns that Alex alerted us to all those years ago.

It’s therefore a great honour for me to be here tonight trying, in my own small way, to help Emma Buzo preserve and expand the legacy of what her father achieved. Her program is varied and ambitious and celebrates the arts as a whole and her father in particular. For this we should be grateful to her.

In fact we should be grateful to all the tireless and underpaid workers in the arts whose hard work subsidizes the enrichment of our cultural life. Of course they shouldn’t have to subsidize it, but this is a country which can cut the funding to one of the finest musical training establishments in the world and never dare contemplate shaving one cent of the bloated budget of hundreds of millions given to the Australian Institute of Sport.

For some reason, people in general, and governments in particular, have a habit of forgetting how enriching and necessary the arts are to the texture of all our lives.

Emma is one of those brave souls who refuses to forget and fights hard to get a level of recognition for Australian artists and for the vital importance of creativity to the Australian psyche.

As one of my characters in my play “Emerald City” said “We must be allowed to tell our own stories or else we will think that real life happens elsewhere and is spoken in accents other than our own.”

Please be generous to her cause. She’s on the frontline of a fight that’s vital to all of us.