by DOROTHY HEWETT
There have been two places central to my imagination … the state of Western Australia and the city of Sydney. My life has zigzagged between these two landscapes, both having a kind of almost Utopian physical beauty, but once take the skin off either society and the corruption underneath is palpable.
In the case of Western Australia the corruption is partly hidden, the worm in the bud is secretive, and mainly bears only a silent witness. In the case of Sydney the corruption, the materialism, is vulgar, articulate, unashamed. I find the Sydney brand easier to bear, easier to live with, possibly because the protagonist is so bare faced, but also possibly because it doesn’t carry for me quite the same burden of the past, that burden of the first confrontation which every serious artist must feel with the place of their birth, adolescence and early adulthood.
The country that I once knew in Western Australia was mostly innocent, but it was an innocence, naive, self congratulatory and deeply conservative, a perfect field for corruption. It had a dream of itself as a kind of eternal, unpolluted Utopia, a world of mild eyed, slightly melancholy lotus eaters staring seaward towards the Indian Ocean.
Every now and again this society of lotus eaters found the crock of precious metals at the rainbow’s end in its desert places, and this was both its wealth and its downfall. In those periods it grew rich and greedy, and eventually a spurious sophistication began to overlie its innocence.
But at heart that curious emotional emptiness and lostness, compounded of distance, insecurity, and the exile’s anger at his condition, gnawed away and would never be stilled. How does the artist confront or come to terms with a vacuity, whether “a steak fed vacuity” as Tyrone Guthrie once called it, or a physical space of distances and mirages that slide away from the eyes and the pen, refusing to be pinned down, but always exercising this curious, ungraspable fascination? Even the quality of the light is different in Western Australia, tending to drain the atmosphere of all colour.
I think there are at least two ways to confront such a place … to make articulate the inarticulate by a deliberately understated, sparse style wrested out of silence, like Peter Cowan, or to write oneself larger than life, gothic and romantic, across the empty page, a quality shared by Randolph Stow and myself.
My childhood was spent in the Great Southern amongst the salty tributaries of the Avon River … that was my “fair seedtime”, and out of that pastoral childhood have come many poems, a scattering of short stories, and five plays … Bon-Bons and Roses for Dolly, The Chapel Perilous, The Golden Oldies, The Man from Mukinupin, Golden Valley, and The Fields of Heaven. It stands in for me as the lyrical, lost Eden of childhood, in the garden of innocence.
The garden is, of course, eternally paradoxical. How make a garden out of stinkwort, salt lake and scrub? But the garden is a garden of the spirit, and bursts into a wild and unpredictable flowering, like the West Australian spring.
Like all gardens it had a snake at the heart … the snake of change, sex, adulthood, the journey outwards into the corrupt world.
In her secret garden
under the hump of the hill
she lives her magic life
with Ida Rentoul Outhwaite’s
Elves and Fairies
sheep carcases in calico
blood-spotted shroud the verandahs
where the timber blurs
Grimm’s giant flexes his whirlwind biceps,
dry paddocks darken into green
the flag above the creekbed island
But into this garden comes Nim, the lover, the spoiler, the artist:
. . . . . a shadow on the shivery grass
hanging between the sun and the round hill
a falcon on his wrist a white owl on his shoulder
she sees his doomed face waver at the bottom
of the well
the sky darkens with locusts
the dry scratch of wings
and the jaws working
hand in hand they fly
Alice and Nim, the falcon and the white owl
from the blackened garden.
The Nim Poems
from Alice in Wormland.
Leaving that wheat and sheep farm, fourteen miles from Wickepin, at the age of twelve, has become for me a symbol of exile; the impossible struggle to get back to the peace and harmony of the psychic garden.
As I walk across the campus at the University of Western Australia I have many daunting recollections. It is full of ghosts. The ghost of myself, a seventeen year old student in 1941, carrying two small, red volumes of D. H. Lawrence’s poems, and, a little later, two volumes of Marx’s Das Kapital, which, to this day I have never read.
This ghost wrote a bad novel called Daylight in which her friends and contemporaries, disguised in gothic veils, cavorted in a facsimile of that small wartime city on the banks of the Swan.
She also wrote a one-actor, Time Flits Away Lady, staged on a make-shift trestle in the University Refectory, which clumsily concerned itself with questions of time, a theme explored later in play after play.
Under the melodramatic pseudonym, Jael Paris, she won a Meanjin Poetry Prize with Dream of Old Love, an imagist poem full of gilded decadence. She was entranced with the University, a friendly Spanish mission-style campus with grazing sheep, green swards and a wooden stile. In the lecture rooms were at least copies of great paintings, and there was a library where she developed a passion for Edith Sitwell and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, read Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney, and Kenneth Mackenzie’s The Young Desire It. This was a revelation. It was possible then to write poetic prose in Australia.
The Psychology Department taught Freud, Jung and Adler, and when Alec King, lecturing on Wordsworth, told the class to take off their shoes and walk barefoot in order to experience the quickening sense of the natural world, she was the only one who did it.
Across the Nullarbor, in Adelaide, an enfant terrible, called Max Harris, had started a modernist literary magazine called Angry Penguins, and for the first time she felt that perhaps Australia was linked to the rest of the cultured world. When he discovered a tragic, dead, young poet called Ern Malley, the subsequent literary scandal put the cause of Australia modernism back decades. She was both puzzled and enraged. Did this mean that the rest of Australia was as philistine as the west?
Then in 1945 Judith Wright’s The Moving Image was published, and she found herself relating to a feminine poetic sensibility that concerned itself with Australia.
I started, with others, the University Dramatic Society, edited a Red Black Swan, dreamed of being an actress/writer, lost my unwanted virginity under the pines on the Football Oval, but, in the end, failed scholastically, passing nothing much but Psychology and Eng.Lit. with a distinction.
Yet, eventually, out of that period came many poems and two plays: The Chapel Perilous and Bon-Bons and Roses for Dolly.
The Chapel Perilous took as its central symbol an amalgam of Perth College chapel and the school hall at Perth Girls’, with its honour roll of Famous Women in History, in gold leaf.
Bon-Bons and Roses was set in a movie theatre, closely resembling the art deco Regal in Subiaco, once owned by my grandfather, where I cut my teeth and my imagination on the blockbuster movies of the period.
After trying to commit suicide I married, joined the Communist Party, worked on the Communist newspaper, The Workers’ Star (its headquarters anachronistic ally in the mock-Tudor London Court), had a child, stopped writing, and left for Sydney with a Communist boilermaker.
On the campus today I also met another older, slightly wiser ghost, back from Sydney in 1959, with three small sons, enrolled as a mature age student to finish her degree.
She studies a special course on Matthew Arnold with Ray Forsyth, and Culture and Anarchy compels her to confront some basic problems of the artist and politics. In a public debate with Julius Kovesi of the Philosophy Department, he calls her a disciple of John Stuart Mill.
Sinyavsky and Daniel, the dissident Russian novelists, are imprisoned in a labour camp, the Russian tanks roll through the streets of Prague. In the end she can only say: “I am political to my marrow, but belong to no camp, because our century has debased them all.”
When I finally came to work in the English Department for nine years as a tutor, my study looked down on the newly constructed New Fortune theatre, a close enough replica of the Elizabethan open stage. That open space, its challenges and its epic proportions, had a profound effect on my development as a dramatist. I had begun to write plays again. The central figure was usually a rebellious girl, hag-ridden by the provincial society she grew up in, destroyed by her concept of herself as a failed artist and dreamer.
“I want to be a second Edith Sitwell. I’ll be greater than Sarah Bernhardt”, boasts the adolescent Sally Banner in The Chapel Perilous.
And Dolly Garden, the lost girl in the faded theatre foyer, whispers in Chek hovian cadences in Bon-Bons and Roses for Dolly: “It was such fun to be young … and such misery. I discovered myself, a charming self. Nobody else would ever take time to discover me. Me! Life was happy and serious, gay and sad, comprehensible and mysterious. I had all that love and tenderness to give, all of it … unceasingly … but nobody wanted to take it. Why was it so hard to give away?”
The Chapel Perilous was a hit at the New Fortune, and was published in a third edition by Currency Press in 1981. Bon-Bons and Roses for Dolly bombed at the Perth Playhouse, where audiences, apparently expecting a nostalgic and innocuous musical, wrote angry letters to the theatre and the local press, stalking down the aisles, wrapped tight in their prejudices. I coined a new phrase to describe my native state, “Toenail Land”.
Married again, with two young daughters, and a three year grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council, I left for Sydney, where I have lived with my family for the past nine years.
That last sojourn in Perth had resulted in a book of poems, Windmill Country, and five plays. Now for the first time in my life I could begin to call myself a professional writer.
Two more books of poems followed, and ten more plays, but I continued to have strange problems with the place of my birth. The Chapel Perilous and The Tatty Hollow Story were banned in Western Australia, but nowhere else in the world and my second book of poems, Rapunzel in Suburbia was not per mitted any distribution in Australia. This sense of rejection from one’s own roots, was a painful experience. In the end I think it becomes synonymous with a certain rootlessness, a metaphor for the writer as outsider, and critic of that society. But if the writer refuses to bear witness, who will? The artistic truth always burns, but it won’t be denied. There is a certain acceptance in me now, with a lingering dash of bitterness. After all, I have spent my whole life among the bitter Aus tralians who learned it from lags and screws and Irish rebels, all the flotsam of an Empire. Their bitterness has its reflection in me, but I am still grateful for having lived in this place, and for having walked this campus. I am grateful for the Garden, for the freedom to grow at one’s own pace with no pressure to be “fashionable”, for the uncaring/caring of one’s fellows. I am grateful for the social “smallness” of Western Australia, which made it possible to grasp it, and see it as a metaphor for a whole country. The whole of Australia can be described as a corruptly innocent land, “last sea thing dredged by sailor Time from Space”.
I am not grateful for the loneliness I endured here, for the alienation, the contempt, the mediocrity, and the narrow, right-wing provincialism, that always hides a brutality at its heart.
But then the role of the woman writer is always doubly subversive in a predominantly male ethos. She thinks subversively by nature and experience, and she writes from that other country of spirit and physicality, which still remains, for us, largely uncharted.
Western Australia gave me a country to write about and to begin from, a landscape and a society that will forever be central to my imagination. It gave this earth, for the first time, for me, “a habitation and a name”.
The Man From Mukinupin, commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of Western Australia in 1979, was my attempt to come to terms with this conflicting love/hate relationship with my native place. The little country town on the edge of the creek bed, with the plovers rising into that limitless sky, stands in for Western Australia, its benevolence and its racism, its dreams and its nightmares. The light and the dark side of town are reconciled in the imagination in the figures of the two pairs of lovers: one off to fame and fortune with J. C. William son’s, the other off to find a dubious Paradise on the other side of the saltlakes.
“Hewett arrives, bearing olive Branch”, said a headline in The West Australian, but again there were ructions behind the scenes. In an interview with Peter Ward in The Australian, Sir Charles Court complained about the commission. A dossier on my life, art and politics was delivered to the Playhouse. But the play was a success and went on to be performed all over Australia, breaking box office records at the Sydney Opera House, which merely goes to prove that a regional play set in Western Australia has apparently something universal to say to other Australians.
Last year I wrote a children’s play, Golden Valley, which was my song of thanksgiving for the pastoral magic and innocence of that childhood in the wheatbelt.
Early in 1982 another play, The Fields of Heaven, was commissioned by the Perth Playhouse for the Festival of Perth. It was a darker, more tragic play, which had a mixed reception.
I wanted in this play to create those “figures in a landscape”, that echo from the old Border Ballads that Randolph Stow speaks about in an early article on his work published in Westerly. ((1. Randolph Stow, ‘Raw Material’, Westerly 6:2, 1961, pp. 3-5.)) I wanted to set a passionate love story in the West Australian countryside, as destructive and ambivalent as the love story of Cathy and Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights, and to end it with a hard-won accept ance by the heroine, Louie Barrow, home from the world to her spiritual place, the family property at Marvell Locke.
Is this landscape then my luminous spirit place, and, if so, where does the city of Sydney fit into my cosmology? Sydney was the place I went to in order to grow up in the world. Large enough, cosmopolitan enough, even in 1949, it was in some ways the City of Dreadful Night and the City of Marvellous Experience.
I arrived during the Coal Strike, finally got a job in the Alexandria Spinning Mills, squatted in a run-down house in Redfern, and experienced what it was like to become a member of the Australian working class. I was blessedly anonymous, and out of that nine years came many poems, a novel Bobbin Up, and a play This Old Man Comes Rolling Home, which celebrates the Redfern battlers. I live a life, which on the surface, seemed totally inartistic, but it was my apprentice ship to a larger, tougher, and in the end, more humanitarian world view. That this should have occurred in the rackety, industrial, often ugly environment of Sydney is one of the paradoxes of human development.
Sydney was the city I had always dreamed about. Just as other young people dream now about London or New York, I dreamed of the liberation and the fulfilment of Sydney, and, in a peculiar way, I was not disappointed.
“We had this fabulous year,” says Johnny Apple in The Tatty Hollow Story, “There was a map of the world in blue mould on the wall. Every Sunday we went to Luna Park and rode in the Tunnel of Love till Tatty had a baby.”
In order to come to terms with the world, the writer creates constructs, which, in the end, may have little or nothing to do with an acual place.
Sydney was my construct of the city with the harbour swinging at the end of narrow streets teeming with humanity; a fabulous city of politics, and demrnos, and poverty and ugliness and beauty. Eventually I began to write again, joining a left-wing writers’ group, the Sydney Realist Writers, under the tutelage of Frank Hardy. I wrote my first novel during the coldest winter on record, warming my hands at the gas flame, because we had no money to buy coal.
When I returned to Sydney in 1975 the eastern suburbs had changed. The sleazy bed-sits of Paddo were now trendy, upwardly mobile terraces, and I was a professional writer storming the citadels of culture, “the little frog in a big puddle”.
This Sydney of new literary magazines, poetry-readings, theatres and passionate young poets, had nothing whatever to do with my first Sydney. Only occasionally, I would get glimpses of that former city out of train windows, or among the derros in a Darlinghurst park.
There were exciting things taking place in the literary and theatre worlds of the big capitals. Australia was coming of age. The modernist movement was flourishing. There were alternative publishing venues, writers were actually being paid to write.
In the theatres Australian audiences were queuing to see Australian plays written by new young playwrights. Sydney embraced it all with her usual sardonic, rambustious energy.
I arrived towards the tail-end of this nationalistic euphoria, but there was still enough charisma around to generate a lot of excitement. It was as if I found myself living in the world I’d dreamed about, and yearned for, when I was seven teen. All those empty lodgings, walking the campus as a teenager, were about to be satisfied. Dangerous stuff, and, in the nature of things, its glowing promises could never be fulfilled. But I was still enough of a Gatsby to be suborned.
Suborned and rewarded, because the last nine years have been a workshop of experience and learning. Sifting through what was useful, what needed to be retained and what rejected, I found another lease of artistic life. There was an energy to be breathed in at the pores from this most energetic, hard-headed, crackling city, alive with a kind of ozone in the air, that bounces off the high rise and the harbour.
From Sydney and the long nights of talk, and coffee and smokes and booze, I began to forge a new poetic style, crisper, harder-edged, modernist, to be the scaffold for a Romantic vision and imagination. From this came Rapunzel in Suburbia and Greenhouse, two collections of poetry, and ten plays.
Working in the professional theatre, in that vast co-op of skills, often travelling from state to state, I have learnt to recognize and respect expertise, and to learn from it. It’s a world that dies in a final night, only to rise again like a phoenix for a new season, and so, in a sense, one is always being reborn into it, with new hopes and new options.
And yet the result must be a sense of impermanence, homelessness, because one is seldom at home anywhere. To be a wanderer, a perpetual exile from some ideal country of the spirit, is perhaps the inevitable fate of the artist, and, in particular, the Australian artist, who still lives in a society inhospitable to visionaries.
The child shut out of the garden makes his or her own way to the city of experience with options open.
Tatty was a goer in a feather boa
stackers coming down the stairs
who could forget her
who could let her go
showing off her wares
on the marble stairs
in the All Night Show.
(strip song from The Tatty Hollow Story)
“I like parading on smooth asphalt” wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky in The Fop’s Tunic.
This is an adaptation of a talk given at the University of Western Australia in September 1982. It was first published in Westerly 27:4, December 1982.