Tuesday, October 19, 2010

the girls in their ordinary costumes

On Sunday afternoon I took a break from the boxes and went over to Trades Hall on Lygon Street to see Darryl Emmeron's play about Christina Stead, I Write What I See. Emmerson directed as well as wrote, and an actor named Olivia Brown plays Stead. Dressed in old-fashioned dark blue jacket and skirt, with black polished shoes (the kind of outfit you can see Stead wearing in her adult photographs), she delivers a biographical monologue with the facts placed in chronological order, beginning a few years after the author's birth (1902), and ending in 1968 or 1969, soon after the death of Stead's husband, William Blech. In the final moments of the play she says, "Bill," in a lingering voice, then picks up a boxy suitcase, turns to her right, aims herself straight down the wings, and walks offstage. Pause, darkness, light, applause. People around me said positive things to one another: "Now wasn't that marvellous?"

I wasn't the ideal audience member for I Write, I decided, as I was watching it, because I knew Stead's life well enough to wonder why he'd decided to leave certain facts in and other facts out, and what was motivating him on the whole, besides a craving for the life story of a writer he admires. Emmerson puts it down to passion. "I am passionate that the lives and work of artists can be presented on the stage. Their childhoods, the stance they take up towards other people, the decision to encourage their own creativity, the ambition, quiet or otherwise, that lies behind their decision, where their lives and art lead them, these are all of great interest to me."

The words "passion" and "passionate" have been set in motion around this play. The director uses them, the publicity uses them ("Her fiction, passionate and often confronting ..."), and Brown-Stead uses them -- but passion was one thing I missed in her performance. She stood neatly, she tilted her ankle and planted her foot (heel first, then toe, deliberately on the stage-boards) she sat on a white cane chair with hands laid on knees, but I never saw anything beyond or beneath -- transcending -- this neat behaviour, nothing to give us a sign that here was a woman whose Man Who Loved Children was described by Clifton Fadiman as "Little Women rewritten by a demon," or whose For Love Alone prompted a reviewer at the British Listener to label her "a fiery comet" or who devoted herself to Nietzsche as a teenager, or who could write with a furious combination of detail and gusto, even in her private letters, and with so much lust for lists and beauties -- red silks and rich cloths, guts, muck, and romance.

The workers came from four sections of the city, with their massed flags, beautiful things, red silk and silk Italian flags, gold fringed, with streamers in various colours, embroidered names of sections, Communist and other sections of the Garibaldi 'Fronte Populaire', many carrying flowers, the girls in their ordinary costumes, blouse skirts and coloured sweaters (green, blue, scarlet, puce ...

(from a letter to Leon and Pilar Libenson, 1948)

When Brown-Stead had to recite something like that then she lifted her voice and made it a little loftier, drew words out in a way that said, "I think this is beautiful," but her diction was writerly-rounded, and the atmosphere was pleasantly magical rather than intense. It was not exciting -- it was nice. Stead had been whitewashed. The facts that make it into this biography are ones the audience will not have to struggle to approve of. She had a book banned in 1947 by the puritanical Australian censors, and this seems charming and progressive now; we spend a while hearing about it. Flirting with other women's husbands is not charming -- and we don't hear about it, even though it's relevant to one of the themes of the play, Stead's veneration of love. We spend a solid amount of time reviewing her childhood, but her lifelong socialist sympathies come into the story at a glancing sprint and leave so quickly that I wonder how many of the audience members who didn't already know about them remember that they were mentioned at all.

"I am not ... political," she wrote in 1942 for a book called Twentieth Century Authors, "but on the side of those who have suffered oppression, injustice, coercion, prejudice, and have been harried from birth." These people occur throughout her fiction, and some of the books, Cotters' England, for example, and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, concentrate on them exclusively. The audience for I Write What I See learns about love instead, and the angrier books, A Little Tea, A Little Chat, Miss Herbert, Cotters', vanish completely.

Her life has been streamlined, and this streamlining means that we lose nuances of awkwardness. Brown's performance took Stead at face value. There were none of those uneasy moments when you realise that someone is saying something but doesn't quite mean it, or that there's more to the situation than they're willing to admit. This doesn't jibe with the picture of Stead that comes out in the two biographies that have been written about her life, or the sometimes-cagey person who seems to lie behind her letters. One example: in Christina Stead: a Life of Letters, Chris Williams spends two pages trying to puzzle out Stead's communication with her stepmother after the publication of Man. "In this letter Christina perhaps tried to make amends for her severe characterization of 'the man who loved children' in the novel ... Christina did want to make peace but she could not seem to allow herself to do it ..." and so on.

The set was simple and useful -- two chairs to sit on, a typewriter, two suitcases to remind you that the author travelled away from her homeland in her twenties and lived on three different continents. The role of Stead's favourite wooden marionette Nello was played by a white-faced Muppet, anachronistic, but a canny reinvention because it allowed Brown-Stead to interview herself. Here the Stead character was most vulnerable. When Nello asked a question she didn't want to answer she withdrew her hand from his head. But even here, mortally challenged, her emotion was closer to a snit or a sulk.

Pictures were sometimes projected on the back curtain to augment the script. Brown-Stead talked about her lustful and frustrated teenhood; voila, some nudes appeared, Norman Lindsay's Spring's Innocence, a reminder that she wasn't the only Australian in the 1920s who wanted more sex in her life. (Lindsay had a novel banned by the Australian censors too, Redheap (1930).) Sound design was minimal and might as well not have been there. For example: Stead-Brown tells us that she found a job in an office and a typewriter rattles for a minute, then stops.

I had wanted something different. But, as I said, I wasn't the audience Emmerson was looking for. My ideas about Christina Stead were not completely congruent with his, and I Write didn't persuade me to change my mind. The play is about her but I don't think it is in sympathy with her. "The essence of style, in literature, for me, is experiment, invention, 'creative error'," she wrote. Read her books and you can see that she is willing to take risks, she is willing to seem too verbose, and too overblown, and overemotional, and to write about the kind of subject matter that saw Letty Fox labelled Lewd and Smut. In I Write, Brown-Stead writes "to be loved." Which, said in Olivia Brown's most wistfullest voice, seems too simple, and too sweet.


  1. I suppose if the evening led to anyone going off and reading some of Stead's books, it was a good thing. Even though more Australian literature (or so-called literature) appears on school curriculums than in my childhood, somehow Stead never seems to be included. Which is utter madness.

  2. Yes, absolutely, she should be included, or at least mentioned. I don't remember her name being brought up by anyone until I was a year or two out of high school. (Or else it was, and I've forgotten it.) There's no reason why they shouldn't. If the length and verbosity of her books seems to be a problem then that's easy enough to get around: excerpt one of the stories from The Salzburg Tales, or, if you want to be very Australian, take one of her autobiographical pieces from Ocean of Story. Done.

  3. Do you think, zmkc, that students are doing more Australian "literature" today? I'm not so sure.

    And pykk, I hadn't heard of Stead until I left school I must say. As you say, there are ways of introducing students to seemingly "difficult" writers. (BTW, what part of the US are you going to, and for how long?)

  4. Whispering - Thinking about it, perhaps I should have said 'less challenging Australian literature.' When I did the NSW HSC, the curriculum included Keats, Dickens, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, plus Patrick White's Tree of Man and Kenneth Slessor, including Five Bells. On the actual paper, there was a prac crit of a poem by Rosemary Dobson. When my oldest daughter did the Victorian equivalent Year 12 exams, I remember that they had Nicolas Jose's The Paper Nautilus, which is what made me assume they were doing more Australian stuff - if they were studying something as unimportant as that, they must also be doing more meaty stuff, but actually I don't think they were.
    Pykk - Stead is peculiarly ignored. If I bought into those sorts of beliefs, which I don't, it would be easy to see this as a result of her being a woman.

  5. WG - we'll start in Arizona, where M.'s mother lives, and go on from there. I'm not sure where we'll stay, or what we'll do, but we should be away for a few years. My only firm plan is to find a jar of pickled pig knuckles like the ones we used to buy from the Smart 'n' Final in Vegas.

    Z - I searched around for some information on the Australian high school English curriculum and came across this study -- a .pdf document -- http://www-faculty.edfac.usyd.edu.au/networks/aele/pdf/issue1_section3/dixon_vol1.pdf -- which argues that "Australian literature is not
    necessarily studied as Australian literature," rather, the books are chosen to fit into themed modules. "[T]he thematically driven style of the electives means that texts are not necessarily studied as Australian literature, but as illustrations of the organising concepts in the course." Perhaps they look at her books and say, "It will take the students too long to get at her Themes. Let's have the The Secret River instead. Shorter sentences."

  6. Ah, DKS/pykk/umbagollah (you DO have some names!), I do love Arizona, and the whole southwest. I don't, however, recollect ever coming across pickled pigs knuckles.

    And both of you. Themed modules eh? That can be a bit of a copout can't it - and focus a bit too much on simple content - as in issues - rather than big-L literature, which is a shame, at least for the more keen students. ZMKC, I did similar to you in the NSW HSC, except we did Voss, not The tree of man. I did first year high school in Queensland and we did Davison's Manshy, and Palmer's The passage. I can't recollect my kids doing much Australian material at all - though maybe they did Seymour's One day of the year play. They did Steinbeck, Harper Lee et al. I was FURIOUS. But, they were the books the school had from a long time back and so that's what they did.

  7. I keep meaning to switch that DKS Wordpress name to pykk. One day I'll do it.

    We probably won't stay in Arizona. I'll be a green card holder, which means that the Arizonans can arrest me if they catch me without my card, and, I think, deport me -- although I haven't looked into the nitty-gritty. We'll probably make our way north.

    I don't remember studying very much Australian literature at all. Henry Lawson, yes, For the Term of his Natural Life, yes, Patrick White, no. They tied Natural Life into our history classes. We were doing Convicts. Most of our books were British. That didn't seem strange at the time but now I wish they'd extracted their brains from Britain for a bit and let us read something local, not Lucky Jim, and not The Go-Between.