No one can accuse David Williamson of going out quietly. Having called it a day on a half-century play-writing career comprising over 50 works, he currently has his two final plays, Family Values (Stables) and Crunch Time (Ensemble), playing simultaneously in Sydney with a revival of Emerald City in Brisbane (which then moves to Melbourne).
“It’s like a fireworks display,” Williamson says on the telephone from his Sunshine Coast home. “The fireworks are going off and off and off, and then right at the end there’s a big burst, and my big burst is the first half of this year, and then nothing… I put my pen down about 11 months ago, and I haven’t missed it one little bit.”
He has plenty to do, what with re-reading his plays (finding considerable affection for many, including The Jack Manning Trilogy and Dead White Males), reading books, travelling and, the big one, family. The blended family he shares with his wife, Kristin, contains five children, their partners and 14 grandchildren. No wonder family interaction has fuelled much of his work, including his last two plays.
“How a husband and wife relate to each other impinges enormously on the offspring,” Williamson observes. “How the siblings relate to each other is enormously important to them, and their perceived share of parental love is enormously important to them, too. In Crunch Time one sibling is definitely favoured by dad over the other, and the other one knows it, and it rankles very deeply. So the division of parental love can be a very acute source of anxiety and conflict amongst the siblings.”
Williamson study of social psychology and his desire to write plays was fed by the same curiosity. “My abiding area of interest was to find out how people influenced other people’s behaviour; to find out how conflict was generated,” he says. “I think there was so much conflict between my parents that it was inevitable that I’d try to seek answers. Why does conflict arise? Why does it seem so pervasive? And as we all know, conflict is the backbone of drama.”
A related area of interest was the effect on the individual of peer pressure, group conformity and shared – often non-objective – belief systems. Another was the impact of status and notoriety, or the absence of those and a potential feeling of ignominy. “Other plays have arisen because I’ve seen a situation or been in a situation or read about a situation in which there was emotional intensity,” he says, “and I’ve thought, ‘Wow, if it arouses my emotions and their emotions, there must be drama in here if I can ferret it out.'”
Williamson is also renowned for his wit, and, although he is sometimes regarded as a social satirist, he sees himself primarily as a writer of drama, with his characters using humour “to stave off feelings of despair”. “If you do drama truthfully, and you deal with life as it is,” he says, “comedy and sometimes black comedy can’t help but arise.”
Parallel to all this he’s always had a keen instinct for social justice and for what we might call the politics of betterment, which he says has only intensified with the years. Family Values reflects his disgust with the treatment of asylum seekers, and Crunch Time his abhorrence of governments opposing voluntary assisted dying. “It should be the mark of any civilised country that, at a time of extreme pain and extreme distress, a person should be allowed to end their life,” he insists. “I don’t think if there is a God, he would want misery to be prolonged. It just makes me so angry: the stupidity of that theological view that somehow life must be maintained until the last excruciating minutes are played out. What kind of God would want that?”
Williamson went into semi-retirement 15 years ago after stress-exacerbated heart trouble. His heart stabilised, he returned to work, but the anxiety remained. “Believe it or not, there’s a lot of stress in being a writer,” he says, “because your work is so publicly out there. Your average brain surgeon doesn’t wake up every time he does an operation to see the crits in the papers of how well he’s done. There’s a lot of stress in the actual writing; in getting together the presentation; the reception. The whole thing is not a slice of paradise. The thing that’s kept me in it is the fact that over those 50 years the connection between my work and audiences has never diminished… I want to go out on a high note while people are still coming!”
Crunch Time, Ensemble Theatre, until April 9; Family Values, Stables, until March 7.