Essay

Behind the scene

Uncovering the unspoken

IN THE MIDDLE of the twentieth century, most Australian actors who wished to consider themselves ‘legitimate’ would still have considered the acquisition of a quasi-British accent an essential ingredient for success – here at home, and as part and parcel of the passport to a career in British stage and film. Chips Rafferty was an exception, and his distinctly Australian argot ensured his roles were limited to Australian characters. Commonwealth ties were still strong back then, and despite the fact of postwar European immigration, which brought so many workers to labour on ‘nation-building’ projects, Australia’s cultural ties were still very much with Britain. The program of the first Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960 was overwhelmingly British. Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll had been produced in Melbourne in 1955 – and though both were writing earlier, David Williamson’s plays only took hold in the 1970s, and those of Jack Davis in the 1980s. It was yet another decade before other Australian voices started to be taken seriously. And as the voices of First Nations people grew louder, so we also started to hear and see the stories of those who had come from Europe, then Asia-Pacific, India and what’s still referred to colonially as the Middle East.

Does a cultural cringe still exist in Australia? A strategy justified by a statement such as ‘That’s what Tate Modern is doing’ suggests that some of that cringe still exists. Is it a perennial condition of the displaced colonising culture, always needing to reference ‘something elsewhere’ as a benchmark for its own maintenance ? Or is it just natural, even happening at the national level? How many regional galleries look to Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) to justify their own direction? And why? Because MONA gets visitors, and bums-on-seats stats are still the norm for government support of the arts. Australian plays, contemporary dance, visual art and music, film and literature are all alive and well, but the fact remains that nothing sells like a blockbuster exhibition of old French paintings: in the popular imagination it is still deemed superior.

The highest ticket prices for art  – because these are the most expensive art forms to mount – are those whose origins are distinctly European: imported blockbuster exhibitions, opera, ballet, proscenium-stage theatre and orchestral music. Musical theatre and popular contemporary music also attract huge audiences, and the cost of the best seats sometimes rivals that of opera; they have similarly inherited the platform of the orthodox stage and all its technical armoury, whether in indoor or outdoor venues. All these formal settings are inherited from Europe. They bring with them not only the platform itself and everything modern technology can offer, but also expectations and parameters of audience behaviour and judgment. Despite available alternatives, formal European-style settings in theatres, arts complexes, concert halls and museums are still by far the most popular in Australia, and for many these remain benchmarks of success.

Even so, playing with alternative modes of presentation, the popularity of site-specific performance and the breaking of boundaries in performance art can all be on the menu for Australian artists today. And long before Europeans arrived, Australian First Nations performance – including dance, song, music, storytelling, costume and other design elements – happened here for tens of thousands of years within a context of ceremony. Those arts were not set apart as a special luxury, but were seen as integral to daily life and society. This goes deeper than just performance parameters and audience behaviour. In maintaining fidelity to the European cultural inheritance of artist-as-genius, contemporary Australian artists have a hard time justifying their existence as contributors to society, and just as worthy of a working wage as those who serve in policing, nursing, firefighting, teaching, food production or garbage collection.

This is an obvious challenge at this particular time, when stimulus packages designed to avoid the economic train wreck of COVID-19 have not yet adequately provided for the artists and arts workers who were among the first individuals to lose their jobs, and for arts companies and institutions whose futures instantly became precarious. It’s a trap for any one of us, even those in the sector, to watch the work of those brave souls on the frontline and be persuaded that they are indeed more essential, more important than artists. That is, until we observe what people are doing in isolation: music, online performance, museums-at-home, movies and TV series, books and any manner of storytelling have become the mainstay for wellbeing and an ongoing sense of what we share.

All these resources were created by artists – among the first to respond to lockdown and the changing world by creating online content free to all. And the resumption of live performances will surely be an important sign that we are coming back to life again.

This may be the very time when Australia could benefit from observing what Europe is doing, and will do, about the maintenance and survival of arts and culture beyond the COVID-19 crisis. While a few state-based financial responses have been welcome and the Australia Council was reasonably swift in announcing a modest emergency grant program, the arts were initially absent from the federal voice. There are any number of countries in Europe where the arts are more obviously regarded as essential elements of life, and artists valued more highly as legitimate contributors to society. Let’s see what we can learn from these European attitudes and approaches – after all, the arts festival model that we now see deployed throughout Australia arose in direct response to the aftermath of World War II and the need to unite Europe.

 

IN CONSIDERING WHAT ‘European’ actually means, my own answer stems from adventures in what I call ‘classic European cabaret’. In the twenty-first century, cabaret has come to mean a grab bag of multiple forms of entertainment: comedy, lounge, burlesque and a bit of satire, but not too savage. When I talk about ‘classic European’ cabaret I have particular historical references in mind. This was the form that originated in Paris in the 1880s, travelled to Vienna during its anti-establishment fin-de-siècle moment and rapidly spread to Zurich, St Petersburg, Barcelona and Munich, reaching Berlin at the start of the twentieth century, when cultural change was at the fore. It was a truly European movement.

The post-World War I hope of Germany’s Weimar Republic was widely manifest in the arts, and no more so than in Bauhaus architecture and design, and in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s assault on operetta with their 1928 hit The Threepenny Opera. Throughout the evolution of the small-stage form, so-called serious artists, designers, writers and composers all lined up to create small works for small stages and literary salons. Viennese cabarettist Peter Altenberg defended the cabaret not as a lesser art, but as ‘the art of small forms’. Its repertoire included lighthearted commentary on social mores, but cabaret gradually became the place where artists could say things that could not be safely said on a main stage.

This outlet for increasingly fierce social and political commentary reached its zenith with the rise of National Socialism in Germany. It didn’t last long, but between 1920 and 1933 – especially in Berlin – it led to an extraordinary creative output of songs and poetry that still, alas, have powerful relevance to today’s social and political context. It’s the reason I keep performing them.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the English language. Even the most covert cabaret content was shut down in Berlin and most other places by 1933, when Adolf Hitler was elected Chancellor. Dissident artists faced being arrested, tortured and exterminated, or going into exile, their works banned, burned and discredited. This particular form of cabaret disappeared, and when something similar resurfaced in English-speaking countries after the war, it borrowed more from the existing traditions of revue and variety. In the UK, the US and Australia, content incorporated song, dance and satire that was more comic than critical. Serious composers limited themselves again to the concert hall, while political commentary was left to the folk singer. Implicit in this change was the potential for political art to be marginalised on aesthetic grounds.

This split has largely been sustained to the present day, though we are starting to see signs of change. Some Australian playwrights, filmmakers, visual artists and contemporary choreographers tackle socio-political issues, but there is still nothing quite equivalent to the pre-war European salon for them to offer smaller and even more pungent works. You rarely see ‘serious’ composers writing for cabaret (as Schoenberg and Eisler did), though Richard Mills is an interesting exception: he writes opera and chamber music, but also pens the odd ditty and wrote ’Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth for Meow Meow. George Dreyfus before him, and Iain Grandage today, have both shown similar breadth.

The nearest we get to what I think of as the structural environment of classic European cabaret is the span of Tim Minchin’s work. Each night for years now he has had thousands of people in audiences across the world enjoying a mainstream hit in Matilda, while at the same time getting millions of hits on YouTube for his highly political musical satires. Now the main stage is temporarily shut down, the online ‘salon’ thrives and divides opinion as virulently as in the dangerous climate of 1930s Berlin. But we should be ever aware that shutdowns are not just physical, and now, as crucially in contemporary post-COVID-19 Australia as in pre-war Europe, what is not said is as pivotal as what is. Propaganda is a powerful tool, whether for the maintenance of cultural norms or for revolution.

 

SOON AFTER THE Berlin Wall came down, I was invited to perform in a film called Solidarity Song about the German composer Hanns Eisler, whose collaboration with Bertolt Brecht lasted longer than Brecht’s with Kurt Weill. We were recording in a clapped-out warehouse in former East Berlin, and with a day off shooting, I hired a BMW and sped off down the autobahn in the direction of Magdeburg. I had visited and worked in East Berlin several times before, but prior to the Wall coming down, had been warned not to mention that my mother’s side of the family came from Tucheim, a small agricultural village between Berlin and Magdeburg. Now, with the new opportunities that reunification offered, I turned off the freeway and soon saw at the entrance to this little town a very familiar image. The plough that dominated its village emblem was something I instantly recognised from the handpainted display plate that sat on top of Mum’s kitchen cabinet in suburban Adelaide. I asked the one man I saw in the street, ‘Gibt es hier Wohlings?’

Ja, ja,’ he replied, ‘viele Wohlings!’ (Yes, yes, many Wohlings!) and gave me directions to the right house.

The afternoon that followed was filled with sparkling sekt and cake and surprise. I glimpsed a copy of our family history as soon as I was invited inside, pointed out where my mum sat on the family tree – and me – and all was confirmed: we were distant relatives. That afternoon I learnt many things in the warm and generous company of my relatives – about the former East, and what they felt about the changes that reunification had bestowed on them (the freedoms) and taken away from them (social security; no return of their land; the devastation of their agricultural economy). But the most revealing moment was a brief conversation about Helmut, a brother and an ex-teacher, now retired to the Rhine district. Helmut was the one who had kept up the most consistent contact with one branch of the Wohlings in Australia.

My mum’s father had run the punt between Cadell and Morgan in South Australia’s Riverland, where blocks of land had been granted to World War I veterans. Mum always told me that the boys up the river didn’t want to volunteer for World War II because they feared their fruit crops would go to ruin. My conversation with the Tucheim relatives touched briefly on the fact that Helmut had been shot down over England during that war.

On the drive back to Berlin it dawned on me: while Mum and Dad had been serving in the Air Force and the Army, this distant relative – who bore my mother’s maiden surname – was part of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe. I couldn’t have been more shocked. Australian post-World War II propaganda had been so effective, in terms of what it didn’t say, that for almost fifty years it had never occurred to me that the reason the boys upriver didn’t want to go to war was because they would have been shooting their own distant cousins.

On the one hand, I had learnt in Australia to be a credible and successful performer in the wholly European performing traditions of Britain and Germany – especially the German repertoire that commented on the pre-conditions and realities of World War II, and subsequently through my devotion to classic European cabaret, including the traditions of Paris and Vienna too. On the other, I had been wholly unaware of the deeper implications within my own family of a war that split Europe and had seen Australia side, albeit understandably, against Germany.

All of us, especially me, have so much to celebrate about our continuing appreciation of and very powerful links to many aspects of the European tradition. But that moment in the tiny village of Tucheim warned me to be ever alert about what isn’t said, and to question and explore beyond what appear to be cultural givens.

As the Irish-born (or so he said) British legend of stage and screen Peter O’Toole so boldly and angrily proclaimed in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962: ‘Nothing is written.’

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