The writer of some of Australian theatre’s most recognisable and insightful plays that explore Australian culture and identity, such as Don’s Party which famously depicted a federal election night suburban barbecue, said identity politics had gazumped efforts to tackle inequality.
“Political parties don’t even mention inequality anymore, and yet it’s a galloping disease in our society,” Williamson said.
“I think the whole world has been blighted by the neo liberal economic religion that has swept our world .. and told us that society doesn’t exist and we’re all individuals scrabbling against other individuals for personal gain.
“It’s not a pleasant picture of the world and it has coloured so much of our social life. It’s become a deeply competitive and much more deeply unequal society than when I was growing up.”
Speaking at the Gold Coast at Griffith University’s In Conversation event held at the Home of the Arts (HOTA), Williamson told host Kerry O’Brien that identity politics and an obsession with gender or skin colour was swamping other, more significant issues.
Credited with being a key driver of original Australian theatre, Williamson, 80, now lives at Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. He has only recently stepped back from a career in which he has written 56 plays and 26 screenplays, many reflecting and dissecting people and prevailing issues within Australian society.
Identity politics and the grievances of particular groups in society was dominating both art and the current election phase, he said.
“I understand why identity politics is a very big issue, but I wonder why what I think is an even more important issue has been submerged artistically,” he said.
“Theatre is obsessed with identity politics, where it’s gender or skin colour that’s the only important issues, whereas the great important issue of inequality is just ignored.”
Discussing his 50 years of work from the early 1970s in which his plays acutely captured spot checks of the national pulse, Williamson said dwindling support for the arts made it difficult for Australian playwrights to tell Australian stories.
His play Don’s Party, that premiered 1971 at the Pram Factory in Melbourne and in 1976 was turned into a film directed by Bruce Beresford, was pivotal in the evolution of Australian theatre. A slice-of-life satire, Don’s Party was set at an Australian barbecue on election night 1969 with the ALP widely expected to win from opposition.
However, as the votes are tallied and all indications of the anticipated victory disintegrate, the party and characters themselves fall to pieces, descending into debauchery and disillusionment.
His most notable film scripts are Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously for Peter Weir, while his more recent plays include the 2018 drama Nearer the Gods about the writing of Isaac Newton’s revolutionary book Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
Williamson released his memoir, Home Truths, in 2021.
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