Australian playwright Stephen Sewell interview

12th November 2004



The Australian playwright talks to Philip Fisher about his acclaimed war-on-terror thriller, Myth, Progaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany… and Contemporary America.

The circumstances are now so dire that we really have to squawk as loudly as we possibly can.


INTERVIEW: STEPHEN SEWELL The Australian playwright talks to Philip Fisher about his acclaimed war-on-terror thriller, Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany… and Contemporary America.

Recorded: 12 November 2004

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is INTERVIEW: STEPHEN SEWELL and you must quote the url in your address bar.

Philip Fisher: Stephen Sewell is one of Australia’s premier playwrights. His latest play with the wonderful title Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America – and that’s the cut down version – has now won more awards than any other Australian play in history. Stephen, welcome to theatreVOICE.

Stephen Sewell: Thank you very much Philip.

PF: This is an amazing play. It takes on Iraq, it takes on all kinds of issues and you base it around Franz Kafka’s The Trial, not to mention 1984, bit of McCarthyism etc, do you want to tell us a bit about the play?

SS: The play is about an Australian academic who is living in New York, he’s married to an American. He’s a kind of burnt-out case at the beginning of the play. He’s written a small monograph, and the monograph is called Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America: A Comparative Study, and he begins to be visited by a strange and threatening figure, who becomes increasingly threatening, and bashes him, and as the play progresses it becomes more and more nightmarish for this Australian, his name’s Talbot. And part of the nightmare for Talbot is that nobody else apart from him can actually see this figure, so nobody believes that this is happening to him, it’s a kind of Brilliant Minds in reverse. Finally Talbot just disappears, murdered. So the play is a contemporary play, it’s set in the contemporary world, it’s set in a world where these very violent attacks are taking place on nations, and on the rights and liberties of individuals.

PF: Do you consider yourself in that case to be entirely a political playwright, is it just this play?

SS: I’m not, I’m a writer. I’ve been writing for thirty years, people frequently call me a political playwright, and I don’t mind being called that. I’m interested in politics; I’m interested in power. For me, power is as soon as you’ve got two human beings in a relationship you’ve got elements of power being played out. So I see power as being the central, or a central, aspect of human experience, and because it’s a central aspect of human experience it’s absolutely valid and important and crucial that writers write about it, and write about those elements of it. I think the Ancient Greeks had a word for plays that did not have political elements, and that word was connected to our word ‘idiot’.

PF: So you’d definitely call yourself a political playwright in that case?

SS: I’d hope so. I’m going to say, just because you’re a political playwright doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot either.

PF: Have you had a chance to see any of the other political plays on in London at the moment: David Hare’s Stuff Happens, Guantanamo, any of the others?

SS: No, I haven’t. Some of those plays are coming to Australia. What’s remarkable to me, well it’s not remarkable it’s really kind of heartening, to know that especially the English writers, I mean you kind of expect the English writers, but the American writers as well, are all kind of rising to this, what really is a sort of a crisis in our democracies. I feel very proud to be part of that company.

PF: I think you should do, certainly personally I think Myth is one of the most powerful pieces on the subject at the moment, which is a great compliment when there are so many going on. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your other work?

SS: As I mentioned Philip, I’ve been a writer for thirty years, some of your listeners might actually be familiar with my writing. I wrote a very famous Australian film called The Boys, that David Wenham and Toni Collette were in, that was a few years ago in 1998. I’ve had many plays produced here in the UK. The last play I had here wasn’t a straightforwardly political play, it was called The Secret Death of Salvador Dali, that’s been done in Edinburgh and here at the Riverside and the Old Red Lion here in London. As I mentioned I feel power and politics are very crucial elements of human experience, not just contemporary experience but of course the entirety of human experience. Aristotle defined human beings as ‘political animals’. But I’m also, as I kind of indicated about Salvador Dali, interested in artists and the lives of artists. I guess because as I’ve become older I’ve become more interested in questions of representation and how things are represented by other artists. So for example I’m going back to Australia shortly to begin rehearsals on a major play about the English painter Francis Bacon that’ll be in the Sydney Festival in January.

PF: Continually I’m very interested in Australian theatre and the rest of the world. It’s not particularly noticeable over here that anything is going on in Australia. Clearly we see David Williamson’s play starring Madonna, Up for Grabs, is one that everyone will know, but beyond that they might struggle to mention a couple more. Australian film is particularly successful, the likes of Bruce Beresford and many others, and I suppose Nicole Kidman has helped that, but it just seems odd that there must be loads of great playwrights in Australia, and we don’t really hear so much about that over here. Can you explain it? Is it just geography? These days surely that shouldn’t matter.

SS: You’re quite right Philip, Australia’s artistic contribution to the world is – I don’t know if it’s incommensurate with its size – we have nineteen million people in Australia. Many of the internationally known actors, directors, artists of one sort or another are Australian, but not so many of the writers. We do have many, many fine writers in Australia, especially in the last few years there’s been a big kind of upsurge in the development of writers, and new writers coming on deck. I mean obviously great writers like Louis Narrow and John Romrell from the past and as you mentioned David Williamson, but new writers like Daniel King and Joanna Murray-Smith … names escape me, but they’re terrific writers, and like writers around the world are very concerned about dissecting the human heart, and the human heart as it’s experienced in Australia. We in Australia of course have many unique difficulties and dilemmas.

The reason that I was able to come here [to Europe] in the first instance is that Myth, Propaganda and Disaster received a presentation in Ireland at the Dublin Arts Festival, so I arrived from Sydney at Dublin to do that, and of course Dublin, I don’t know if it’s the rain capital of the world but it’s not a dry place, and so when I told them it hadn’t rained where I was for four years people looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about. But that’s true, Australia is suffering from this incredibly frightening drought, an extensive drought throughout the whole of the nation, the whole of the country, that I just read today has been absolutely ascribed to Global Warming, and with a new report that’s just come out stating parts of Australia within twenty to thirty years will be uninhabitable. So I don’t know if you’d say we’re in the firing line, but we’re certainly close to the front of global change, with a government that’s in absolute denial about it. You probably know for example, I think there’s only two countries in the world really left – the United States and Australia – who have not signed the Kyoto agreement. So the general population is being told to ‘prepare for the worst’, but not being given any explanation about why it’s happening. So that’s a terrible position for a citizen to be in, but it’s a fantastic position for a dramatist to be in.

PF: While your characters in Myth are pretty dismissive of the American government, regarding it rather sinister, the Australian government they really just laugh at. Is that you coming out?

SS: I think the Australian government is laughable, and I think it’s renowned for being laughable. The Prime Minister John Howard described Australia as America’s Deputy Sheriff in the Pacific. He is a laughing stock in the Pacific region. He has made our nation a complete farce. The statements of support for the Iraq war that came from the Australian government used the exact same terminology, the exact same words, as the Americans did when they were saying it. It was kind of like we didn’t actually need a Department of Foreign Affairs, we just needed a big loud speaker connected to the White House. I have nothing but contempt for the Australian government.

PF: That’s a most powerful statement; do I take it from that possibly you identify pretty closely with the protagonist Talbot Finch in Myth?

SS: Well I hope what happens to him doesn’t happen to me! But on the other hand, I feel that the circumstances are now so dire that really it is up to everybody to squawk as loudly as they can before we’re shut up forever.

PF: That is pretty chilling stuff. If you feel as strongly as that about it, the play isn’t just done for effect and to entertain and to redo The Trial, you believe that the world could be coming to a close?

SS: Well I read on the front page of the New York Times today that a purge is taking place of the CIA by the new Bush Administration, because the Bush Administration believes the CIA is full of liberals. I mean, I think that’s kind of frightening news.

PF: I would imagine that probably everyone does. Where do you go from here? When was Myth actually written?

SS: It was written about eighteen months ago, just before the war in Iraq started. The war was being prepared but it hadn’t been launched.

PF: And have you written anything since. Or have you got things lined up to write?

SS: Since then I’ve written two plays: one called It Just Stopped, which will be produced in October in Sydney, it’s a comedy set at the end of the world! One of the characters says, “You’ve got to laugh, otherwise you’ll cry.” And the other one, as I mentioned, is a play on Francis Bacon called Three Furies. That’s at the Sydney Festival this year. I have no doubt that both of those plays will be seen in London.

PF: What’s your background? You’ve said you’ve been writing for thirty years, is that full-time?

SS: Yes. The first thing is I earned not a cent, but what I learnt in that first few years is if you’re going to make a living, you’ve got to write really fast! So I learnt how to write quite quickly, and not to be too precious about it. I don’t regard theatre writing, or the writing that I do, as literature.

PF: Let me ask you some questions about working over in England. I take it you’ve enjoyed working with Sam Walters, who, as you say, is a very experienced director at the Orange Tree. I think putting the play on the round has been really interesting, it really draws the audience in. Presumably you’ve enjoyed working with him, also Jonathan Guy-Lewis is an amazing star as Talbot, and David Rintool is plays the rather sinisterly-titled The Man.

SS: Yes, they’ve just been wonderful, and the experience is one of the most delightful experiences I’ve ever had. Sam is a very witty, gentle person. I’d open the rehearsal room door to go in, and start laughing, and I wouldn’t stop laughing until we closed the door at the end and I left. People say sometimes, “Drama is fun, comedy is serious”, I think that’s generally true, but it’s been a wonderful experience working with the English people here, and also seeing how deep the craft of the English actors is. They’re just kind of very deep, their characterisation is very deep, their knowledge is very deep, and all of the actors, including Jonathan and David, have just been total delights to work with.

PF: Has the play developed while it’s been over here, or has it stayed as was when you left Australia?

SS: No, we’ve had line changes. One of the things, of course, that we were all thinking about, was that we began rehearsal before the United States election, so the question in peoples minds was: “How would people’s perception and understanding of the play change if the United States government had changed?” And my personal feeling was that if anything in the play was true, was a proper account of what was going on in the contemporary world, then a change at the top like that would not affect the essence of the play, but that Homeland Security would still exist, the Patriot Act would still exist, and the prisoners in Guantanamo would still be there. So I didn’t think there would be a major re-write that was necessary, but of course George Bush won the election, and I did add a line to The Man: The Man is playing the George Bush Axis of Evil speech – in the old script he said, “I like this speech too”, in the new script he says, “I like this speech too. Four more years”! And on the opening night when we did that the entire audience squirmed.

PF: How are you finding the audience at the Orange Tree? How did you end up with Sam to start with, did he bring you across? And how are you finding the audience, because it’s not exactly the traditional young, left-wing, trendy audience that you might ideally like for your plays?

SS: Sam got the play because a friend of his, a New Zealand friend, sent it from Australia, and told him that he had to do the play. The very first time that I saw the audience was with the previous Orange Tree production, Summer Again, and I was quite startled that they looked a very mature audience, and wondered what they’d make of Myth, Propaganda… Sam was very, kind of, concerned himself, so he put up all these warning signs all over the place, quoting from the play, that “if you find any of this stuff offensive, don’t come”. But in the event I went to a meeting, a question-and-answer, after the matinee on Thursday, and there were some quite elderly people there, and what amazed me, really, and a friend that I was with who was visiting from Ireland to see the production, both of us were very impressed by the seriousness by which the audience dealt with the issues of the play, and their own very deep knowledge of history, because being elderly people – like one of the chaps was saying, “Well I remember in the thirties” – and I was just amazed that here in that auditorium there were people in whose living memory, some of the events that were being referred to in this play, had a direct experience of, who were saying, “Yes, yes, these are dangerous times.”

PF: I think one final question: you said you spent the first ten years of your writing career doing it full-time and not earning any money; I’m dying to know: how some you’re still alive?

SS: Oh, well people find all sorts of little tricks don’t they, to get what they want. I’m just sort of grateful or fortunate – grateful and fortunate – that at the end of that I was able to have learnt my craft and earned a position in Australian theatre where I was able to start making a living because people wanted to hear my voice. Well, that’s so untrue, because I think why people want to go to theatre is that they want an experience of the human heart. They want to know what their heart conceals from themselves, and I think we get that in theatre, and I’m one of those writers who is absolutely dedicated to that view of theatre, and I think I give that to the audience and I participate with the audience in discovering those things, and I think that’s why I’m still here.

PF: Stephen Sewell, I think that’s a great place to finish, thank you very much indeed for coming in to talk to us.

SS: Thank you Philip.