Out, and flourishing at the centre
IN pre-gay liberation days, to which some of Nicola Roxon’s men’s health advisers would return us, ‘‘ theatrical’’ was a code word for homosexuality. It seems that Anna Bemrose still inhabits that world.
Robert Helpmann: A Servant of Art is not so much a biography as a hagiography, taking us in painful detail through every performance and public triumph of Helpmann’s life. Arguably, his was the most extraordinary career of any Australian performer, straddling opera, the stage and directorship of the Adelaide Festival. ( The closest contemporary figure may be Cate Blanchett.)
‘‘ Helpmann’s life was the theatre,’’ Bemrose writes, ‘‘ and nothing, not even his ‘ dismissal’ from the Australian Ballet, could destroy his passion for the arts.’’ Is anyone’s life really only defined by their public appearances? Even Elizabeth Salter’s 1978 authorised biography managed to tell us more about Helpmann the man than Bemrose does.
Salter wrote about Helpmann’s long relationship with Michael Benthall, with whom he shared a home until Benthall’s death in 1974. In Bemrose’s book, written long after Helpmann’s death and with no restraints of authorisation, Benthall is identified only as a stage director. ( He directed Helpmann and Katharine Hepburn in their 1955 tour of Australia.)
Bemrose presumably would claim that Helpmann’s homosexuality was a private matter, not relevant to his art. Yet her own book shows that this simple division between private and public is misleading. Helpmann’s sexuality was a big part of his sense of being an outsider: that is clear in her discussion of his famous ballet, The Display , which he choreographed for the Australian Ballet in 1964. Even Bemrose acknowledges, for she has read Donald Horne and R. W. Connell, that Helpmann used the piece to explore the homoerotics of mateship.
There is a whole thesis to be written on The Display as a queer text. But beyond this, Helpmann was criticised throughout his career for his overt campness. When Helpmann directed Alcina for the Australian Opera in 1981, Roger Covell wrote that he hoped it would not be too ‘‘ camped up’’. According to Wikipedia, an obituary in The Times portrayed Helpmann as ‘‘ a homosexual of the proselytising kind’’ whose influence on a company was ‘‘ dangerous as well as stimulating’’.
It is still sometimes difficult to discuss with living artists the influence of their sexuality on their work. When West Side Story premiered, it would have been a brave critic who would have speculated on the significance of a great heterosexual love story being being created by gay men. Edward Albee has always protested strongly against those critics who claim Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is really an account of a gay relationship, and Stephen Sondheim has prohibited gay interpretations of Company .
But equally it is impossible to understand Helpmann’s work without knowing something of his private life. Late in life Helpmann came close to publicly acknowledging this, when he appeared in Justin Fleming’s play The Cobra , about the life of Lord Alfred Douglas who, as a young man, destroyed Oscar Wilde. It is quite a feat to write 10 pages on the performance without reflecting on what it meant for Helpmann to play such a character in his 70s.
Helpmann directed the 1970 Adelaide Festival; Jim Sharman first attended an Adelaide Festival in 1972. There is a synergy here that is not accidental, for Sharman represents another towering theatrical talent who came of a very different generation from Helpmann, and whose influence has been at least as great on Australian cultural life.
is very different from that of Helpmann, who was far more committed to the established canon and seemed largely unaware of politics. Sharman is associated with theatre that is innovative and radical, even if he remains best known for directing popular successes such as Jesus Christ Superstar , Hair and, especially, The Rocky Horror Picture Show .
Sharman staged Hair in Australia in 1969 and the 30-second nude scene caused huge controversy. It is symbolic that the 1960s seem to have been imported to Australia as a rock musical set in the US. Sharman writes that Hair and Rocky Horror book-ended the era: ‘‘ We had lived through the don’t dream it, be it period and its all too brief jump to the left , and were now about to witness a very firm step to the right and a return to conservatism in the endless time warp of global politics.’’
Like Helpmann before him and Barrie Kosky after, Sharman would direct the Adelaide Festival and several operas. And, like Helpmann, he was committed to building theatre in Australia, even when immense opportunities presented themselves overseas. Indeed, one of the constant themes for almost all great Australian artists, and many who are not, is the opposing lures of the bright lights of the northern hemisphere and the deep longing to build creatively at home.
Helpmann worked for years as director of the Australian Ballet and Sharman threw himself into building the Paris Theatre Company in Sydney in the late ’ 70s, a company that brought together an extraordinary group of artists and was important in reviving Patrick White’s reputation as a dramatist.
Many of the artists associated with the company will be familiar to a much larger audience through their work with Baz Luhrmann, especially in his Moulin Rouge .
One cannot, of course, compare biography with autobiography, but Sharman’s discussion of his life should be read as a guide to how we may think about the relationship between sexuality and creativity. Indeed, Sharman’s reflections on growing up gay in the ’ 50s could help decode Helpmann’s concerns in The Display . Sharman recounts a reference to his wearing ‘‘ red shoes’’ by someone who clearly saw them as equivalent to Wilde’s green carnation: Helpmann had appeared in the famous film of that name.
Sharman was of the generation that saw homosexuality move from a hidden and illegal activity to a social movement and now as yet another identity within multicultural Australia. He stood aside from gay politics and his autobiography rarely mentions the political explicitly. Yet his work has always been of political significance in the broader sense and Blood and Tinsel reminds us how much of his work helped us reimagine sexuality and gender.
Yet we should always beware too simplistic a connection between sex and art. Some of our campest theatre comes from heterosexual directors and many gay artists eschew gay themes. It used to be said that Sydney theatre was dominated by homosexuals and Melbourne’s by homophobes, including some of its self-professed radical fringe.
Neither claim looks plausible today, when homosexuality is no longer particularly shocking. In two generations we have gone from the coded references of some of Helpmann’s work through the sexual defiance of Hair and Rocky Horror to a post-liberation era in which proclaiming one’s sexuality is no longer a radical act.
Thus Kosky can begin his essay, On Ecstasy , with a description of childhood sexual arousal from watching ‘‘ Jack Wild’s wet jeans’’ in a television program improbably called HR Pufnstuf . Kosky moves on to write of the ecstasies of music and opera with no further reference to his sexuality. But we read his essay, and his intoxication with Wagner and Mahler, without the irritatingly elliptical references that earlier generations felt were necessary to indicate sexual desire and identity.
‘‘ The personal is the political’’ can be seen as a trite slogan from a more innocent past, yet it illuminates these books. Only Sharman seems to have thought through its implications. Dennis Altman is professor of politics at La Trobe University.
Unashamed: Reg Livermore as Dr Frank n’ Furter in Jim Sharman’s production of The Rocky Horror Show