Out, and flour­ish­ing at the cen­tre

Den­nis Alt­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Shar­man’s

at­ti­tude

to

the

the­atre

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

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