Q & A with Denise Varney, author of Patrick White’s Theatre

Denise Varney is Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Melbourne, where she teaches Australian theatre and performance, and modern and contemporary drama. Her new book, Patrick White’s Theatre: Australian Modernism on Stage, 1960–2018, explores how White’s plays have been staged and received over a period of 60 years, and offers a new analysis of his place in wider Australian modernist and theatrical traditions. 


Cover of Patrick White's Theatre: Australian Modernism on Stage 1960-2018, featuring a photograph of two actors from a 21st century performance of White's play The Ham Funeral

How influential was White’s work on Australian theatre? Would Australian theatrical modernism have looked different without White? 

From the early 1960s and pre-dating the New Wave of Australian theatre that took hold a decade later, White’s plays took an anti-realist approach to plot and character, and featured non-naturalist staging in heightened, often satirical, representations of Australian place, language, and social class. He was a singular playwright ahead of his time and place, driven by a fascination with and deep love of theatre. He was modernist but also eclectic, weaving vaudeville and gothic humour into his works.

By the 1970s and 80s, when the early plays were revived by a new generation of theatre directors (Jim Sharman, Neil Armfield), the plays were presented as a challenge to public tastes and the atmosphere was more receptive.

Australian theatrical modernism might have been far more earnest and humourless without White’s satirical wit and playful theatricality.

Was it difficult to analyse White’s theatre without assigning too much importance to his personal life and beliefs?

Not at all. The book includes biographical references and considerations of White’s beliefs, but these are considered formative but not determinants of the works. The approach I took was to analyse the words on the page and the theatre on the stage. Theatre is a collaborative art form. Even the published play text, which might be considered a literary work, was often written after the first performances and so was guided by performers, directors and designers by the time it reached the page. Once the works entered the theatre then there is the director, the performers, the designers, the audience, the press. There’s a whole system and many people who influence works of theatre. So the book would accord for example more importance to Jim Sharman’s directorial style then to Patrick White’s personal life and beliefs. Besides, he wasn’t always a reliable narrator.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first performance of The Ham Funeral by the University of Adelaide in 1961. Do you think the rejection of the play by the Adelaide Festival of the Arts the following year continues to affect his reputation as a playwright today?

No, I don’t think it does affect his reputation as a playwright today. This is because most people don’t realise and can’t imagine that the plays would be rejected by a festival that has now established a reputation as a promoter of innovative and experimental theatre as well as other media. But people are interested when they hear about the story of how a well-known literary figure was rejected by a group of powerful men because the play did not conform to their, let’s face it, colonial view of taste and propriety. But it is also a warning to us that we should not take liberal cultures for granted, that there are always those who will try to shut down the creative arts and curtail artistic experimentation.

Fortunately we are not facing such censorship now. But it was a struggle to achieve the freedoms we have today. Patrick White gave up writing plays in 1964 and returned to writing novels, where he had more artistic control and an international reputation. He only returned to writing plays in the late 1970s after Jim Sharman revived the early plays and reminded him of how much he enjoyed the theatre.

If White’s theatre was meant to reflect the zeitgeist of the time or incite change, how does his work remain relevant or influential in today’s climate? 

Patrick White’s plays remain relevant today because they represent outsider figures who continue to be marginalised today. While I was working on the 1963 play A Cheery Soul, featuring the annoying do-gooder Miss Docker, I was struck by how she represented the epidemic of loneliness that we find in the Western world today. We also see in the female characters the terrible waste of women’s lives in the pre-feminist era and even into the 1980s. In plays like Netherwood from the 1980s, we see gender fluidity and diversity in conflict with repressive sections of society.

Does a particular staging of White’s plays stand out for you as most memorable?

Benedict Andrews’ production of The Season at Sarsaparilla for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2007 was brilliant. It was a stunning revelation of the potential of White’s theatre to capture modern Australian suburbia. The co-location of the three iconic suburban houses in the one brick veneer on a revolving stage with webcams inside the house projected onto a screen for audiences to see was brilliant. It was a wonderful example of the importance of returning to classic works and remaking them for the contemporary era.

Sadly, most Australian plays only ever have one production. I should also note Kip Williams’ revival of A Cheery Soul in 2018 for the STC, which made panoramic use of contemporary stage design and technology. I also really liked Michael Kantor’s 2000 and 2005 productions of The Ham Funeral, which drew out the psychological aspects of the play as well as heightening its theatrical potential.

You can read an extract from Patrick White’s Theatre on our website