David Williamson’s Don’s Party is older than I am. First performed by the legendary Australian Performing Group at Melbourne’s Pram Factory in August 1971, the play is widely regarded as an Australian classic, and the best work of Williamson’s long career.
The story of school teacher and failed novelist Don and his wife Kath’s drunken and bawdy celebration on the night of the 1969 Federal election is part social satire, part political commentary, part anthropological study and pure entertainment. Its revival by the Melbourne Theatre Company this month, at the beginning of a Federal election year that will see the ultra-conservative John Howard contest his fourth poll as Prime Minister, couldn’t be more timely.
Critical reception of the play in the early 1970s was excited and conflicted. The ribald banter of Don’s unreconstructed misogynist mates was confronting enough for the ladies and gentlemen theatre set back then; but Kath’s kitchen chat with her girlfriends about their sex lives and marital dissatisfactions was outright shocking.
The play’s action sits on the fault line between the conservative social mores of the old Australian middle class and the brash and hedonistic approach to life of the new, early baby boomer set, then in the prime of their lives. This bold lot, rapidly assuming power and influence in a stultifying society, were both the subject of and target audience for Williamson’s writing, and he captured them and their times keenly.
For Katharine Brisbane, then theatre critic with The Australian, ‘the sheer joy of the play lies in the people themselves: familiar, funny and real.’ For progressives like Brisbane, Don’s Party was instantly recognisable, and told the story of their lives: curtailed and frustrated by the limitations of the long Menzies era, but filled with hope and bursting with energy for a better future.
For the established Australian middle class, though, Don’s Party represented all that was wrong with young people, with progressive politics, with a world that was rejecting the social norms and life lessons of the previous generation. Writing in The Review, Juditha Dent complained:
[T]hat bourgeois life has been reduced to an increasing obsession with the urbane and banal is no justification for dragging theatre down with it We could all go to a better (or worse) party any night of the week. If we could be bothered.
Dent’s dismay reveals the then growing concern of the upper middle class in Australia at the encroachment onto their turf of those from less desirable backgrounds. The high living standards of Australia in the 1950s and 1960s with almost full employment, high levels of home ownership and relatively low rates of family breakdown and divorce created one of the most socially mobile communities in the world. Menzies’s focus on ‘the forgotten people’ led to a remarkably sustained period of power for his Government, and entrenched the notion of Australia as the land of the middle class.
While the economic benefits this brought to the vast majority of Australians were rightly celebrated by political and business leaders, those same scions of power were left deeply uncomfortable at the erosion of social mores and manners that had been the erstwhile markers of their privilege. The ‘loose morals’ and lack of deference displayed by the new, baby boomer bourgeoisie were peculiarly Australian, and directly aimed at shocking and displacing the cultural hegemony of the old ruling class. Nowhere is this behaviour better captured than in Don’s Party.
Simon Phillips’s production for the MTC, in his 20 th anniversary year as a director at the company, takes few liberties with Williamson’s original script, and faithfully recreates the atmosphere of that night in 1969 when the Gorton Government clung to power, pushed over the line by DLP preferences in Victoria.
The cast of Don’s Party
The play, once so fresh and innovative, now comes off as a period piece. For a start, it’s almost impossible to believe that educated men behaved so appallingly towards women as recently as 1969. And the depiction of the free-love era’s messiest excesses now seems old-fashioned and pitiable.
But the strength, and ongoing value, of Don’s Party is precisely its specific setting and scathing analysis of Australian society in 1969, after two decades of conservative rule. Its resonance today is due to its role as an historical study of those elements political, cultural, personal that each generation believes specific to itself, and which are, of course, universal.
As David Thorpe noted, in his review of the Sydney production, in Nation Review in May 1973:
Behind its magnificent bawdiness and gross humors, its earthy language and drunken sexuality, Don’s Party is a serious study of suburban Australia. It concerns the eroded and tarnished idealism of Left-wing intellectuals caught in the mesh of a materialist society. It is a study of failure. Its poignancy stems from the desperate attempts of the characters to maintain a pose of progressiveness in a framework of mateship, against all the overwhelming trivia of middle-class suburban life children, school bills, mortgages … the lot.
There’s nothing anachronistic about the condition described. It’s the ongoing, unresolved tension at the heart of modern middle-class life, equally applicable to the 20, 30 and 40-somethings of 2007 as it was to those of 1969.
Moreover, there are strong parallels between the political situation of 1969 and the one we are facing in 2007.
While Don’s Party is not first and foremost a political play, its action rests on the underlying drama of the 1969 Federal election, and the unrealistic hopes for a Labor victory of Don and his idealistic, frustrated mates. That Gorton won the poll was no surprise the incumbent Liberals had been widely expected to win an election held at a time of high employment and a booming economy.
But, as the MTC’s program notes explain, 1969 saw the emergence of the young professional vote, and for the first time, old political loyalties were displaced among the younger generation of educated, middle-class Australians. Concerns other than their own economic well-being took centre stage in Australian politics over the next three years, changing forever the nature of our society and culture, and resulting in the election of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government, the first for 23 years, in 1972.
While we’ve had only half as long under a conservative government as did our parents and grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s, already the political comparison is strong. We, too, live in a time of high employment (depending on whose figures you read) and a growing economy. We have generations in their 20s and 30s who barely remember a time before the current conservative Government was in power, and who are ever more independent, highly educated and able to think for themselves. And, in Kevin Rudd, we have an ALP leader who at last seems comfortable talking about ideas for Australia’s future. So might we see the kind of mood emerge in the electorate that swept such significant change through Australia in the early 1970s?
As tempting as it is to take solace from comparisons with the equally despe
rate past, we live in a very different time. Globalisation, climate change, the aging population and the ubiquitous influence of free market economics have all changed society, and undermined people’s trust in, and attachment to, traditional politics. The demands of family, work and home that Don’s party guests complain of remain the dominant forces in our lives, and, are increasingly in conflict with one another. But fewer of us see government as part of the answer.
And while we have been disengaged, there has been a determined effort by those in power to return us to the kind of society that existed before Don had his election night party. A society in which women stayed at home with the kids, and were bored rigid; men worked at insufferable jobs and drank too much; and Australian meant ‘of British extraction.’
If young Australians have no idea what it is to live in a precarious economy, nor do they know what it is to live in a truly proscriptive society. The smiling assassin approach of the Howard Government towards gradually eroding the civil and cultural liberties Western society has gained over the past 50 years has left too many young people in a political slumber comfortable being controlled.
I hope more people of my generation go to see Don’s Party, or hire the DVD of the 1976 film. Between laughing at the familiar Aussie larrikins, and wincing at the clumsy sexual shenanigans, they might just see something in the characters that will wake them up. Because I think what worries Australians of Don’s generation most is that we seem to have forgotten that they even existed.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.