It’s an unforgivable ‘if not for…’, but here goes: if not for Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson would have been one of the greatest American presidents of all time. But Vietnam happened, and Johnson’s pride and warped view of what ‘defeat’ would mean for America’s international standing and relations meant tens of thousands of appallingly unnecessary deaths. His greatness though is powerfully on view in The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon Johnson—Passing of the Civil Rights Act (June 23 to July 4 1964) the eighth volume of transcripts of Johnson’s Oval Office conversations. The indefatigable seduction, bullying and cajoling, his tremendously affectionate nature (readily telling people how much he loved them, whether they were family, colleagues or adversaries), and his political intelligence and savvy are all woven through this verbatim testimony. And, as we know, against huge odds he got the Civil Rights Act passed. I love biography, memoirs and diaries and the horse’s mouth account is irresistible to me, though I’ve cheated on this series of books, leapfrogging to Volume 7 after reading Volume 1—the recordings of Johnson’s conversations that took place from Air Force One on the tarmac in Dallas on 23 November 1963, through to the Oval Office on Saturday November 30.
Described as ‘the first unified theory of storytelling’, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall is, to me, literary bliss, mixing the scientific, historical and emotional reasons why we simply have to tell, and hear, stories. As we position Melbourne Theatre Company as Melbourne’s home of live storytelling, I am obsessively absorbing as much as I can around the subject. The good news is that the live experience—storytelling through theatre, song, public address, whatever—can never be threatened by screen or digital culture, since for millennia past and millennia to come, we will always need to gather with members of our ‘tribe’ around a literal or metaphorical campfire to tell and be told.
Working 24/7 in a storytelling profession means reading, for me, is often a respite from fiction. All of the books currently by my bed are non-fiction. Last year’s Letters by Kurt Vonnegut edited by Dan Wakefield pulls together letters from the 23 year old Vonnegut through to a final piece written at the age of 84, and they are so spare, funny, wise, and self-effacing, they are, quite simply, glorious. His letter to the US Draft Board defending his son’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War should be inscribed in the sandstone rotunda of the Capitol. His love for his son is moving and immovable. The letter ends ‘Mark is proud to be an American, and, in his father’s opinion, he is being an absolutely first-rate citizen now. He will not hate. He will not kill. There’s hope in that. There’s no hope in war. Yours truly, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’
Recommended to me a couple of months ago by theatre director Jim Sharman, Obedience, Struggle and Revolt by British dramatist David Hare collects some of Hare’s more astonishing and politically charged lectures and prose pieces, including the autobiographical lecture of the title, delivered in Melbourne as Melbourne Theatre Company’s second John Sumner Lecture in 2004. Why does art matter? Why does theatre matter? Apart from the storytelling necessity expressed by Gottshall, the balance of the answer is here.
Since writing bad poetry as a kid (and unfathomably winning a Brisbane Warana Festival poetry award in the early eighties), I’ve loved the language of poets. Louise Glück Poems 1962-2012 collects Glücks 11 published anthologies under one cover. I had only two before: The Wild Iris (1992) and The Seven Ages (2001). Yes they can be indulgently confessorial (though not, to me, overblown or clichéd), but her fifty years of observations on the arc of life, family, love, and the truth behind sentimentality and propriety, are a balm for any crap that life and family can throw at you. And the courage! How many of us are game to write:
My mother wants to know
why, if I hate
family so much,
I went ahead and had one
I don’t love my son
the way I meant to love him
I must learn
to forgive my mother,
now that I’m helpless
to spare my son.
And there are her timeless lines ‘Why love what you will lose? / There is nothing else to love’ and ‘in childhood, I thought / that pain meant / I was not loved. It meant I loved.’
These Glück poems had me reaching for my old Penguin Modern Poets Volume 7 which includes Jon Silkin’s Death of a Son—one of the most perfect poems ever.
I had the privilege to present the music and art of David Byrne at two festivals—Sydney Festival 2002 and Adelaide Festival 2006. He is one of the authentic 21st Century renaissance men, a visual, musical and literary artist, a polymath, and his idiosyncratic take on all things artistic, social and political is a sheer delight. In How Music Works, which I’ve only just begun, he reinforces the primal desire for the live experience. ‘I go to at least one live performance a week. After more than a hundred years (of music recording), we’re heading back to where we started…emphasizing its social function.’ How Music Works is an irresistible celebration of ‘music’ and every bit as joyful, buoyant and intelligent as its author.
The Devil’s Casino by Vicky Ward is yet another take on the 2008 fall of Lehman Brothers replete with discarded heroes, triumphant villains, leeches, morons and naïfs, and I’m enjoying wrestling with my own judgments of Dick Fuld et al. Figuring out how a new drama about the GFC might work six years on—lessons learned? lessons not learned?—has me immersed in literature about Wall Street. The mission? To see if any of our best dramatic writers might think there’s a new play in it. Though if, as Matt Taibbi claims in Griftopia ‘public sentiment is a financial irrelevancy’, then agitating our rage and disgust at the profligacies and immorality that lead to the GFC might make for impotent art. We’ll see.
What else? On the floor next to the bedside table are about a dozen playscripts waiting to be read and my iPad, which houses my New Yorkers, New York Times and Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and The Monthly, and Instapaper and Pocket—two apps which between them have literally hundreds of articles I’ve downloaded from press around the world, backlogged for me to plough through on the next flight.
Brett Sheehy took up the role of Artistic Director of Melbourne Theatre Company in 2012, and in the same year concluded his four-year tenure as Artistic Director of Melbourne Festival. He is the only person ever to lead three of the five international arts festivals in Australia’s state capital cities.