A life of separation from the ordinary
Sumner Locke Elliott: Writing Life
By Sharon Clarke
Allen and Unwin, 1996. 292 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Brendan Doyle
Sumner Locke Elliott was born in Sydney in the year of the October Revolution and died in New York in 1991, a city he had chosen to call home. This important book is the first biography of the author of 10 novels, including the excellent autobiographical story Careful, He Might Hear You (made into a very successful film) and plays of which the most famous is Rusty Bugles.
Sharon Clarke met Elliott and recorded intimate interviews with him in New York. She looks in detail at Elliott's life and works, from his painful childhood in the wake of his mother's death the day after his birth, his early life as a gay writer in a repressive society, to his years in the US, writing for television in its infancy, and his impact on the New York literary world.
The book is well researched, with ample quotes from the author's works, critical comment and quotes from his friends and acquaintances. The biography gave me a new appreciation of the life and work of an Australian writer who truly suffered for his art.
Sumner Locke Elliott never saw his mother, who was also a published author, and only remembered, at the age of three, seeing his alcoholic father Logan Elliott once as he left for Victoria. He abandoned his son to Aunt Lily and Uncle George, who brought him up in Carlton, a working-class suburb of Sydney, where they were always broke, Elliott recalls.
His early life was also shared with the dreaded Aunt Jessie in Vaucluse, where he had riding and music lessons and was later sent to Cranbrook, a private school, for two years as a boarder, which he recalled "with loathing, as a place of misery", writes Clarke.
He seemed fated to be a writer. "You must finish what your mother left unfinished", people said to him as a child, and he "grew up shouldering the burden of his mother's death". By the age of 12 he had written a dozen plays and had his own puppet theatre. He was a loner, and his puppets became his friends.
Running the puppet theatre gave him confidence in his creative ability and hope for the career he was convinced he had as a writer. In his first year of high school, he directed a melodrama he had written. He excelled at female roles, but not at school work, and failed the intermediate certificate.
Elliott as a boy had "a sense of separation from the ordinary", not only because he never knew his parents but also because he was gay. Elliott told Clarke that he believed he had been born gay, but had grown up uncomfortable with his sexuality and suffering from the horrors of being gay in the Sydney of the 1930s.
Clarke talks of "his anguished life as a covert homosexual", who was once bashed in the Wynyard station toilets by a homophobe. It was only in the last decade of his life that he was to find contentment as a gay writer with fellow author Whitfield Cook, with whom he shared a farmhouse in New Hampshire.
His theatre career began in 1934, at the age of 16, when he walked into Doris Fitton's office at the Independent Theatre in Sydney and announced that he was the author of 24 one-act plays. Thus began a life-long friendship, and for the next 14 years he acted, directed and wrote plays for the Independent. His play The Cow Jumped Over The Moon was even bought by Hollywood and produced in the US.
During the same years, he worked for George Edwards' "radio factory", which produced up to six programs an evening, all live to air. There was no such thing as pre-recording radio programs yet. Elliott the writer would dictate the latest episode of that evening's serials to several typists at once.
Drafted in 1942, he worked as a typist in various army locations in outback Australia. At Mataranka in the Northern Territory, he found himself with Frank Hardy and contributed articles to Frank's Troppo Tribune camp newsletter.
After the war he had lost "his youthful ambition to forge a place in theatre", and condemned professional companies' lack of support of home-grown authors. Theatres at that time preferred to stage the latest success from London. "What a desert we were in", writes Elliott. "Everything came from overseas." He now felt he had no future in Australia.
Rusty Bugles, written in 1948, drew heavily on his life at Mataranka, and "celebrated the resilience of ordinary, non-combatant Australians and challenged concepts such as heroism", writes Clarke. It was not produced until 1949, after he had left for the US, and Elliott never saw a production of his most successful play, which caused a furore in Sydney and was even banned for "obscene language".
He found postwar New York "a democratic society for the arts", unlike Britain and Australia, and quickly adopted the city as his new home. He felt the place extremely stimulating and was encouraged as a writer. He got a break in television and for the next 14 years wrote widely for NBC and CBS, mainly teleplays and adaptations. It was the US, not Australia, that had given him "opportunity, praise and a sense of identity", says Clarke. He became a US citizen in 1955.
In 1963 he wrote his first novel, Careful, He Might Hear You, which was immediately successful in Britain, Europe and the US, but not in Australia. With worldwide sales of 10 million copies, it did, however, win the Miles Franklin Award. His later successful novels such as Water Under the Bridge and Fairyland were written in the US but were about his memories of Australia, which became for him "a land of imagination where memory could be both crystallised and transformed".
Clarke's book is a worthwhile tribute to Sumner Locke Elliott's struggle to overcome the most awesome obstacles to produce works that "celebrate the most vital of all life's revelations: the discovery of self". We are left to wonder what the man might have achieved if Australian society had been more accepting of difference.