The political theatre of Errol O'Neill

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

BRISBANE — ERROL O'NEILL is well known in theatre circles here. As well as being an actor, he has established himself as a playwright for main stage theatre. After working with the well-known touring company Popular Theatre Troupe until its demise in 1984, he has maintained his commitment to a relevant and politicised theatre. His trilogy of plays on Queensland labour history — The Whipping Side, Faces in the Street and Popular Front — remains a unique project in contemporary Australian theatre because it blended a thoughtful discussion about actual historical events (like the 1912 Brisbane general strike) with the robust dramatic methods he learned as writer and actor during his seven years with PTT. His latest play, The Hope of the World, is currently being performed by the Queensland Theatre Company. DAVE RILEY spoke to him recently about his work.

While he jokingly refers to his new play as the fourth in a "quadrology" on Queensland political history, the style, Errol O'Neill insists, is different. "I learned a lot by writing all the others things. First of all were the scripts I wrote for the Popular Theatre Troupe. These were mainly political satires, where the style is very two dimensional and rarely concerned with character in the traditional dramatic sense."

Actors would wear top hats to represent the ruling class and cloth caps to play workers. "That served its purpose", says O'Neill, "because PTT didn't intend to be anything more than agitprop theatre".

When the troupe folded, he began to generate the idea of writing main stage plays about real political historical events.

His aim, he says, is "to weld the personal and the political. My campaigning streak has always been in this direction because I am always trying to be a political activist and work in theatre."

Unfortunately, "it is very lonely being a Marxist in the Australian theatre". Many of his colleagues are apolitical and want theatre "to be entertaining first and foremost; the politics in it is intended merely for background. In this play, I have tried to make the political background as intrusive as possible specifically by writing a play about a union dispute. The union dispute becomes the barometer of the personal lives of the characters."

While The Hope of the World is loosely based on the notorious 1985 SEQEB dispute in Queensland, it is also about the lives of the characters. "That reflects more accurately how real life is, because we are all affected by what happens in the political arena. Politics affects our personal lives even though we sometimes live under the misapprehension that we can just have a personal life and be involved — or not involved — in politics as we see fit. But by refusing to be involved, you allow the forces that are dominant to take control of your life."

For O'Neill, politics means trying to get control over our lives. While we do that individually, we also do it as a group. "Both these things must happen together. For me this all coalesces in my appreciation of [Marxist playwright Bertolt] Brecht — who stresses the social aspect of theatre — as opposed to, for example, [Russian naturalist director Konstantin] Stanislavsky, who stresses the more individual aspects. For Stanislavsky the unity of theatre is the individual character, but for Brecht the unity of theatre is the social relationship between the characters."

Like Stephen Sewell, O'Neill sees himself as one of the few Australian playwrights trying to take up such questions without wanting to deal with stereotypical concepts of Australian identity. "Audiences need to be given new and challenging ideas", he says. "I tried to make characters, dialogue and scenes not what you'd expect. I am trying to subvert their expectation while still remaining within a very realistic framework. This realism, I think, comes back to my sense of what happened in Queensland during the '60s, '70s and '80s, as well as the ideas that are worth talking about which emanated from that era."

"Obviously, the play is set in Brisbane and refers to Queensland political and social life, but I think it is universal. I certainly intend it to be universal", he adds.

Committed to influencing the agenda of main stage theatre, O'Neill takes his experience with agitprop — part of what he calls the "ratbag" theatre tradition of being critical and saying dangerous things — and applies it to the orthodox stage. People who would come to see a Noel Coward play in a subscription season for a state theatre company might also, he suggests, come to see his play and find it a different experience.

"I don't think I am any less of an artist, writer or actor because I have a dominant political motive", he says. "I would not like to be seen as a neutral artist . There is no such thing as neutral art. All art is political. Even if you deny its political nature you get used by the system in certain ways. The more control you have over how your product gets used, the more effective you can be."

To the standard charge that such theatre is often didactic, he is unapologetic: "Didacticism is not a bad word. Dogmatism is. Didacticism means teaching. All you are doing as a left-wing or critical or Marxist person trying to come to the arts with a political motive is to put on the agenda questions which in the dominant culture don't get raised."

This, he sees, is often linked with the accusation of bias. But O'Neill considers that everyone is biased. When John Howard gets up in parliament to speak he doesn't express Kim Beazley's view as well as his own; they just go at each other.

"That's what parliament is supposed to be about", O'Neill says. "How effective it is is another question. Certainly the institutions of a democratic society are there so that people can express different points of view. It doesn't always succeed, because Rupert Murdoch has more power than you or I have. He can put newspapers out all over the world to reach millions of people. My play might be seen by 200 people each night for four weeks. That's about it. He's ahead on points. No-one expects him to turn over his papers to constant democratic forums and give equal point of view to each party."

Despite its limited audience, it is in the theatre that a writer has much more control over his work. But theatre, he says, "belongs to an area where you need to have an atmosphere of social interaction and discourse. That doesn't mean that it's intellectual but rather that people have to sit down and watch what you do or participate in it.

"I have gone off the participation stuff [such as much community theatre] because I value the intellectual critical side of it. I have always tried to get inside the plays, writing and developing them, researching the material and presenting it as an offering: here is my view expressed in a dramatic form about this bit of history or this political reality or issue. I offer it to the audience for their enjoyment and edification."
[The Hope of the World can be seen at the Queensland Performing Arts Complex's Cremorne Theatre until November 3.]