Monday, August 27, 2012

Making friends with Dorothy

I love the backhanded compliment, reportedly made by a National Times reviewer on reading the 1967 play This Old Man Comes Rolling Home: “Surely management must recognize here, for God’s sake, is a writer – even if a woman’.
The play’s writer – most assuredly a woman – was Dorothy Hewett, whom I’m afraid to admit I’d never heard of until a couple of weeks ago.
Last week I reviewed a cabaret-style conglomeration of her work called Miss Hewett’s Shenanigans, so I did some digging beforehand – and I was so intrigued (and confused) by the performance that I did even more afterwards. It was presented to mark the 10th anniversary of her death, but was originally performed in 1975 when she was so alive that she even made a cameo appearance onstage. Which must have blurred the lines between autobiography and fiction even more, as the main character of each (seemingly unrelated) scene is a blonde, outspoken, melodramatic woman with a large bust and even larger love of life. And sex.
A quick squiz at any photo of Miss Hewett, and a glance through her wikibiography, quickly reveals the similarities.
Dorothy in Perth in 1972

But Dorothy Coade Hewett (21 May 1923 –25 Aug ’02) was more than just a playwright.
·      Brought up on a remote Western Australian sheep farm, she was home-schooled and had her first poem published at nine.
·      Later educated by nuns, she was atheist all her life.
·      A member of the communist party of Australia, she is one of the few Australian writers to have been translated into Russian during the Cold War, but later resigned in disgust over the Soviet suppression of the 1968 Czech uprising.
·      First married to a communist lawyer Lloyd Davies, whom she met at university in Perth, she left him for a Sydney boilermaker called Les Flood (seriously!), with whom life was such a struggle (they had three sons) that she had no time to write. However, her experiences inspired much of her later work.
·      Lloyd Davies later sued her (successfully) for libel over a collection of poems and two plays she wrote; they still cannot be performed in WA.
·      Her third marriage was finally happy and she had two daughters with Merv Lilley.
·      Her autobiography, Wild Card (1990) apparently deals with her lifelong quest for sexual freedom, which might explain the three marriages.
·      As well as bringing up six children (her first died aged 3 from leukaemia) and writing prolifically, her jobs ranged from laboring in a spinning factory and lecturing in English at university.
·      In 1990 she was also the subject of a portrait by artist Geoffrey Proud that won the Archibald Prize.
·      Awards include prizes for a national poetry competition (1968), a lifetime Emeritus Fellowship from the literature Board and in 1986 she was made a Member of the Order of Australia.
Dorothy in Perth with her children 
Reading an interview with her from 1986 (with Candida Baker - see here) I was interested to see that she felt leaving the communist party actually liberated her writing - escaping from the dogma, partly.
  • That she used a typewriter to write plays but had to write her poetry by hand.
  • She gained enormous therapeutic value from writing.
  • She suffered self doubts even when she was a successful writer: “I always thought the woman who tried to reach me French - who was still there (at university in WA) all those years later - would come in and say, ‘Dorothy Hewett, you are a fraud. I tried to teach you and you could never pass French. Leave now’.”
  • And of why her poems are more violent than her plays: “Sometimes I get a bit of a shock, because I’m not in my life a particularly violent person, but there must be a great residue of violence and obsession and – what else – maybe guilt and maybe anger hidden away there which comes out in the poetry. Poetry taps all these hidden things in oneself more than any other form of writing. It’s more difficult to hide things as a poet. So I suppose in many ways I do find writing poetry the most important form of writing that I’ve taken part in, and also the one I can least control.”

I love that idea of her being out of control when writing.
I can’t write poetry but I know what she means.
Think I would have got on well with this woman, and now I need to hunt down more of her work.
Hope your interest in her has been stirred a little, too.

Guide to Dorothy’s papers in the National Library:

Photos courtesy of the Estate of Dorothy Hewett.

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