It was in 2012 that Peter Hempenstall, Emeritus Professor at the University of Canterbury (NZ) and Conjoint Professor at the University of Newcastle (Aust) asked me to contribute some research material to a book his was writing on the famed NZ anthropologist Derek Freeman, specifically any notes I had on the creation of Heretic, the 1995 David Williamson play that I directed for Sydney Theatre Company. This was a new play by Australia’s most successful playwright about Derek and his legendary ‘feud’ with the queen of modern anthropology, Margaret Mead. I was at that stage the CEO/Artistic Director of STC, but found time midst the heady mix of admin and artistry to write a daily journal. Below are the notes I sent to Prof. Hempenstall, with an added introduction and short bibliography. It should be noted that this is not my whole Heretic story – that may follow at a later date. These are my record of my specific interactions with Derek and his wife, Monica, whom I found to be just as interesting as her hubby and much more revealing. Peter’s book, “Truth’s Fool. Derek Freeman and his War with Anthropology” will be published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2017.
The number one rule of programming the repertoire for a major theatre company is: never programme an unwritten play. I broke that rule in 1995 when, as head of Sydney Theatre Company, I programmed David Williamson’s Heretic for STC’s ’96 season. But David and I were on a roll. The previous season’s effort, Dead White Males, had been a huge, if controversial, hit – it eventually played five Sydney seasons and completed two national tours. It captured – and this is one of David’s great talents – the national mood of the moment: a scepticism about political correctness and the nanny state it announced. And John Howard was about to be elected Prime Minister.
Flushed with success and enjoying David’s bold move away from naturalism (Dead White Males had featured Shakespeare as a character), I broke the number one rule. In fact, I programmed Heretic on the strength of a synopsis. Hubris was in the wings.
Heretic was a play about a middle-aged couple living in Canberra: the Kiwi anthropologist Derek Freeman and his English wife, Monica. Derek was famous, at least in anthropological circles, because of the assault he had made on the work and reputation of the greatest anthropologist of all time: Margaret Mead. Her seminal book Coming Of Age in Samoa (1928) presented her studies of adolescent sexual behaviour in Samoa and concluded that most sexual behaviour was learned not innate. The Samoans kids were happier and less hung-up because their culture practised nature not nurture and hence they had more sex and it came guilt-free. Her studies were said to be the source of a lot of the thinking behind the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Being a sceptic and a bit of a conservative, Derek suspected there’d been a con, so he tracked down Mead’s original teenagers in Samoa and got them, in their middle-age, to admit they’d lied to the great woman. His book, Margaret Mead and Samoa, the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth (1983), caused quite a stir, and was the main focus of David’s play, or at least it was in the beginning.
As it turned out, the thrust of the pre-production dramaturgy on Heretic was threefold, to bring together the three strands detectable in David’s nascent narrative: nature v nurture (an innate morality v the right to choose to be moral); authority v heretic (Mead v Freeman); man v woman (Derek v Monica). It was set in the 1960s = do what you like; and the 90s = do what is right.
The early drafts of the play relied too heavily on the Frank Heimans’ documentary ‘Margaret Mead in Samoa’, a film based on Derek’s books and articles. Seventy-five percent of the text was actors speaking directly to the audience in what David called “a Brechtian slide show”. There was a lot of technical, scientific information that wasn’t naturally entertaining or easily dramatised. I felt we needed to play to DW’s strength, finding the personal in the (globally) political, making it a play more about contemporary Australia; about people. People with ideas, with the playwright using the past to comment on, or define, the present. A play about the Freemans.
So David focused more on the relationship between Monica and Derek, ultimately to such an extent that I worried how they might react to seeing their personal lives writ so large on the Sydney Opera House stage. In November 1995 I wrote: “(The designer, John) Senczuk and I talked about how we could produce H in such a way as to satisfy DW but still not offend Derek and Monica. A way must be found to distance the Freemans from the violation they might suffer through dramatisation.” I believed the way to do this was to highly theatricalise the production, so no reasonable person could mistake it for reality. Especially in Act 2, we sought to theatricalise Derek’s fear of losing Monica, and her sacrifices in helping construct her husband’s career. She once said to me: “I typed his life on this Smith portable – and I have all the carbons.” The production was to be those carbons. It is that old Australasian story (of my parents’ generation): as the relationship grew older, the roles got reversed. The men tend to run out of gas, the women become more independent and stronger. This last point, however, became problematic – and I had to modify it. Derek still believed he had a full tank.
The play developed into, mainly, a flashback to Derek’s life and adventures in the 1960s, with Mead as an agent provocateur. An early draft began with Derek dropping a tab of LSD and having an hallucinogenic journey – very 60s – but while Derek seemed comfortable with this idea, DW later changed it to a dream, i.e. Derek fell asleep in his Canberra den, surrounded by his library full of black and red files – and dreamt of the 1960s – the era of ‘yes, yes, yes’, what Derek described as ‘the hedonistic utopia we all dream about, but can never attain’. The time of the play’s writing – 1995 – was seen as a period of ‘no, no, no’ and reconciliation, between a lot of things, but in DW’s mind, between men and women. It is the ongoing quest in a lot of his plays, to reconcile the sexes.
So, on the verge of the Howard era, Derek and Monica were role models – and the song I chose to sum up their relationship was the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows (What I’d Be Without You)’, a comment on the way Monica supported Derek. She had been with him during his fieldwork with the Iban in Borneo and many of her ethnographically precise drawings and paintings illustrate his books. There was also a thematic that posited a reconciliation between Derek and his mother, with Mead being suggested as a surrogate mother, with Derek’s pursuit of her being a bit Oedipal. Derek really liked this level saying after reading a later draft: “I’ve spent years in therapy, but no one until now has made the connection between my mother and Mead.”
DW, Senczuk and I visited the Freemans in their Daly Street house in Deakin, ACT, in Nov 1995:
When we arrived we were served, on the patio, what Derek called “Islamic champagne”: apple cider and mineral water. Monica was tending a flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos eating sunflower seeds in a backyard birdbath; nearby was one of Monica’s early sculptures, the torso of a woman painted vivd blue.
Derek was a vision in beige, long straggly grey hair, narrow, often squinting eyes and a soft-woolen golf cap. Monica was neat and, by comparison, colourful, hair pulled back to reveal a serene face with a permanent, sly-ish smile and very expressive eye-brows. Derek greeted us with his motto, which he claimed was also the motto of the mongoose: “Run and find out!” We must have looked non-plussed because he continued with: “This is the story of the Twentieth Century. The human animal is starting to run and find out about itself.” Our play was seen as a part of this quest.
Derek eased our tensions by staging a pacific, welcoming ceremony. I was presented with a Samoan bowl, and David was given a statuette of the Egyptian goddess Maat, the goddess of Truth. David promptly dropped it, breaking it in two. In the stunned silence that followed, I think we all decided not to see this as an omen. In retrospect, it was. Monica giggled and said: “Now we proceed to the ceremony of the Supa-glue”, which we did. This endeared her to me.
Derek held court on ‘perseverance’ and the discoveries of E. O. Wilson, the authority on ants. He also talked about his forthcoming book: ‘Franz Boas and the Flower of Heaven’. Derek would make a statement then dart into the house to fetch books and photocopied articles, evidence to back up his assertions. I was surprised by how tall he was – perhaps 6’ 3” – and it was quite alarming having him dash off at speed. With DW also towering over me, I felt dwarfish. But then again, I am descended from a long line of jockeys. While Derek was gone, Monica would explain the significance of the botanical surroundings: the sacred plants of the Iban (one of the Dayak peoples of Borneo and the subject of one of Derek’s great fieldwork studies, resulting in his doctoral thesis) – the first plant was tall, dark, red – “a smooth plant for a smooth life” (just a hint of irony); the other plant shabby and yellow-red – “to catch the bad thoughts of strangers” (that produced a wider smile and made us think positively).
There were wind chimes and a lot of cane furniture. Inside, some classical columns and bronzes. Asian shrines on carved tables. The toilet was an Egyptian tomb, with two ornately framed drawings (both by Monica) of the Iban, not, I’m pleased to say, in headhunting mode. A print of Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Icarus Falling’ was in the hallway, and nearby, a Leon Perikles work, said to be a gift to Derek from David on the signing of their contract.
The conversation over a lunch (prepared by Monica and dominated by Derek) concerned: the virginity cult, ceremonial virgins and hymens being broken publicly, a Buddhist monk who had conned Derek in 1989, gaining his trust and an Amex card and using it for sex (“without taking his robes off!”) and, of course, Margaret Mead and how she had reacted when meeting Derek in Canberra in the late 1960s (“She jammed my book between her legs” – that’s all my notes say; I think he meant a typed manuscript, because his anti-Mead book wasn’t published till five years after Mead’s death in 1978. This ‘bad-timing’ brought Derek criticism and at times he expressed mild guilt given Mead had not had the chance to respond to his accusations before her death – but he blames American publishers. “I met with Mead and corresponded” but all she did, apparently, was jam his writings, both physically and metaphorically. Other lunch quotes: “I am much feared in America. But they can’t hurt me here.” “The Americans think the USA is a paradise – this is the myth that must be challenged.” “In science the best thing you can be is a heretic who gets it right.” “Heretic means ‘to choose’.” “Only an outsider could have challenged Mead.” “My opponents all are ‘animists’.” “Abstractions are the maggots of the mind.” “You can’t have a change in ideas until the people holding the old ideas die.” “If you read 26 books a year, you’re an intellectual.” “The brain comes before culture.” “I have difficulty when people boo me, but they don’t bowl me over.” “Freedom is the willingness to exercise restraint.”
I was fascinated when Monica took the floor to explain her talent for ‘muscle testing’, a Chinese medicine technique based on the concept of internal energy – ‘a non-invasive way of evaluating the body’s imbalances and assessing its needs’. There was a lot of discussion about Oleander trees and how we shouldn’t plant them outside our bedroom windows (“The toxic fumes prevent sleep.”) Monica had muscle-tested everything in the house and thrown out anything that was toxic. She waited for Derek to leave the room and then said to DW: “Thank you for your play – it’s hilarious and deeply moving.”
When I asked Derek about the play and if he minded having his life put on stage, he said: “No, because it’s not me up there. It’s me through David’s eyes.” I was relieved. Yet Derek had marked the script with post-it notes containing suggestions on how to make the character more like him. There were 90 in all, almost one for every page. “Attend to those and we will have a play that will change the world’s opinion of Mead and take America by storm. It will enter the Zeitgeist.”
Mid-February 2006, Derek and Monica came to Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf in Walsh Bay, to meet with the cast in the rehearsal room. We enjoyed the historical snippets: “When I was young I was a mountaineer who wanted to climb the Mattahorn… I met Monica on Victoria Station and we travelled to Basel together.” Derek cried four times during our two hour session. “I have had strangers living in my house for extended periods. The accusation of racism is the cheapest slur.” We didn’t know he’d been accused, but sympathised. He contemplated this and began to cry. “I wasn’t an anthropologist. I lived with a Samoan family. I knew them as well as anything I’d ever know…I’ve lived this. I was family. It is very strong stuff.” He cried for a second time. And then the story of the Mt Evans’ mountaineering tragedy in New Zealand in 1938, when a member of the party died, but Derek survived. “If I had died, Margaret’s myth would have gone on forever.” More tears. Most of the actors were moved by these testimonies and emotional moments. One, Henri Szeps, thought it was a bit of an act, but he was playing a character opposed to Derek.
I thought Derek came across as sincere, but a bit of a showman in the Indiana Jones mould, and somewhat messianic. “I am Mr Asia”, he said more than once. The humour was a well-practised part of the show: “I was born before the Russian revolution and I’ve outlived it”; and: “I am older than the NRMA.” Guaranteed laughs. He produced a little black rock which he always carried in his pocket: “A little bit of heaven that fell to earth.” This was supposedly a tectite – a tiny meteorite, used by the Iban as lucky charms. But I suspect it was actually fossilised poo; Derek, the showman, playing a little joke on the uninitiated.
Monica sat beside him and said nothing, wearing that distinctive smile. She only intervened once, when he cried for the fourth time, midst the story of Loto, the nurse to whom he had proposed during his life with the Samoans and who had died during the Second World War (of a disease which I took to be hepatitis). All Monica did was slowly extend her hand and lay it on his forearm. He immediately regained emotional control. There was also talk of his famed ‘abreaction’, which I interpreted as a positive mental breakdown. “It’s a healthy thing, a beautiful thing. You should have one. It’s like the re-programming of a computer.” It was hard for us not to draw the conclusion that Derek thought his mental ‘rebooting’ was connected to the way he had (mal)treated Monica over the years. But critics point out that he did have two nervous breakdowns while doing fieldwork. At the end of our session, Monica had lunch with Jane Harders, the actress playing her; and Derek was paired with Simon Chilvers, his doppelganger. Derek looked a bit nonplussed, as though a mistake had been made. He had bonded with the younger actors in the group.
When the show began previewing in the Drama Theatre, SOH, in March 1996, Monica came to the second preview as an advance guard, to report back to Derek who was kvetching in Canberra. She coped well with the experience. At interval she had tears in her eyes. At the final curtain she was oddly reserved, saying the play had been building toward an emotional climax, which was on the written page, but not delivered by the production. I said I’d seek to remedy this before Derek came to another preview, later in the week. She thought the production was ‘brilliantly realised’ but that Derek “would have a pink fit”. “He’s not quite the misogynist the play portrays him as.” And she believed he would object to Simon Chilvers’ portrayal of him: “The life-force is wrong. Derek doesn’t see himself as an old man, no matter what the reality. Where’s the passion of youth?” And, as an after-thought” “Derek would never wear a blue shirt.”
(It should be noted that at this stage Simon Chilvers was quite ill and would soon withdraw from the production. In fact, before the play’s opening night, two other actors would play Derek on stage: Charles Hambling, the understudy to the role; and Robin Ramsay, the replacement for Simon Chilvers.)
I met with Monica the day after she’d seen the preview and she elaborated on several other concerns. She also gave advice on the way the actors playing Samoans should behave on stage. It was clear she’d done more than type Derek’s notes and record his life. She mentioned the diaries she had kept during the two years (1949-51) she had spent with Derek and the Iban in Sarawak. “I never wrote them to be published. But now, seeing the play, perhaps my side of the story should be told.” Perhaps, indeed. She alarmed me by telling me Derek intended to come to our opening night dressed in a monkey suit. Not formal attire, a regulation monkey suit, out of a Disney cartoon.
Derek came to the Friday preview in his usual beige ‘uniform’ and carrying multiple copies of the final draft of his new book, surprisingly, not the Franz Boas tome but The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead – I resisted jamming it between my legs – and, seeing himself portrayed by the understudy – young, passionate and, following some directorial changes, less misogynistic – he loved it. He came into the theatre carrying the largest notebook I’ve ever seen and as the lights dimmed, sat with pen poised, prepared to critique. But he became hopelessly engrossed in his own life passing before him – and forgot to write a single note. Interestingly, after the performance he praised Mead, saying “Her spirit of enquiry made all our efforts possible. In Science it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, you just have to ask the right questions. Mead always did, and we should erect a monument to her”.
He thereafter became a champion of the production, echoing radio 2UE’s label for it as an ‘intellectual cabaret’. David was not such a fan, referring to it, when he was being nice, as ‘vaudeville by vandals.’ He took exception to certain staging elements and additional lines, even though he’d participated in the design process from day one and had seen the reworked sections of the text in the rehearsal room three times. He chose to air his displeasure in the media.
The media scrum that followed was seriously impressive, to the point where even David, or more to the point, his journalistic wife Kristen, sensed it may have got out of control. Derek claimed David was suffering from a neurosis: “an unconscious fear of failure”. Heretic was wonderfully adventurous in both form and content but it needed a lot of work, work that really should have been done before it was programmed. And it needed a lot of attention from the playwright, but David was mainly absent during the pre-production process, a period that did, unfortunately, see the death of his mother in Perth. He spent a lot of time there, not necessarily mourning (his own take on it, for he and his mother had had a tense relationship), but gathering info for his next play, After the Ball, about a malcontent son returning home to his mother’s death-bed. As far as Heretic and the production was concerned, I don’t deny responsibility for its excesses. There were a few. Perhaps I over-compensated with theatrical ideas and music, lots of music. Jonathan Hardy, the actor and playwright, saw the third preview and said: “I always know when a director is having trouble with a text: they use lots of music and set it in a circus.”
There is a natural attrition during preview periods – all productions evolve and things seen and heard in previews sometimes never make it to opening night or beyond. This was minimally the case with Dead White Males, which saw only one scene re-written during previews. But it was the case with Heretic, where it seemed, everything changed, several times, and there were complications beyond the dramaturgy: mainly the replacement of the leading actor, twice; threats of legal action – from David, and representatives of an ANU academic said to have been defamed by the text; a lighting designer who had to be replaced, and a very unpleasant scene backstage between the Williamsons and one of the key actors, resulting in tears and a taxi. Even the publication of the text became contentious, with two publishing houses, Penguin and Currency Press, involved in a tense tussle, and the final version containing many of the cast and director changes to which David was, per the media, so vehemently opposed. He seemed surprised when we pointed out the ‘cake and eat it too’ nature of this. And every day, during the media scrum, David’s agent, Anthony Williams, would ring the STC General Manager to see how box office sales were going.
As for Monica and Derek, I really cared about them and wanted them to be happy with their representations – and their story – on stage. This added an extra club for the director to juggle. In distancing himself from the production, David also gave Derek a wide berth. They spoke on the phone, but whenever there was a photo call that involved Derek, or a sponsors function, David never fronted. Derek never understood this. Nevertheless, he became a bit of a groupie, hanging out with the cast, intrigued by the revolving-door of actors playing him on stage and bringing noted colleagues and collaborators to the show, including the documentary director Frank Heimans, who had several reservations about the production but thought the real achievement was “popularising difficult scientific ideas.” Derek stood with him in the bar after the show suggesting re-writes to me and bellowing them out in a rhetorical acting style, scaring the pants off fellow drinkers. He then spent the next day with the chimpanzees at Taronga Park Zoo and promised to send me a copy of the chimp video he’d shot during what was obviously a very special day for him.
The opening night went well, all things considered – I’ve been to worse openings – although the major downside for me was that patrons and invitees were now coming to review the controversy rather than the play, which, while not David’s best, certainly had a lot to recommend it. It was clever, funny, ambitious and, as Monica maintained, touching. And it said something about the origins, and state of, gender politics in this country. David exacerbated the off-stage tension by choosing not to sit in the house for the opening performance but to prowl the opera house corridors like the theatre ghost, which Derek thought “anthropological”. In David’s absence, one of his (adult) children verbally abused me in the foyer, which didn’t help matters, but sent Derek into a flurry of note-taking. Derek, by the way, didn’t wear the monkey suit, either furry or formal.
There was then another bout of media abuse, mainly from The Australian newspaper. John McCallum wrote a negative review and there was a leading article backing David, telling certain untruths and, according to certain lawyers, defaming me and the theatre company. I gave interviews to rival newspapers and kept working on the production. For critics, Heretic, and to a certain extent its predecessor Dead White Males, posed a particular problem. Having dumped on Williamson for years for being a naturalistic playwright, they now had to try to have it both ways by dumping on him again for writing non-naturalistically. James Waites, reviewing for the Sydney Morning Herald, acknowledged this and wrote a positive review for what he saw as David’s most ambitious play to date. Certain pressure was applied on him to return to the production and re-review it. He said he was told “to get it right this time.” But James’ second review was even more positive, despite certain, on-going reservations. And what did it matter if it didn’t all work? Here was our most successful playwright trying something new – something I thought should be encouraged. The other reviews were mixed. The thing that really shocked me was how little media commentators, and even the critics, knew about what we actually do in the theatre. They were ignorant of the processes. But also, ignorant of how the balance of power in our theatre was changing, away from playwrights, favouring more the director and what would become known as the ‘theatre-makers’. 1996 was a crucial year.
And then there was the dunce who said certain production elements were ‘misogynistic’. Good grief!
Midst all this, and to David’s amusement, Derek focused his fury on The Australian’s John McCallum, who in real life was a lecturer at the University of NSW, and said to be one of the models for the academic in Dead White Males. There were meetings with the Vice-Chancellor and sundry academics, and accusations of ‘academic payback’ for Derek’s refusal to award a research grant to one of John’s colleagues several years before. Derek gained full right of ‘uncensored’ reply in The Australian. I think he took it, but i don’t have the clipping – I was over it all by then, especially as journalists had started hounding my parents at their home in Melbourne keen to find out “if your son has always treated National Treasures so disdainfully.” My mother reached for the dictionary.
I saw Derek at a couple of publicity calls after that, as Heretic began its national tour. He could never understand David’s opposition to the production, nor his personal aloofness once the media got involved. For the next six months parcels would regularly arrive at the STC Wharf from Derek. Another copy of the book that started it all, his articles and personal notes, photos of him in his beige uniform, but not the chimp video, which I longed to see. I never saw Derek after the tour finished. I had coffee with Monica in Canberra when I toured there with another show – I nudged along the idea of her getting those diaries published – but there were other people present and we didn’t really get to talk. From across the table, she just offered that wry smile and once, just once, rolled her eyes.
Rimmer, Matthew: Heretic – Copyright Law and Dramatic Works, Queensland University of Technology Law and Justice Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 131-149, May 2002
Freeman, Monica: The Iban Diaries of Monica Freeman 1949-1951, including Ethnographic Drawings, Sketches, Paintings, Photographs and Letters. Edited by: Laura P. Appell-Warren, Philipps: Borneo Research Council, monographs series n° 11, 2009
Williamson, Kristin: David Williamson: Behind the Scenes, Penguin Viking, 2009