Essay: Ben Brookeron James Waites

James Waites: A Man of the Theatre

Ben Brooker is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the first of three essays by Brooker that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, James Halford and Ali Jane Smith.

Like Camus, whose striking good looks he shared, the Sydney theatre critic James Waites felt nowhere more at home than in the theatre. The peculiar rituals and communitarian atmosphere called him back all his life, even when that life took turns that were the stuff of melodrama. In February 2014, a matter of hours before he died, friends and colleagues encountered Waites at the opening night of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Long Way Home, a play drawn from the first-hand experiences of Australian soldiers maimed and traumatised by war, some of whom featured in the production as part of their rehabilitation. He must have seen something of himself up there in those ravaged bodies, felt something—not for the first time—of theatre’s capacity to heal, to ritualise empathy and bring us closer together in the darkness.

In 1973, aged 18, Waites had switched from studying law to arts at the University of New South Wales, assisting revered directors Jim Sharman and Rex Cramphorn on numerous productions. Cramphorn was a classicist, Sharman a populist with a radical edge. Their influences formed the two poles between which Waites’ future career as a critic would lie; an abiding interest in classical texts, especially Shakespeare, at one end; a deep attraction to the dynamic, anti-authoritarian energies of fringe and alternative theatre at the other. His apprenticeship as an arts worker involved a stint as a dresser in the early 1970s, a period that culminated in 1974 with his stage managing Sharman’s Australian production of The Rocky Horror Show at the New Art Cinema in Glebe.

Although already, in the old-fashioned sense, a ‘man of the theatre’, it was not yet clear whether Waites’ creative or critical instincts would define his career. As it happened, by his own account, he fell from a cliff at his favourite walking place, Coogee Beach, in 1979, and found his desire to create original work had shattered – along with many of his bones. (Among the creative projects he abandoned—his ‘library of still-born children’ as he once called them—were a novel and a telemovie script inspired by his childhood in colonial Papua New Guinea.) ‘Either,’ he wrote many years later, ‘I could not face the darkness I discovered inside myself or if I tried to lighten up it all just got too evasive and silly. I live in the pain of never really being able to express myself directly. And so I figure the next best thing is to encourage others attempting the same’.

While his print reviews, published chiefly in the National Times and the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, evinced all the formal conventions of newspaper writing that held in those pre-internet decades, the criticism that appeared on Waites’ blog between September 2008 and August 2013 was iconoclastic and unashamedly subjective. It was notable too for its multimodality: text, photographs, hyperlinks, video. Frustrated by diminishing column space in the newspapers, writing online freed Waites to use a lens that was both personal and queer, breaking with formula—contextual preamble, plot summary, appraisal of execution of theme and form, and so on—without forsaking the insight and erudition that had earned him the respect of, among many others, Patrick White. (White dedicated his last completed book, Memoirs of Many in One (1986), ‘To James Waites, the new style of theatre critic’.) Unlike Alison Croggon’s writing on Theatre Notes, which Waites regarded with both admiration and envy for its ability to catalyse debate of an unusually high calibre, twin strands of the critical and the personal ran through Waites’ blog like a double helix.

Perhaps my favourite of all the reviews that appeared on Waites’ blog — I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve returned to it in the course of my own work — is that of Sydney Theatre Company’s 2009 A Streetcar Named Desire. A discursive and witty analysis of the production’s shortcomings informed by Susan Sontag’s conception of camp, it runs to 2800 words, and includes twelve images and five embedded videos. The relaxed length of the review allows Waites to tease out his main criticism of the production—the misguidedness of director Liv Ullmann’s substitution of Tennessee Williams’ heightened, ‘pushed up’ style for ‘dour realism’—with extensive reference, both textual and visual, to past stage and screen versions. Encountering it for the first time, I was reminded of Irving Wardle’s idea of ‘leisured writing’, a term coined prior to the existence of the internet to describe critical writing untethered from strict conventions or deadlines: ‘You are not driven into formula or stock phrases; you have the chance to develop a truthful attitude rather than seizing on some superficial “angle”; you can do homework on the show and follow up ideas it prompts after the event’.

Waites abandoned early the habit of scribbling notes in the dark. Instead he came to rely on memory when writing reviews, sifting his recollections of shows seen the previous night or days before, searching, sometimes in vain, for the soul of the work. As his body unravelled — the result of Parkinson’s, HIV, and a legacy of physical trauma that included a brutal assault on a train in 2009 in addition to the 1979 fall — so did Waites’ writing, becoming increasingly haphazard and typo-strewn. This wasn’t sloppiness so much as impatience. In her biography of her husband, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, Kathleen Tynan recalled him describing exactly this kind of rush to record, driven by an acute consciousness of death and the briefness of life:

I quite simply seek enjoyment because I remember about thirty times between waking and sleeping and always while I’m asleep that I’m going to die. And the more scared I am, the more pleasure and enlightenment I want to squeeze from every moment. But then I feel agonised about work left undone. So as a profoundly death-fearing man, I’m capable simultaneously of the highest delight and the deepest despair.

Waites and Tynan both died in their 50s, following long illnesses that seemed to supercharge their respective pleasure-seeking drives. There’s no need to labour the obvious similarities but the urgency with which both men wrote, and that suffused lives vivaciously, sometimes riskily lived, makes them natural counterparts for reasons that go beyond their devotion to the theatre.

For long stretches Waites wasn’t able to blog at all, overwhelmed by pain or drawn away by the necessity to pursue paid work with the National Library on two oral history projects: one relating to Australia’s response to AIDS, the other a series of interviews with leading theatre professionals. Increasingly, Waites chose to bypass his blog altogether, preferring the immediate, unfiltered connections he could make with readers by posting to his Facebook page. To Waites, all of this activity served the same essential purpose, and the one that he felt was the theatre critic’s signal responsibility: to fashion a record, in the interests of posterity, of an ephemeral art form. In a post from December 2012 on Alison Croggon’s decision to discontinue her blog Theatre Notes, Waites wrote:

The biggest problem about the current situation is this. Theatre lives and dies on the night – apart from the mark it strikes on our souls. The good critic is not the person sitting in row G who sees ‘more and better’ (though the best of us do accrue a certain discernment over time). Our gift is to DESCRIBE in WORDS what was carved through direct experience onto our souls while seeing the show.

Despairing of a print media that had once afforded him between 800 and 1200 words per review, but was now giving younger critics an average of just 350, Waites continued: ‘What will be left to remember of your efforts? Your life’s work as artists—achievements, setbacks and recoveries. There will be no history—not even written in sand’. His fear was that the work onstage would be unremembered if not for the perseverance of an increasingly disenfranchised group of critics. It’s a fear that applied in the context of his criticism too: he was troubled by the prospect of the effacement of his own work.

The theatre review is perhaps the most provincial and evanescent form of criticism. Tied to events that can exist solely at one time and in one place, and that may only be documented, and never recuperated, it is uniquely unsuited to the demands of posterity. Pauline Kael’s review of Dr. Zhivago retains a certain utility after fifty years because the film is still available to be viewed, whereas there is nothing against which Harold Hobson’s opinion of The Birthday Party can be directly measured. And yet it is precisely theatre’s ephemerality that necessitates its chronicling, casting critics in a special dual role: as, in one guise, evaluators (tastemakers in the old, outmoded sense), and, in the other, as historians. Waites’ longest piece of writing on theatre, the 2010 Platform Paper Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company?, is not primarily a work of criticism at all, nor even a formal essay, but a historical account that retrieves what was already, just a year after the dissolution of the Actors Company, a vanishing story. So much of this country’s theatre history is this way—written in the sand, perhaps, but smoothed away with every surge of the tide.

According to Kathleen Tynan, her husband kept a note above his writing desk that read: ‘Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds’. Perhaps something similar was pinned to one of the walls of Waites’ final residence, a Housing Commission flat that conveniently overlooked Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney’s Surry Hills. In any case, Waites could be an uncompromising critic. There’s a story of him refusing to applaud a show that failed to meet his exacting standards, exclaiming while still seated in the auditorium, ‘I’m not fucking clapping this shit’. His acid-tongued views earned him censure on more than one occasion, and precipitated the effective end of his career in the print media when an unfavourable review of a Cameron Mackintosh juggernaut, Les Miserables, led to his departure from the Sydney Morning Herald in 1998. But the temptation to make a virtue of criticism as a blood sport was not in Waites’ nature. His praise was as fulsome as his vitriol, which was seldom mean-spirited—it was an advocate’s frustration in seeing a show fail to take flight, rather than a sadist’s desire to clip its wings, that motivated him—and always, where it arose, directed towards those at the top rather than the bottom. Let Waites’ regard for a then-unknown Paul Capsis, and his long association with the community theatre company Big hART, testify to a lifelong attraction to the kinds of marginalised people and social substrata documented in the work of his friend, the photographer William Yang. His aim was to elevate, except where his conscience would not allow it, rather than to tear down; as he attested more than once on his blog, he disliked the word critic for its negative connotations and its air of refusal.

There was, however, something of a delicious contradiction at play here. Though Waites valorised the independent and edgy over the emptily commercial, it was his laudatory reviews of two marquee productions—Neil Armfield’s sprawling, five-hour adaptation of Cloudstreet (1998), and the Peter Allen musical biography The Boy from Oz (1998) — that did much to reinforce his standing as a commentator of influence not only on theatre, but also Australian culture more broadly conceived. In his review of The Boy from Oz—published, astonishingly it now seems, on page three of the Sydney Morning Herald — Waites wrote:

It is the way these themes [Allen’s emergent homosexuality, his relationship with American Greg Connell, and his eventual death in 1992 from AIDS] are dealt with in the second half, briskly but frankly, that pushes the boundaries. Just this week, U2’s Bono acclaimed Sydney as one of the top half-dozen cities in the world on the basis of its exuberant mood and tolerance of diversity. This wonderful musical could only be borne from such cultural circumstances, lifting to the level of poetry the life story of someone who was, to his father at least, frighteningly different, but to his mother, and all who saw him perform, overwhelmingly joyous in outlook.

Provincial and evanescent. And, lest we forget, startlingly well written: check again how the propulsive ebb and flow of that last sentence compels the reader, its stuttering clauses bookended by hyperbolic flourishes as it tumbles, albeit gracefully, to a conclusion.

Those few theatre critics whose reviews have found their way into single-author anthologies—I know of only two in Australia, Katherine Brisbane and H.G. Kippax, the latter of whom Waites supplanted as chief drama critic at the Sydney Morning Herald in 1989—have done so because their bodies of work have been seen not simply as a series of isolated dialogues on this or that show, but as a cumulative record of advocacy and change. Kenneth Tynan’s reviews, for all their sparkling readability, remain important (and in print) because they add up to a chronicle of British theatre’s ‘angry young man’ renaissance of the 1950s, and, secondarily, of Tynan’s unflagging campaign to bring it about long before its emergence was certain in a landscape dominated by what he called ‘Loamshire plays’—middle class dramas set in identically tedious country houses.

Likewise, the appearance of the Brisbane and Kippax volumes in Australia can be largely attributed to their authors’ encouragement of, and eventual proximity to, major cultural shifts: the dissolution of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the establishment of the Australia Council, the introduction of subsidised theatre, and the maturation of what was then called ‘indigenous’ (i.e. not British or American) writing for the stage. We might say that they were in the right place at the right time, and that they knew this, at least in part, because they’d had so much to do with making the place and the time what they were. Waites never editorialised in print the way that Brisbane had in The Australian in the 1960s and 70s. By the 80s, Australian theatre’s cultural currency, and therefore its ability to hold the public’s interest, had significantly waned—but reviews such as those of Cloudstreet and The Boy from Oz did more than reckon with the discrete achievements of two groups of artists. They marked a moment when questions of national identity were able once again to coalesce around big, popular entertainments that took outcasts of one kind or another as their subjects.

If a year was all it took for the STC Actors Company, an ensemble comprising some of Australia’s most respected actors, to all but fade from the collective memory, what hope do critics have of outstripping cultural amnesia? Happily, Waites’ blog remains accessible in PANDORA, the National Library’s digital archive that preserves online publications deemed to be of national significance. In lieu of an autobiography, as Waites himself wryly noted in an early blog post, he appears in the life writings of Jim Sharman and anthropologist Eric Michaels, author of Unbecoming (1990). Waites’ published output, outside of the hundreds of reviews that appeared under his byline in the National Times, the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere (some of which, though not without error, are inventoried under Waites’ entry on the AusStage online database) there is the Platform Paper, and ‘Leave it to Belvoir’, an essay on the evolution of the Nimrod theatre company into Belvoir St Theatre contained in the commemorative coffee table book 25 Belvoir Street (2011).

Traces remain in other media too: those National Library interviews, which will no doubt come to be seen as an invaluable resource for researchers, and an SBS television documentary on the history of Australian theatre, Raising the Curtain (2012), a sort of unofficial visual analogue of the National Library interviews. (Having lost none of his ability to ruffle feathers, Waites was dismissed from his role as an interviewer before filming was completed.) In preparation for this essay, I spoke to his friend and colleague Augusta Supple, to whom Waites left the entirety of his papers. Supple told me that the National Library is committed to establishing an archive, and that at least one university can see the merit in a book on Waites, perhaps a combination of anthology and personal narrative. And then there are all those other, intangible ways in which the work of a critic can permeate a culture. The point, though, is a particular rather than a general one. It can be applied to Waites without sounding grandiloquent because, as well as being an activist for the kinds of artists he believed had the most to contribute, he was a mentor to younger critics, and, where not explicitly guiding, was unfailingly encouraging. He loved Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch (2011) at Belvoir Street, with Simon Stone directing; I thought it a weak script inelegantly realised, and said so in response to his review. ‘Hi Ben,’ he wrote in reply,

sounds like you didn’t care for it too much – lol! Who knows you may be right. In light of what we have seen in Sydney of late, the play/production’s strong points – warm humanity/quirky etc – were much appreciated. Let’s see what other’s [sic] think. But thanks heaps for the outside (Adelaide) eye. You’re obviously smart and care…

‘Smart and care’. It says almost everything—not about me, but about him. It reminds me why I’m grateful, still, for his witnessing of key developments in Australia’s post-New Wave theatre, his accounts of the Actors Company and Belvoir St, which, even in their hard-won polish, retain their author’s essential warmth. And yet it is the blog to which I more often than not return. It was there, as an advocate of online criticism at a time when many in the traditional media were decrying its supposedly fatal lack of rigour, that he was at his most vital. Ever the standard-bearer for work that reveals a human centre through craft conscientiously applied, he was able in the blogosphere to reach beyond the strictures of the formal criticism.

Perhaps it is only right that the critical mode that allowed Waites to flourish more than any other should be the one that most resembled, in its glittering, soul-scarring impermanence, the source of his lifelong obsession, the theatre. In The Empty Space (1968), Peter Brook famously observed that: ‘Theatre is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind’. Blogs can feel like this too. And yet, two years after his death, readers can still encounter Waites’ digital avatar. There lie those last, hasty notes on the theatre he was still bearing witness to right up until the end, and sometimes, those gloriously unfettered long reviews.

Works cited:

Peter Brook, The Empty Space (McGibbon & Kee, 1968)
Eric Michaels, Unbecoming (Empress Publishing, 1990)
Jim Sharman, Blood and Tinsel: A Memoir (The Miegunyah Press, 2008)
Kathleen Tynan, The Life of Kenneth Tynan (Methuen, 1988)
James Waites
-‘Triumph over the elements’, Sydney Morning Herald (5 January 1998, p. 24)
-‘Home-grown tribute that’s worthy of a wizard of Oz’, Sydney Morning Herald (6 March 1998, p. 3) (2008-2013):
-Platform Paper 23: Whatever Happened to the STC Actors Company? (Currency House, 2010)
-‘Leave it to Belvoir’ in 25 Belvoir Street (ed. Robert Cousins, Belvoir St Theatre, 2011)
Irving Wardle, Theatre Criticism (Routledge, 1992)

The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.