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"You're so full on".

A portrait of Australian playwright, poet and novelist Dorothy Hewett

Love was a mystery[ldots]coming and going and nobody could be blamed for it. Marriage was something else, a rich bleak boredom and those who opted for it had to learn to submit, but she bad never submitted, had long ago given up hope that she ever would.

(The Toucher)

On a winter night in June, 1972, a young woman attended a Melbourne University student production of a play by Dorothy Hewett, a 49-year-old playwright from Western Australia. "Here was a play like nothing before seen on a Carlton stage. What was it? A romantic epic or Marat-Sade? The heroine was a sensual blond girl in love with literature who wanted to make us believe that blood and flesh were wiser than the intellect." Didn't this author know, asked the young Kristin Williamson, that in the avant-garde theatre of Melbourne "only five playwrights were ever performed. They were called the New Wave and they were all men"?

On that night in that theatre an Australian feminist anti-hero was born-- Sally Banner, the girl-woman who would not bow before the altars of authority, who would insist on going naked full tilt into the world. Subverting the trope of the knight's quest, Dorothy Hewett takes Sally on her own version of this epic ordeal, employing masks, doppelgangers, frank sexual language, parody, bits of poems and songs, all kinds of lively stage business. In a prologue and two acts, Sally metamorphoses from a teenager to a woman in her early sixties, always ready to do battle with the monsters of prudery, repression and hypocrisy.

Sally Banner plunges ahead into her profane and blasphemous life, undeterred by frightened boyfriends, self-denying lesbians, censorious teachers of all kinds, ill-fated but not regretted romantic trysts, sexually free couplings, abandonments, threats of societal punishment, the sadness of the war years, all the nay-saying voices that lie in wait to kill the spirits of independent, lusty women. Vulnerable and sexually honest, yet mocking herself at every dramatic turn, struggling to be independent of her paternalistic political mentors, Sally, like her young creator, becomes the rebel, the deranged one, the wild one who is clearly headed for eternal damnation. "I was not the only young woman who thought Sally Banner the first liberated woman ever seen on the Australian stage, and who rejoiced in her. There were thousands of us," wrote Kristin Williamson.

I felt her presence before I knew anything about her. I was standing outside the auditorium in the Malthouse Theatre which was hosting the 1999 Melbourne Writers' Festival when I heard a woman's voice, querulous and yet tentative. I turned my head and saw an old woman, half turned in her wheelchair, white hair streaming down her shoulders, speaking impatiently to a large man with a ruddy face who was waiting to push her into the room. Her dress, large and flowered, flowed over her body, ending at her swollen ankles, her feet encased in soft slippers. For the briefest of seconds our eyes locked; despite never having seen her before and knowing nothing of her work, I instantly knew this was Dorothy Hewett, the writer for whom we were all queuing. Though she wore the camouflage of an uncomfortable body, I had felt the presence of her impatient passion.

"Daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, grandmother, domestic treasure, I will be suborned into all of these roles (except perhaps domestic treasure[ldots]there I am always clumsy and half-hearted), but I have my vocation. It is outside sex and yet my sex is part of it. It is already fixed, brutal, implacable, complete. There is nothing I can do about it, except to get better at it. It shakes me, seductive as love. Words fall out, I am possessed by them," Hewett wrote in her autobiography, Wild Card. Her work embodies the Australian landscape: her earlier plays are set in interior red-dusted towns, where hungry lovers cross racial boundaries in dry river beds, her poems are thick with her childhood farm memories, the women in her later novels hug the coastline or sit watching the rivers empty themselves into the vast Pacific. Each time the geographical background of her life shifts, her writing follows. Bobbin Up, her first novel, depicts with journalistic detail the working-class streets and language of Red fern, a worn Sydney neighborhood of white and Aboriginal workers--some just holding on, some dreaming and fighting for a political vision that promises to transform their lives. Hewett focuses on the women mill workers and their attempts to hold family and spirit together.

Hewett herself lived the life of these women. Leaving her first husband and her family's middle-class life, she followed her lover and Marxist political mentor to Sydney, where she worked in the notorious Alexandria Spinning Mill. For nine years, she wrote news articles for the communist dailies and organized women workers while raising three sons, coping with the mental deterioration of her partner and a sparse income. A novel kept alive by feminist publishers and women's studies classes, Bobbin Up had at first embarrassed Hewett in the years after she dropped her allegiance to doctrinaire party communism. "Looking back on the thirty-six year old Communist who wrote Bobbin Up I am embarrassed at her proselytizing, stubborn blindness, this Antipodean Alice in Wonderland who had a protracted love affair with an idealized working class," she wrote in the introduction to the 1985 Virago edition.

In a 1994 reevaluation of the novel, she is kinder: "And yet[ldots] and yet[ldots] there is a weird truth working within that 'sincere dishonesty.' The portraits of the mill girls are 'real.' They are the living, breathing Australian working-class women who speak with a living tongue, and the mill itself as a metaphor for their lives grows larger than life and realer than real throughout the pages. Up to this time, and maybe ever since, there was little working-class literature in Australia. The lives of such women remained a mystery. They could not write themselves, and they had no spokesperson to translate them into literature."

Melbourne, October 1999: I am searching through one of the used book stores on Elgin Street, one of the hundreds that survive in this city because of the over-the-top price of books here. I am looking for a copy of The Toucher (1993), the novel I first heard of when an older woman called out of the audience at that writers' festival, "Dorothy, could you speak about The Toucher, I have never read anything like that novel." (Later, in a January 2000 interview for the Melbourne paper. The Age, Hewett will say, "There are three subjects that are taboo. You can't really talk about death. Sex when you're older is impossible for a woman. Even more impossible if you're handicapped or crippled." All of these subjects and more are in The Toucher.) I have exhausted the shop's two floors and not found what I was looking for. I go back downstairs and approach the beautiful young woman behind the desk. I ask where I could find the work of Dorothy Hewett. She smiles and motions at me to come with her. We trudge back up the stairs, and she shows me an alcove I had missed.

We talk a little and then she takes me into a more private corner. "I have a story to tell you about Dorothy Hewett. When I was a theatre-major in the University of Western Australia, Hewett was my teacher. She told me once that if she could ever be of help to me, she would." The woman, in her thirties, bends even closer to me. "I became pregnant and desperately needed an abortion. I had very little money and couldn't tell any one. [Abortions were largely illegal in Australia at the time.] I had Dorothy's address in Sydney and I just showed up at her house, my suitcase in hand. I remember how bohemian the house was, someone was painting a naked woman on one floor, a man was writing poetry on another and I finally found Ms. Hewett in her upstairs study, crying over old love letters. I told her my situation and she took over. She did everything, went with me, gave me a place to stay, made sure I was well enough to travel home. I have never properly thanked her for all she did."

I told her about the Dorothy Hewett I had seen on the stage the month before at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, a playwright bitter at the orphaning of her work, at the refusal of producers to champion Australian theatre while they turned eagerly to European and American authors. The audience gasped, a sound I actually heard, when this creator of Sally Banner and so many other challenging dramatic figures announced in a dead final voice, "I will no longer write for the theatre." I thought of her disappointment and the struggle she was obviously having with her body, and now this young woman, whispering her gratitude to me. I wanted to bridge the years between these two women; perhaps I also wanted to encourage the angered and hurt playwright, to let her know how both her work and actions had touched the lives of so many young women. (Curiously, when I asked Hewett herself about the young woman's story, she remembered nothing of the episode. Whatever really happened, the anecdote testifies to the power of Hewett's presence, both as a literary figure and as an icon for a genera on of Australian feminists.)

In her last two novels, Hewett is still exploring he complexities of women's live when they find themselves unmoored. In The Toucher, Esther Summerton LaFarge is a 67-year-old widowed writer taking final refuge, she thinks, in a house perched on the boundary between river and sea. Early in this work, filled with ghosts, Esther thinks "all her deepest and most primitive fears had been realized. She was without a man, and without a man to define her she didn't exist. The awful programming of her generation had marked her for life." Raging at herself, she questions her attempt at exile in a small town on the desolate south coast of Western Australia.

Why did you ever come here? For silence and solitude, for a kind of ghostly extinction, and at first she had welcomed this total abdication of the self, this drift the edge of the known world. Littered with cuttlefish and the great crenellated winter shells tumbled up out of the depths of oceans, marked with the arrowed feet of gulls, the place had its own validity. It stretched to the world's end, last landstop before the coast of Africa. She had her wish. She was immured in this sick and shabby country surrounded by a coastline disappearing under the great wash of the Southern Ocean. (p. 46)

And then in the Hewett way, the body intercedes, however weakened, however marooned on self-hatred: "Angrily she began to masturbate, pulling at her nipples, stroking her clitoris until it throbbed and swelled. Her legs fell open and she moaned, her heels drumming on the mattress." Almost as if this act has perfumed the air with her want, one Billy Crowe appears, the 26-year-old drifter-on-the-run-petty-criminal grandson of an old childhood flame. Esther shelters him and he pulls her back into life. "She arched and shuddered. 'You're impossible,' he laughed. 'I never met a woman like y' before. You're so full on. I only gotta touch y'an' you're gone.'"

The novel is full of ideas, about writing, memory, class divisions, contradictions between beliefs and desires, about the acceptance of aloneness, physical infirmity, about marginality and the white Australian's tentative hold on history. "I loved the lives that people led in old English country houses, continuous lives with a history reaching back into antiquity. I wanted to live like that, to have that kind of life, comforted, held close under the weight of time. But how can you live like that in Australia? We're all Johnny come latelies, ephemeral, marooned on an island continent we've appropriated but never understood." Characters comment on the themes and excesses of Esther-Hewett's life and work: "You always did have a thing about illicit sex" [ldots] "I'm sick of you trying to turn a sleazy little affair into a great love story" [ldots] "promiscuous sexual affairs disguised by romantic talk, was that all her life had been?"

In her latest novel, Neap Tide, Hewett again puts an older single woman at the center, this time a professor of Australian literature taking refuge in the town of Zane on the Eastern coast where rich bush forests meet the sea. Her characters speak for and about the rights of indigenous people, the racism of right-wing Senator Pauline Hanson, the downsizing of universities, environmental battles, AIDS, violence against women, the mean-spiritedness of the John-Howard-Prime-Minister regime. More and more the elegiac tones of Anglo-Australian exile are sounded: "We're the white ghosts, homeless, belonging nowhere."

Again the body intercedes. Jessica sleeps with several white men, but is only healed by her intimacy with Zac, an Aboriginal community leader. Ghosts float through the narrative as they do in almost every Hewett work. After her attempt to live by the demands of social realism, Hewett has for many years given in to her delight in poetic symbolism, surreal effects, Brechtian touches. Her plays and novels are steeped in her love of English, American and Australian literature. She is the queen of cross-textualization. Towards the end of Neap Tide, Esther speaks what one feels has become the Hewett credo, "Art is the bravest response to desolation."

I learn from a recent interview in The Age that Hewett is now too infirm to use a computer or sit up for long periods of time, that she has "had a bout with breast cancer," as she puts it and that, still driven by her love and need for words, she writes in longhand and then dictates her passages to her typist. The interview opens with a quote from Hewett, about her past love life, in which her most descriptive word cannot be printed in full in Melbourne's most read and oldest newspaper. Even in her frailty she is still full on.

That afternoon at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, I heard the voice of a writer who soared over all the continents between us, who pulled me' forward out of my own world into hers. Honest and self-mocking, she moved from her wheelchair to center stage. She told of her journeys: the toll that 23 years in the Communist Party had taken on her writing, but nor her political belief in a more just world, how a young woman confined to a wheelchair had thanked her for the sexuality of The Toucher. "You showed me that it was all right to go for the post, to want it all." When she paused or lost a word, her husband and partner of almost forty years, the poet Merv Lilley, called out to her from his seat in the auditorium, sometimes interrupting her more than she wanted. "Shut up," Hewett said, looking straight at him, "or I won't say all those nice things about you I was going to."

All of it was offered intimacy--her angers, her loves, her gusto, her relationships, her thickening body. I learned more about her creative courage from the women and men in the audience who had come to pay homage to her, to see in the flesh this woman whose reputation for unseemly sexual hunger, explicit language and unsettling imagery had put her early work beyond the pale in the 1970s. From time to time, as she answered questions, Dorothy Hewett ran her hand through that long white hair, wild on her shoulders, pulling it back from her face. There was the girl, still Sally Banner, now a woman who would not pretend that aging was being kind to her, but who still refused to bow.

It's no kind of future, she thought, but I will survive on my own terms. There was even a kind of perverse exhilaration about it. Like the house she inhabited, she stood four square facing the elements.

JOAN NESTLE is co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, author of two collected works, A Restricted Country (Firebrand Books, 1987) and A Fragile Union (Cleis Books, 1998); her latest co-edited work, with Naomi Holoch, is The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction (Vintage, 1999). She is grateful to Patricia Cornelius, Australian playwright and friend, who introduced her to Dorothy Hewett's work and to Dianne Otto, her Australian partner, for taking her to new lands.

DOROTHY HEWETT, author of nine volumes of poetry, 23 plays, three novels, the first volume of an autobiography, recipient of the Order of Australia Medal for Services to Literature, beloved rebel.

1923 born Perth, Western Australia, grows up on an isolated wheat farm at Wickepin: "the farm is the centre of our existence our Garden of Eden, but I always know that under the bridal creeper and the ivy geraniums, the black snakes wait and slide."

1928 on a Trans-Continental train trip falls under the spell of a group of actors: "for a few brief illuminated days I share the life of these magic beings 'on tour' and then they disappear into the darkness of Adelaide, never knowing the permanent dream they have created in the breast of one five year old girl."

1936-40 in high school learns the "joy and torment of foreplay without consummation," is admonished by the teachers, "Dorothy is a rebel in word and deed," while to herself she whispers, "I will live in Ringsend with a red-headed whore." Discovers American movies and becomes Garbo or Dietrich or Crawford or Davis or Hepburn at will; announces her pacifism and is separated from her lover by the war.

1941 stirs up the campus of the University of Western Australia; like her character Sally Banner, she is called the "University bike," so many men had ridden her; Hewett's father says "there was only one beauty in our family and that was her downfall." Publishes first poem in a literary journal.

1945 wins Australian Broadcasting Commission Poetry Prize for narrative verse; joins the Australian Communist Party, leaves it in 1968 after the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

1949 leaves first husband and move to Sydney with her lover. Lives, works, organizes and raises three sons in the working-class neighborhood of Redfern.

1952 joins delegation from the Union of Australian Women on solidarity tour of China and the USSR.

1958 leaves her abusive and disturbed lover and her life in Sydney. In Wild Card she writers: "Now we are crossing the waterways of Cooks River an Botany bay, all the places where we have wandered and driven, explored and swum, for the past nine years. The smoke from Bunnerong Power Station hangs in the wintry air and drifts across the bay. It's over and I'm going back to Western Australia--tired, defeated, sadder, older, wiser perhaps, but miraculously still alive with my children beside me. I have saved us, but we have no home--we are homeless. For the rest of my life I will dream about us walking down unknown roads together with the darkness falling, or sleeping cold with our arms around each other in half-ruined, abandoned houses."

1959 publishes first novel, Bobbin Up, a portrait of life in working-class Sydney, "its multitudes, its teeming life, its fizz, and the dark Satanic prison of Jumbuck Spinning Mill." Fights against the constraints of social realism.

1960 marries Merv Lilley, former merchant seaman, poet; has two daughters, settles in Perth, teaches English at the University of Western Australia.

1967 first play, This Old Man Comes Rolling Home, about family life in Redfern, imbued with the scenes of struggle and resistance Hewett had observed in Sydney, performed in Perth.

1968 Windmill Country, collection of poetry.

1969 Mrs. Porter and the Angel, a surreal play set using a university setting, an invisible poodle and characters of shifting sexuality: "Gold bless Girlsie, God Boysee. God bless all travelers You who have shared this journey, shared this space, this little cell of earth, this Circe Circle"; Hewett has shaken off the confines of social realism.

1971 Chapel Perilous, her most popular play, first performed in Perth; when published a warning is attached to copies sent to libraries.

1974 returns with family to Sydney.

1975 Rapunzel in Suburbia, collection of poetry, banned by High Court of Australia for alleged libel against first husband, barrister Lloyd Davies.

1979 The Man from Mukinupin, a musical play commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Western Australia; third collection of poetry, Greenhouse.

1990 Wild Card: An Autobiography 1923-1958, award-winning depiction of a girl with strong desires and a touch of loneliness fighting her own way into womanhood--haunting family figures, rebellious childhood and school-years, sexual exploration, love of literature, nine-years partnership with Les Flood "who taught me to love and understand the tenderness, courage and struggle of the Sydney workers," involvement with the Australian Communist Party. Hewett is now working on the second volume, The Empty Room.

1993 The Toucher, novel.

1999 Neap Tide, novel.

2000 March 12. An Australian friend in her forties e-mails me: "Dorothy Hewett is fantastic. She was in the news again this week as the first person to say 'fuck' on stage at this year's Adelaide Arts Festival." Adelaide, the city of schools and churches.

THE ESSENTIAL HEWETT

Collected Plays: Volume 1 (This Old Man Comes Rolling Home; Mrs. Porter and the Angeles; The Chapel Perilous; The Tatty Hollow Story), introduction by Kristin Williamson. Sydney: Currency Press, 1992.

The Man from Mukinupin, Sydney: Currency Press, 1979.

The Golden Oldies; Susannah's Dreaming, Sydney; Currency Press, 1981.

Collected Poems: 1940-1995, William Grono, ed. South Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. 1995.

Wild Card: An Autobiography 1923-1958. Ringwood, Victoria: McPhee Gribble-Penguin Books, 1990.

Bobbin Up, 40th anniversary edition, Ian Syson, ed. Melbourne: The Vulgar Press, 1999.

The Toucher, Ringwood, Victoria: McPhee Gribble-Penguin Books, 1993.

Neap Tide, Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books, 1999.
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Title Annotation:Australian author Dorothy Hewett
Author:Nestle, Joan
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:May 1, 2000
Words:3678
Previous Article:Letters.
Next Article:Talkin' 'bout their generation.
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