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Interview with Stephen Sewell

Stephen Sewell has been responsible for some of the most provocative and electrifying Australian plays of the past thirty years. Among those published by Currency are The Father We Loved on a Beach by the Sea, The Blind Giant is Dancing, Traitors, Dust, The Garden of Granddaughters and The Sick Room.

His play Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America has won more awards than any Australian play in history and is now published in a double volume with the satire It Just Stopped.

We spoke to Stephen about what drives him to keep writing, the importance of political theatre and the lessons Australia can learn from the political situation in contemporary America.

You have been writing plays for over 30 years. Where does this urge to write and communicate with people come from? What keeps you going?

There are a number of things that keep me going. Anger is one. Anger at the same kinds of things that make other people angry: injustice, oppression, cruelty, inhumanity, anger at the terrible ability we humans seem to have of being able to seize disaster from the jaws of triumph, anger at the apparent impossibility of achieving and sustaining the greatness we appear capable of. Anger is one of my motors. Love of theatre is another. I didn’t at first appreciate theatre when I started working in it, but gradually I realised its astonishing power, and not only its power, but its potential. I feel that theatre – in fact culture as a whole – is really only at the beginning, and perhaps not even that. We haven’t yet begun to create the theatre that will truly astonish.

Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America was written in reaction to the politics following the September 11 attacks. Did your view of the situation in the US change as you were writing the play?

We only ever learn the worst years after it has already happened. Within days of September 11, 2001, stories began to appear suggesting that the world we were now entering necessitated the abandonment of previously cherished Western values, such as the rule of law, the outlawing of torture and suchlike, things built up over centuries of resistance to tyrannical power, and it was only gradually that I realised that the United States had in fact abandoned those things decades before, and that torture centres such as the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning in Georgia, renamed after 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, had been training torturers and death squad militias for many years, and that the United States version of democracy had as much relationship to the Athenian ideal as did East Germany’s. Since then, I have also realised that we will never return to those previous models, and that the unravelling of the democratic state is now terminal. The United States is clearly a menace to world peace, and I have a strong sense we are headed toward world war once more.

Myth is set in the United States; in It Just Stopped the main characters are Americans. Why are you so interested in America and its politics?

It’s not that I’m especially interested in the United States. What I am interested in is the subsidence of Australia beneath the United States as our own political elite embraces America and invites it to take us over. It used to be that the mark of a true Australian was to be anti-American. We are the ones, after all, who invented the rhyming slang Septic Tank for yanks. In the term of the present Australian Federal Government, Anti-American and Anti-Australian have become synonymous, and it is a matter of record that it is not the Americans who are becoming more like us as we cosy up to them. As an Australian playwright, I’d be blind not to recognise this profound change in the Australian character and national life.

What can Australia learn from the political situation in contemporary America?

That the destruction or corruption of working class institutions, such as trade unions, undermines one of the chief pillars of the democratic state. America isn’t the way it is because Americans are mad; America is like it is because the owners of property have an uncontested and almost incontestable monopoly of power that was historically brought about by the murder of trade unionists and anyone else who opposed the rise of the filthy rich. We are now headed in the same direction.

From your point of view - why is political theatre so important? Can art save democracy?

Brecht’s theatre could not save Germany from Nazism, and nor could Otto Dix’s paintings. The only people who could have prevented it, and who had a strong interest in doing so, were the German working class, but they were bashed into submission or else became enthusiastic supporters of the “socialist” part of “National Socialism”, resulting in their own bitter destruction. We artists cannot save democracy; in fact we can’t even save ourselves from being silenced and muzzled under the unrelenting assault this Federal Government has launched against Freedom of Expression and Speech. What we can do is to remain true to our vocation for as long as possible, and keep telling the truth of what we see, of the new genocide being launched against the Aboriginal people, of the cravenness of our support for what Kofi Annan described as the illegal invasion of Iraq, of the ecological disaster we have so blithely unleashed on this land, and of the many harsh truths concealed beneath the lying façade of the public culture dominating this country.

How would you describe the state of Australian theatre today?

I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a member of Australian theatre which, of all the arts, has taken such a strong stance in support of peace, justice and freedom.

Do you think the role of the playwright has changed since you started writing?

Playwrights have many roles: to arouse, to amuse, to challenge, to divert, to denounce, to enliven, to enrage; amongst many others. In fact probably the only thing playwrights aren’t allowed to do is to bore. I don’t think that has changed since I started writing.

You once said the only responsible position as an artist was to be in the fray, to be arguing and condemning. Where do you get the energy to keep fighting from?

Anyone who isn’t fighting for their lives is already dead.

It Just Stopped has been described as a comedy at the end of the world. How do you keep your good humour in the face of the dark future you are painting for us?

I don’t think I’m painting a dark picture; I think the dark picture is right outside your window; but I am also a person who believes in the immense creativity of human beings, and our ability to achieve great feats. The times are dark and darkening, but I think once we abandon the hope that something will just happen, we will apply ourselves determinedly to changing what we all know needs to be changed, and I’m not talking about the tap. The social and political structure that got us to the point where responsible scientists are predicting the imminent death of hundreds of millions of people is clearly not only unsustainable, but disastrously out of control and must be dismantled before it kills everyone. I think if people love their children, they will reach the proper conclusions without too much prodding, and act decisively.

What are you working on at the moment?

Lots of things, but all related to an expansion of the limits of theatre. Like I said, I think that in both the life of our species, and the life of theatre, we are at the beginning, not the end.

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