CULTURE: by Dr Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Australia's intellectual left under scrutiny
, May 11, 2013
Social scientist and author Dr Lucy Sullivan reviews Geoffrey Atherden’s play, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, which recently finished a season at the Ensemble Theatre, Sydney.
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity is a long-looked-for and startling piece of theatre, in that it challenges the moral hegemony of the Marxist left of the past half century. Such remains the weight of political correctness, however, that it still dares do it only subversively, and in effect retracts and apologises in a spoof final “word”.
The feisty Orlagh O’Connor
(Caroline Brazier) and her
interrogator (Andrew Ryan).
The play begins, and remains, with an interrogation scene. A woman has been effectively incarcerated for questioning, for no reason that she can imagine. It is soon revealed, in her verbal sparring with her interrogator, that she is professional class, left-wing and green, and considers herself the criterion in political principle, culture and education. Her interrogator is none of these things, nor claims to be.
Despite the alarming nature of her situation (that she has been detained in a claustrophobic room without explanation and with no clear prospect of release), and despite her declared indictment of Australia as a corrupt and oppressive polity, she has the deep-seated confidence of the middle-class Australian that she is untouchable and that the state cannot harm her. This is made manifest in her persistent mockery and ribaldry at the expense of her interrogator.
She expects, with her superior verbal and intellectual skills, to enjoy the confrontation; but he consistently matches her on his own ground, and this she finds intensely frustrating. Where she is used to brow-beating the dissident in her own class, she is non-plussed by the way in which he can, not exactly refute, but checkmate her parades of correct left-wing opinion by invoking the realities of life as it is lived, as against how it is theorised in her dogma.
This is conceptually extraordinarily perceptive dramatic dialogue, and in the process reveals the woman’s contempt for the masses, which so commonly lies behind the surface of these self-styled champions of the people. An obvious laugh at her egalitarian and green pretensions is provided when she declines the offer of a much-desired coffee because her elite imported brand and “gutted” milk preferences are not available.
Counter-pointing the progression at this level is the fantasy (or is it?) of the possibilities for surveillance by the state, beyond what is procurable via CCTV in public spaces, to which people who conduct their lives via the electronic media open themselves.
From this data, brought up on the interlocutor’s laptop and displayed to the audience on a screen at the back of the stage, we learn that this self-regarding woman is not the model citizen her assumption of moral superiority requires.
Her second daughter is not in fact her husband’s, but the product of an overseas conference affair, and she has concealed this from him. She encourages her daughter to shop-lift at the supermarket check-out counter by slipping packets of sweets into her mother’s coat pocket (she angrily excuses this on the grounds that supermarket chains are capitalist exploiters).
She has associations with a young Arab who conceivably is engaged in terrorist activities, a revelation she trumps by alleging that he is merely a graduate student to whom she and her husband have given benevolent support (but by now her veracity is in some doubt, and the photographic evidence suggests something more intimate). And so on.
Her interrogator, like many of the young of today, has huge gaps in his historical knowledge, and has never heard of the French Revolution, but her condescending exposition of it is poor witness to her own education. Her populist version of oppressed peasants rising against an oppressive aristocracy had already lost academic currency when I took history as an arts degree subject 50 years ago; it was by then identified as a middle-class revolt against heavy taxation and constraints on capitalist enterprise, and this interpretation has been further refined and revised in succeeding decades.
Nonetheless it is clear (or perhaps of this play in which nothing is clear one should say, it becomes presumptive) that the interrogator has no evidence, and can elicit none, that would under current law justify this woman’s detention, and the issue of her release takes over.
At this stage “good cop” (more gentlemanly) takes over from “bad cop”, and she reluctantly agrees to sign a paper, promising secrecy, as its condition. She departs through the presumed exit door. Then, half a minute later, when we all thought the play was over, she re-enters through a second door, previously identified as the entrance to the interrogation-room toilet.
This certainly functions as a theatrical joke, but it also reminds us of what we were beginning to take lightly — the intrusive gathering of information and detention in police-state mode — so that after all this is a politically incisive play at another level.
The baby-boomer Left, still playing out the ’sixties, has become farcical, but perhaps a real danger looms, to which its habitual concerns are irrelevant, and we need to redraw the lines of liberty and oppression. They are no longer economic, and they may lie in far other regions than we thought.
Dr Lucy Sullivan’s most recent book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church (available from Freedom Publishing), discusses, among other key topics, the role of the arts in shaping culture in Australia in the last three decades of the 20th century.