In search of the not-so-beautiful line
She has 21 works to her name, and her words ring out in theatres across the world. Yet Joanna Murray-Smith describes herself as a reluctant playwright. She speaks to Jonathan Green.
It was a modest grant of $3000 from the University of Melbourne in the 1980s that took Arts Honours student Joanna Murray-Smith to New York. And, once there, to the theatre: “Every night, I saw a different play.”
It was a formative experience, a worldly experience, a time that reinforced for Murray-Smith the simple truth that, even now, budding writers in theatre need to take their eyes and ears overseas to experience the full possibilities of their craft.
“It’s probably the most important thing you can do.”
New York would prove to be doubly formative for Murray-Smith, perhaps the country’s leading contemporary playwright, a woman with 21 plays to her name, and a constant presence on Australian and world stages.
Broadway brought her career breakthrough with the 1998 staging of Honour, a play that drew Tony nominations in New York, then did even better in the West End.
Honour had found its feet in the New York summer of 1996 through readings that featured Meryl Streep, Sam Waterston and Kyra Sedgwick. Back then, Murray-Smith (BA(Hons) 1985) attended Columbia University on a Rotary scholarship, juggling a three-month-old child with the teachings of novelist AM Homes, screenwriter Loren-Paul Caplin, short story writer and poet Alan Ziegler, and playwright Eduardo Machado.
For the writer this was a moment of vocational confirmation, a transformative period in which she mixed young motherhood with the most brilliant of professional opportunities.
Joanna Murray-Smith is a woman of family. A woman of tough-minded professional dedication. And the writing? Well that was never an option.
“If it comes down to a conscious choice,” she says, “you’re probably not a writer.
“My entire professional life has been an absence of conscious choice. I was interested in writing, but I was also very interested in acting.”
And then: “Once I started writing, I had no desire to be a playwright, and I still have no desire to be a playwright. I’d rather be a great novelist.” There have been three novels, but the plays, by weight of number and reputation, have taken the upper hand.
She describes the drive to write as a compulsion. But that compulsion can be formed and nurtured in a family home that in Murray-Smith’s case was filled with books, conversation and ideas. Her father was the academic and editor Stephen Murray-Smith (BA(Hons) 1947, GDipEd 1947, BEd 1961, PhD 1967).
Being a writer of close human interiors, she’s not shy of exploring her own.
“I’ve been interested in the psychological elements that have driven me into certain preoccupations. It really happened when I googled myself – which one should never do – and saw that some PhD student had written a thesis on my work and they had written, something along the lines of, ‘… as is customary in Joanna Murray-Smith’s plays …’ something which made me, for the first time, contemplate the idea of repetition, of recurring preoccupation.
“It made me stop and think: if other people can see those preoccupations, then perhaps I should be able to see them, too.”
And so with typical application, she set about holding her plays to the light.
“Memory came up again and again. Mothers and daughters came up again and again. Ideological conviction clashing with emotional compulsion, the way in which the head and the heart collide.
“The failure of hard-line ideologies came up again and again.”
It all made a certain sense. “I grew up in a household with parents who, when I was born, were not yet a decade out of their life in the Communist Party, and still wearing the effects of that disillusionment.” It left an “atmosphere of scepticism of hard-line ideology”.
“Anything that makes you less in control as a human being makes the writing more vivacious . . .”
This had a consequence not only in the preoccupations of her dramatic characters, but also in the very gristle of her writing: it must not slip into blunt polemic.
“I grew up with a real sense that in your creative work you cannot push a political barrow. If you do you are in some way denying the humanity and the energy of what it is to be human in what you write. You are oversimplifying, and people don’t work that way.”
It is that fine human complexity, the intricate shadings in all of us, that has informed so much of Murray-Smith’s work.
“Mostly, for me, writing plays begins with the question ‘what if?’
“There is in that swirling mass of ideas and sensitivities and anxieties that we all have; in all of that, certain things will just find a moment in which they are in a spotlight.” For most of us, this is the stuff of internal dialogue, of quiet reflection, but then most of us don’t write plays.
“If you are a writer, then you are sensitive to those moments of clarity or illumination. Your mind will flick over them and then backtrack, and say, ‘hang on, that’s a play’.”
From there the writing takes on a life of its own. That first setting down, a quick fusing of thought, feeling or stolen observation, with words and character, that is a process that for Murray-Smith is an almost otherworldly thing. It is not a meditated space.
“The working writer, or at least this one, is in a state of suspension between the real world, between consciousness and the world of the imagination.
“Of course you are drawing from your intellect, of course you are drawing from real life, but you have to let go of control or you’re not going to end up with anything that has got any kind of theatricality to it, or any kind of human interest.
“As a practised writer now, I know, as I sit down at the desk, that if I’m feeling too conscious of what I’m doing I might as well just stop, because I’m not going to be writing anything worthwhile.
“Which is why sometimes I find it great to write when I’m tired, or after a glass of wine. Anything that makes you less in control as a human being makes the writing more vivacious, and the ideas more interesting and complex.” This is, though, writing for the theatre, writing which will eventually blend with actors, movement, direction, lighting and design. After the first inspired authorial flourish, technicality intrudes.
“They are really two different processes. The process of writing is accidental, chaotic, uncontrolled, unconscious and without the input of any critical faculties.
“So when I sit down and write that first draft I never look back over the previous piece of dialogue and think, ‘is that any good?’. When I finish it I look at the first draft and try and work out – and it’s usually not hard – where is the energy in that draft, where is the vibrancy and theatricality, and I preserve that.”
And on it goes. Draft after draft. Sometimes with an easy pouring out of words, sometimes with tough, page scrunching graft.
“And then each draft – and for this STC play I’m working on now I’m probably up to my 20th draft – each draft is a bit more knowing.”
The Sydney Theatre Company play is a slow work in progress, but her latest for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Three Little Words was a quick process, writing that seemed eager to fill the page. The result, as you settle into the stalls, is just the same.
“The most important thing is that when the words come out of the mouth of the human being on the stage is that those words sound authentic and you’re not breaking the magic of luring the audience into a creative universe.
“The audience might sit there and think, ‘oh that’s a beautiful line’, but as soon as they think that, they’re out of the world you’ve created. Early on I found that really difficult, because I wanted to write as beautifully as I could, and then I realised that beautiful writing was sabotaging a really good night on the stage.”
Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Joanna Murray Smith’s latest play, Three Little Words, will run at the Southbank Theatre until May 27.
Jonathan Green is the editor of Meanjin.