Described by Patrick White as ‘a novelist of genius’, and generally acknowledged as one of Australia’s greatest writers, Christina Stead (1902 – 1983) displays throughout her fiction, especially in autobiographical works The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone, an extraordinary range of character, situation, language, theme and atmosphere. Playwright Darryl Emmerson has written a new play about her life and an insight into her life’s work.

first play, The Pathfinder: a picture of John Shaw Neilson, premiered in the first Melbourne International Festival, was adapted for ABC Radio, later toured four states, and was nominated for a Melbourne Green Room Award.

Darryl EmmersonWay back whenever what impelled you to create a work about writer Christina Stead?
I am passionate that the lives and work of artists can be presented on the stage. Their childhoods, the stance they take up towards other people, the decision to encourage their own creativity, the ambition, quiet or otherwise, that lies behind their decision, where their lives and art lead them, these are all of great interest to me.

Of course, not just any artist, but someone whose life and work, as I come to know them, attract me, and reward the years of research and study a biography requires. Christina Stead seems to me a most remarkable writer. She lived passionately, honestly and was unafraid of the grand gesture. Christina it seems was a rather intriguing personality.

There are so few contemporary stories for stage about Australian women artists, was this a major consideration when choosing to write about Stead?
It was a major consideration. I’m still surprised there aren’t more stories for stage about artists, about creativity as a natural and interesting thing. Let’s explore and celebrate this part of life more widely.

There has been a lot of love sweat and tears poured into this script, tell me a potted history about this journey so far?
I’m not sure how other writers work, but I find myself ‘circling’ around the project for quite some time, in this case, reading her novels and stories, then biographies, considering the time, place and society of her early life (the period when you can’t make choices, but must accept and are moulded, at least for a time), looking at photographs, paintings, going to Sydney, where she grew up, etc. Then you have to find a shape, a way of distilling 80 years of life, and many pages of writing. Not always simple, but always interesting.

You have described this work as both a biography and a showcase?
Christina plunges us into certain defining moments of her life, then ‘performs’ some of her writing in between. That way, I hope, we experience some of what she did, then absorb her imaginative response to it.

And tell me about the form of the play?
The play covers about sixty years in seventy minutes, through a technique of illuminating a certain day, then leaping to another some years later. Audiences are great the way they just come along with you.

And how did you chose this form, did it choose you?
This form was one developed in previous plays, The Pathfinder, about John Shaw Neilson, and Earthly Paradise, which treated Lesbia Harford, and I think it helped the writing journey, gave me confidence to try a new subject.

Christina Stead relocated overseas and married, and yet her Australian experience and memories were seminal in her fiction writing ?
I think her Australian experiences were seminal, in the way that early life always is. It’s also true to say her two best books (in my view), For Love Alone and The Man Who Loved Children, are semi-autobiographical, based on her life in Australia. A child, or young woman, notices things keenly, intimately, personally, in a way that is perhaps less true later, when you make more of your own decisions, are less at the mercy of things.

And what fascinates you about her personal life, her public life and her literary works?
Olivia [Brown] has a good description of this:
I am intrigued by the contradictions within her personality and character, scientific but then sentimental, independent thinker but very needing of support and a champion. I have been struck by her comment on the dream she had of the little boat battling on regardless of all kinds of weathering and difficulty - as she set out on the wide blue seas as a young woman full of hope, and survived upon them for so many years, and in so many ways, more than survived, flourished. Then the dream changes and the boat does not fare well, low in the water and defeated on many fronts, she turns to her original home shore. She lost the strength of youth, as we all do, and then lost Bill and with him all certainty. After her return to Australia I believe she lost more and more of what had sustained her. But yet she battled on. Patrick White's comment that was something like "I wish I had met her earlier" seems, though quite sad, fitting.

Why do you think Patrick White was so impassioned by her work?
I think he recognized and admired a fellow artist of intense conviction and commitment, ambitious, brilliant in technique, yet full of feeling and with a wide knowledge of humanity. I think also he would have liked to meet her earlier in her life.

Has there been a stage work of a Christina Stead novel before, or a bioplay?
There’s a good 1985 film of For Love Alone, with Helen Buday, and there is a script version of that novel, as yet unproduced. I think her work just hasn’t been looked at from a stage perspective.

What research has helped Olivia prepare for her role?
Olivia did a great deal of research and reading, and together we visited Stead’s childhood homes in Sydney. There is also the large body of her correspondence, some radio interviews where her voice can be heard of course, and an ABC television interview, made when she was aged about 75 years of age, all revealing and useful sources. We also discussed at length options and constraints on women and artists at that time. Collaborating with her is such a great pleasure.

What type of portrait do you feel you reveal of Stead in this production?
I hope we present an accurate, varied, rich and quickly moving portrait of a unique artist.

What does her life say about living as an artist today?
Stead was a refreshingly forthright person, and I think she would be calling for more honest, social and political engagement by writers, but of course not excluding the personal and psychological, the emotional. For her all these things really were connected, she couldn’t abide narrowness and deliberate self-limitation.

What heritage does Stead leave behind?
A rich body of fiction, Stead is a great example of artistic commitment despite adversity.

I Write What I See: Christina Stead Speaks, starring Olivia Brown, opens at the Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, October 14, 2010. Further information»

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