From the Reading Room | Making Mystiques

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Paul Galloway talks to playwright Steve Vizard about tackling our national myth-making in his new play The Last Man Standing.

Twenty years ago, Steve Vizard was asked by the federal Labor Government under Prime Minister Keating to be the Executive Producer of a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. As you can imagine, it was a gig that was impossible to refuse and close to impossible to pull off to everyone’s satisfaction. The concert had to be upbeat but respectful, celebrating the victory but acknowledging the human cost, and somehow fulfilling the desires of all: the veterans and the Defence Department, the Government and the Opposition, and the viewing public. ‘There were so many stakeholders to please,’ Vizard recalls, ‘and it seemed bigger than Ben Hur.’

Broadcast live, The Australia Remembers Gala Tribute featured every major star of the day singing songs from the period, interleaved with many video messages of goodwill from the current leaders of our former allies, including Her Majesty, The Queen. Looking back, Vizard thinks it turned out well, but it was a close run thing.

For The Last Man Standing, his new comedy with music by his long-time collaborator and mate Paul Grabowsky, he drew on memories of organising that concert – with appropriate comic exaggeration – to form a convenient frame for his thoughts on the centenary of Gallipoli and the Anzac myth. ‘It struck me that since the play’s about how we commemorate Anzac, it would be best do it through a commemoration event itself. So I invented the Royal Command Centennial Gallipoli Concert – the pinnacle of these centennial celebrations.’

Vizard has long been fascinated by the question of how nations choose to identify themselves. Why, in an everchanging world, do nations choose certain events, stories or symbols to anchor themselves in the past? Why those choices and not others? Why, in Australia’s case, should Gallipoli be so central to our national story?

‘Is Gallipoli our foundation myth?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘Does it stand to explain Australia? Well, increasingly, obviously, it does. Our politicians are absolutely clear that Gallipoli equals Australianhood – “the crucible of our nationhood.” Our historians say it is. Most people in the street say it is. Our national broadcaster says it is – you only have to look at everything to do with Gallipoli and Lone Pine this year.

‘Now, I don’t have a particular view one way or the other. My interest is in interrogating the nature of mythmaking: how myths are created and perpetuated, and misappropriated, too. Because there are many elements that go into making a myth. First, there is the historical event, but then there’s the way that key social actors, including the government, appropriate that myth and entwine that myth in their own agendas. And this year everyone’s appropriated Gallipoli: Woolworths, charities, every politician, Australian football teams and leagues, the cricket team. Every major actor who plays on the national stage has somehow entwined Anzac with their own values and agendas.’

It is almost inevitable that The Last Man Standing is a comedy, considering Vizard’s background as a writer and performer on television sketch shows such as Fast Forward and Full Frontal, and as host of his own late night chat show in the early nineties. But he has a serious reason for choosing comedy. ‘One of the no go areas of the myth has become that we are not allowed to laugh at the myth,’ he says. ‘I find that heavily ironic, given that everyone will tell you that one of the defining characteristics of the diggers at Gallipoli was their larrikin sense of humour. We mucked around, we were disrespectful of authority, we used blunt humour to get through the darkest of times. And now, in the centenary of Gallipoli, that particular trait has seemingly been leached out of all the ceremonies and commemorations. The comedy as well as the drama comes easily because of that gap, the gap between the historical reality and our solemn contemplation of sacrifice.’

The Last Man Standing by Steve Vizard, music by Paul Grabowsky, runs from 6 November at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner.

This interview is an excerpt from MTC Scenes, Spring 2015

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