There’s an anecdote told in Ten Unknowns by (fictional) painter Malcolm (Brian Young) to his assistant/novice Judd (Tamblyn Lord), a story that art buffs will find familiar and others may find a little creepy. In 1953, William de Kooning was asked by his younger peer Robert Rauschenberg for a drawing. Rauschenberg then carefully obliterated the image, later hanging it as his own work, with the new title Erased De Kooning Drawing. For Malcolm, this decision by the younger artist was an act of war, the equivalent of killing papa. Judd disagrees, suggesting that Rauschenberg was enacting an homage, or that maybe it was love.
Later in the play we learn that Malcolm is living in fear for his creative life. He should be thrilled -“ he’s being harassed by art agent Trevor (Glenn Hazeldine) to agree to a retrospective. In 1949 Malcolm was part of an exhibition called Ten Unknowns, and this is his chance for serious posterity. The twist (small spoiler ahead) is that his latest works, which are deemed extraordinary, were in fact painted mostly by Judd. In a scene that has been perfectly realised in the Ensemble Theatre production, Malcolm desperately tries to overcome his artist’s block, only to hand the brush to Judd.
Jon Robin Baitz looked every bit the harried and eccentric artist himself when he visited Sydney recently. The tousled hair and his apologies for rambling were symptoms of jetlag, he told me, and he was pleasantly surprised to begin the interview with talk of Erased De Kooning.
The play is about the destruction of creative forces. The Erased De Kooning is a totem for that, implicitly, in such an important way. I think [it’s] inexhaustible as a source of fascination, says Baitz.
Erasure recurs throughout the interview, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes not. In September 2001, five blocks from Baitz’s home, an effacement of a monumental kind left what Baitz calls the crater.
I actually felt much more of the presence of the ticking clock in my own work and mortality -¦ I felt a combination of empowerment and the importance of being an artist, says Baitz.
We have a terrible government, with vast areas of global influence, which we conduct very hypocritically. Some of the edges are blurrier now, some of the lines have been erased.
Rauschenberg’s actions suggest too that every moment of creation involves some level of demolition, through developing an art form in new ways, or through a rejection of an accepted form or structure. I suggest to Baitz that his acclaimed adaptation of Hedda Gabler, staged on Broadway last year, represented something of an erasure of Ibsen (as translations often do). He disagrees. I felt that what I was erasing were the respectful Anglophilic translations, I was trying to do an act of restoration, says Baitz. Similarly, regarding his recent film adaptation of the novel Tender Is The Night, Baitz refers to himself as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s steward.
Baitz’s plays on one level also erase certain theatrical traditions: almost all of his plays have gay characters, but their sexuality is incidental.
I don’t know how many nights I’ve gone to the theatre in New York and seen these brittle, urban kind of pantos, essentially about shopping and shit -¦ that are deeply, deeply isolationist and deeply ghettoised, says Baitz. There are plays that transcend certainly, like Angels In America -¦ [but] I sometimes wish the theatre were larger, that this thing of gay plays didn’t exist.
His next play overtly addresses sexuality, but beyond the ghetto. Entitled The Paris Letter, the work is about psychiatry and homosexuality in the US over a 40-year period, with figures like Dr Evelyn Hooker making an appearance as a ghostly figure.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the production at the Ensemble is emotional and affecting, in spite of the seemingly esoteric subject matter. Works of art that are about art (of any form) can be aggressively dull for those who don’t find aesthetic introspection innately fascinating: for every Art, there’s a Sunday In The Park With George; for each Amadeus, there’s a Mr Holland’s Opus.
Ten Unknowns’ characters have rich emotional lives and exist in a world devoid of stereotypes and resounding with the chimes of ringing true. Despite an unspoken acceptance of Trevor and Judd’s sexuality, Trevor suspects that Malcolm is one of those leftie Bohemians who are quietly, smugly, repulsed by homosexuals. Later, when Judd’s relapse into heroin use seems to suggest a suitably theatrical showdown, Malcolm calmly dismisses it as bourgeois junkie horseshit.
Sadly, the least well drawn character is also the least well performed. Olivia Martin stars as Julia, a grad student researching a near-extinct species of Mexican frog, before becoming both the focus of Malcolm’s ardour, and his conscience. The subtleties of Julia’s character are washed over by a jarring performance, with Martin beaming with contrived alertness, and an eagerness to please more recognisable in a job interview than on a stage. The production is still worth catching, even if there are some elements that, as an audience member, you may like to wash over.
Ten Unknowns plays at the Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli, until 17 August. Tickets range from $32 to $46 and may be booked on 9929 0644 or 9266 4800.