Play raises the Curtin
Playwright Inge Knight with actors Steve Turner and Geoff Kelso. Picture: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, John Curtin. Ask the average Australian who these giants were there's a fair chance that the last guy on the list would draw a blank (and that would include from students of the very university named in his honour).

Yet there's a strong case to be made that Curtin was Australia's greatest prime minister, the working-class hero who stood shoulder to shoulder with these titans of the 20th century to defeat the nazis and, amid the urgency and chaos of war, built the social welfare system we still enjoy today.

Indeed, Labor's legendary member for Fremantle was so revered, especially in his adopted State of WA, that when he died in 1945 more than 30,000 crowded into Karrakatta for his funeral and many more lined the city streets.

Veteran Perth playwright Ingle Knight says that it's scandalous that Curtin does not loom as large in the Australian consciousness as Roosevelt does in America and Churchill in Britain. What's more, his relative insignificance in our popular memory tells us a lot about our national self-image, he says.

"We have a sense of insecurity and inferiority," Knight argues. "We don't think that our history matters as much as that of other 'greater' nations and that our past is a bit boring. This is tragic because Curtin is such a fascinating character.

"Both Churchill and Roosevelt were born to be leaders, whereas Curtin grew up in a Brunswick slum and went to work at the age of 12. He was a complete autodidact and an alcoholic whose career was virtually over before it began."

One of the reasons figures such as Curtin are not afforded the same respect as their American and British counterparts, according to Knight, is because they haven't enjoyed the rich treatment by Australian filmmakers and playwrights.

Knight hopes that his new play, The Fremantle Candidate, which covers the years between Curtin's loss of his Fremantle seat and his historic comeback in 1934, will nudge this fearless but deeply flawed class warrior and political colossus back to the centre of the popular consciousness.

Knight chose to focus on the period in which it was uncertain Curtin would ever again be re-elected to Federal Parliament, let alone go on to become prime minister, because he believes these "wilderness years" were the making of him as a man and a political leader.

"Curtin was part of that generation of Australian socialists who clung to the idea that the end of World War I would bring a socialist revolution. But it never came," Knight tells me in a cafe a couple of doors down from Victoria Hall, Deckchair Theatre's historic home.

"That despair about a socialist victory drove Curtin to drink. His alcoholism was one of the reasons he found himself out of office and wondering about his future."

While much of Knight's play deals with the political machinations that enabled Curtin to become Labor's Fremantle candidate, its beating heart is a series of encounters between Curtin and Walter Murdoch, a founding professor at the University of WA and the era's most respected newspaper columnist (today he would be described as "a public intellectual", in the Robert Manne mould).

There is no evidence that Curtin and Murdoch had a strong relationship but, says Knight, who spent a year researching the play on a fellowship to the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, historians have reassured him that such a bond was entirely feasible.

In Knight's version of events Murdoch pushes Curtin towards embracing the Keynesian approach to lifting Australia out of the Great Depression and, more importantly, forces the shattered Labor man to face up to his alcoholism.

"Murdoch gives Curtin an alternative approach to dealing with his alcoholism. He shows Curtin that addiction is not a problem of willpower but a confusion about the nature of the self, that one's addiction is a part of oneself and not separate," Knight says.

All of this sounds a little daunting for theatre audiences more used to seeing tales of little Aussie battlers rather than our political and intellectual giants slugging it out over the great issues of the day.

However, Knight has looked to the documentary tradition for guidance on how to make the Curtin comeback palatable to a mainstream audience. He draws inspiration from the new generation of pulse-quickening American television drama.

"I'm grateful to The West Wing for proving that politics can make good drama," says Knight, who previously dealt with Curtin in his 2003 play Shadow of the Eagle (co-written with George Blazevic) and tackled another flawed figure of Australian history, Alan Bond, in Taking Liberty (2008).

"Curtin and his contemporaries, like the characters in The West Wing, were dealing with monumental issues, not only fighting an election but the responsibility of leading the country through a depression and, later, a world war."

But it is not simply the punchy, pulsating style that Knight hopes will win over an audience to his version of The West Wing. His play is also alive to the parallels between the Great Depression and our own economically embattled era.

"We could dive into an economic depression at any moment," Knight argues. "And the arguments on how to deal with the situation are very similar to the arguments going on then.

"Australia during the Great Depression was what Greece is today and for similar reasons. We had ridden through the 1920s borrowing from British banks and they demanded their money back. One of the Labor arguments was that Australia should renege on its payments, which has an uncanny resonance to what is now happening in Europe."

It's fitting that the play is premiering at Deckchair Theatre because Curtin himself packed out Victoria Hall at the height of the Depression, stirring the Labor faithful with an "eloquent and convincing" explanation of the issue of fiscal stimulus. Hopefully, the play about Curtin will have the same pulling power as the great man himself.

The Fremantle Candidate is at Victoria Hall, Fremantle, from July 19 to August 5.

The West Australian

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