December 16, 2019


Joan Didion’s eerily contemporary ‘The White Album’

By Steve Dow

The White Album. Image credit: Lars Jan

The seminal essay’s ongoing resonance is explored in this interactive production coming to Sydney Festival

Joan Didion’s “The White Album”, a seminal essay in New Journalism, always seemed theatrical or arthouse cinematic, being a series of vivid images of events from the late 1960s in California that Didion precisely pasted together a decade later: a tiny girl abandoned by her family whose fingers had to be pried from a freeway chain link fence; the Doors singer Jim Morrison holding a lit match to the crotch of his leather pants; the author taking it upon herself to buy a “size 9 petite” dress for Linda Kasabian, the star witness for the Charles Manson cult murders trial.

“I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it,” Didion explained in the essay, published in 1979, realising her own story of vertigo and nausea at the time was “not a movie but a cutting-room experience”. Actor Mia Barron will perform the entirety of Didion’s essay, in a performance also called The White Album, at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from January 8 to 12, during the Sydney Festival, in a work devised by LA-based theatremaker Lars Jan – Barron’s partner – of Early Morning Opera, with Didion’s blessing.

A small ensemble of fellow actors will appear on stage to help bring to life key characters and events, and the set includes a type of glasshouse, designed by LA architectural firm P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, representing for part of the show the utopian Californian architecture of the period. Didion’s own rambling house, which she rented for five years with her husband and child on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood, was under threat of demolition, as was the rest of the neighbourhood, much like the counter-culture she chronicled as it faced its own end game.

Amid civil rights unrest, Didion writes of going to see activist Huey Newton of the Black Panthers in jail, seeking to find the “alchemy of issues” as a magazine reporter, and elsewhere notes of the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski and her cohort in a Cielo Drive house in 1969: “Black masses were imagined, and bad trips were blamed.”

Didion writes with lacerating honesty about her own “trips” – to an outpatient clinic, to a neurologist – which cause her to realise “things which happened only to other people could in fact happen to me”. She rated her own “performance” in this violent end to the ’60s as “adequate”, as she imposed her personal narrative on disparate images. Perhaps, in buying a dress for Kasabian – against whom murder charges were dropped – maybe Didion was signalling she saw herself, too, as being improbably in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Before working on the essay as a piece I had probably read it 20 or 30 times,” says Jan via Skype. He was born in 1978, the year before Didion published “The White Album”. “There’s something about her consciousness as an artist, trying to make sense of her time, and her ability to observe with this acerbic wit, but also to be vulnerable and to work in a collage format, which I find sophisticated and intriguing.

“Even though she’s weaving a first-person narrative, the structure of it has always been a remarkable achievement in terms of where the cuts are, and how the tone changes. It ends up being one of the most beautiful stories about not being able to put the pieces together.”

In the essay, Didion bears witness to progressive change, but where does Jan think her politics sat at the time she wrote “The White Album”? “One of the complicated things about working on the piece has definitely been the fact she’s very dismissive of the student protesters; she infantilises them,” says Jan.

“She’s pretty dismissive of the Black Panther movement. She’s interested in the characters, but she doesn’t think that Huey Newton is particularly sophisticated and doesn’t realise he’s being used as a puppet by [leader] Eldridge Cleaver. It’s problematic.

“In our research, it was very interesting to read her long piece on the Central Park five [“New York: Sentimental Journeys”, about five African-American teenagers, wrongly convicted of rape in 1989, published in the New York Review of Books in 1991]. If you look at the consciousness of the writer when she wrote that, versus the late 1970s when she finishes ‘The White Album’, in that span she clearly undergoes a pretty big ideological shift.

“By the time she gets to the Central Park five, she’s very interested in structural inequity. She’s interested in the biases of the media, and the fact this reality is being constructed against [those wrongly convicted]. She’s just more sympathetic.”

Whereas the tone of “The White Album” is quite cool? “It’s cool and she’s not sympathetic. She says elsewhere – I’m paraphrasing – but she says she would have gone to the barricade if it had made any difference at all; she thinks [the protests are] naive. You can feel that, and it’s interesting to engage with. You know, she’s not a progressive hero, she’s a brilliant mind, and a voice of her generation, but she’s a white lady from a Republican, conservative farming background.

“She stretches in her identity, she’s around interesting people, she’s covering interesting things, and it seems over the course of her career as a writer, those experiences change her; she starts to become more sympathetic.”

After the show, a Quaker-style meeting is held where audience members are encouraged to search for meaning in Didion’s text. A group of younger audience members, selected before the show, will be invited on stage during the performance, and they’ll wear earpieces through which they’ll hear archival music, Black Panther rallies and stage directions, forming the “inner audience” on stage during the conversation.

This small “bunch of students” will be offered free tickets by Sydney Festival to attend the show, as well as a pre-show meet-and-greet with the director and actors. “We’ve only done the show in four cities now, so that’s 15 performances, and so we’ve been changing it all along,” says Jan.

The aim is to make the discussion less about nostalgia by those who lived during the time of the events Didion detailed in “The White Album” and more about contemporary themes, such as what revolution and state power mean today.

The impact will of course be drawn from the feel of words penned some 40 years ago by a writer cataloguing the events of half a century ago, given life in a theatre in which we all breathe the same air. Didion’s essay feels eerily contemporary when re-read today, as we may well wonder about the extent to which we really control over our own lives, and try to discern the lessons in chance sequences of events. We too digest the “day’s misinformation”, spat out of an ever-expanding array of news sources of varying veracity, and as the black masses gather, perhaps we also fail to be surprised.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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