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Dead White Males – David Williamson

Dead White Males, the play by Australian playwright David Williamson, deals with several conflicts which occur between the characters. Whether they concern patriarchy and feminism, or intellectualism and anti-intellectualism, these opposing ideas each spawn from the plays chief conflict between liberal humanism and post-structuralism. In the beginning, the plays main character, Angela Judd, finds herself somewhere amidst the two. During the course of the play she and the audience are presented with supporters of each ideology and finally led to prefer one above the other.

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The ideologies are represented through the actual characters in the play, and by the use of excerpts from some of Shakespeares famous plays. The two opposing ideologies in Dead White Males are liberal humanism and post-structuralism. Liberal humanism upholds the idea that men and womens behaviour are steered by an all-embracing human nature. Permanent truths concerning human nature do exist; it is not socially constructed. People are not constrained by ideologies and are free to be individuals.

On the other hand, post-structuralism promotes its belief that in the world there is no reality, only “manufactured reality” constructed by words, and no absolute truths. Human behaviour is controlled by many ideologies that dominate society. However, gaps that exist within the systems directing society make it possible for people to break free and change. The first scene wastes no time in establishing the conflict and introducing the major characters through which each ideology is represented. William Shakespeare, who appears as a figure of Angelas imagination, is the plays liberal humanist.

Liberal humanism states that there is a set human nature which is exactly what Shakespeare believes to be true. This fact is swiftly highlighted when Angela asks, “How is it that you know so much about us? ” (I, page 1). It shows that Shakespeare is respected for his high intelligence, and renowned for his great understanding in human behaviour and emotion. Furthermore, Shakespeare, being “the most famous person in the Earths history” (I, page 22), would be immediately recognisable by the audience.

They would readily identify him as a good, honourable character, which positions the audience to prefer liberal humanism. Shakespeare stands for everything that Dr Grant Swain finds incomprehensible. Swain murders Shakespeare in the opening scene to illustrate this. He is a passionate post-structuralist, and his lengthy speech in the second scene makes this very clear: “there are no absolute truths there is no fixed human nature” (I, page 2); “none of us are free, or can ever be, free of ideology” (I, page 3). Swains main role in the play is to persuade Angela to agree with post-structuralist thought.

By influencing the main character, the audience is led to accept post-structuralism just as Angela has. The fact that he is a charismatic, articulate, intelligent man makes him a convincing representative of post-structuralism, as he is able to influence Angela quite comfortably. Shakespeares plays are also incorporated in the script of Dead White Males on several occasions. They are used to demonstrate, and provide arguments against, the two conflicting ideologies. As You Like It is selected by Angela for her English paper.

She uses Shakespeares play to prove “Dr Swains assertion that literature is essentially ideological” (I, page 29). Angela states, “patriarchal ideology has fashioned the characters, the values and the very structure of this play” (I, page 29). Here, she is representing post-structuralism. Her elaborate and educated speech sways the audience to look slightly more favourably towards this ideology. Melissa then gives her talk on The Taming of the Shrew. She reads the play from a liberal humanist point of view, and finds little ideological influence.

This upsets Angela, who retaliates with a strong argument that “Shakespeare wrote ideologically and from the perspective of the patriarchy” (I, page 28). A debate arises between the two, who clearly represent opposing ideologies. It concludes with Melissas submission: “I am obviously a hopeless victim of the patriarchal construction of womanhood. Im sorry. Shoot me” (I, page 33). The audience is positioned to feel sympathy for Melissa and to accept that it is human nature that makes her attracted to Petruchio.

Later in the play, Shakespeares King Lear is used by the playwright himself to show Angela that there is such a thing as human nature. The excerpt is taken from the scene where Lear discovers that his daughter, Cordelia, is dead. He mourns her death, crying in agony, “Thoult come no / more, / Never, never, never, never, never! ” (II, page 83). Shakespeare asks Angela, “Did King Lear need an ideology to construct his grief? ” This powerful and disturbing extract is effective in changing the audiences views on each ideology.

In Act Two, Angela is given the task of interviewing members of her family to reveal how they feel about patriarchy and feminism. This provides us with further representations of liberal humanism and post-structuralism. Angela begins by interviewing her grandfather, Col Judd, who has been developed as a sexist, racist, liberal humanist. Col believes that there is a definite human nature, because it is up to men to fight the wars and earn the money. However, the audience then discovers that Col is actually a kind, generous, loyal man.

He has suffered immensely during his lifetime. We are made to feel sorry for Col, whose life has been ruined by feminists. Angela also interviews her mother and father, Sarah and Martin. During these scenes it is revealed that Sarah is a feminist, Martin is an anti-feminist, and they both blame each other for their depressing state. Their conversations are suffused with their respective ideological thoughts, influencing the audiences views on each. We are meant to feel greater sympathy towards Martin than Sarah, as he is the weaker person.

The play continues its move towards the triumph of liberal humanism. In the end, the audience is positioned to prefer liberal humanism to post-structuralism. Swain, the supposed feminist, is revealed to be a hypocrite. He himself takes advantage of Melissa, blames his disaster marriage on his wife, and quotes from Hamlet, “Frailty, thy name is woman! ” (II, page 93). From here on, Swain and his post-structuralist thoughts crumble. He is finally defeated when told to “go Foucault” himself and is shot by himself in the foot.

In the final scene we are given a very patriarchal liberal humanist conclusion. Steve quits university to become a mechanic, Angela and Steve fall in love, and the two walk off stage hand in hand. This ending is almost a re-enactment of a Shakespearean romance, and hence, reinforces the victory of liberal humanism. David Williamson utilises many techniques in his play Dead White Males to represent the two opposing ideologies of liberal humanism and post-structuralism. The central ideas are communicated to the audience through the main characters, William Shakespeare and Dr Grant Swain.

Shakespeare, the liberal humanist, considers peoples behaviour as guided by human nature, while Swain, being the post-structuralist, sees society as being controlled by many constraining ideologies. On several occasions intertextual meanings are constructed using Shakespeares plays, which position the audience to prefer one ideology above the other. Liberal humanism is favoured in the end. Swain is unsuccessful in his attempts to win his students support, and Angela and Steve close the play as a real-life Rosalind and Orlando.

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