Leonard Teale’s one-man show, While the Billy Boils, has toured most of Australia. It will now come to Sydney’s Seymour Centre for a three-week season, starting on January 24. This will be the third year of Mr Teale’s show, and it will run until mid-1980.
An actor with a love for all things Australian — he hates to admit that Australians cannot say “I love a sunburnt country” without sniggering — his The Man front Snowy River has been awarded three Gold Records.
Through television, he gave bush ballads wide popularity. He has recorded My Country. Henry Lawson … his life story in his own verse; Travelling down the Castlereagh; and Sons of the Sundowners.
While the Billy Boils is the culmination of years of interest, research and travelling.
“Australian popular literature was written to be spoken.” Mr Teale said. “Many people have mistaken the deceptively simple style for a lack of style.”
Mr Teale’s love of Lawson, “he’s an Australian hero to me,” goes back to Mr Teale snr, who was born in 1894 at the time A. B. Paterson was making his impact on The Bulletin. “I grew up with Australian literature, unconsciously and unselfconsciously.”
Although he finds Lawson’s verse despairing, it is the rich ironic vein he will emphasise in While the Billy Boils. “The dramatic line of the play will follow the dramatic line of his life.
“For the sake of entertainment, I kept the comedy, but comedy was in his life. The play is also the exact dramatic line of an alcoholic who starts off uncertainly, then enjoys it, then sinks to anger and pathos and finally to despair and impotence.”
He is stockier than Lawson, his hair is not dark brown, he is not as tall as Lawson, and yet, with false moustache, turn-of-the-century black suit and down-at-heel shoes, Mr Teale conveys the physical presence of the poet.
“Apart from the joy of his words,” he said, “it is a beautiful technical exercise. I’ve collected much useless information,”
He told the story of the when Lawson approached the co-editor of The Bulletin, James Edmond, telling him he would leave his dog to him in his will.
Edmond gave him two-shillings, which Lawson promptly spent at a hotel.
The next day, he he told Edmond his dog had unfortunately died. “But,” he said, “never mind, he left me to you in his will.”
At one time he became such a nuisance at the Bulletin that everyone locked their doors against him. With his walking cane, he went along the corridors smashing all the glass panels in the doors.
He married Bertha Bredt, who was responsible for sending him to prison six times when he failed lo pay alimony.
Although he had once helped his mother publish and edit a suffragette newspaper, Dawn, while in prison ho wrote about men as “victims of viciously insane harpies… the hag next door… hysterics… the great Australian nag.”
Mr Teale believes Lawson’s alcoholism was in part caused by his mother’s failure to show love. It was aggravated by his wife’s coldness and final hatred. But, he did love his daughter, and movingly wrote: “Did you really think I did not know what love is about?” The death of Hannah Thorburn, one of his reputed great loves, caused him to drift aimlessly.
Leonard Teale takes his audience into Lawson’s life. He begins with bush songs, Lawson’s memories of his early years in a cottage at Eurunderee, which was then called New Pipeclay owing to its abundance of white pipe clay, but not, to Lawson’s father’s disappointment, of gold.
He goes into Lawson’s schooldays, his four years of primary education: “Its walls were lined with calico and cracks, there was little need of windows in our school.”
He then takes the audience into Lawson’s days in Bourke.
“He sends up left-wing politicians,” Mr Teale said. “It is a sorrow to Labor people to find that their hero Lawson satirised Labor politicians.”
The second half of the play examines Lawson’s relationship with his mother, and Lawson becomes increasingly bitter. “She encouraged him to write and did her best for him, but she could not love anybody.” Lawson’s life in Sydney is explained. Mr Teale sees nothing melodramatic in the near-Dickensian poem, Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock.
“People say it is pathos, he said of Arvie’s sudden death of pneumonia, his long walk to work where he painted the underneath of coaches, his feeling better after taking sugar and vinegar to cut the phlegm.
The success of While the Billy Boils has amazed Mr Teale. He expected a three month run, but can now look forward to a four-year season. He has travelled throughout Australia, from the Northern Territory and next month, to Tasmania. The largest audience so far was at the New Theatre in Townsville, where 1,066 people came from as far away as 200 kilometres.
The smallest audience was at Augathella, a small town in central western Queensland. Forty-seven people attended the play at the Shire Hall. “I struck a bloke in the pub who had been waiting a week, drinking every day, for the rain to stop. The black soil plains turn to mud with rain,” Mr Teale said.
People, have told him, in different towns at different times, that they saw a golden aura around his head while he played Lawson. In Maryborough, in Victoria, while he was speaking of Lawson’s daughter, a bar started to swing, but its cloth borders were still. It stopped once he changed clothes and had become Leonard Teale, the actor.
“I love Lawson,” he said. “He was a genius. He had a gift. His life was so sad, battling to find something and never finding it. He died still writing, in a backyard in Abbotsford. He wasn’t found for 12 hours.
“In this play, I want to give people an emotional experience where they can feel what it was like to be Lawson.”
From travelling throughout Australia, Mr Teale said his national pride had been reinforced.
“It has proved to me that Australia has something unique. The real Australia and the real Australians are out west, and the further you go the more obvious it is. Lawson characterised the west, its dry sense of humour, the capacity to keep plugging no matter what happens.
“It’s been bloody marvellous.”
Leonard Teale as Henry Lawson:
“Henry Lawson was a genius. In his lifetime he was likened to Kipling and Tolstoy. No other figure in Australian literature received such reverence and adoration. No other poet or author has been accorded a public statue.
“Henry Lawson was educated formally for only a few years. He was deaf by the time he wax 14. His marriage was a disaster. He lived in poverty most of his life. He was jailed six times. And he was an alcoholic.
“What, I asked myself, could have happened if Henry Lawson had been persuaded to do a one-man presentation of his own works? Could it have happened? Yes, it could. He’d always wanted to be an actor. What would he have called it? While the Billy Boils, of course, the name of his most successful set of short stories. Under the strain of performance, would he have reacted?”