Tag Archives: C J Johnson

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)


This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.


On Friday at Luna Park, AFTRS had its first whole-school graduation ceremony. As you’d expect, there was plenty of multimedia, and also as you’d expect it was beset by technical SNAFUs – but came through in the end. It was a nice touch to have a new cohort of media professionals being released on the world in a large room with the Harbour resplendent outside one set of windows and fairground machinery spinning outside the other. Peter Garrett gave a ministerial speech and left. Sandra Levy gave a CEO speech and shook the hand or kissed the cheek of every graduate, except one or two who accepted their testamurs and walked past her, oblivious.

Then yesterday we spent the afternoon at the Entertainment Quarter watching the fabulous AFTRS graduate screenings: five hours, 17 directors, 17 short movies. We would have stayed on for the Graduate documentaries (1 hour, 24 even shorter films) but we hadn’t checked out the program thoroughly enough in advance and had made other plans. What we did get was terrific. Here are some of my favourites, so when they turn up at a festival near you you’ll be able to say you read about them somewhere ages ago.

  • Craig Boreham, Ostia – La Notte Finale: the death of Pasolini, in subtitled Italian neo-realism, presumably shot around Sydney
  • Lucy Gaffy, The Lovesong of Iskra Prufrock: a radiographer dares to love in spite of the shadow
  • Martha Goddard, The Bridge: extraordinarily economic (and funny and suspenseful) evocation of a young woman’s complex life as artist, cynical media employee, family member, tenant, receiver of kindness.
  • C J Johnson, The Bris: a comedy involving old age, death, genital mutilation, religious inflexibility, and finally tender celebration, from a short story by Eileen Pollack.
  • Maziar Lahooti, Loveless: of the many offerings about young people dealing with love, sexism, drugs, despair, etc., I liked this best, perhaps because it incorporated elements of the heist genre.
  • Tresa Ponnor, Sosefina: I wouldn’t be surprised to see this turn up on ABC3 – a Pacific Islander schoolgirl in a colour saturated world tries to join the’popular’ group, but finds home is best.
  • Alex Ryan, Valhalla: I’m the director’s father and make a brief appearance in the background of one shot, so feel free to discount my opinion, but I loved this grainy glimpse of a dystopian future, playing an elusive adventure story off against the tentative beginnings of a relationship.

Added later: Alex told me that some of his fellow graduates already have established bodies of work. I’ve added links.