While that meeting was the inspiration for the play, that’s as far as the reality extends. The playwright argues fiction can have the quality of truth. «I feel like a properly artistic, fictionalised version of an event can be more truthful … Dramatists immerse themselves in the public character of the people that they are dramatising.»
Sarah Goodes, associate artistic director at the MTC and the show’s director, says Sewell’s piece is brilliant. «He has taken a real event and real people and created a wholly imagined world.»
She first read the script when she was a resident at Sydney Theatre Company several years ago. «I kept thinking about the play and so much has changed in the past four years. Parts of the play mean more to us than they did four years ago.»
Melita Jurisic plays West, Diana Glenn plays Arbus, and Ruby, West’s assistant, is played by Jennifer Vuletic. Part of the research for all involved was learning about how life was for West and Arbus. «We’re all products of our time,» says Goodes. «Arbus grew up in a very privileged world, the opposite of what West grew up in.»
Some lovely details emerged. Apparently West looked out for many of the vaudeville people she used to work with, helping them financially; she would give her old cars to the nuns. That she was an early social activist, challenging norms without fear, was very clear.
«She was so political, one of her main missions was to introduce the idea to popular culture that women could have sex and enjoy it and not be punished for it,» Goodes says.
Sewell was interested in the different generational relationships between the women. West’s take on how women can survive and thrive within a patriarchal world is revealed in parallel with Arbus, as a younger woman of the 1960s, who is trying to answer the same question. «How can I be a woman in this kind of world, that’s the debate that sustains the whole thing.»
He argues West used male fantasy as a way of manipulating and making fun of men, whereas Arbus’ saw that as still playing the game with men. «She asks is there a way of stepping out of that altogether.»
American writer and critic Susan Sontag argued that Arbus was exploitative, referring to shots she took of society’s ‘freaks’ – strippers and nudists, and carnival folk, a dwarf, a giant. Sewell rejects that idea, instead seeing Arbus as «looking for something about how you deal with hurt in the world».
«I see that coming from someone who is spiritually hurt. And she is exploring and investigating an inner beauty and a kind of fable-like innocence in the world.»
Both women are extraordinary characters, providing rich fodder for the actors. «There’s so much great reading on Diane, every single thing you read says she had quite a hypnotic quality about her, a spell that she cast. It was her capacity to become enthralled in things,» Goodes says. «She used it as a way of being in control, of hiding from things.»
«Arbus charmed you and eventually she had you in the bedroom in your undies and then she started taking photos,» says Sewell.
The play explores the idea of the portrait and the contract between the artist and the photographer. It probes further into the art of capturing someone, which Arbus aspired to do with much of her work. «What is a portrait?» asks Goodes. «It’s a relationship between the artist and the subject, and through that process something is captured, something ethereal.»
Arbus herself wrote about the encounter, saying «Nourished by her own legend, [West] has outlasted every lover and initiated a nation of boys into manhood. She is imperious, adorable, magnanimous, genteel, and girlish, almost simultaneously.»
Ultimately, the play is about truth. «Mae West constructed her reality, when Diane comes in, she wanted to get behind that reality. They end up having a very philosophical argument about what it is to be a woman and what you give up or navigate or sidestep around,» says Goodes.
The artist in Arbus was clearly on a mission to tell the truth and therein lies the problem, which now seems inevitable in such a meeting.
«Part of the dynamic for Mae, of course, was that she wanted to be timeless and she was very, very careful – like a lot of movie stars are – incredibly protective of the idea that they don’t age. Of course Diane Arbus, her arty ruthlessness wants to present the truth,» says Sewell. «They got on like a house on fire … it was a fun event for the two of them but when West finally saw the photos she was appalled and wanted to sue for defamation because Arbus was an artist and she wanted to show the truth.»
«We want to know the truth about other people and not ourselves.»
Sewell hopes the show will change people’s understanding of who West was. «She didn’t mind being sleazy, she revelled in that sort of stuff, but she was a powerful and important figure – she has a shadowing presence. Contemporary women performers still reflect the kind of style and the approach of the character of Mae West even if they don’t realise it.»
Arbus & West is at the Fairfax Studio at Melbourne Arts Centre from February 22. artscentremelbourne.com.au
Kerrie is a senior entertainment writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald