TEXT review

The performance of biographical erasure

review by Prithvi Varatharajan


Jessica L Wilkinson and Simon Charles
Marionette: A biography of Miss Marion Davies
Sibercha records, Melbourne VIC, 2018
CD, AUD12.00


Marionette: a biography of Miss Marion Davies is an audio adaptation of Jess Wilkinson’s biographical collection of poems, marionette: a biography of miss marion davies, published by Vagabond in 2012. The adaptation comes in a stylised red CD sleeve (and is also available as a download), with cover art evoking a puzzle – showing parts of the subject’s face on squares of film reel. It features music composed by Simon Charles, and is performed by Jenny Barnes, Andrew Butler, Phoebe Green, and Michael McNabby, with spoken word by the poet herself.

Both book and audio reanimate the life of the early 20th century American film actress, producer, and screenwriter Davies, who is (unjustly) known more for her association with her lover, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, than for her musical and film work. Hearst was a domineering lover, dictating the kind of film roles suitable for Davies, while simultaneously appearing to support her career (he founded Cosmopolitan Pictures in order to produce and promote her films). These two creative projects attempt to flesh out Davies’s life nearly a century later. The critically flawed characterisations of Davies, in film and newspaper, have led Wilkinson – and the artists involved in the audio adaptation of marionette: a biography of miss marion davies (Wilkinson 2012) – to attempt their own re-drawings, while pointing back to filmic and print (mis)representations. In the notes to the print edition the poet wonders: ‘How do I tell a story when the factual evidence is blighted with lies and punctured with holes? How do I write a biography when the physical, material documents [including archival film] are failing?’ (Wilkinson 2012: 97). Wilkinson’s print collection treats the page as a space in which to evoke film, using visual/poetic techniques of cutting and splicing that evoke cinematic ones. Marionette is also cut with incomplete or damaged documentation of Davies’s life, and Wilkinson’s poetic responses to such documentation: it is, in this sense, a poetic film journal.

If the print text emulates and plays with filmic form, the audio exists in a more dreamy and free-floating formal state. These differing affects are due largely to the affinity of the page to the screen (both are predominately visual; the earliest films of Davies were wholly visual, being silent); they are also due to the disparity between film (whether silent or talking) and the exclusively aural medium of Marionette’s adaptation. In form and style the latter belongs, I would suggest, to the audio genre of the ‘feature’ – a European tradition of avant-garde radio works that combine factual narration with dramatisation, and often include music, sound effects, and poetry.

It is hard to overstate the labour – creative and technical – that has gone into the production of both projects: they feature elaborate typesetting and visual/text collages, and complex mixing of voice, sound effects and music, respectively. The opening track of the audio adaptation concisely frames the mood and themes of the text. We hear a dark electronic drone arising out of the lines: ‘Understanding comes to us in shards of light. We are the puzzle solvers, piecing out the shadow of sky…’ which, along with the subsequent lines, ‘lock the door /  – the wolf is here –  / come to cut out all those scenes’, suggest both the reconstructive project of the text and the constant, shadowy presences oppressing its subject.

The opening reference to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and its status as a canonical film, announces the theme or question of what is deemed important in the cultural industries, what marginalised, and by whom. The main characters in Citizen Kane were widely believed to be based on Hearst and Davies, with the latter portrayed as a talentless singer whom the protagonist – a wealthy newspaper publisher – tries to promote. The audio rendition, spoken by Wilkinson, struck me as a personal essay blending research, criticism, and creative narration; we hear her voice stating soberly that Citizen Kane was referred to as ‘a classic, one of the top films of all time’ in her undergraduate studies, but that Marion was upset by its portrayal of her. Through the intimacy and materiality of the recorded voice, the author is more palpably present (than in print) in this retelling of Davies’s life, of the reanimation of this ‘marionette’.

Music and sound in the adaptation – including the voice of Jenny Barnes as a sound effect, piano/harmonium, light percussion, viola, and drones – serve to both underscore the strained atmosphere of the text – as the strings attached to Marion are tugged in different directions – and to convey the erasures and contradictions in official documentation of Davies’s life. Examples of the latter include unfinished, clipped, or stuttered lines (Davies herself suffered from a stutter), and the intrusions of non-verbal sound onto speech, with sound effects and music jostling for the listener’s attention. The intermittent overlaying of recorded voices in the adaptation is an effective rendition of the visual juxtapositions of the print text. I wondered, however, about the excision from the audio of the mock trial of Hearst, subtitled in print as ‘a practice in phonoautography’. This mock trial occurs in the middle of the print text, as a dramatic interlude. I thought it would have worked very well in audio form – but it does require multiple speaking voices, and for that reason may have been deemed incongruous to the adaptation’s aesthetic.

The audio adaptation is more moving to me than the print edition, due perhaps to the intimacy of the recorded voice, and the immediacy of its aural accompaniments and disruptions, pouring straight into your ear. The richness of this project lies in how effectively it conveys the gaps and distortions in accounts of Davies’s life, and how viscerally the voice of the poet, supported by her own cast of performers, intervenes in the telling – as a third (or fourth or fifth) party. The overall impression created by the audio is of innumerable facets to Marion’s personality; to her talents on screen; to her relationship with Hearst; and to the conflicting ways in which others viewed and represented her. As Wilkinson utters in the fifth track of the adaptation: ‘A biography begins at death / cut loose the cords / and polish off the spine / I hold out my hands / and call to the gathering’ (2’51-3’01).


Work Cited




Prithvi Varatharajan is a writer, cultural radio producer, and commissioning editor at Cordite Poetry Review. He holds a PhD from the University of Queensland on ABC RN’s Poetica (1997-2014). His writing has appeared widely in Australian and overseas journals, and he has a book of poetry and prose forthcoming with Cordite Books.


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Vol 23 No 1 April 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker