Holding the Man

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For the 2015 film adaptation of the film, see Holding the Man (film). For the Australian rules football infringement, see holding the man.
Holding the Man book cover

Holding the Man is a 1995 memoir by Australian writer, actor, and activist Timothy Conigrave. It was adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy in 2006. The original production, directed by David Berthold, has become one of the most successful Australian stage productions in recent years, playing in most Australian capital cities and London's West End. Murphy also wrote the script for a 2015 film adaptation, directed by Neil Armfield.

Holding the Man was published in February 1995 by Penguin Books in Australia just a few months after Conigrave's death, and has since been published in Spain and North America. It has been reprinted fourteen times. Holding the Man won the United Nations Human Rights Award for Non-Fiction in 1995 and was listed as one of the "100 Favourite Australian Books" by the Australian Society of Authors for its 40th anniversary in 2003.

Holding the Man tells the story of Tim's life, and centrally of his relationship with his lover of fifteen years, John Caleo. They met in the mid-1970s at Xavier College, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic school in Melbourne.

The term "holding the man" refers to a transgression that incurs a penalty in Australian rules football. Caleo was a star footballer at high school, captaining the school's team and winning the APS Best and Fairest trophy in 1976. He was also an avid supporter of the Essendon Football Club, one of the reasons Conigrave appropriated the term as the book's title.


In 1976, Timothy Conigrave fell in love with the captain of the football team, John Caleo. So began a relationship that was to last for 15 years, a love affair that weathered disapproval, separation and, ultimately death. With honesty and insight, 'Holding the Man' explores the highs and lows of their life partnership: the intimacy, constraints, temptations, and the strength of heart both men had to find when they tested positive to HIV.

The story opens at Kostka, Xavier's junior [preparatory] school in Melbourne. Here, the author begins to sexually experiment with other boys, and comes to the realisation that he is gay. Several years later, on his first day at Xavier College (the Jesuit senior school), Conigrave sees John Caleo for the first time.

On the far side of the crush I noticed a boy. I saw the body of a man with an open, gentle face: such softness within that masculinity. He was beautiful, calm. I was transfixed. He wasn't talking, just listening to his friends with his hands in his pockets, smiling. What was it about his face? He became aware that I was looking at him and greeted me with a lift of his eyebrows. I returned the gesture and then looked away, pretending something had caught my attention. But I kept sneaking looks. It's his eyelashes. They're unbelievable. [31]

The two form a friendship, and at the suggestion of Pepe, one of Tim's female friends, John is invited to a dinner party at Tim's house. The girls know Tim is in love with John, and 'pass a kiss' around the table for his benefit.

Juliet kissed Pepe. Their kiss lingered. Pepe came up for air. 'Tim'. As I kissed her she opened her mouth. Her tongue was exploring mine. I felt trapped. I was afraid to stop kissing her because I knew what was coming. I don't want John to think I'm enjoying this. Before I knew it my hand was on his knee, as if to let him know it was him I wanted. His hand settled on mine as Pepe continued kissing me. I couldn't shake the feeling that I was a virgin being led to the volcano to be sacrificed. I turned to face him. He shut his eyes and pursed his lips. Everything went slow motion as I pressed my mouth against his. His gentle warm lips filled my head. My body dissolved and I was only lips pressed against the flesh of his. I would have stayed there for the rest of my life, but I was suddenly worried about freaking him out and I pulled away. I caught sight of his face - fresh, with chocolate-brown eyes, and a small, almost undetectable smile. [74]

A few weeks later, Tim rings John at home, and asks "John Caleo, will you go round with me?" The reply is an unambiguous "Yep".

The two graduate from High School in 1977, Tim attending Monash University and John studying to be a chiropractor at College. Despite parental opposition, Conigrave's eventual move to Sydney and NIDA, and youthful experimentation and infidelities, the relationship continues.

Tragically, when Tim and John finally move in together in Sydney and are genuinely happy, they are diagnosed with HIV. The year is 1985.

Until 1990, the men have relatively mild symptoms. Sadly, in the Autumn of 1991, John begins to rapidly deteriorate, suffering from lymphoma. Tim cares for his partner, whilst nursing symptoms of his own. The misery of HIV/AIDS is laid bare before the reader, with Conigrave sparing nothing in detailing the cruel progression of the disease. He watches as his lover's once-strong body is ravaged. The reader helplessly looks on as the story moves to its devastating conclusion.

At Christmas, in 1991, John is admitted to the Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne. A month later, on Australia Day 1992, he dies of an AIDS-related illness, with his lover by his side, gently stroking his hair. Nearly three years later, shortly after finishing 'Holding the Man', Tim Conigrave passes away in Sydney.

The final passages of the book are some of its most poignant:

I guess the hardest thing is having so much love for you and it somehow not being returned. I develop crushes all the time, but that is just misdirected need for you. You are a hole in my life, a black hole. Anything I place there cannot be returned. I miss you terribly. Ci vedremo lassu, angelo. [286].

Spanish and North American editions[edit]

The book was published in Spanish in 2002 under the title Amando En Tiempos De Silencio (Loving in the Days of Silence). (ISBN 84-95346-24-9).

The United States and Canadian edition of Holding the Man (with an afterword by Tommy Murphy) was released in September 2007 by Cuttyhunk Books, Boston, Massachusetts. (EAN/ISBN 978-0-97882595-9).

Stage version[edit]

The original stage version of the memoir, adapted by Tommy Murphy and directed by David Berthold, is one of the most successful Australian theatre productions of recent times and the winner of multiple awards. It premiered in 2006 in a critically acclaimed, sold-out season at Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, Australia's leading new writing theatre, and became the company's highest-grossing production in its 30-year history.

The production played six, highly successful seasons in various theatres around Australia:

The production was remounted at La Boite Theatre Company with a new cast, 16 February - 9 March 2013.

West End (London) season

This original Australian production was recreated in London’s West End for a limited season from 23 April to 3 July 2010. The cast included Jane Turner, (Kath from TV’s Kath & Kim). David Berthold directed and Brian Thomson designed the sets, with costumes and puppets by Micka Agosta. The Trafalgar Studios season was produced by Daniel Sparrow and Mike Walsh, Matthew Henderson and Suzie Franke, Benjamin Jones and Neil Gooding Productions

Other productions

The North American premiere of Holding the Man was staged by San Francisco's New Conservatory Theater Center, 21 September - 4 November 2007.

A New Zealand production was produced by Silo Theatre (at Auckland's Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre) from 7–29 August 2009, directed by Shane Bosher.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia production ran from 21 October - 13 November 2011 at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, directed by Rosalba Clemente and starring Nic English, Luke Clayson, Catherine Fitzgerald, Nick Pelomis, Geoff Revell and Ellen Steele. It was designed by Morag Cook, composed by Stuart Day, with lighting design by Mark Shelton and puppets created by Stephanie Fisher.

Los Angeles Season

The Australian Theater Company presented their production in Los Angeles in May/June 2014 at The Matrix Theater with Larry Moss directing. The production was met with much fanfare with a launch hosted by the Australian Consul General in Los Angeles. The cast featured Nate Jones, Adam J. Yeend, Cameron Daddo, and Roxane Wilson and was very well received by US critics citing Moss' direction, Murphy's writing and the performances of the cast, particularly the two leads.


The stage version was published by Currency Press in November 2006 in a double volume with another play by Murphy, Strangers in Between. A new edition of the play was published in April 2010 by Nick Hern Books in the UK to coincide with the London season of the production.

Original Australian Creative Team

Director: David Berthold
Designer: Brian Thomson
Costume Designer: Micka Agosta
Lighting Designer: Stephen Hawker
Composer & Sound Designer: Basil Hogios
Associate Sound Designer: Steve Toulmin
Assistant Director: Nic Dorward

Timothy Conigrave: Guy Edmonds
John Caleo: Matthew Zeremes
Mary-Gert Conigrave and Various: Jeanette Cronin
Dick Conigrave and Various: Nicholas Eadie
Phoebe and Various: Robin McLeavy
Peter Craig and Various: Brett Stiller

London Creative Team

Director: David Berthold
Designer: Brian Thomson
Costumes and puppets: Micka Agosta
Lighting Designer: James Whiteside
Composer & Original Sound Designer: Basil Hogios
UK Sound Designer: Avgoustos Psillas
Associate Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Associate Designer: Morgan Large

Timothy Conigrave: Guy Edmonds
John Caleo: Matthew Zeremes
Mary-Gert Conigrave and Various: Jane Turner
Dick Conigrave and Various: Simon Burke
Phoebe and Various: Anna Skellern
Peter Craig and Various: Oliver Farnworth

New Zealand (Auckland) Creative Team

Director: Shane Bosher
Set Designer: Rachael Walker
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting Designer: Jeremy Fern
Composer & Sound Designer: Andrew McMillan

Timothy Conigrave: Dan Musgrove
John Caleo: Charlie McDermott
Mary-Gert Conigrave, Lois Caleo and Various: Alison Bruce
Dick Conigrave, Bob Caleo and Various: Andrew Laing
Phoebe and Various: Michelle Blundell
Peter Craig, Biscuit, Kevin and Various: Matt Whelan

San Francisco Creative Team

Timothy Conigrave: Ben Randle
John Caleo: Bradly Mena
Mary-Gert Conigrave, Lois Caleo and Various: Danielle Perata
Dick Conigrave, Bob Caleo and Various: Dennis Parks
Phoebe and Various: Nicole Lungerhausen
Peter Craig, Biscuit, Kevin and Various: Wesley Cayabyab

Los Angeles Creative Team

Director: Larry Moss
Designer: John Iaconvelli
Assistant Director: Peter Blackburn
Timothy Conigrave: Nate Jones
John Caleo: Adam J. Yeend
Mary-Gert Conigrave, Lois Caleo and Various: Roxane Wilson
Dick Conigrave, Bob Caleo and Various: Cameron Daddo
Juliet and Various: Adrienne Smith
Peter Craig, Biscuit and Various: Luke O'Sullivan

Awards for Stage Version[edit]

  • Winner, $15,000 2007 New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, Best Play
  • Winner, 2007 Australian Writers' Guild Award (AWGIE), Best Play
  • Winner, 2007 Aussietheatre.com Online Awards for Best Play
  • Nomination, 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Play
  • Nomination, 2007 Sydney Theatre Awards, Best New Australian Work
  • Nomination, 2007 Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, Best Play
  • Nomination, 2010 West End BroadwayWorld UK Awards, Best New Play
  • Nomination, 2010 West End BroadwayWorld UK Awards, Best Direction of a Play
  • Winner, 2014 Stage Scene LA Scenie Awards, Best Production of the Year (Play)
  • Winner, 2014 Stage Scene LA Scenie Awards, Best Lead Actor - Nate Jones
  • Winner, 2014 Stage Scene LA Scenie Awards, Best Ensemble in a Play - Nate Jones, Adam J. Yeend, Cameron Daddo, Roxanne Wilson, Luke O'Sullivan, Adrienne Smith
  • Winner, 2014 Stage Scene LA Scenie Awards, Best Direction of a Comedy/Drama - Larry Moss
  • Winner, 2014 Stage Scene LA Scenie Awards, Best Production Deaign - John Iaconvelli, Jeremy Pivnick and Cricket Myers.

Judges' Citation, NSW Premier's Literary Award for Best Play

There have been many plays about life and love in the time of AIDS, some of them Australian, but this play is, however, in a real way, unique.

Adapted from Tim Conigrave's award-winning and much-loved memoir of the same name, Holding the Man tells the unusual and remarkable love story of Tim and John Caleo, who despite parental opposition, fell in love at Melbourne's Xavier College as 16-year-olds and remained together, in and out of love, until John died of AIDS. When they meet, Tim is an aspiring young actor and John is a promising footballer. For those who do not follow AFL it should be noted that the title is a football term.

Faithful to the book, the play covers some twenty years, and undertakes this demanding task gracefully. A love affair that spans such a long time is notoriously hard to dramatize yet Murphy does this with skill (he has an easy command of both the theatrical and of the dramatic), with wit, and with sensitivity. The personal and the political deftly intersect here, as the story is, in many ways, also a history of the gay pride movement in Australia . The play is by turns hilariously funny, tender and moving. It cleverly avoids the traps of sentimentality and self-pity as it journeys toward its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

External links[edit]

Articles and Interviews

Reviews of original stage production

Australian Production Information

Articles and Interviews from the New Zealand production

Reviews of New Zealand stage production

Reviews of San Francisco stage production

Articles and Interviews from the Los Angeles production

Reviews of Los Angeles stage production directed by Larry Moss