Puffing like a Grampus: Literary Efforts at Drama 1946-1964.
Why doesn't he put down his bags?--Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (2)
The end of the Second World War gave rise to an acute consciousness of a new international world. Part of this was a dream of a transformed future. As the New Zealand National Film Unit's early newsreel expressed it, in its coverage of the return of the shattered remnants of the New Zealand forces from Crete in 1941, the purpose of their fight had been to "set us all free to remake the world." (3) When the War ended, the United Nations was born, a grander manifestation of this dream. In the world of theatre, liberated France sent out Marcel Marceau's whimsical clown Bip to the new international world to speak in the universal language of mime, which could transcend Babel. Born Marcel Mangel to a Jewish family, the name Marceau was adopted as a disguise for his work as a teenage member of the French Resistance. His father was killed in Auschwitz, so, when Marceau formed a mime company in 1947 and began to tour internationally in 1949, his commitment to a new international order reached well beyond entertainment.
The other option of a possible future was a world split into two enemy camps, a cold war heated up by hot new weapons, each side with the power to destroy not just each other but the whole world. In 1952 the USA vaporized the Pacific islet Elugelab in the Marshall Islands with a thermonuclear bomb. The potential level of destruction seemed to be limitless. Again the world of drama and theatre responded from France, in 1953, with Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot. The hapless, bereft figure of Lucky stands as if in some post-apocalyptic ruined landscape, clutching the bags and possessions of his master Pozzo, while the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, puzzle over Lucky's purpose and appearance, long white hair hanging down, mute, immobile, slavering. Estragon comments: 'He's puffing like a grampus.' (4) Lucky is putting all his effort into holding those bags. But why? There he stands, static, breathing hard, going nowhere, and Vladimir asks, "Why doesn't he put down his bags?"
The post-Second World War world pulled in two directions, towards new hope and towards new despair. Between these forces Lucky stands as a kind of emblem of pointless effort, of static intention, trying hard and going nowhere. He belongs to the structure of feeling of the time.
Act One: Modernist Drama or a National Theatre (5)
'Things have changed since yesterday.'--Vladimir'
In the arts in New Zealand after the Second World War, this 'direction of new hope' was marked by the founding of arts institutions. This can be seen as partly the fruit of the nationalist push in the arts during the 1930s, but the dream of a 'remade world' pervades these conscientious endeavours. The National Film Unit had begun in 1941; the Literary Fund was established in 1946; both the National Library Service and the National Orchestra in 1947. The New Zealand Ballet began in 1953; and the first of many New Zealand Opera Companies in 1954. Dennis McEldowney has pointed out that 'much of the vitality and innovation was institutional, even government-led.' (6) The exception, of course, was Charles Brasch's privately funded literary magazine Landfall (1947). One might add Allen Curnow's poetry anthologies, A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-45 and A Book of New Zealand Verse 1923-50, like Landfall published by The Caxton Press in Christchurch, where the poet Denis Glover was a printer and typographer. The quotation from Glover, used as an epigraph for this essay describes the Caxton Press as 'potty' (in organisational terms) and acknowledges the stress the demands of post-War world improvement were inflicting. W.H. Oliver presents a retrospectively rose-tinted view of the successes of this time: 'The way had been prepared earlier, but the breakthrough came with the end of the Second World War [....] These crowded years transformed a colonial society into an independent one.' (7)
However, had one been involved in drama and theatre one could have murmured an aside: 'If only.' For more than a decade and a half attempts were made to invent a New Zealand theatre, but the searching question remains: how much changed between 1946 and 1964? Or was it mostly a matter of standing on the spot, like the abject Lucky, holding the bags and puffing like a grampus?
Before the Second World War, poet and left-wing activist R.A.K. Mason had been instrumental in founding The People's Theatre in Auckland. With the help of dancer Margaret Barr's New Theatre Group, Mason's play Refugee! and his dance drama China were staged in Auckland in October 1945. But thereafter Mason, the most left-wing of the established literary writers, wrote no new drama and none of his earlier work was either staged or published. In 1962, while holding the Burns Fellowship in Dunedin, Mason ventured back into drama with Strait is the Gate, a radio play. Mason had been the first to try drama; then, when his fellow writers began to try, he was silent.
A significant reason for this was the way that any integration of left-wing politics with modernist aesthetics began to run into problems once Cold War anti-communism hardened in the Western Bloc, as Rachel Barrowman notes in relation to Wellington's originally left-wing Unity Theatre: 'The evolution of Unity from a political agitprop theatre into one interested in all kinds of good, contemporary, 'socially significant' drama was in a number of respects a product of the changing political climate of the post-war years.' (8) The "151 days' of the waterside lock-out of 1951 was the defining Cold War event in New Zealand, and affected both individuals and the art they produced: 'The shift in priorities was accompanied by a concern to dissociate the theatre [Unity Theatre] from its Communist Party origins and to establish a reputation as "a drama group" (rather than a political outgrowth of any description).'9 No one tried to write a drama about the 1951 lock-out at the time nor for a long time after--it was confined to the realm of the 'unspeakable.' It would not be until Amamus Theatre Company produced their collective creation '51 in 1972 that the subject would be treated on stage.
Modernist theatre lacked the haut bourgeois endorsement of ballet, opera or classical music. Nevertheless theatre was presided over by what Ngaio Marsh's biographer Joanne Drayton calls that 'giant of literary Gods, William Shakespeare.' (10) Inasmuch as dramatic literature could come to its rescue, theatre might claim to be worthy and deserving. Worthy and deserving efforts began in 1947, when Sir Robert Kerridge imported a company of English actors into Auckland, known as the West End Players, and a company of American actors into Christchurch, known as the Pasadena Players, the whole short-lived enterprise grandiosely tided the New Zealand Theatre. R.A.K. Mason and J.G.A Pocock mocked in the pages of Landfall widi two articles tided, 'Mr Kerridge Tries Culture'. (11) This venture was accompanied by a debate about what a National Theatre might look like. The terms of the debate, as Barrowman describes them, were between Auckland Drama Council (supported by Unity Theatre), arguing for 'a decentralized, locally-controlled organization which would cater to a wide popular audience' and the recently formed New Zealand Drama Council, advocating 'a centralized, government initiated and controlled, professional theatre.' (12) A five-member committee appointed by the Prime Minister to seek advice on the nature of a national theatre specifically excluded Unity Theatre from making a submission, on the grounds of the theatre's political leanings.
In 1951, Ngaio Marsh, following the Kerridge model, gathered a company of predominantly British actors, called the British Commonwealth Theatre Company, and brought productions of Pirandello, Shaw and Shakespeare, first to Sydney and then on a disastrous tour of New Zealand that came to 'an ignominious end.' (13) In 1953, Edith and Richard Campion's New Zealand Players Company began touring 'varied and first-class theatre' (14) throughout the country, a commitment it continued to fulfill until its collapse in 1960. The Marsh and Campion ventures were essentially privately funded. However, there was state input into the 'theatre push' in the contribution made by the universities. During the 1940s, The Little Theatre at Canterbury University College was a venue for significant productions, notably Ngaio Marsh's Hamlet and Othello and the special one-off showing of her production of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author for Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. In Auckland, Owen Jensen, as part of the Adult Education programme at Auckland University College, where he taught music, set up the Community Arts Service, under the auspices of the University, borrowing the idea from an English wartime model of touring the arts to workers and communities, and CAS, as it came to be known, quickly developed a drama wing. CAS survived until 1966. And in 1961, the short-lived New Independent Theatre was founded in Auckland.
These organisations and venues--Unity Theatre, the New Zealand Players, Canterbury University College, CAS at Auckland University College, New Independent Theatre--produced and staged plays by literary writers in the period 1946--1964: Douglas Stewart's Ned Kelly (1941) by the New Zealand Players in 1953; Allen Curnow's The Axe by J.A.G. Pocock at the Little Theatre at Canterbury University in 1948; Curnow's Moon Section by Ronald Barker for CAS in 1959; James K. Baxter's jack Winter's Dream (initially on radio in 1958) and The Wide-Open Cage both by Richard Campion with Unity in 1960 and 1959 respectively; Frank Sargeson's A Time for Soiling and The Cradle and the Egg both by Chris Cathcart at the Auckland City Art Gallery for New Independent in 1961 and 1962; Bruce Mason's The Pohutukawa Tree was given a reading by the New Zealand Players in 1957 and The End of the Golden Weather.; as a solo show, was toured by Mason himself from 1959 onwards; The Tree by Stella Jones (significantly the only woman in this line-up) was toured by the New Zealand Players after it had played in Bristol and Newcastle in England; D'Arcy Cresswell's The Forest, completed in 1947 and published in 1952, was staged by New Independent in 1963; Allen Curnow's play Dr Pom was given an independent production in Auckland in 1964 by Ronald Barker, after he had left CAS. These are the plays I shall consider in this essay - efforts by literary writers of some established reputation to enter the arena of dramatic writing. In addition, Charles Brasch wrote a play, The Quest, which was staged by the Compass Players in a church hall in a village in Herefordshire in England in 1946, just before his return to New Zealand.
The idea that a 'National Theatre' could be something popular, almost populist, stumbled over the question whether high culture was for the masses, epitomized by Ngaio Marsh, writing in Landfall in 1947, who asked: 'Would the country people who flocked in from outlying districts to see the Kiwi Concert Party be drawn to [...] Eugene O'Neill, the classics, or the New Zealand writers Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch?' (15) The Kiwi Concert Party decamped to Australia, where they played professionally for a further eight years. Had the Concert Party been able to stay in New Zealand, then the Second World War might have endowed the country with a theatrical equivalent of the All Blacks, an all-male revue, born out of the army. But this was not what the literary nationalists were looking for, as they moved into drama and theatre. They had a date with modernist drama instead.
Act Two: Trapped in a Net: Global Drama after the Second World War
'In order to dance.'--Vladimir (16)
Eventually Lucky does put down his bags. And why? He does so 'In order to dance.' Lucky's feeble effort at dancing is tided 'The Net' because 'He thinks he's entangled in a net.' (17) Lucky's world is that of a captured animal, marking him as the most extreme example of 'entrapment' in the play. Indeed, the entire action of Godot consists of being trapped in the stasis of waiting. Patricia Lockwood, discussing Carson McCuOers' dramatic writing in London Review of Books, calls our attention to 'die static mid-century stage' (18) From this perspective, Beckett's play, though highly original, can be seen as also typical; the stage action of Vladimir and Estragon's endless waiting is stuck at that pivot point between rescue or oblivion, between 'remaking the world' or 'utter destruction.' From Sartre's No Exit/Huis Clos (1945) to Pinter's The Caretaker (1959) nobody is going anywhere. Any dancing takes place on the spot, within a tangled skein of contradictory feeling. Even Marceau's irrepressible Bip is caught, in his 1962 mime piece The Cage, as the walls close in.
Writers in Aotearoa, who began to write for the stage in this period, were working within their knowledge of international drama, even as they set about the task of creating a national dramatic literature. As John Newton has noted in Hard Frost, in New Zealand there was a contradiction between creating a new national literature and fulfilling the contemporaneous demands of the modernist aesthetic: 'What does it mean to propose a discourse of settler nationalism downstream of modernism?' (19) Newton points out that 'our particular literary nationalism [...] is formulated under the historical aegis [...] of modernist disenchantment.' (20) Newton employs Raymond Williams' idea of 'the structure of feeling' to identify the unique world of the literary nationalism of the period 1908 to 1945 and to map 'literary-historical development onto a generational grid.' (21) In this regard, this present essay, starting from the year 1946, concatenates with Newton's book, stepping forward into the next generation of activity, after the Second World War and exploring the new endeavour of dramatic writing from the literary nationalists and its tangled reciprocity with attempts to establish a functional theatre. One senses that Ngaio Marsh is wrestling with the peculiar circumstances of the New Zealand colonial situation--trying to initiate both a drama and a theatre while simultaneously being aware of such modernist delights as Godot's multiple disenchantments--when, in Landfall in 1949, she dismisses the possibility of 'a strictly indigenous theatre,' and proposes instead a national theatre based on colonial provincialism, involving importation of 'an English producer' to tour 'a classical play.' (22) It is arguable that 'a strictly indigenous theatre' (Marsh has her eyes on the Abbey Theatre in Dublin) did not arrive in New Zealand until 1990, the year of the sesquicentennial, when The Depot Theatre in Wellington re-christened itself Taki Rua and for a whole year staged only Maori drama and performance. But by then it was once again too late, as the noble internationalism of the post-Second World War years had long since crumbled and a chaotic, globalized culture was emerging, epitomized by 'the world-wide web,' which also came to be called The Net, a much larger entrapment than anything Lucky had enacted.
Godot can be seen as 'the play of plays' from the period under consideration, but that is not to say its style and tone encompass the range of theatrical and dramatic activity that forms the background against which new plays were written in Aotearoa/New Zealand. A map of post-Second World War theatre would have to include the following: verse drama; epic theatre, historical and documentary; absurdist theatre; the theatre of mime and silence; the end of vaudeville and variety, as they were absorbed into radio and then television; 'phantasmagoric' drama, where all lies in the mind of the single dreamer, descendant of Expressionism and Surrealism; the gradual death of drawing room naturalism and its rebirth as 'kitchen sink' realism; the persistence of populist farce (Roger Hall would pick up on this in the 1970s). The plays this essay discusses, taken collectively, can be shown to include all of the above, sometimes with solid examples, and sometimes only with hints and murmurings. Categories draw useful distinctions, but they can also mask subterranean conjunctions. Raymond Williams, in his book Drama in Performance, points out the connection between 'high naturalism' and Godot. Noting that high naturalism consists of 'trapped rooms' and 'inhibited conversations', Williams goes on to write that: 'Beckett's achievement, in Waiting for Godot, is the dramatization, at an extreme point, of this familiar immobility.' (23) I shall seek to make connections as well as to invoke categorical distinctions during the discussions that follow. And even as I take up my critical task, I remain aware of how the critic is parodied by Beckett when Vladimir, upon squinting bewilderedly at Lucky's performance of The Net, and 'squirming like an aesthete, 'pronounces his critical assessment: 'There's something about it [...]' (24)
Act Three: Verse Drama versus Dramatic Verse
Vladimir: 'You should have been a poet.' Estragon: 'I was.' (25)
The idea of a new verse drama in English looked back to the Early Modern golden age of English drama, as well as drawing sustenance from a dalliance with the orient, as in Yeats's Irish Noh plays. But the idea was also driven by the verse-speaking choirs between 1920 and 1950, products of democratised education and the establishment of drama schools (Marjorie Gullan and the Oxford Festivals; Elsie Fogerty and the Central School of Speech and Drama). (26) T.S. Eliot's 'Choruses from The Rock' (1934), performed with music and dance to raise money to preserve old London churches, was a prelude to his 1935 verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Other poets in the 1930s, such as W.H. Auden and Archibald MacLeish, took up the verse drama mode, wedding the verse choir with an anticipated new golden age of theatre in English. After World War Two, Christopher Fry's medievalist and T.S. Eliot's drawing room drama verse plays domesticated the genre before it faded away to be recalled now as a rather quaint tributary of twentieth century theatre. The voice of Eliot's choruses can be heard haunting Charles Brasch's The Quest: Words for a Mime Play (1946) and also Allen Curnow's more assured play, The Axe (1948), both of which feature 'Chorus' as a kind of character:
Turning on the timeless wheel of the heavens Systems and suns and eras and generations [...] (27) [Brasch] Not That I claim any special vision--not even the common Clairvoyance of the tragic chorus--only what comes Of experience longer than most. (28) [Curnow]
Such verses reassure us of the earnestness of their intent as well as the weightiness of their import, while rigorously keeping within the boundaries of plain, yet educated, modern diction. No such claim can be made for D'Arcy Cresswell's verse in his play The Forest (1947):
Listen!--'Tis so live that, where 'tis heard. Things dull and hard and disagreeable Would wish they were not so. (29)
Cresswell's verse, a cobbled pastiche of archaic literary modes, does make one wish it 'were not so.' There are small patches of prose in Brasch and Cresswell, none at all in Curnow, whereas Douglas Stewart's Ned Kelly (in 1953 Stewart was still regarded as 'a well-known New Zealand poet, now living in Australia' (30)) is a half-and-half play, where the verse is used for retrospective narratives or introspective evocations or meditations, ie. 'the boring bits,' of which, unfortunately, there are more than required (in print the play stretches over four acts to 206 pages):
A man's country, all ridges and rocks and gum-trees Where the mountain people grow like mountain trees, Stringy and hard and fighting their way to the top, Not like your dried-up plains Where you crawl about like flies on the hide of bullock: They call it the Kelly country. (31)
Did Ned Kelly talk like this? If he did, he surely couldn't get away with it on stage. None of these four verse plays overcomes the problem of how to place poetry written by a poet in the mouth of a nominal character.
More interesting than their verses are some of the revelations we can now read in these plays with our advantage of hindsight. Brasch's The Quest tells the tale of a young man, a Shepherd, who comes from 'the empty Pacific, on that double island,' (32) where he attends to 'the lambing and the mustering and the clipping.' (33) This young man sets out from his home to find the world and what he finds he says is 'myself but he also desires to 'Save--the world' and 'give men peace.' (34) As well as being a morality fable, The Quest addresses the state of the post-Second World War world. In Cresswell's play, the 'Forest' is the embodiment of Nature, 'Empty and voiceless .../Save for the fears of simple savages.' (35) 'Simple savages' is the only mention Maori get in either The Quest or The Forest; that is unless the role of 'Tom, a native servant to Salter' in The Forest is meant to be Maori. However Tom sounds and acts like a 1930s racist Hollywood stereotype: 'Oo-oooh! I'm frightened! I'm going!' (36) It is difficult to imagine how New Independent Theatre managed to stage The Forest, even in 1963: the play is a tangle of contradictory ideas--conservation, gay rights (for male homosexuals, not females), vilification of science and business, contempt for modern art, and even greater contempt for women. It is puzzling that, when Ngaio Marsh read a final draft of The Forest, she described it as 'extremely good' then went on to lament that it was 'an apologia for homosexuality.' (37) Now it is really only Cresswell's advocacy of the 'love between two men/To which all men are prone if rightly trained' (38) that holds any interest. We have to wade through nearly 90 pages before we are finally rewarded with the one entertainingly high camp moment in the play--the Angel Gabriel whips off his robe to reveal 'a beautiful young man naked save for a girdle.' (39) Brasch and Cresswell's plays are fantasias, but also personal allegories: The Forest stars the gay poet and fountain of truth, George, and The Quest features the young man who leaves home, as Brasch did, to travel the world, then return home to find himself--one feels that the Shepherd should really whip off his sou-wester to reveal the first issue of Landfall, as a comic denouement.
But Allen Curnow's The Axe steers clear of fantasia and personal allegory, instead grounding itself firmly in historical and documentary realities (as Eliot had done with Murder in the Cathedral). Curnow used Sir Peter Buck/ Te Rangi Hiroa's account of the Christianising of Mangaia in the Cook Islands as well as Teuira Henry's writings in the bulletins of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu. As Curnow acknowledged, 'putting English into the mouths of these Mangaians was a radical enough necessity.' (40) All the characters are of Mangaia, except the missionizing teacher, Davida, who is Tahitian. Davida was his actual name and two other principal characters along with the Ngauvara tribe are named from documentary sources. Curnow sought a documentary as well as an existential truth. In the best modernist mode, truth is uttered in reverse by a character unconscious of its irony, as the conquering Christianised chief Numangatini, after he has killed his enemies and won the war for Jesus, pronounces: 'Peace shall be assured forever.' (41) The Axe tends to wear its subtext as a post-Second World War play on its sleeve, as Curnow confirmed in his Author's Note in the programme of his second play, Moon Section: 'I made the island of Mangaia in 1824 do duty (in part) for the islands of New Zealand in 1945.' (42) The Axe contains genuine dramatic action culminating in brutal deaths for four of the eight named characters. Yet, the play is not tragic and its grim survey of reality is held in check by the two Chorus voices, who conclude the performance:
FIRST CHORUS: Who wields the axe? SECOND CHORUS: Time, and a hand unknown Set living and dead adrift, by sea-winds blown. (43)
The abstract forces invoked here are not what the dramatic action has shown. The play's finale sounds more like a recitation of 'Landfall in Unknown Seas,' rather than embodied dramatic action. Curnow's slighter 1969 radio play. Resident of Nowhere, about lames Busby in Northland in 1835, employs a vivid moment of sound montage: 'Haka begins on shore, swells [....] Bagpipe takes up and swells with haka. ' (44)
The significant sub-text of The Axe is not found in its verbal text, but in its original casting of an all-Polynesian character list. Curnow confessed that: 'It would have been impossible to confront European missionaries and ancient Polynesians on the one stage.' (45) Its first production, in Christchurch in 1948, produced by (which then meant 'directed by') J.G.A. Pocock, with a drunk but compelled James K. Baxter in the audience, was performed by an all-European cast playing the roles of the all-Polynesian characters. This was what 'indigenous' drama looked like in 1948. It was, supposedly at least, what was 'possible'. In 2013 James Wenley, MA student at Auckland University, staged a rehearsed, script-in-hand reading of The Axe with an all-Polynesian cast, and the Cook Islanders in the cast were most intrigued to find out about the story of the missionising of Mangaia, some of which was news to them. Junior Misimoa, who played Tupia in that reading, commented that: 'There is a lot of history in the play that people [nowadays] need to hear about especially within the Cook Islands community.' (46) Suddenly The Axe took on a new documentary role for Cook Islanders who had grown up in Aotearoa.
In 1954 Professor Sydney Musgrove produced The Axe for a second time, at the premises of Elam School of Fine Arts, then located in the old Newton West School buildings in Great North Road, in Auckland. By this time Allen Curnow was teaching in the English Department at Auckland University, where Musgrove was Head of English. In this production Curnow himself took the role of First Chorus. In his Author's Note in the programme, Curnow wrote: 'As for the poetry, the kind of verse in which the play is written, I believe (as Eliot and Fry, vastly as they differ, have both asserted) that we don't have to be conscious that it is there.' (47) This is a curious position to take up. One must ask, then, why write it in verse at all? Yet Curnow pinpoints the 'problem' of the new verse drama. Curnow, as we shall see, persisted with his efforts to write verse drama in a far more comprehensive and dedicated way than any of his literary colleagues, right through until 1969. His six full-length dramas from 1948 to 1969 constitute an output that far exceeds his poetry publishing in that period. It is a curiosity that Denis Glover, Curnow's close friend and poetic ally, never ventured into drama, yet Gary Henderson's 1994 play, Skin Tight, a dramatisation of Glover's best-known poem, 'The Magpies,' has become one of New Zealand drama's most widely performed plays, both nationally and internationally.
Act Four: Absurd, Epic, Tragedy, The Unspeakable:
We were presentable in those days.'--Vladimir (48)
Epic Theatre (after Brecht) and Theatre of the Absurd were the innovative theatrical movements that emerged to international prominence in the 1950s. But New Zealand plays with historical subject matter (The Axe, Ned Kelly) did not pick up on Brecht's theoretical notion of epic to apply it to history and politics. Unity Theatre in Wellington had been the first to stage a Brecht play (Caucasian Chalk Circle) in New Zealand in 1952, but it would not be until the later 1960s, and after, that Brecht's ideas would impact local dramaturgy, Amamus's play '51 in 1972 being a notable example.
'Theatre of the Absurd,' as Martin Esslin christened it for the English-speaking world in his eponymous 1961 book, was the classification to which Beckett's Waiting for Godot belonged. When Ronald Barker, an English producer and one of the founders of the magazine Plays and Players came to New Zealand in 1958 to work for the Community Arts Service, he chose to stage Waiting for Godot and to tour it round the provinces. Peter Harcourt uses the term 'cultural shock' to label the impact of Beckett's play: 'angry deputations of shocked citizens, letters to newspaper editors expressing fury, disgust or horror at this assault on the New Zealand way of life, telegrams to MPs and Ministers.' (49) Modern art was doing its thing: the Godot furore takes its place in line with the 1956 purchase of Henry Moore sculptures for the Auckland Art Gallery, McCahon's winning of the Hays Prize in 1960 and Auckland Art Gallery buying Barbara Hepworth's sculpture, 'Torso II' in 1963. In Beckett's play Vladimir speaks of a time when he and Estragon had once been 'presentable.' (50) In 1958, in New Zealand, Waiting for Godot was not jet presentable. But within a decade the structure of feeling would have shifted, and in 1966 Beckett's Happy Days would be a runaway hit for the new Downstage Theatre in Wellington. The 'absurd' emerged as the new normal in a world where the Cold War tension between hope and despair had hardened and twisted into a grotesquerie.
Frank Sargeson completed his play The Cradle and the Egg in 1954 and by 1955 he had written a draft of a second play, A Time for Sowing. The stakes round drama were on the rise in the literary community as these plays circulated in manuscript. Michael King, Sargeson's biographer, comments that, 'Everybody literary who read them told him [Sargeson] they were marvellous.' (51) On the other hand, 'theatre people'--he names Richard Campion, Rodney Kennedy, Bruce Mason and Margaret Walker from Victoria University College Drama Club--expressed 'polite interest that soon tailed away.' (52) James K. Baxter wrote to Sargeson: 'I particularly admire the splendid characterisation of Mrs Kendall,' (53) in A Time for Sowing. Baxter made Curnow's The Axe a point of comparison in terms of the art of dramatic writing: 'Curnow's The Axe is an obvious competitor; but I have never felt that play was truly dramatic. Have you seen a caterpillar on top of a stick reaching all round for a solid foothold and finding none--that is Curnow's method of dramatic writing.' (54) By this stage Baxter had his skin in the game too, because Sargeson was writing back to him in 1955 about a manuscript draft of Jack Winters Dream. Baxter's play was published in Landfall in September 1956, then broadcast on NZBC radio on 26 September 1958. But Sargeson's plays had to wait longer before the literary and theatre caterpillars met on a solid footing--A Time for Sowing was given a rehearsed reading in St Mungo's Hall, Grey Lynn, Auckland, in 1960, directed by Edna Harris; and then Sowing in 1961 and The Cradle and the Egg in 1962 were staged by the New Independent Theatre at the Auckland City Art Gallery.
A Time for Sowing's subject is the missionary Thomas Kendall, whose fitness, as Allen Curnow observed, 'as a subject for tragic drama can hardly be questioned.' (55) Reviewing the 1960 public reading of A Time for Sowing, Curnow judged that it 'could not be called successful,' (56) pointing out that 'he [Kendall] displays ... an immense moral inertia, so that at the end of the play he is what he was at the start.' (57) Curnow is right. The play doesn't just enact stasis; its very form reinforces this condition. Godot was famously described as a play in which nothing happens twice; A Time for Sowing is a play in which nothing happens at all. A dose of Brecht's Epic theatre, applied to this historical drama, would have helped. Instead Sargeson makes the play into a conventional prose narrative, full of talk, devoid of action or even activity. Best known for supposedly embracing Maori spiritual ideas as well as embracing a young Maori woman, Kendall fails to embrace either in the course of the play. Mrs Kendall embraces the ex-convict servant and it seems they will run away together, but they don't. They stay where they are. In the mid-1960s Sargeson published a 'dialogue' in Landfall, 'Conversation in a Train,' between William Yate and Samuel Butler, both figures with dramatic stories and secrets to reveal, but confined them to a discussion of Christian sin. Sargeson seems to withdraw from the possibility of a dramatic situation, while yearning to create a work of dramatic literature.
Sargeson's second play, The Cradle and the Egg, reads like an exposition of modern drama's development. Act One is a historical drawing room drama. Act Two is set in an aeroplane, with a passenger wielding a bomb. The style is filmic, as the stage is split like a screen--the cockpit is isolated from the lounge, so that by the end of the Act, while Ernest in the plane's lounge threatens the passengers with his bomb, upstairs in the cockpit, ' The pilot and the hostess can be dimly seen sprawled across the controls in as tight an embrace as circumstances permit.' (58) This Act is close to farce. Then Act Three opens with the stage instruction: A Rock. There is no particular time. There is no sign of any vegetation,' (59) This third act brings us close to the feel of Absurdist drama, albeit of the blighted variety. Post-apocalypse, history has been devoured by anachronism and symbolism. The final image of the play is when the egg of the ride, which has popped up in all three acts, progressively accumulating symbolic power, 'appears to glow with a radiance of its own.' (60)
Curnow had begun writing the play that eventually came to be called Moon Section straight after the production of The Axe in 1948. But the script was abandoned until he took it up again in 1957, describing, in a letter to Denis Glover, Iris new engagement with the old script as 'The hardest bit of hard writing I've done in years.' (61) Curnow's serious re-engagement with dramatic writing fortuitously coincided with the arrival of Ronald Barker from England at the beginning of 1958 to take up the post of Director for the theatre work of CAS, the Community Arts Service. It was Barker who, during 1958, directed the notorious production of Waiting for Godot. And it was under Barker's guidance that Curnow re-drafted his new play. '[T]he best education I have had in writing for the stage,' (62) was Curnow's summary of working with Barker. And in the Director's Note in the programme Barker wrote of himself 'offering any help that was in my power, as draft after draft was discarded.' (63) Barker took on the play as a CAS production and it was accepted for the 1959 Auckland Festival where it played 10 performances, and then toured 21 provincial centres and Wellington, making it far and away the Curnow play with the most stage presentation.
Moon Section has never been published, yet it was Curnow's most complex, powerful and problematic play. It is complex because it attempts to stage an inter-generational family tragedy in a way that will represent the ambitious history and the present inertia of New Zealand, the island colony. With a tremendous effort of creative will, Curnow packs in the whole grand, ruined picture--Thomas Judd, the half-mad, guilt-ridden father, descendant of a prosperous colonial farming family, now fallen on straitened times; his son Jack, already dead for a year by rifle shot when the play opens; his daughter Nance, who works at the local chemist; Janet Colebatch, the local doctor; Stephen Bailey, schoolteacher and poet, an import from the city; Stephen's present girlfriend, Margaret Watson, a city girl (Stephen has already had affairs with the doctor and the daughter); and Mac Derbidge, the local carrier, who, along with Wal Singleton, the local builder, form a two-bloke chorus. The play's setting presents the half-built frame of a new house and, beside it, the old Judd house with a verandah where Thomas Judd presides in his Morris chair. The action of the play, essentially an unraveling of the mystery surrounding Jack Judd's death--was it suicide or something else?--brings about the extinction of the Judds: Nance shoots Stephen, then shoots herself, meanwhile Thomas dies. The future glimmers faintly with the knowledge that Margaret Watson is pregnant, though Margaret's expostulation to the Doctor is hardly hopeful: 'It's not a baby [....] It's an old, old shrunken smelly old man.' (64)
Moon Section is powerful. Yet its power sometimes teeters on bathos. Curnow continued to pursue die elusive grail of verse drama, commenting in his programme note that 'Moon Section shouldn't be notably "poetic"--if the drama holds attention, we can hardly, at the same time, be listening for "poetry" as such.' (65) The steady diction of The Axe gives way to something more adventurous:
JUDD: And he cursed the children in the name of the
He cursed them--
DERBIDGE: Take it easy, mate. (66)
The play, as has been noted, is like a mixture of Ibsen with Strindberg (67) but one might add also a touch of Chekhov, with a pinch of Yeats' Purgatory, and the text leaks echoes of Lear (Judd and his daughter, the three women, Janet, Nance and Margaret), as well as Hamlet and the Bible. The boldness of design and reference does not stop here, as the final scene (Act II, Scene 2) 'takes place in another dimension [...] with bluish light and the people heightened and transfigured by this abstraction.' (68)
Moon Section is also problematic. The cumbersome set with its two houses and its gate with the 'Fresh Eggs' sign and its path and its pile of earth and its trees seems to come from an earlier era. One can't help but feel the contrast with the modernity of the open playing space of Godot. Exits and entrances often feel like unmotivated conveniences of the author. The three women characters are well-contrasted and together they embody the riddle at the play's centre--Nance, the image of the ruin of the past; Janet, the doctor, the avarice of the present; and Margaret some image of future difference and hope. But the schoolteacher poet Stephen is written with such heavy satire--'One of our most promising young poets,' Janet comments, to which Judd responds, 'Poets! Puppies piddling on a lamp-post.' (69)--that he is reduced to parody, when his charm is meant to have successfully seduced Nance, Janet and Margaret.
When Curnow had shown his script to Ngaio Marsh, she had written back wondering whether 'the One Thing that every play must be about' was 'sufficiently established for presentation to an audience.' (70) With long hindsight now, and in no way wishing to undermine the play's explicit subject, one might say that the One Tiling that Moon Section was about was New Zealand drama. That was its subtext. That was the wellspring of the 'hardest bit of hard writing.' In it Curnow served up all the elements that were needed in one play, so the text remains exemplary rather than specific. Such a generic recipe of a play remains frustrated by its lack of Marsh's One Thing, yet, at the same time, it is full of restless longing.
In 1962, Barker intended to stage Curnow's new play, The Overseas Expert, a satirical take on the Auckland nouveau riche. As a play, The Overseas Expert lacks the desire to pursue a breakthrough in dramatic writing that is present in Moon Section. The play itself was less significant, in terms of the structure of feeling of that time, than the real-life incident that accompanied it. After a final rehearsal. Barker was the subject of a set-up police sting when he was arrested for sexual relations with a man in a public toilet. Barker was married with a family, but, in the vocabulary of the time, had 'a flamboyantly camp manner.' (71) His public exposure in the criminal pages of the press led his sacking by the University Council (CAS was part of Adult Education at the University of Auckland). Appalled by the lynch-mob mind-set of some of the Association of University Staff, Curnow defended Barker at the AUT meeting, declaring Barker 'a man I am proud to call a friend.' (72) The incident forced Barker to leave CAS and set up a production company with his wife, Lillian.
At this time the theatre, unlike the university, was one of the few places that provided a world of support and understanding for gay men and women. In January 1964 a group of teenage males beat up and killed Charles Aberhart in Hagley Park in Christchurch near a public toilet where they had identified him as 'cruising'. All of the killers were acquitted in court. One can see now how the time was crying out for a play about the Barker sting or the Hagley Park incident as it came to be called. But that was impossible--unspeakable, in a word. The problem of making dramas that might 'speak of the unspeakable' could be a way of looking at the literary efforts at drama between 1946 and 1964. Nobody could work out how to do it, but no writer made a greater effort than Curnow to break open the secret. And his next effort was something completely different.
Dr Pom was the only genuinely absurdist piece of theatre of the period from 1946-1964. It is also a satire on the university. Like 'the Overseas Expert,' and indeed, like Ronald Barker himself, Dr Pom brings to the island of Zealania his great British expertise, in Pom's absurd case as Professor of Applied Biochemical Theology. He is accompanied to the University of Oceania by Mrs Pom, whose prototype is Lady Macbeth as she drives her husband's ambition and he rises progressively to be Sir Charles Pom, chair of this and that government committee and quango, then, when war breaks out, the Minister of Civil Safety Services, and eventually Prime Minister, a position from which he is thrown out and his descent begins. In the sixth and final scene, Pom and Lady Pom are packed in packing cases, an image of Beckett-style entrapment, waiting shipment back 'home'. Pom comments from his packing case: 'Like a play, isn't it. (brief pause) I said, it's like a play.--Silly remark.' And Lady Pom finally responds: 'Yes'. (73) But it seems the Chinese have taken over and Pom is reassigned to be 'Plo-flessor of Applied Biochemical Theology at the University of Oceania' and 'The appointment is for life.' (74) The circular action is an image of absolute stasis in 'This Island Paradise of Oceania.' (75) The play is not original--not just Beckett, but Ionesco's The Chairs and even snippets of Genet's The Balcony, can be detected, not to mention that most widely influential of all absurdist drama from the 1950s, the Goon Show, or even the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup--yet it is lively and free. The simple office setting is almost agitprop compared to the heavy architecture of Moon Section. The script, written in a kind of bouncy prose or semi-verse, has lost its straitjacket and offers actors lots to play with.
Alas, the absurd farce of Dr Pom met a tragic performance fate. In 1964, Ronald and Lilian Barker, under the aegis of their new producdon company, proposed a season of two-hander plays for one male and one female actor: from mid-October to early December they would stage Strindberg's Miss Julie, then Beckett's Happy Days, and finally Pinter's A Slight Ache in a double bill with a new play from Curnow, namely Dr Pom. The venue was the 'Rembrandt Art Theatre,' by day functioning as the Paris Boulevard coffee shop (on Queen Street, with entrance from High Street). The Artist coffee bar in Airedale Street had been used by the Auckland University Drama Club to stage Albee's Zoo Story in 1962. Albee, Pinter, Beckett et al were the new chic and Curnow, during his time in New York in 1961, had seen Albee's An American Dream and The Death of Bessie Smith, as well as Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and Genet's The Balcony--and also Genet's The Blacks, of which he said: 'it was theatre such as I couldn't have dreamt about.' (76) But mounting four plays with actors holding fulltime day jobs proved too much for Barker. The production was desperately under-rehearsed. The actors leaked lines and lost their way. Every quality the script needed in performance was obliterated. 'One of the worst evenings of my life,' Curnow commented. (77) Barker cut the script and tried to keep the season going. But Curnow disowned the whole venture: 'As for the play, as written, I make no claims & admit no faults, since it has yet to be performed.' (78) Upon hearing of his father's debacle with Dr Pom, Curnow's son Wystan wrote from America, where he was studying: 'none but a fool would try to write plays in New Zealand.' Father Allen is reported as having 'noted ruefully' his son's remark. (79)
Act Five: The Dreamer versus the Social Real
'At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, he is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.'
In his Author's Note to A Dream Play, Strindberg wrote: 'The characters split, double, multiply, evaporate, condense, disperse, assemble. But one consciousness rules them all: that of the dreamer.' (81) This 'dreamer' also makes an appearance in our 1946--1964 period: James K. Baxter's Jack Winter's Dream and Bruce Mason's The End of the Golden Weather are plays at the centre of which a single consciousness resides as director of the action. In Jack Winter's Dream someone called Narrator tells us everything: 'Ballarat Jack tells for no reason his sentimental, true, dead love to the listening sabbath dark.' (82) The omniscient Narrator looks back into the past of the Otago goldfields and tells us the tale of 'Jack Winter's Dream'. Then, in the final moments of the play, two 'modern' girl hikers arrive to find the 'frozen' body of the old prospector, Jack Winter, and the Narrator, still present, tells us that 'The seas of the last grief have gone over him.' (83) Baxter had an idea of 'the total dramatic poem which is the play' (84) and Jack Winter's Dream, his first effort at drama, tries to fulfill this, but the pervasive and undefined Narrator, who looks into past and future, tends to reduce the play to what Baxter identified as a dramatic dead-end: 'the tendency of poets to conceive of a given speech as a total poem.' (85) Jack Winter's Dream is written in prose, so verse drama per se is not the problem; rather the lyric impulse of the poet hobbles the dramatic action. Baxter's debt to and ventriloquism of Dylan Thomas in Jack Winter's Dream is explicit: 'Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood had been his springboard. He had the record and played it many times for friends.' (86)
Bruce Mason's The End of the Golden Weather also owed a debt to Dylan Thomas, with the 1958 visit of Welsh playwright and actor Emlyn Williams to New Zealand Mason's specific inspiration. Constructed from two stories published much earlier in Landfall, 'Summer's End' (1949) and 'Genesis' (1952), the dreamer of Golden Weather dreams the realm of childhood ('that territory of the heart' (87)), which is imaged as the threatened paradise of the Garden of Eden: 'The days of childhood slowly thread through memory like a golden snake'. (88) And we know the serpent shall destroy. Curnow was a verse dramatist who tried to make his verse sound like prose, but Mason was a prose dramatist who tried to make all his prose sound like poetry. Mason's lyrical dream of the golden weather of childhood stands in complete contrast to Curnow's vision of colonial delusion and failure. Mason's strength was his awareness that dramatic writing needed to incorporate into itself that situation in which the actor (Mason himself in this case) was present in a room with a group of people and all their eyes rested on him. He addresses this audience at the play's opening: 'Consider, if you will, Te Parenga.' (89) They were all looking at him as he told his dream. Curnow had taken on the role of Chorus in the Auckland production of The Axe, but Mason went much further, collapsing text and performance into one body. Although Mason later sold his decision to go solo as the product of necessity--'No theatrical framework? Right, then, 1 would create my own' (90)--his method was utterly appropriate to his material: the dreamer needed to be present to enact his dreaming.
Mason was the one writer who needed no mentor (as Barker was for Curnow, and Richard Campion for Baxter) to participate in the world of theatre. And with The Pohutukawa Tree, which was given a workshop presentation by the New Zealand Players in 1957, a television production by the BBC in 1959 and a radio production in New Zealand in 1960, before it began to have a ubiquitous life on New Zealand's amateur stages, Mason produced his definitive melodrama of the 'social real', the inherent conflict in the colonial story between Maori and Pakeha. This conflict stands out as a gaping lacuna in the plays of Cresswell, Brasch, Curnow, and Sargeson. It is striking that this lacuna persists in the defining melodrama of the social real of the 1980s, Greg McGee's Foreskin's Lament.
Baxter's second play, The Wide-Open Cage (1959), directed by Richard Campion, also moved from the realm of the dreamer to the social real, accessing some of the shock-value of the recently arrived mode of British kitchen sink realism. There's a Maori ship-girl, an Irish priest, a wise pensioner, a randy landlady, a no-good drunk, and two hormone-laden teenagers as a slice of Kiwi life. But, at its climax, the play is turned inside out when a skull on a table glows greenly and talks out loud, prompting the drunk to kill the pensioner. The repressed dreamer returns in the theatrical excess of this moment of rabid Expressionism.
The one notable play of the period that renders the social real--in other words, achieves a consistent modernist naturalism--is Stella Jones's The Tree. A conventional three-act drama with a nod to Anton Chekhov (there are three sisters, Lucy, Daisy and Hilda) and to Cinderella (Hilda's family role), the setting of the play is contemporary with its performance (1957). It is not kitchen-sink realist, nor does it employ the poetic flights of a Tennessee Williams (or a Bruce Mason!). It is curiously quiet, understated, featuring a world dominated by women. For four of the characters--the two sisters Lucy and Daisy and the two men, Herbert the ageing, somnolent father and Richard, the nice-boy-next-door, who has been engaged to the two sisters and married neither--the rule of stasis applies. But for the mother, Ada, who dies (Act Two is a 15 year flashback, taking us into the time of the Second World War), and for sister Hilda, who leaves home at 19 and has not been seen again until her imminent return, which is the inciting incident of the play, things do happen. Jones sets up a dialectic between those for whom nothing happens and those who leave and live differently. She sets the play in a halfway place, the back porch, over which the growing presence of the eponymous tree sheds its leaves. In 2000 Toa Fraser would make use of this Kiwi setting, the backyard, with his family drama, No. 2. The Tree had to go overseas (it played Bristol Rep and Newcastle before New Zealand Players staged it) in order to be accepted at home. But Hilda's return does not provide a resolution. She leaves again, unable to accept life on the back porch under the tree, a trope for the whole nation of 'restless sleepers', as Bill Pearson had christened us then. James Wenley, whose 2016 essay in the journal of New Zealand Literature provides a critical reappraisal of the play, describes The Tree as 'one of the first significant plays from New Zealand to grapple with its own time and place' (91) and highlights how it 'speaks to the ambivalence surrounding a woman's postwar position balancing familiar duty, career and independence.' (92) Jones had published in Landfall in 1947 a fictionalized account of George Eliot meeting Franz Liszt, so she had some contact with the literary nationalist world, but she had also written one-act plays for the British Drama League competitions, and therefore had a foot in the theatre world, too. But mostly The Tree stands out for the women's points of view it brings and the delicate texture of its realism as something different from the dramatic products of the male poets and fiction writers. I recall a conversation I had with Allen Curnow in which he contested my use of the term 'experimental theatre' by saying that when he was doing theatre, all theatre was experimental. I think he was using the word 'experimental' in the sense of 'difficult, unrewarding, impossible to get recognized, a nightmare to produce etc.' But in a more formal sense, it is possible to distinguish the experimental qualities of a work of art qua art. The Tree, by formal standards, is in no way experimental, yet it retains a quality quite different from other efforts of the era.
Epilogue: New Growth
'But yesterday evening it was all black and bare. And now it's covered with leaves.'--Vladimir (93)
At the time of the Dr Pom fiasco in 1964 one might have reasonably agreed that 'none but a fool would try to write plays in New Zealand.' At some fundamental level, it seemed nothing had changed since 1946. In 1963, in Landfall, Bruce Mason had written: 'the history of the New Zealand Players suggests that New Zealand, as a whole, is not a viable unit for theatre.' (94) Bill Broughton, reviewing the 1961 production of Sargeson's A Time of Solving, wrote that the play 'probably will stand with The Axe somewhat in isolation from whatever 'tradition' may develop in the future.' (95) Whatever it would be, it wasn't here yet. And Charles Brasch in 1959, discussing 'the proposal of the New Zealand Drama Council to establish a National Theatre,' had described New Zealand as 'only half alive intellectually and socially, sunk in a dream of lotus-eating.' (96) The possibility of a National Theatre had come to seem as hopeless as Estragon and Vladimir's waiting.
But then, the dead tree sprouted leaves. In May 1964 in Wellington, a public meeting called by actor Tim Eliott, and poet/actors Peter Bland and Martyn Sanderson, announced the formation of a professional regional theatre for Wellington, Downstage as it would be known. First they staged Ionensco's Exit the King at Victoria University in August, then moved downtown into emigre Harry Seresin's Walkabout Cafe, where the first production was Albee's Zoo Story in November. Performance had to be fitted inside a cafe and restaurant, with only a tiny stage space available for actors. This outbreak of theatre in coffee bars mirrored the 1962 Auckland students' production of Zoo Story in the Artist coffee bar and, coeval with Downstage, the performance of Dr Pom at the Rembrandt. The difference was that Downstage did not stop, but rather, between November 1964 and October 1966, produced 38 main bills, four children's plays, seven late-night and lunchtime shows. Of these 49 productions in the short space of two years, ten were plays by New Zealand authors. 14 others were shared among Ionesco, Albee, Pinter, Genet, Beckett, Jellicoe, Kopit, Lorca and John Mortimer. The biggest financial success was a production of Beckett's Happy Days (1966) directed by Sanderson, with Pat Evison as Winnie and designed by Pat Hanly. In a few years Beckett had gone from being a kind of cultural terrorist to the darling of the audience. Nothing like Downstage had happened before in Aotearoa and this was part of a general shift that was occurring within the structure of feeling of the society. Sanderson performed Beckett's radio play, From an Abandoned Work, at lunchtime in and around cafe tables, and patrons would likely not have known he was acting and would have thought he was an old dosser who had wandered off the streets. This performance might earn the adjective 'experimental' in its formal sense.
Downstage was a collaboration. Bruce Mason described it as 'casual, anarchic, devoted and responsible.' (97) There was no artistic director with a single vision. The cafe was also a gallery space. Theatre as gallery, gallery as theatre, the Happening is born. The name itself--'Downstage'--spoke of a position in the theatre that had theoretical implications: close to the audience, audience virtually on stage. The stage is no longer a place of entrapment, of stasis. The 'poet' is no longer that rarefied image of the artist as genius and star, exemplified in the character of George in Cresswell's The Forest, or by the Welsh bard Dylan Thomas, or even in negative by Curnow in the character of Stephen Bailey in Moon Section. This 'new thing' that is alerted in the formation of Downstage will not last inside Downstage itself, as the Arts Council (formed 1963) moves in and by 1967 Downstage receives the stamp of approval as the acknowledged regional theatre for Wellington. The anarchic democratic spirit that enlivened those first two productive years moved out into other manifestations. Sanderson, for example became part of the theatre/film/music commune known as Blerta. And 'experimental' companies such as Theatre Action, Amamus, The Living Theatre Troupe, Red Mole, and others, carried this spirit forward. The 'new thing' represented a shift in 'the structure of feeling'. In the wake of this shift, neither Curnow nor Baxter relinquished their efforts at drama--at least, not immediately. Their respective fates as dramatic writers are contrastingly instructive.
In Curnow's collection Four Plays, the last two plays after 'The Axe' and 'The Overseas Expert,' are both radio plays, 'The Duke's Miracle' (broadcast 1967) and 'Resident of Nowhere' (broadcast 1969). One could get the impression from that volume that Curnow had abandoned the stage. But in March 1967, Richard Campion had written to Curnow: 'How about that "Overseas Expert"? Downstage has asked me to do Baxter's "Spots of the Tiger/correction/Leopard." They would like to do a double bill. How would you feel about that?' (98) Curnow was quick to respond, mailing a script of The Overseas Expert to the newly appointed director of Downstage, Sandy Black, and adding: 'There is one other play that I might like you to see, when I have looked at it again: a satire called DrPom.' (99) Sandy Black turned out to be a case of the overseas expert who is really not whom he claims to be--as in Curnow's play--and by September 1967 Black had been dismissed, and when Curnow wrote to inquire about his script, he was told: 'Mr Black kept your own and many others scripts which he had requested, at his home and they were only received at Downstage a few weeks consequent upon his departure for Auckland.' (100) Curnow continued to pursue stage drama--there is further correspondence from 1968 with William Austin at Downstage concerning The Overseas Expert--but no production ever eventuated. The misleading consequence is that the volume of Curnow's plays that was published (Four Flays, 1972) omits two crucial stage works--Moon Section and Dr Pom. The death at an early age of Ronald Barker, plus the lack of any further stage performances must have influenced Curnow's decision that the plays were not ready for publication. However the consequent lack of visibility of Moon Section and Dr Pom has obscured how much writing effort Curnow applied to stage drama between 1948 and 1968.
Baxter's plays that were staged in Wellington (1959 to 1967) relied on his collaboration with director Richard Campion. After Campion had directed The Wide Open Cage (1959) and Jack Winter's Dream (1960), both for Unity, he directed Irene Esam in 1961 in a Baxter play called Three Women and the Sea at Victoria University. Then, in 1967, at Downstage, Campion double-billed Peter Bland's George The Mad Ad Man (not Dr Pom) with Baxter's The Spots of the Leopard. Frank McKay, Baxter's biographer, describes Spots of the Leopard as 'a revue with characters drawn from the Wellington streets. Campion thought it rather loose-limbed, a play of impressions.' (101) Howard McNaughton did not include either Spots of the Leopard or Three Women and the Sea in his edition of Baxter's Collected Plays (1982), even though that book does include some very slight pieces of work. The effect is to make Collected Plays focus on Baxter's two years of Burns Fellowship in Dunedin, 1966-1967, when the Globe Theatre, Dunedin, under the direction of Patrie and Rosalie Carey, became the production house for an extraordinary outpouring of stage dramas. Beginning with the writing, in November 1966, of Mr Brandy wine Chooses a Gravestone, Baxter appears to have written a further eight plays plus three mimes by the end of 1967, and a final play, The Temptations of Oedipus, in 1968. Four of these plays were staged at the Globe in the second half of 1967 and three more between 1968 and 1970. After moving to Wellington in 1968 and experiencing the 'vision' that was to lead to the Hiruharama/Jerusalem commune, Baxter wrote no more drama. His literary activity concentrated on writing poems about the 'real-life theatre' he had invented. Whereas Curnow was reluctant to publish texts that were not yet ready, Baxter's Collected Plays bears the marks of their rapid compositional instances and the lack of follow-up revision.
As with Curnow, Baxter, in the years between 1956 and 1968, also put much of his writing effort into drama, stage drama in particular. Yet, in the end, despite their best efforts, these poets and other literary nationalists like them (Cresswell, Brasch, Sargeson) were unable to invent the dramas they dreamed of. Vladimir says to Estragon: 'Shall we go?' and Estragon replies: 'Yes, let's go' and the playwright decides: They do not move.' (102)
I would like to thank Tim Curnow for his kind permission to read the ms. papers of Moon Section and Dr Pom by Allen Curnow, held in the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. And the staff of the Turnbull Library for their helpful assistance.
(1) Gordon Ogilvie, Denis Glover. His Life (Auckland: Godwit, 1999), p.263.
(2) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), p.30.
(3) 'Return from Crete,' newsreel, National Film Unit, 1941: writer, Stanhope Andrews, https://www.nzonscreen.com/tide/returnfrom-crete-1941 accessed 28 Feb. 2018.
(4) Beckett, Godot, p.30.
(5) Beckett, Godot, p.60.
(6) Dennis McEldowney, 'Ideologically Unsound,' Landfall 185 (Apr. 1993), 12.
(7) W.H. Oliver, 'The Awakening Imagination, 1940--1980,' The Oxford History of New Zealand, ed. Geoffrey W. Rice (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 539.
(8) Rachel Barrowman, A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1991), p.216.
(9) Barrowman, Popular Vision, p.215.
(10) Joanne Drayton, Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime (London: Harper, 2008), p. 40.
(11) R.A.K. Mason and J.G.A. Pocock, 'Mr Kerridge Tries Culture.' Landfall 2.1 (1948), Mason's article pp. 34-38, and Pocock's pp. 38-42.
(12) Barrowman, Popular Vision, p. 224.
(13) Drayton, Ngaio Marsh, p.271.
(14) Peter Harcourt, A Dramatic Appearance: New Zealand Theatre 1920-1970 (Wellington: Methuen, 1978), p. 93.
(15) Ngaio Marsh, 'Theatre,' Landfall 1.1 (1947), 42.
(16) Beckett, Godot, p.41.
(17) Beckett, Godot, p.40.
(18) Patricia Lockwood, 'Aviators and Movie Stars, London Review of Books, 19 Oct. 2017, p.5.
(19) John Newton, Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017), p. 15.
(20) Newton, Hard Frost, p. 15.
(21) Newton, Hard Frost, p. 24.
(22) Ngaio Marsh, 'A National Theatre' Landfall 3.1 (Mar. 1949), 68.
(23) Raymond Williams, Drama In Performance (Milton Keynes: Open University Press,  1991), p. 144.
(24) Beckett, Godot, p. 40.
(25) Beckett, Godot, p.12.
(26) Evelyn M. Sivier, 'English Poets, Teachers, and Festivals in a "Golden Age of Poetry Speaking," 1920-1950', in Performance of Literature in Historical Perspectives, ed. David W. Thompson and others (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983), pp. 283-300.
(27) Charles Brasch, The Quest: Words for a Mime Play (London: The Compass Players, 1946), p. 5.
(28) Allen Curnow, 'The Axe,' in Four Plajs (Wellington: Reed, 1972), p. 27.
(29) D'Arcy Cresswell, The Forest (Auckland: Pelorus, 1952), p. 13
(30) Bruce Mason, 'The New Zealand Players' Second Season,' Landfall 7.4 (1953), 286.
(31) Douglas Stewart, Ned Kelly: a Play (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1943), p. 23.
(32) Brasch, The Quest, p. 8.
(33) Brasch, The Quest, p.9.
(34) Brasch, The Quest, p. 42.
(35) Cresswell, The Forest, p. 17.
(36) Cresswell, The Forest, p. 59.
(37) Drayton, Ngaio Marsh, p. 262.
(38) Cresswell, The Forest, p. 56.
(39) Cresswell, The Forest, p. 96.
(40) Curnow, Four Plays, p. 13.
(41) Curnow, Four Plays, p. 83.
(42) Programme for Moon Section, Allen Curnow, ms-papers-2402-11, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
(43) Curnow, Four Plays, p. 88.
(44) Curnow, Four Plays, p. 221.
(45) Curnow, Four Plays, p. 13.
(46) James Wenley, 'Rediscovering the Landmark New Zealand Plays: The Formative Period of New Zealand Drama 1948 - 1970,' MA thesis, University of Auckland, 2013, p. 28.
(47) Allen Curnow, Programme for 1954 production of The Axe, in folder 'Theatre--Auckland University College Drama Society 1950 1959,' New Zealand Ephemera Collection, Sir George Grey Special Collections Reading Room, Auckland Central Library.
(48) Beckett, Godot, p. 10.
(49) Harcourt, A Dramatic Appearance, p. 87.
(50) Beckett, Godot, p. 10.
(51) Michael King, Frank Sargeson: A Life (Auckland: Viking, 1995), p. 336.
(52) King, Frank Sargeson, p. 336.
(53) King, Frank Sargeson, p. 336.
(54) King, Frank Sargeson, p. 336.
(55) Allen Curnow, 'A Time for Sowing,' Landfall 15.1 (1961), 77.
(56) Curnow, 'Sowing,' p. 77.
(57) Curnow, 'Sowing,' p. 78.
(58) Frank Sargeson, Wrestling with the Angel: Two Flays (Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1964), p.109.
(59) Sargeson, Wrestling with the Angel, p. 110.
(60) Sargeson, Wrestling with the Angel, p. 120.
(61) Terry Sturm, Allen Curnow: Simply by Sailing in a New Direction: A Biography, ed. Linda Cassells (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2017), p. 331.
(62) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 352.
(63) Ronald Barker, 'Director's Note' in programme for 1959 production of Moon Section, Allen Curnow papers, ms-papers-2402-11, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
(64) Curnow, 'Moon Section' ms. Allen Curnow papers, ms-papers-2402-11, Act II, Scene 2, p. 11.
(65) Curnow, 'Author's Note' in programme for 1959 production of Moon Section, Allen Curnow papers, ms-papers-2402-11.
(66) Curnow, 'Moon Section, ms. Act I, Scene 1, p. 3.
(67) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 355.
(68) Cumow, 'Moon Section,' ms. Act II, Scene 2, p. 1.
(69) Curnow, 'Moon Section,' ms. Act I, Scene 1, p. 5 and p. 6.
(70) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 353.
(71) Paul Millar, No Fretful Sleeper: a life of Bill Pearson (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2010), p. 218.
(72) Millar, No Fretful Sleeper, p. 219.
(73) Allen Curnow, 'Dr Pom: A Kind of Comedy,' Allen Curnow papers, ms-papers 7574-52, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, p .42.
(74) Allen Curnow, 'Dr Pom,' p. 53.
(75) Allen Curnow, 'Dr Pom,' p. 22.
(76) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 381.
(77) Sturm, Allen Curnow, pp. 402-402.
(78) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 403.
(79) Sturm, Allen Curnow, p. 403.
(80) Beckett, Godot, p. 91.
(81) August Strindberg, Plays: Two, trans. Michael Meyer (London: Methuen, 1993), p. 175.
(82) James K. Baxter, 'Jack Winter's Dream,' in Collected Plays, ed. Howard McNaughton (Auckland: Oxford, 1982), p. 7.
(83) Baxter, 'Jack Winter's Dream,' p. 16.
(84) Baxter quoted in 'Introduction' by Howard McNaughton to Collected Plays, p.viii.
(85) Baxter, Collected Plays, p.viii.
(86) Frank McKay, The Life of James K. Baxter (Auckland: Oxford, 1990), p. 164.
(87) Bruce Mason, Golden Weather, p. 31.
(88) Bruce Mason, Golden Weather, p. 45.
(89) Bruce Mason, Golden Weather, p .31.
(90) Bruce Mason, Golden Weather, p. 9.
(91) James Wenley, 'Reclaiming a Landmark New Zealand Play: The Tree by Stella Jones (1957), Journal of New Zealand literature, 34.1 (2016), 177.
(92) Wenley, 'Reclaiming a Landmark New Zealand Play,' p. 185
(93) Beckett, Godot, p .66.
(94) Bruce Mason, 'Towards a Professional Theatre,' Landfall, 1.1 (1963), p. 73.
(95) W.S. Broughton, 'Frank Sargeson's Play,' Landfall, 15.3 (Sept. 1961), 259.
(96) Charles Brasch, 'Notes,' Landfall, 13.2 (1959), 111.
(97) Bruce Mason, 'Review of The Zoo Story,' in Every Kind of Weather, ed. David Dowling (Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986), p. 108.
(98) Richard Campion, letter to Allen Curnow, 17th Mar. 1967, Allen Curnow Papers, ms-papers-7574-52, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
(99) Allen Curnow, letter to Sandy Black, 22nd Mar. 1967, Allen Curnow Papers, ms-papers-7574-52.
(100) Pat Hawthorne, letter to Allen Curnow, 27th Sept. 1967, Allen Curnow Papers, ms-papers-7574-52.
(101) McKay, Life of Baxter, p. 185.
(102) Beckett, Godot, p. 94.
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|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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