The true sexual and racial violence of (post-)colonial history, Judith Dale

Jeannie Once 
Renée,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1991, $12.95

Broken Arse
Bruce Stewart,
Victoria University Press, 1991, $12.95

With these, the latest in the 31-title series, New Zealand Play-scripts, is indicated the extending range of published drama. The comedic and romantic social commentary of earlier texts in the series (Mason, Hall) has been overtaken by something of the true sexual and racial violence of (post-) colonial history.

Jeannie Once is chronologically the earliest of Renée’s trilogy and the last to be written. It tells of the early life of the old woman from Wednesday to Come: ‘I was Jeannie once ‑’, says Granna to her great-granddaughter and namesake, in that play set during the Great Depression. With its four generations of women gathered in one kitchen and its richly naturalistic dialogue, at moments symbolically heightened, it remains Renée’s best work to date. Jeannie Once does not equal it.

The new play is set in Dunedin in 1879; Jeannie is twenty-two. Again the important figures are women, variously oppressed and unhappy: a seamstress (Jeannie), an Irish vaudeville singer, a Scottish Presbyterian minister’s wife, a Maori servant. And the dialogue, always Renée’s strength, is loosely dispersed in a somewhat unfocused plot involving their pasts and their men. In addition, we become the fictional live audience for several engaging music-hall sequences. These tonal juxtapositions allow for interesting feminist manoeuvres and a strong theatricality ‑ the crossdressing of the vaudeville actress; the presence of a dressmaker’s dummy called Nelly; a silent madwoman institutionalised from grief; the repressed wife of the clergyman burning the pages of ‘his’ Bible; a scene in which Maori cave drawings are discovered by the fleeing servant woman. It’s a warm play rather than a passionate one, and its failure lies only in our current need for a stronger political focus. In particular, we await a sufficiently developed drama dealing with racial issues from Renée.

Racism is entirely the topic of Bruce Stewart’s Broken Arse. The crudity of the title means what you think it does and more: Maori are broken and despised, but so by the play’s end is the Pakeha. Set ‘inside’, the play achieves what Hilary Beaton’s similarly located Outside fails to do, precisely in the bluntness with which it confronts racial oppression. This is the most searing and violent drama of the Maori renaissance we have yet encountered. One major Pakeha character and a small group of Maori, one of them Tu the God of War, are entangled with each other. The dialogue is spare and the plot naturalistic. Stewart is impressive in his economy. Much of the play is set in the weights room of the prison, and the ongoing beat of the haka throughout to be understood for what it is: preparation for war. This is strong, simplistic, even melodramatic, but to counter it as inflammatory of racial hatred there is the mysticism and human-kindness of Tama, especially towards Henry. There is also a potentially interesting confusion and complexity of allegiances in the white oppressor ‑ the final ‘broken arse’ of them all.

Tonally very different, these plays each take their politics for granted, seeing the oppressions of racism and sexism as integrally connected and no longer needing comedy as a cover. Both foreground a self-conscious theatricality in the use of songs and dance, in dumbness, in dressing up, and employ humour to raise the consciousness of the audience – especially Broken Arse. Both read somewhat tendentiously on the page, but are powerful rather than polemical on stage. If Jeannie Once is too loose and wide ranging in its issues and perhaps aims too much to entertain, Broken Arse may be too insistently focused on what is violent and shocking. Yet the sexism and racism they ask us to confront are clearly presented and above all dramatic: these are play-scripts, entirely.

 

Judith Dale is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington where she teaches modern drama and women’s writing.

 

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