The End of the Golden Weather
directed by Ian Mune
This is not a film review. Movie buffs please note. It is a reflection on a key work in the corpus of New Zealand literature and the use which a film-maker has made of it. It is in no way censorious. Subject to the laws of copyright film-makers may do what they like with New Zealand literature and take their chances with the critics. As Jane Campion has demonstrated the gamble may come off triumphantly. But there is no doubt that the process of translating one medium to another raises absorbing questions of integrity and authenticity. When the present era of New Zealand theatre began with the establishment of Downstage, End of the Golden Weather must have been the best-known work written in this country for live presentation. It may still claim this distinction despite the competition from plays such as Foreskin’s Lament, Glide Time or one of Mason’s own works, The Pohutakawa Tree perhaps or Awatea. This is remarkable given that the form of the work, forced upon Mason by the regrettable circumstances of New Zealand theatre, meant that, when he gave up performing these pieces that was it. By his own account, he had come to the end of the road in his attempt to establish himself as a man of theatre. Since no-one else could or would help he decided, in good Kiwi fashion to do it all himself.
This was the act of a man desperate to see work – any work – performed. Single-handed offerings are not unknown but the actor normally uses the material of an accomplished playwright. Mason’s texts were not well known literary inventions. They were a reworking of childhood crises so crucial to the individual, so banal to the onlooker. Bathos, like a death’s head at the feast, attended every performance. One family of my acquaintance renamed the piece End of My Flaming Tether. They were admirers of the playwright and the joke was intended as a tribute. Mason’s intensity broke through the barrier of our indifference or embarrassment.
The rite de passage recorded by Mason is not particularly distinguishable from the others that fill the bookcases of the world apart from two intertwined perceptions. The first is the power of performance and the vision of the future revealed to the boy as his father magically changes from stolid bank clerk to mad doctor in a family charade. The second is the boy’s acceptance of responsibility for the deluded, betrayed Firpo. We all have at least one Firpo in our lives; someone who has made a claim on nothing but our humanity. Mason made us feel the responsibility of that debt again. Can the film do this?
Films are diffuse mechanical contrivances of almost infinite possibility. The limitations of one man shows, on the other hand, are so stringent that they only work when these constraints generate a refining tension between player and audience. Imagination provides and no set, no location is needed. Thus the film is not – cannot be – End of the Golden Weather to those who attended a performance of the original work. Despite Mason’s collaboration with Ian Mune in the production of a script it is another and different venture. As such it is of exceptional historical value and an authentic work of art in its own terms. No doubt it will become the definitive version for those to whom the original is necessarily a matter of unreliable report. Certainly, the circumstances which forced Mason to turn to the one man play are, one hopes, unrepeatable and this alone justifies reworking the ideas in another medium.
It is ironic that Mason, who, more than anyone else breathed life into the dramatic interpretation of New Zealand culture, should have started in a mode that can never be emulated by his successors. There remains in the published texts the force of an honourable attempt to enrich an unresponsive society. I think it undeniable that Mason did more than any other writer to promote the cause of drama in our society. It is arguable that End of the Golden Weather was not only his first but his best stroke in that cause.
John Roberts was Foundation Chairman of the Downstage Theatre Society.