Stories on stage, Mark Houlahan

The Plays of Bruce Mason: A Survey
John Smythe
Playmarket and Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776560554

Here/Now: 8 Plays by Award-Winning New Zealand Playwrights
David O’Donnell (ed)
Playmarket, $35.00,
ISBN 9780908 607594

John Smythe’s survey of the plays of Bruce Mason does what its title promises, describing in chronological order Mason’s plays for stage, screen and radio. In so doing, Smythe adds to the small shelf of indispensably useful books on New Zealand plays. He has strong credentials to mount such a project. He has published an (equally indispensable) history of Wellington’s Downstage Theatre and maintains the Theatreview site (theatreview.org.nz), which curates reviews for productions throughout New Zealand. Smythe has also written scripts and performed throughout the country; this new book shows that writing about New Zealand theatre, of necessity, involves a good deal of participant observation. There is no space of analysis entirely separate from issues of production, performance and personal alignment.

Smythe has had the cooperation of Mason’s family, and Mason’s daughter Belinda contributes a foreword. There is no full length biography of Mason, but it is clear that a biographer will have access to a very large archive, as Mason was active in cultural circles from the 1940s through to the 1980s, and his private correspondence is as marked by the same kind of unstoppable eloquence as the best of his playwriting and published criticism. Smythe is aware of the details of Mason’s life and brings out the biographical in the plays, but his attention is determinedly on Mason’s theatrical output.

There is a willed innocence to the subtitle: “survey” – just a chronological listing. Smythe expresses, as asides, some very strong opinions. He thinks professional theatres have let Mason down and ought to be doing more to restage his plays, though he praises the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC), which revived The Pohutukawa Tree, Awatea and the company version of The End of the Golden Weather. In Smythe’s view, these plays are national classics and ought to be regularly seen. He thinks too much stage time is occupied by European and American classics. Perhaps a balance needs to be struck: New Zealand plays after all derive in many ways from this kind of material, which is why ATC commissioned new versions of A Doll’s House (by Emily Perkins) and Peer Gynt (by Eli Kent). Writers and performers need to measure themselves against this kind of material, just as it would be an impoverishment surely to suggest the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra should only ever play New Zealand compositions.

The comprehensiveness of Smythe’s survey is useful. He alerts us to the range and quantity of Mason’s dramatic output, and points to treasures largely untapped in Playmarket’s archives. There are several plays never yet fully mounted (such as Zero Motel) which deserve to be, though whether they would be commercially viable is another issue altogether. The New Zealand film archive contains three full-length teleplays and a great documentary on Mason, an accomplished explicator of his own works.

The success of Smythe’s approach also leads to its limitations as a work of critical analysis. Smythe offers detailed synopses of all the plays, which are reprised in listings at the end of the book. This leaves space for only a few evaluative comments and none at all for comparing Mason, say, to other playwrights. Of course, Mason was a pioneer of so much in New Zealand theatre but, from the 1960s through to his death in 1983, a number of other inventively theatrical writers were also working (Robert Lord, Roger Hall, Gordon Dryland, Joe Musaphia). Smythe makes Mason seem more isolated than he was.

Often, the plot summaries read like an extended version of what you can find on the Playmarket database. This will work fine for those searching for material to perform, but students of theatre might feel the need for more. I felt that Smythe was most disappointing when discussing matters of dramaturgy, the specific terrain of theatre. Circumstances provoked Mason to invent the New Zealand solo play, now one of the most distinctive aspects of playwriting here, but Mason was constantly inventing dynamic new scenarios, breaking from fourth-wall realism. He was finely attuned to social issues, but the best of his plays revel also in an exuberant theatricality; realism never really seems to have been his goal. The late play Blood of the Lamb (1980) deals with very serious issues: patriarchy, closet homosexuality, the violence of pastoralism: but it does so in a joyously uninhibited way. Some of Mason’s own sprezzatura seems to have gone missing in the linear march Smythe has undertaken.

What would the current generation of playwrights make of Mason? What in turn would he make of them? The generous sampling of new gen plays in Here/Now raises both questions. New playwrights might have read one or two Mason classics in theatre studies, though accessing Mason’s plays in print remains difficult, even the canonical plays Golden Weather and The Pohutukawa Tree. I’d like to think Mason would be delighted by the inventive and challenging scenarios on offer in in these eight plays. Producing New Zealand plays might still seem a financial risk, and the now common profit-share arrangements in theatre companies would mean that most of the writers here would need some other means of generating income. Despite this, playwrights seem keener than ever on writing plays, as the flow of material through spaces like Wellington’s Bats and Auckland’s Basement theatres and in fringe seasons attests. The effort Playmarket has put into this and other recent volumes (such as 2011’s No 8 Wire: 8 Plays/8 Decades) is commendable, making a series of terrifically stage-worthy texts accessible to theatre companies, teachers and students of New Zealand drama.

Realism throughout this selection of plays is out; storytelling is in with a vengeance. Sometimes the characters tell long shaggy stories to each other. More frequently, the audience is included in the conversation. Eli and Jack talk constantly to the audience through The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, sharing the tale of their journey up the Whanganui to Baxter’s grave. This would have been easiest in the première which was in Eli’s own bedroom, but the travelling show preserved this intimate charm. In Whiti Hereaka’s Rēwena, Maggie talks to us while making and baking a loaf of rēwena bread. Real-time cooking and sharing of food creates a sensory bond with the audience like nothing else in the theatre. These are two excellent scripts with long stretches of earthy, streetwise dialogue. It would be interesting to see them taken up and reperformed with new actors, a worthy test of how much the charisma of the original actors lent itself to the respective show.

Site-specific theatre has been a strong trend in recent New Zealand theatre, as has been the creation of evocative environments on stage, though often not in the literalised way of an earlier generation. Where Intricate Art began in a bedroom, Sam Brooks’s Riding in Cars with Mostly Straight Boys began in Chaffers car park in Wellington. It requires the simplest staging: a mock-up of driver and passenger seats. This is the funniest and saddest of all these plays. Kyle replays a series of one-on-one encounters with straight boys, who tolerate his obsession with them so long as a strict no-unsafe-touching rule is observed. They hope he can get a boyfriend. When Kyle does date another gay male, he struggles to manage a sustained relationship. Will he be trapped forever as a beautiful, ironic loser in love? Will all the boys you think are straight remain so? The play works through whimsy, charm and emotional directness and comes to a satisfying, yet teasing, end.

Jess Sayer’s Fix sits nicely here beside Riding in Cars, showing so many ways heterosex can go wrong. It’s a raucously intense modified version of American family gothic on stage. Grace falls apart when she discovers her developer husband Carter is having an affair. At first she turns to drink and whining cliché. When she then discovers who the affair is with, repulsion turns to vengeance. She is spurred on by her mother. They don’t reconcile, but unite in seeking a (potentially terminal) fix to their Carter problem. If you are tired of seeing Roger Hall revivals, recommend this to your local repertory for an up-to-the-minute take on family matters.

I don’t know that the playwrights here are making a fortune from their plays, however much they are getting them to travel. Fiscal viability remains an issue, as in any art form in New Zealand. But the writers here are continuing to write plays for live performance and contriving, somehow, to get their work to audiences relishing their rich language and the theatrical bravura of the scenarios presented. In handy and very economical book form, this volume transfers some of that energy from the stage to the page.

Mark Houlahan teaches in the English programme at the University of Waikato.

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