Autobiography as drama: Thompson Agonistes, Roger Robinson

Mervyn Thompson in his one-man show, Passing Through

Theatre does not get more personal than this. The author/ performer is known to have serious cancer. The play is in considerable part about his mortality. A conventional review with a discreet reference at the end to his illness would misrepresent the theatrical experience. Death recurs, and the last number is a Weill-like song-and-dance ‘Happy Ending’ full of irony and pathos. Mervyn Thompson has once again ‘invaded the audience’, this time emotionally. It is a theatrical coup of astonishing effrontery.

The play’s harrowing and triumphant tour is (as I write) almost completed. Thompson has played, beyond even his own hopes of a few months ago, in Christchurch (Southern Ballet Theatre), Wellington (Circa), Dunedin (Fortune and Writers’ Week) and Auckland (Aotea Centre), and will perform it finally (indeed) in Christchurch again in June.

Intensely, inescapably personal, yet it opens wider questions. Everything Mervyn Thompson has ever done, even when his heart is most publicly on his sleeve, has a further significance, especially for New Zealand theatre. A questioning and innovative intelligence is always at work. Since First Return he has been raising questions about autobiography that are usually evaded in New Zealand. This play thrusts them out into the spotlight.

For Passing Through is more even than confessional autobiography, it is autobiographical solo theatre, in which the author, the protagonist and the performer are one. It’s like watching an ailing James Joyce do Portrait Of The Artist as a one-man show on the beach at Dollymount. Its many powerful moments are crafted (like Joyce’s) from the multiple and polychronic layers of the autobiographical consciousness. In one episode, for instance, Mervyn Thompson the dying author plays Mervyn Thompson the versatile actor playing Gerald Lascelles a young Christchurch lawyer in 1963 playing old Jack Falstaff playing young Prince Hal in the play-acting scene in Henry IV Part 1, with Ngaio Marsh as director of the rehearsal and young Mervyn Thompson a naive looker-on and extra. That’s a lot of layers, yet it is clear as well as complex. And through them all comes pounding on the door the dread of inevitable banishment and loss: ‘and the sound of that knocking has entered our souls for ever’.

Passing Through is a journey, as its title implies; but one that will end, as it also implies. The sense of travelling is constantly undercut by images of entrapment, entombment, stasis and mortality – the mine, the strait-jacket, the prison, death in the family, the mine again. The coalmine is always on stage, the most prominent piece of the set which is a changing, suggestive collage of theatrical souvenirs. The pit is Thompson’s past, and his future, and it opens beneath his feet at every step of his passing through. I don’t think all this was conscious, but it continues the pattern set when Thompson could not decide whether to end First Return with the main character walking away off stage, or locked in a fixed stare at his past, or sunk into a foetal ball. This time the ominous, defeated ‘Go back, miner, go back down that mine’ is the last number, before the ‘Happy End’.

Passing Through is never as simple as it looks. Yet it draws, as Thompson has always done so well, on those simple cultural forms from his working-class origins – music hall numbers, ballads, pastiche, jazz, burlesque, song-and-dance, recitation, nursery rhyme. He has done wonders injecting these into our theatre, just as he was one of the very first to take seriously and incorporate the artistic priorities of women and Maori. There is plenty in Passing Through that entertained strangers, the tourists and students and newcomers, who knew nothing beforehand of the author or the agonies and the intricacies of New Zealand theatre.

But the full effect depended on complex levels of recognition. No one, for instance, who had seen Thompson’s compelling Marat/Sade in 1970 could fail, encountering it again in extract here, to be moved once again by that production’s extraordinary passionate commitment. The evocation of Bruce Mason and the heartfelt rendering of his Firpo similarly accrued power from recognition. So the poignancy of Passing Through was created in part out of our collective and individual memories, nostalgias, even prejudices; and perhaps most of all our shared commitment to the cause of New Zealand theatre which Thompson has promoted so tirelessly. The audience was thus made part of the text.

There are a few duller patches in Passing Through – an overlong elegy for Ngaio Marsh, a rather laboured tribute to Merata Mita. But there are far more moments of stunning theatre, with those dramatic contrasts of mood which Thompson the director has always created so well. The first half ends with a song of self censure about leaving Downstage in 1976, performed in kimono-and-mask drag, as the muse of theatre (or Thompson’s recurrent guiding older woman), vibrant in colour and emotion and levels (again) of reference. The mother’s death in Coaltown Blues too, is as tormented as ever, the more so as the beating of the repressive mob on the theatre walls of Circa in February 1984 is echoed in the performer’s beating out the rhythm of:

Where the rain comes down
On the old tin roof
In the old tin town


The last question, asked, I am sure, in every foyer, is whether such an utterly personal work could ever be performed by somebody else. Much would always depend on the sense of Mervyn Thompson’s significance, yet the play is also a genuinely grass-roots journey through New Zealand drama in its decades of inception.

Perhaps (to try a Happy Ending of my own) the day will come for a performance in honour of the recovered, respected Mervyn Thompson, benign elder statesman of New Zealand theatre. Calm of mind, all passion spent? It seems an unlikely happy end for Thompson Agonistes. He’s more likely to pull the temple down on our heads. But he has always surprised us.


Roger Robinson, Professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington, has a particular interest in New Zealand drama.


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Posted in Autobiography, Literature, Non-fiction, Plays, Review
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