Staging the past, Phillip Mann

Passing Through and other Plays
Mervyn Thompson,
Hazard Press, Christchurch, $29.95

Daughters of Heaven
Michelanne Forster,
New Zealand Playscripts, Victoria University Press 1992, $12.95

Joyful and Triumphant
Robert Lord,
New Zealand Playscripts, Victoria University Press, $14.95

In a recent book on reincarnation I came upon the following statement: ‘Just occasionally one encounters people who seem to pack an uncommon amount of learning and experience into one brief life.’ Without wishing to make any metaphysical assertions about Mervyn Thompson, I have to say this sentence made me think of him, for Thompson was frequently in conflict with those about him and frequently made theatre from his own biography. One thinks of First Return, written some years ago, and the present volume contains two plays, each of which can be described as a cri du coeur. Love Birds depicts a savage ‘love’ affair in which two people oscillate between passionate sex and vicious excoriation. In the introduction Thompson relates the play to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. To me an equally appropriate parallel would be Sartre’s Huis Clos in which three figures are trapped in a horrific dependency relationship if that is not too trite a way to describe their hell. Love Birds is described as ‘flashpoint naturalism’. It also has a fair measure of nightmare and grotesque surrealism. I read it and rather regretted it, for the experience was akin to reading a private journal.

Passing Through relates Mervyn Thompson’s career in theatre in New Zealand. The play is a mixture of the pleasantly nostalgic and the fiercely angry. At the same time it has an elegiac quality especially in the section called Coaltown Blues and m the final scene called simply Happy Ending. In these we come to see Thompson, perhaps as he saw himself, as a man committed to a society in which he never could feel at ease, sharing the roles of conscience, critic and victim, aware of his own strong talent but thirsty for an affirmation that the performances and the battles and the striving after excellence had not been in vain. Awareness of mortality is also present:

My God it’s hard to write a happy ending
Tomorrow maybe, it’s too hard today
Or after death, perhaps, I might come back
From flames or worms and write you all a play.

Thompson’s writing can be seen as falling into two overlapping areas. I have already mentioned the biographical, but there is also the sociological. In this connection I am thinking of plays such as O Temperance and Songs to Uncle Scrim. In the present volume, this aspect of Thompson’s work is demonstrated in The Great New Zealand Truth Show. This play uses lively revue techniques such as song, mask and chorus to reveal the way that Truth newspaper has ‘explained’ New Zealand history. The play is bright and witty and I hope it finds future performances.

Less successful in my view is the play Jean and Richard in which two New Zealand aviators Jean Batten and Richard Pearse, who in their actual lives were quite different and who never actually met, are brought together in ‘love, redemption and harmony’. Thompson wanted to write a work with a happy ending and this I think is the work’s undoing; we see the playwright pulling the strings. Harmony and reconciliation are not Thompson’s forte, much as he may have liked to achieve a tone reminiscent of (say) Strindberg’s Easter. Thompson is at his best when angry and it is his ironic, socially aware and satirical voice that I most cherish and which gives the energy to the best plays in this volume.

In the Author’s Note to the play Daughters of Heaven we read that the courtroom testimony and diary quotations are taken from court reports, but that ‘All other dialogue is fictional.’ this is important, for the play has such an uncanny ring of authenticity that I repeatedly had to remind myself that Ms Forster was not actually present, listening to the two girls as they contemplated murder or taking down notes on their religious fantasies about James Mason and Mario Lanza.

The play deals with a most difficult topic. On 22 June in 1954, in Christchurch, two friends Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker lured Pauline’s mother to a secluded part of Victoria Park and there battered Pauline’s mother to death. This event, terrible at any time, sent shudders of shock through staid Christchurch – a city which rather prided itself on being genteel after the English fashion with an emphasis on decorum, decency and conformity, but in which, it must be said, the darker sides of these qualities were also present ‘ ‘namely bigotry, hypocrisy and secrecy combined with a crushing boredom.

Ms Forster has taken this incident and the events which led up to it and has created a compelling drama in which harsh moral judgments are tempered by sympathy ‑ not condoning, but seeking to understand.

Imagery of weaving comes to mind to describe the way in which themes such as the fervent passions of the girls are set beside the attitudes of the parents and the opinions of officials. Equally this imagery can be used to convey the delicate patterns in theatrical style, moving from naturalistic discourse to mysticism in a series of short, incisive scenes.

The play is a triumph, well deserving the popular success it has been accorded. It is a play for playwrights to study for the rugged strength of its delicate construction. It is also a tactful play which, without sacrificing direct confrontation with the events, avoids indulgence and dark glamour. Daughters of Heaven takes a worthy place beside texts such as Shuriken, Once on Chunuk Bair and Wednesday to Come as a play which, taking its starting point from factual events, confronts the history of Aotearoa/ New Zealand and reveals starkly the country in which we live.

Joyful and Triumphant by Robert Lord continues this notion. It sometimes seems to me that, beyond grand themes, the most powerful and moving drama occurs when a society talks to itself in the simple accents of the everyday. For our neighbours as much as for ourselves, greatness consists in the daily tally of success and frustration, in the remembering of times past, in the pain endured as we seek happiness and accept restraints, in the conflict of values as generations rub. We learn about our world as much by what is left unsaid as by what is said.

In Joyful and Triumphant, Robert Lord’s last play, written shortly before his untimely death in January 1992, we see a succession of New Zealand Christmases from 1949 to 1989 as experienced by three generations of the Bishop family. There is Dad and Mum, born at the end of the 19th century, upholding values that are declining. Rose and Ted are their children. Rose will be a spinster to the end of her days and Ted, though likeable enough, is a bit shiftless. Ted’s wife is Brenda, a woman staunch in her support. Their daughter is Raewyn who is described as headstrong and opinionated. Last is Alice, the neighbour, a true blue National Party supporter and natural antagonist for Dad’s left wing wit.

Events  ravel and unravel. The play begins at eight o’clock in the morning on Christmas day in 1949. Rose and Mum are setting the table and Mum has discovered stains on a tablecloth. The tablecloth in question was brought by ‘gran’ from Shropshire in 1860 ‘without it getting so much as a smudge’. The stain becomes the occasion for contrasting values from the past with the present, for keeping up appearances, almost for pretending that time can be resisted: but of course it can’t. The theme of Time runs through the play like a thread of steel and is the occasion for some memorable lines: Dad speaking in scene 3 ‘Just because the Russians have put a man in space doesn’t mean hard work is out of date.’

The play has more than a passing similarity with the works of Chekhov and I wonder if Robert Lord would have described his work as a comedy. What characters say is not necessarily what they are thinking or still less what they mean. There is tragedy everywhere. Rose bitter but enduring, tearing down the Christmas decorations, suggesting that presents should be wrapped in newspaper and living long enough to hear that her children’s stories are ‘patronising and culturally insensitive.’ Dad living long enough to see the values of his youth betrayed and his beloved labour party become a ‘bunch of right wing hooligans.’ Raewyn wondering always if she did the right thing.

This is a play with many complexions. The title is apt and ironic, for it is one of the necessities of tragedy that the human spirit be finally triumphing over Life: whether the play is joyful is another matter. In conclusion I can do no better than echo John Thompson’s words in his introduction to the play when he states that this is a work written with ‘the confident ease of a mature playwright’. Its deftness, wit and sudden depths does make us regret the plays conceived, no doubt, but unwritten.


Phillip Mann’s latest novel, A Land Fit for Heroes, Vol 1: Escape into the Wild Wood will be published in August.


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