Above all you must illumine your soul, with all its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and generosities. And say what beauty means to you, or your plainness.
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own
When I arrived in my room at the beginning of the year, I contemplated the pungas and the cabbage trees and the late summer sun from my eighth-floor window, and it seemed to me that Virginia Woolf’s ideal had become a reality: that wonderful gift of time, space and resources that every writer surely longs for. The full year that stretched ahead of me seemed like an extraordinary amount of time, and apart from imagining the copious notebooks I was going to fill with the play and the book I intended to work on, I also envisaged enough poems to fill an entire volume.
Of course the year has moved on, and while I haven’t managed to pen more than two or three half-scribbled poems, my year at Victoria has indeed been a gift and a very productive one at that, and it has given me the resources I needed to write the early drafts of a new full-length stage play set in the early part of last century. And a book of oral history, which focuses on the lives of some of the older, professional actresses in New Zealand. The women who helped to shape professional theatre in this country.
And I have to confess (as an ex-Catholic) that my reaction to the contentious Virgin in a Condom art piece, housed at Te Papa at the beginning of the year, resulted in my dashing off, in rather cavalier fashion, a second play which explores some of the complex questions that the exhibition posed. And while I have no idea whether it will ever see the light of day or the theatrical night, or indeed whether it was about anything more than my own personal unravelling of questions Catholic, I do know I’m not the kind of writer who shoves anything in the bottom drawer for too long!
The historical play is the major piece I’ve been working on, and it focuses on a group of travelling players and a 19th-century woman pirate. In writing this play, I’ve drawn upon three strands of New Zealand’s colonial history: the early theatrical performers who came here in the 1800s, the life of one of this country’s first known Pakeha women, and the Maori and Pakeha land disputes. I’ve pulled these three strands together, used them as a theatrical springboard and then leapt off into fiction.
While I am a playwright and not an historian, I am nevertheless fascinated by the lives and attitudes of our early pioneers and the impact they had on shaping the land and the psyche of this country. In his book Nga Uruora, Geoff Park writes of ecology and history in New Zealand: “We cannot get very far without stories, without history. New Zealanders who want to know their landscape need to know about 19th-century Britain and the behaviour of its explorers abroad, about their preconceptions of land and native people.”
My motive for writing the play was to illumine some of these early stories about the land and the people. And one true-life story that has intrigued me for some time is that of Charlotte Badger. Charlotte was reputedly the first European woman to sail to New Zealand in 1801. She was a petty thief, who was transported from England to the penal colony of New South Wales. After serving five years of her sentence there, she was assigned as a secant to a settler in Tasmania. While the boat was in port on the north coast of Tasmania, she and fellow inmate, Catherine Hagerty, incited the ship‘s crew to mutiny, tied up and flogged the captain, and took control of the ship. With the help of their fellow convicts and the first mate, they diverted the ship to Rangihoua Bay, in the Bay of Islands, where Charlotte is said to have lived among Maori for a time before all trace of her was lost.
Charlotte was a buccaneer, a thief, and a convict. A colourful character with a theatrical flair, who is said to have dressed in the captain‘s clothes when she took control of the ship. It has always fascinated me that one of our first Pakeha woman ancestors was, amongst other things, “a pirate”p!
Another story I was interested in exploring in the play was that of the early travelling performance troupes who came to New Zealand. I wanted to trace back, as far as possible, to our theatrical forebears. While only a little of our theatrical history has survived, it would seem that from quite early on in the pioneering period, making entertainment was an important part of colonial life. Often the performers would be a small theatrical troupe from Great Britain. They would stop over in New Zealand for a quick tour after performing in Australia. And occasionally they would settle here and start up a theatre for a time. In an entertainment-starved colony, some of the performances they gave were highly successful. Custom-made theatres were also built in the main cities, although unfortunately none of these buildings have survived.
These two strands are woven together in the play, and the piece is set against the backdrop of the Maori-Pakeha land disputes. While we never actually see the fighting occurring onstage, the presence of the British military and Maori inhabitants pervade the world of the play. The colonising of the land and people is somehow resonant for me in the relationship between the theatrical performers and Charlotte. The skirmishes occurring in the background seem to parallel Charlotte and the theatre group‘s own challenges and their difficulties with communication and understanding.
In exploring these themes, I was also interested in the notion that art is often the means by which our stories survive. And as I was writing my last scene, I was struck by these lines from Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “I met a traveller from an antique land / Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert.” And I wondered who were these travellers? And what are the stories they left behind in the sand? And what stories do they still have to tell us? And in terms of our own colonial past, which was in fact the antique land? Was it Britain alone? Or was it also New Zealand? This place where our stories are still unravelling. This land where the ancient trees once told the stories. Before all trace of them was lost.
Lorae Parry has been this year’s writer-in-residence at Victoria University of Wellington.