The Little Theatre: golden years of the New Zealand stage
Clerestory Press, $45.00,
A Theatre in the House: The Careys’ Globe
Otago University Press, $34.95,
If British theatre, as Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright have written, “is set on a seam of Shakespeare like a land that sits over a massive mineral deposit”, then New Zealand theatre is set on a small seam of amateurism with tiny pockets of professionalism attached to it by strands of No 8 wire. Glyn Strange’s The Little Theatre and Rosalie Carey’s A Theatre in the House are both entertaining, well-written accounts of two “golden” periods of our brief theatrical history, which (despite some minor factual errors by Rosalie Carey) demonstrate how vital amateur theatre has been.
The Little Theatre at Canterbury University – led by the towering figures of James Shelley in the 1920s and ‘30s and then of Ngaio Marsh until fire destroyed the theatre in 1953 – was, of course, a student-based theatre. Neither of its leaders would have claimed to be professional directors. Rosalie Carey, on the other hand, seems unsure whether the theatre that she and Patric Carey ran in their house in Dunedin in the 1960s and ‘70s was professional or not. She writes with pride that “our little theatre was always looked upon as professional”, that they were applauded for encouraging the rank amateur, and that her desire was to see The Globe go professional.
“It was a world apart,” wrote one devotee of The Globe in its heyday. The same description could be applied to The Little Theatre. They were worlds apart because, with the exception of two notable tours by the university students under Ngaio Marsh, the influence of the two theatres remained locked away in their respective cities. While they were able to provide a cultural oasis for their audiences, they were only heard of in the rest of the country through an unreliable cultural grapevine in the days before the mass media. However, they also had in common two factors that made them unique in New Zealand theatre at the time. They had energetic, inspirational leaders, who furthermore paid no attention to the box-office.
The Little Theatre could, and did, fall back on the annual Shakespeare, but Patric Carey was praised by one snooty newspaper critic for “not presenting commercial plays to wean the boozers from the pubs and their women from the soaps.” His dauntingly impressive list of productions over 17 years (including Aeschylus, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Euripides) must have surely made the small Dunedin audiences long for the occasional frivolity by – dare one mention their names? – Noel Coward or Neil Simon. Things seem to have changed a bit after the Careys left The Globe, though Rosalie notes that she was pleased that “respect was still paid to our policy of presenting plays for their merit rather than the box office appeal.” She seems to have been surprised, however, by the choice of Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions, and that it should have drawn full houses.
Of the 150 or so plays that Patric Carey directed, only 18 or so were by New Zealanders, and seven of these were by James K Baxter. While a student, Baxter, acting in a small role in Sartre’s The Flies at The Little Theatre, reportedly said that he would like to write plays. But he turned out to be no dramatist. Most of his plays now seem to belong to the vogue for poetic drama during the 1940s, work which tended to be published in slim volumes by Faber & Faber with inspiring titles such as This Way to the Tomb and The Death of Satan. Baxter’s own plays are of interest only because they were written by a major poet; theatrically, they are only marginally more stimulating than Tennyson’s Harold and Byron’s Werner.
Nevertheless, as Rosalie Carey points out, the importance of Baxter’s work in The Globe’s history, and in the history of New Zealand theatre as a whole, does not lie in the plays themselves, but in the fact that the New Zealand voice could be heard in the theatre. In the grandiloquent words of John Malcolm, Internal Affairs representative on the Arts Council at the time, The Globe was “a beacon that lights the way for other theatres to follow.” In fact, none of the so-called “community” theatres – Mercury and Downstage, for instance – did follow the “beacon”, the demands of running much larger theatres than the miniscule Globe all year round making it hard to see the “light” through the box-office gloom.
While Rosalie Carey’s account is written “from the inside” – and gives a very clear idea of the Herculean tasks of making costumes, scenery, cups of tea as well as acting and directing in a theatre which was also her home with young children – it would have been good to have had some descriptions of the productions. By contrast, Glyn Strange’s account of The Little Theatre is full of astute comments by critics and participants, not all of them by any means gilded by nostalgia.
What were the Greek tragedies like performed on a pocket-handkerchief stage to a handful of people? From this distance in time, it all seems rather self-consciously arty, and one can well imagine suppressing an irreverent giggle if one had been a member of the audience. The few photographs of Globe productions are not much help, tending to make them look like the worthy efforts of amateurs. Glyn Strange’s history, on the other hand, is packed with photographs, some clearly professionally taken and others that clearly show the wrinkled backdrops, gaps in the flats, and the stilted poses of the actors. However, the presentation of the photographs, programme covers, posters, and cartoons is a model for future theatrical histories.
“Golden years of the New Zealand stage”, the subtitle of The Little Theatre, has been described by Elric Hooper, the former director of The Court Theatre, as slightly absurd, because The Little Theatre years were neither the best years of Marsh’s work as a director nor the best years of theatrical activity in Christchurch. True enough, but Glyn Strange was not setting out to write either an account of Marsh’s theatrical career or a history of theatre in Christchurch. They were “golden” years in Christchurch and Dunedin because the Careys, Marsh, Shelley and their followers kept a vision of theatre alive when New Zealand was coping with the Depression, a world war and its aftermath, and, in the field of entertainment, the onslaught of the cinema and television.
However, it should not be forgotten that in 1948 The Little Theatre dived headlong into poetic drama with a play not by T S Eliot or Christopher Fry, or even published by Faber & Faber, but by New Zealand poet Allen Curnow. The Axe was well received, but Curnow could write in 1972 that plays written by New Zealand writers in the past 20 or 30 years “must be regarded as uncharacteristic departures from the main activity of theatre people, and (no less) from what their audiences expect of them. Essentially, ours remains a theatre without authors, without new plays.”
The situation is very different now. There are many authors and many new plays, possibly too many. While we have wisely abandoned the pipe dream of the 1940s and ‘50s of a National Theatre (after the collapse of The New Zealand Players in 1960), we have reached a compromise in our theatres between the idealistic demands of James Shelley and Co and the demands of the box-office. The result is that Beckett, for example, can play successfully in the same year at Wellington’s Circa Theatre as Roger Hall.
What are missing today – and both books make one acutely aware of the lack – are people like Ngaio Marsh and Patric Carey who, in the words of Glyn Strange, “could make people live more intensely”. There can’t be many directors who on arriving in a new city would decide to direct in three years Medea, The Oresteia, Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Waiting for Godot, and seven other major plays. And the reason Patric Carey decided to do this was that “since New Zealand had no tradition in theatre he must give it one.”
Hubris aside, he had a point. The touring companies at the end of the 19th century left behind nothing except large, empty theatres, which were eventually turned into cinemas or taken over by amateur groups for a few productions a year. The Little Theatre and A Theatre in the House describe the beginnings of a theatrical tradition in this country. Whatever the shortcomings of the productions and the small number of locally written plays put on, these theatres under their directors were places of excitement and the beginnings of the present theatrical landscape – and therefore seem “golden”.
A biography of Nola Millar is under way, but we now need light thrown on other “golden” people and times – Bruce Mason, “Proc” Thompson, Elric Hooper’s Court and Raymond Hawthorne’s Theatre Corporate, The New
Zealand Players – to ensure the history is retained.
Laurie Atkinson is theatre reviewer for the Evening Post.