Tripping our light fantastic, Adrienne Simpson

Fantasy and Folly: the lost world of New Zealand musicals 1880-1940
Peter Harcourt
Steele Roberts, $39.95,
ISBN 1877228656

The dearth of published research on the history of entertainment in New Zealand would be reason enough to welcome the late Peter Harcourt’s Fantasy and Folly. That it turns out to be not only informative but a thoroughly good read is a bonus, considering the difficult circumstances that attended its publication. The book remained unfinished at the author’s untimely death, and the text was later collated and edited from the drafts he left behind. Norma Ashworth deserves great credit for carrying out her editorial task so seamlessly and skilfully that Harcourt’s own voice and characteristic enthusiasm for the subject still resonate from every page.

Certain compromises have been inevitable. The book ends with Wainwright Morgan’s 1937 musical, The Laughing Cavalier – one of a handful of music theatre works by New Zealanders to be performed overseas – because the research beyond that point had not been completed. There is a slight unevenness between chapters, which suggests that one or two were still awaiting final revision at the author’s death, and the long gap between the drafting of the text and its publication mean that there have been a few advances in research in the interim. But these are small niggles. Overall, Fantasy and Folly is a delight.

The book’s scope is wider than the subtitle implies, for it covers not only the musical as we understand it today but burlesque, comic opera, and occasionally other light forms of musical theatre such as revue. Harcourt is good at sketching in the wider social and musical background to the works he discusses and he writes in an attractive style that carries the reader along. A pageant of long-forgotten librettists and composers from the brash to the hopeful parade through his pages. Amongst these are such remarkable characters as the self-publicising Luscombe Searelle – surely one of Christ College’s most colourful old boys – who came to attention in 1880 with a Gilbert and Sullivan sequel entitled The Wreck of the Pinafore. There is also the indefatigable George de Clive-Lowe – described as “medical practitioner, surgeon, radiologist, bacteriologist, motoring pioneer, musician, author, composer, conductor” – who crowned nearly 30 years of theatrical creativity with Runnymede (1937), an historical extravaganza produced on a scale to rival London’s West End.

The most valuable chapters are the four on Alfred Hill, undoubtedly the most highly regarded, internationally, of the composers surveyed. But no chapter is without interest and some are full of surprises. Among the many fascinating stories unearthed by the author during his many years of painstaking research is that of the Rt Rev Fred Bennett’s Maori Opera Company and their performances of Percy Flynn’s “spectacular Maori opera”, Hinemoa. The strength of the Maori dimension in New Zealand musical theatre is one of the more unexpected aspects of Fantasy and Folly.

The book is beautifully designed and produced and the text is interspersed with a generous selection of photographs, cartoons, song texts, and reproductions of playbills and set designs. There is also a small gathering of colour plates: mostly title pages and costume designs. Some of the pictures included form a social commentary in themselves. The 1921 photograph of steamer passengers being decanted into launches by means of a wicker cage and rope pulley vividly evokes the dangers facing performers trying to visit centres that lacked a proper wharf.

A particularly engaging feature of Fantasy and Folly is the author’s determination not to overstate the importance of his material. Music theatre in New Zealand was dominated by overseas “hit” shows. Little home-grown material ever reached the stage, and Harcourt makes sure his readers realise how few of the works he discusses were of lasting importance. Most were performed by amateurs; few outlived their inaugural season. In an overall history of the New Zealand entertainment industry, the material he spends 150 pages discussing would probably occupy only a handful of paragraphs.

So what, a cynic may ask, is the point of publishing such a study? Apart from the fact that it is a pleasure to read, there are two major reasons why this book is valuable. The first is that the shows discussed in it are “our” shows. They were not written for Broadway or the West End, but for my grandfather in Dunedin and your great-aunt in Auckland. The people who wrote them were the doctor down the road and the journalist living in the next street. The topics chosen reflect the interests of the day, and some of the lyrics reproduced contain insights that would be grist to the mill of any social historian. In short, the way these works were devised and performed says a great deal about “our” society.

The second major justification for the book is that it adds another thoroughly researched piece to the performing arts jigsaw. In 1991, over 100 local specialists in different fields of the performing arts contributed to Entertaining Australia, a lavishly illustrated history of that country’s entertainment industry. If we ever reach the stage of being able to produce an equivalent Entertaining New Zealand, it will be thanks to the efforts of researchers such as Peter Harcourt: researchers who have sifted carefully through old newspapers and archives and rescued from oblivion a small piece of the story. Detailed specialist studies such as Fantasy and Folly are the essential preliminaries to larger overall studies. Whoever finally produces a history of the New Zealand entertainment industry will be very lucky if all the specialist studies they consult are as good as this one.


Adrienne Simpson is the author of seven books on various music and music theatre topics.


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Posted in History, Music, Non-fiction, Review
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