Obituary — Campbell Smith

The world a stage

Gregory O’Brien recalls the life and work of artist and writer Campbell Smith (1925-2015)

The last time I saw Campbell Smith was in June a year ago. Friends from around the country had gathered at Hamilton’s Meteor Theatre to celebrate his life’s work and watch a performance of his play, Ida and I (aka Quite a Woman), a doco-drama – if such a thing can exist onstage – about the Waikato painter and arts-advocate, Ida Carey. It was both a glorious and a traumatic occasion.

Campbell’s beloved wife of 61 years, Esme, had died suddenly earlier in the week. The show went on regardless – although with a huge weight of grief and loss to complement (but not extinguish) the joy of the day. Campbell was 89, more or less wheelchair-bound, and had retreated inside himself, mostly. There was still the sparkling eye. There was still something in him. He sat in the front row of the theatre; the lights went down and the play began.

Campbell wrote nearly 20 such “history plays”, exploring, celebrating and sometimes berating New Zealand society. Not long into Ida and I, the central character addressed the audience, filling in the mid-century history of the Waikato Society of Arts (not your usual grist to the dramatic mill!). When she mentioned the appointment of “our Campbell Smith” as director of the society’s gallery, a muffled but very real cheer came from the audience. By the time Young Campbell Smith took the stage, we felt we were seated inside the large, congenial, busy room of his past life – with its population of good, gentle, passionate and incisive folk.

I can’t remember at what exact point the real Campbell Smith stood up, in a very shaky but deliberate manner. We, the audience, presumed he must be heading for the exit – by foot, surprisingly, rather than wheelchair – but instead he shuffled slowly up onto the stage and – with the play proceeding as if nothing was happening – went around and shook, one by one, the hands of the actors (or was he shaking the hands of the play’s characters?). And he embraced them. It took a few minutes for him to get across the stage. The audience – which included the city’s mayor as well as many friends from the art and literary worlds – was in tears. I still marvel that the actors could continue without a pause as Campbell wafted ghostlike among them. And then someone helped Campbell back to his seat; the ritual or sacrament had come to an end.

At Esme’s funeral the following day, Campbell was exhausted, heartbroken and confined to his wheelchair. After the service – at which his publisher Roger Steele was celebrant – Campbell went back to the rest home at Tairua, where he would spend a quiet year (with visits from his sons Ben, Anthony, and their families) until his passing on July 13.

Born in Masterton, Campbell Smith studied painting at Canterbury University before training as a teacher. His polymathic life is worthy of a biography. He was also a social historian, a mentor and one-time president of the New Zealand Federation of Film Societies; he was a huge force in the Hamilton and national art scenes. In 1971, he was appointed director of Waikato Art Gallery (later Waikato Art Museum) and was integral in the selection, and then realisation, of Ralph Hotere’s Founder’s Theatre mural two years later.

Besides writing plays, Campbell was a poet (his last book was Lines of Love; Selected Poems, 2014). In 2007, Steele Roberts produced a gorgeous book of his wood engravings (with text by Ann McEwan), then, five years later, his thumping Collected Plays, which weighed in at nearly 500 pages. The plays and wood engravings are his most eloquent exploration of a New Zealand that seems increasingly remote in the present era. His work teems with larger-than-life characters, public figures, miners, soldiers, farmers, painters, poets, immigrants and tangata whenua. Without gloom or sarcasm, yet with percolating intelligence and a very real concern, his plays speak of a New Zealand that existed before words like “success”, “aspirational”, “marketplace” and “excellence” had set in like trench-foot.

In his introduction to Collected Plays, Vincent O’Sullivan identifies Campbell’s driving force as “his committed sense of community” and “his interest in drama as a social event”. His work honours the amateur traditions of school production, small-town musical and repertory theatre.

In 2003, Campbell was awarded an MNZM and, a decade later, an honorary doctorate from Waikato University. Not that he chased such things. He liked to sell his wood engravings for a few dollars from the desk at the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum – or he and Esme would send them as greeting cards to their many friends. The world was his stage, his sketchbook, a realm of imaginative possibility to be shared by all.

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