PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog


We hear the word ‘tragedy’ an awful lot, for it is used to describe most sudden traumatic deaths, from traffic accidents to mine explosions to house fires to tourist disasters such as the recent White Island event.

As a dramatist I can become irritated at the loose use of the word, which, for me, is most valuably associated with a form of drama ‘of elevated theme and diction with unhappy ending’ to quote the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet the OED gives a second meaning: ‘sad event, calamity, serious accident or crime.’ This then, is how the word is generally used and my irritation smacks of snobbery.

I’m faced with a choice: accept the endless, almost daily tragedies, or see if there’s some connection between the two definitions – can the theatre form which comes from the Graeco-Christian tradition, tell us something about the more general use of the word and vice versa?

According to Raymond Williams, who wrote a very good book on the subject, the drama tradition of tragedy began in the theatre of Ancient Greece when three masked characters separated out from the chorus in order to enact ‘the grievous stories of particular ruling families’ as they encountered the vicissitudes of fate and the judgements of the gods. The stories were both myth and a form of history. In the last century the story of the Kennedy family, for a period, had this quality.


In the Medieval period the tragic story became more about an individual turning aside from contemplation of God and jumping onto the wheel of fortune and being struck down by ‘sin, misgovernance, pride and cruelty’. We have moved from the Kennedys to the Trumps.

Medieval tragedy

Shakespeare explored the tension between the two spaces.


But with the arrival of the bourgeoisie, the tragic story, writes Williams, becomes more about an individual retaining dignity through a time of suffering caused by moral error, with redemption being possible if that moral error is corrected. Here we could use as an example, the Royal Family and the Diana episode, with a new kind of action, including the idea of poetic justice and the need to restore ethical order and unity after an individual is destroyed. We see the same structure of feeling when people overcome addiction.

18th century

With the late 19th  and 20th  centuries we find a tragic mode which is more opaque, for in this mode, suffering is rooted in the ‘nature’ of man. Suffering is, in fact, normal, evil is all powerful and fate is blind. Ordinary people can do each other the greatest injury because of the ‘cruel and indifferent but also immensely fertile law of nature and life.’ In this world view, nature is all powerful and civilisation is a lie. This is revealed in the turgid tales of the court page but also the horror of the death camps. Faced with this, resignation is the order of the day.

But we are also in the tragic realm of the climate crisis where dissolution and chaos is not an individual or even family fate but an event on a planetary scale with the above belief system leading to the tragic action (or inaction) of denial, with everything reduced to the accidents of blind fate and the only position to take being one of resignation.

In this situation a new tragic story has to be told in order to confront the ‘grievous disorder’ and to find resolution. Enter Greta Thunberg and the climate justice kids, who link the suffering of ordinary people in the developing world and of indigenous people everywhere, to the need for human agency(acknowledging what scientific knowledge is telling us and acting accordingly) and ethical renewal.

SchoolStrike4ClimateIt It is the grandest of tragic tasks and one in which myth and history or myth as history, are key, which is why their small actions resonate so loudly.


Christmas narratives

When I worked with Sue Bradford and the Auckland Unemployed Workers’ Rights Movement in the in 1990s on a play which told the story of the Rogernomics era from the point of view of the unemployed, we called the piece, Telling the Other Story. The concept of telling alternative narratives has become, since then, increasingly potent.

As the COP25 climate conference threatens to become bogged down at the official level, important stories are emerging: the corporate takeover via sponsorship, the farce of the carbon market, the holding onto power by the north (including Australia), the refusal to consider climate justice at the economic level thus condemning developing countries to becoming survival economies, the anger and creativity of the young climate activists and the prescient voice of Greta Thunberg and the growing centrality of the indigenous voice. Revolutionary change hovers.

Within this is the yet-to-be-forged narrative of a just transition. Here on the Coast it is beginning to happen and it feels vital in order to avoid the urban-regional political split characteristic of the US. Faced with two fundamentalist viewpoints: the extractivist who wants business as usual and the conservationist wanting to preserve at all cost, it is necessary to historicise both viewpoints; to explode the myth of a golden extractivist age on the one hand, but also to introduce the historical trajectory of the conservation come environmental come environmental justice movements on the other. To these have to be added iwi history and process. From this the narrative of a just transition begins to be spoken, then written. Unsurprisingly, the iwi story, focusing on sustainable use of the earth for purposes of survival,  begins to be central.

There has been considerable debate via opinion columns in the local newspaper, pieces which have challenged populist tendencies, critiqued generalist government policies, taken a closer look at market ‘planning’ and finding it obtuse and clumsy, identifying some remaining colonialist structures, unpacked the social construct of ‘wilderness’ by separating the strands of biodiversity, recreation and the aesthetic so that arguments are not conflated, questioned the power and influence of national, urban-based lobby groups and unpacked the class element of tourism. It’s not an easy process, with inevitable falling outs.

Above all, from these narratives, there comes to be a new questioning of capitalism, whether the problems we’re facing either globally or locally, can be solved within free market structures. There is an interesting movement in Europe calling itself the people2people movement, which rejects both the market and the state as frameworks.

The problem in forging this new narrative is the constraint of time, for it has to be written within a couple of decades. Meanwhile, yesterday, I was a member of a community choir singing Christmas carols at the dementia unit. It was both touching and curiously resonant.

Pleasure and Pain

I’ve been reading an old book (one of those with a blank cover and the title embossed on the spine) on the history of economic thought. Interesting and boring at the same time – a perfect night cap.

In tribal times economics didn’t require a thought system. You fed and clothed the family and bartered any surplus. The writer saw the old testament prophets, and we can include the Maori prophets, arising when the tribal system was threatened by autocratic empires.

With feudalism, value was still attached primarily to the land, with the aristocracy wasting their surpluses on luxury items.

But with capitalism arriving on the scene, firstly in the form of bullionism (raping the Americas for gold and silver to add to the state coffers) and then mercantilism (trading companies appointed by the sovereign, holding a monopoly of trade over vast geographic areas), some explanations began to be required, with concepts of utility, value, currency exchange and rules of trade etc. entering the scene.

With the arrival of industrialism and the middle class, both the feudal aristocracy and the merchant class with their monopolies over land and trade had to be supplanted and this was justified by the doctrine of liberalism and free trade. The doctrine is simple and hasn’t changed, except in sophistication. If everyone pursues their self interest, an overall good is achieved. The state has no role to play other than to defend the realm and prevent monopolies arising. If there are no impediments to trade, the system will find an overall equilibrium. Competition will produce a base price for commodities, including labour.

Liberalism, while productive, produces vast inequalities in a society. Along came Marx and the socialist critique, analysing the thorny problem of where profit comes from. Profit comes from unpaid labour, they decided. The worker will work a certain number of hours in order to earn his subsistence, the rest of his hours generate profit for the capitalist, the owner of the means of production. It was an astute and powerful analysis , revolutionary news to the vast majority of the population and had to be countered.

It was dealt with in two ways, firstly by reluctantly accepting some worker representation and some government intervention to provide a welfare safety net, and secondly through an emotionalising of liberalism by seeing work and consumption as motivated by pain and pleasure. Work is painful, consuming is pleasurable. Saving is painful, but increased pleasure will result down the line. Buying a car is painful because it uses a lot of your money, but using the car brings pleasure. Ditto with the mortgage.

Out of this hedonism comes the modern theatre of markets feeling depressed or buoyant, of business and consumer confidence and the continuing castigating of government interference. There is greater sophistication: calculating the relationship of interest rate to investment (lower the interest rate increases investment), division of capital into productive use and investment, the ratio of consumption to savings – the stuff of the daily business report – all of it designed to keep at bay the socialist critique and to justify continuing inequality.

And of course, an ideology based on hedonism hasn’t a hope in hell of tackling the changes required to solve the climate crisis.


The future

The future

Driving home from rehearsal and listening mindlessly to National Radio I suddenly found myself in the middle of a rather astonishing half hour of women discussing the Brazilian Butt Lift or BBL, a cosmetic operation which reshapes the body into an ‘ideal’ form:  big bum, narrow waist and with breast implants as well, big tits. It seems that African, Afro-American and South American women seek the operation for ‘cultural reasons’. Snapchat and Instagram are the social media villains for spreading the desire for this particular craziness.

Unfamiliar with these apps I spent an hour before bed trying them out. After BBL and a plenitude of before and after photos of bums I tried the Californian fires and had a somewhat terrifying glimpse of the future apocalyptic times – as the planet wreaks revenge. Endless photos of fires were interspersed with prayers, praise for the first responders, information about welfare centres for those forced from their homes or whose homes had been razed, photos of the threatened Ronald Reagan Museum, photos of planes dropping water bombs, instructions about the use of face masks to prevent damage from smoke inhalation, plus ads about whatever – a chaos of information about chaos. The Los Angeles Times digital edition was free for a day, but pleaded for donations.

From there I turned to Greta Thunberg’s progress through North America in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s electric car and her retweeting of images of climate strikes from around the world, resolute fighters of chaos, led by ‘the woman from heaven’, the name the Native Americans have given her. And always in the comments section a hate filled rave: ‘go home bitch’, ‘a rubbish dump of lefties’, ‘yachts have been known to sink’, from bitter and twisted men who I hope don’t have access to weaponry.

NZ seems particularly placid in comparison, apart from a section of the farming sector who seem intent on creating hysteria.

But as things fall apart, the left in the States seems increasingly left. The next morning, having a pee in the museum toilet, I examined the slogan in the 1920s Buffalo Lodge Certificate on the wall: ‘In things certain, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity’.

Not bad really.


The French philosopher, Guy Debord wrote a famous book, The Society of the Spectacle, in which he described the way spectacles have taken over reality. ‘The SPECTACLE’, he wrote, ‘ is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.’ He also wrote that the SPECTACLE replaces the faculty of encounter with a social hallucination.

Since 1967, when the book was first published, the level of SPECTACLE has spectacularly increased. There’s a world cup or yacht race or world title fight or grand prix every week. Fans travel the world to attend. Countries and cities compete for the hosting rights. Digital platforms fiercely compete for transmission rights. Capital becomes image. National pride becomes a social hallucination, for players and competitors are mercenaries.

The current Rugby World Cup is a perfect example of the SPECTACLE.

world cup

Yet suddenly, NATURE intrudes. A typhoon bears down on the host nation. Citizens are evacuated, rivers flood, seas pound coastlines, winds howl, infrastructure is destroyed and worst of all, the SPECTACLE is interrupted at a crucial moment.

Immediately a new theme emerges, aligned with the climate crisis, a theme which is loosely called climate justice. The wealthy northern countries start moaning. Why was the tournament held in a country prone to natural disaster, that is, a country situated in the central portion of the globe most vulnerable to the climate crisis? Two northern countries, Italy and Scotland, who might now miss out, play victim. How good they are at sulking. Fans’ travel schedules are turned topsy turvy.  But already there had been complaints of the injustice experienced by second tier nations from the Pacific or marginal European countries at their unfair treatment by world rugby. The world cup becomes themed with injustice.

Firefighters patrol on a flooded road due to heavy rains caused by Typhoon Hagibis at Ota ward in Tokyo, Japan

But above all, there is fear and outrage that NATURE is bigger than the SPECTACLE, and that it refuses to be, in itself, a SPECTACLE. NATURE will destroy capital, NATURE breaks through the social hallucination to produce the implacable encounter with the wind, the rain, the earth,  the river and the sea.

We’d better get used to this sort of thing, because it isn’t going to stop.


Late last year I wrote a remake of Waiting for Godot, called Waiting for Greta. The prospect of climate extinction seemed to match the existential angst of Becket’s original (which was perhaps influenced by Hiroshima and the subsequent threat of nuclear holocaust); the Swedish girl had just appeared on the scene and I was impressed by her address to the Climate Change Summit.

Since then, especially since venturing into New York, the heart of the beast, Greta Thunberg has become a prophetic (Naomi Klein’s description) force. Millions of kids have taken to the streets and now workers have been called in to support the movement. She is in the media as much as Trump or Johnson. She addresses parliaments, talks with the Pope, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Obama… and is subjected to the outlandishly intense scrutiny of the modern media and the lunatic babble of social media.

She seems to survive, unphased. Most of the time she gives the floor to her admirers. When in the midst of her peers she seems shy and marginal. Yet when she speaks the message is crystal clear and very repeatable by others of her generation:

  • We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that the planet is under extreme threat of warming to the point that human life as we know it will be impossible.
  • Young people and future generations will pay the price. The leaders for the last thirty years, despite knowing the situation, have done nothing. The current leaders remain hesitant or are bent on destruction.
  • The least fortunate in the world will suffer most because rich people hang onto their privilege.
  • Continual economic growth is not the answer. The system has to change. Young people need to take to the streets and make that change.
  • No one is too small to make a difference.

There’s been nothing this clear and succinct since the Communist Manifesto of 1848. And the message is being forged, and the movement led, by this prophetic sixteen year old with Asperger’s.

Both the conservative right and the liberal left try and cut her down to size, either by dismissing her as a hysterical, mentally ill teenager, or by patronising her. Conspiracy theories abound. She’s in the employ of a PR firm. What’s the story with her parents? Some adults must be behind this. She’s a communist figurehead…

But then, she herself increased the intensity when she addressed the UN in New York. She took off the mask to show the anger, grief and pain of a generation. It became a poor theatre moment which created a frenzy. ‘She’s hysterical. She’s making young people anxious and suicidal. Why don’t her parents rein her in?’ For politicians don’t do this, nor do adults when in public. They can pretend anger and abuse one another, but only the mad reveal themselves in this way. Yet, in actual fact, she was on script. Here’s a quote from a book, The Uninhabitable Earth, a story of the future, by David Wallace-Wells:

‘Rhetoric often fails us on climate because the only factually appropriate language is of a kind we’ve been trained, by a buoyant culture of sunny-side-up optimism, to dismiss, categorically, as hyperbole. Here the facts are hysterical and the dimensions of the drama  incomprehensibly large – large enough to enclose not just all of present day humanity but all of our possible futures as well.’

Greta suddenly acted out this enormity (and immediately a Death Metal band turned it into a song). The adults are terrified at being called to account. Is this going to be something like Mao’s cultural revolution? The honest ones, like Michael Moore, are willing to admit failure. Obama? – no wonder he wants to be seen shaking her hand.

Greta’s secret of course is her Asperger’s, which means she doesn’t ‘play the social games you folk are so fond of’, to use her words. She’s focused, obsessed perhaps, sees the issue without compromise, doesn’t chat, remains a vulnerable figure physically. Prophetic because in this situation, to quote Wallace-Wells again, ‘there is no analogy to draw on outside of mythology and theology’.

She is also remarkably astute. In a sweet interview with a Swedish talk show host, safe in her language and culture, she talks about her Papa – she won’t let him go shopping in New York, he’s untidy and probably sick of having to follow her around (having to pick her up from the UN rather than the school disco). She will keep assessing the public exposure and withdraw if it gets too much. I’m sure she’ll be capable of disappearing for a while just as effectively as she appeared. And she’ll have a remarkable knowledge of the way the political world works.

So far she has survived the maelstrom of the Empire. After all, it’s nothing compared to what the planet’s going to throw at us. And to copy her in three simple ways would change the world: stop flying, stop stupid shopping and become vegan. Let the whole human race do that, starting tomorrow. Whew! Yet it is possible. That’s the point she’s making.

A dramatic weekend

A wet and dramatic weekend; a good first performance of Waiting for Greta, our reinterpretation of Godot a la climate crisis and a lovely story telling circle for The Survival of Thomas Brunner.

But drama on the home front as well. Friday night Harvey and his mates over indulged and decided on a practical joke: kidnapping our rooster and depositing him in Austin’s house bus, thus giving him a rude awakening. The traumatised rooster was ejected by a disgruntled Austin and was reported later in the morning to be wandering disconsolately in the empty section next to Wendy’s. It was pissing down with rain and I went searching to no avail. It seems that Wendy’s rooster, now sheltering under an old truck. had chased him away.

BY now the story had spread through the village and Harvey was protesting innocence, but the sack in which the rooster had been transported was found and traced back to its source.  I had a talk with Harvey about the concept of utu. ‘I’ll find the rooster for you,’ he promised. But it continued to rain. Our hens began to wander. ‘Without a male, they lack boundaries,’ Gaynor, our next door neighbour told me.  She’s a woman so could get away with that statement.

Our rooster had had a stroke a couple of years ago: classic symptoms, falling over, dopey look on his face, but amazingly it forged new circuits in the brain – apart from lust – it stopped bonking. Anyway, come Monday I was off to Wellington, but got a message from Cynthia: Someone’s taken over your facebook identity and is sending around a begging letter. I had no idea what to do but Carl in Westport rang to tell me he’d contacted facebook.  And then Paul from the shop drove in to tell me the rooster was on Mike’s section. It was suddenly a classic story structure – all these gatekeepers blocking my ritual journey.

Caroline and I went around to the section: old bus sitting in mud, a sheep tied up. plus, incongruously, a red sports car – and the rooster sheltering under a flax bush. Using the African hunting walk technique (learned off Grotowski, the Pole) I crept up and got close, but the beady eye decided I was danger and the rooster hopped over a ditch. The game went on but eventually I caught him in a desperate and vulgar Kiwi tackle. Back home the chooks had wandered off but we locked the rooster in the pen and he crowed three times in biblical fashion.

I told our neighbour to tell Harvey the rooster was back but utu was still on the agenda before cleaning sheep shit out of the treads of my boots and heading into town to catch the bus. Still pissing down we drove the Buller Gorge with a strutting driver I could imagine at a Mussolini rally. Next day, via the flash new Nelson airport, I entered the sophistication of the city.

A footnote: Greta Thunberg continues to amaze. Not only does she begin a movement which in six months can have four million young people take to the streets; she can, with one look, destroy Donald Trump. Her superpower? ‘I don’t play the social games you people are so fond of.’


I watched a fascinating drama doco on Maori suicide called Maui’s Hook. A whanau whose mother has killed herself, go on a hikoi, calling in at marae to meet other families who have had a similar experience, before the cohort of whanau reach Reinga, where those who have passed are farewelled.  A magical presence is introduced into this realism in the form of Maui and Hine nui te Po figures – Maui seen, I suppose, as having committed suicide in his attempt to kill death, but also having fished up the island along which the hikoi passes. What would have been  a simple record of a group counselling and healing process becomes then a testing of the culture as a spiritual system for dealing with the suicide phenomenon which is accompanying the Maori renaissance. For, in a bizarre contradiction, the suicide rate is growing, along with economic and cultural success.

Suicide is a complex phenomenon, with chemical abuse, prescribed chemicals, poverty, relationship dysfunction, romanticism, revenge, despair, imitation, guilt, all playing their part. Quite possibly a belief in an after-life is a factor, as is the fact we live in a success-based performative culture where failure is keenly felt.

Watching the tikanga framework interact with this complex motivation and then, the simple act of someone killing themselves, which, in the words of one young woman, ‘leaves a mess for the whanau to clean up’, I realised that my own unsentimental reaction to suicide, something along the lines of, ‘Your choice, ‘bro,’ comes from the philosophical work done in Pakeha culture last century. Once it became obvious that God was dead, the spiritual and ethical framework that Christianity had provided collapsed and man was faced with a meaningless universe, with consciousness becoming an absurdity.

According to the existentialists, as these philosophers were called, a person was faced with a choice. Suicide was an obvious way out, and the motivation simple: Life’s absurd so why put up with the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when one may end it…’ to quote Hamlet.

However, if continuing to live is the chosen path, a complex earning of meaning without the help of god(s) in any shape or form has to take place. An essence has to be forged from the existence so far lived, free from all the shackles of convention, in order to create a meaningful project from the rest of one’s life. I suppose the Maui figure can be seen as something of an existential hero who broke the shackles of convention, yet at the same time, to rely on heroes and magical thinking, immediately gives a way out from this hard and commonplace task of making one’s life meaningful and, at the same time, ‘cleaning up the mess.’

The American Musical

I haven’t seen an American musical for a while, but being invited to her class’s performance of 42nd Street by a niece attending NASDA , whanau duty was involved.

The experience was one of psychosis: a noisy energy, a chaos of plot, masked faces, skilful dance and choreography, engaging in a way, never a dull moment, nor an authentic one. It is also a musical about a musical so has a hint of formal reflection. The show has a history: a depression-era, feel-good pulp novel about a girl from the sticks seizing an opportunity to become a Broadway star, became the basis of a feel good depression movie – lots of starlet flesh on show to provide fantasies in the soup kitchen queue – and then, in the 1980s the film gave birth to a musical, reasserting the bimbo female role in the midst of the rebirth of feminism. The depression context had long gone by then, other than as a costume statement. There’s a lot of skilful tap dancing to give a vaudeville edge and a sub text of a girl has to do what she has to do – no use sitting on it, baby.

42nd street pic1

Still from the film

I was impressed at how much this is propaganda, akin to the old USSR and Chinese spectacles, there’s the same skill set, the same mask, the same necessary energy to convince and captivate the masses; except this is propaganda for the capitalist system. Instead of taking place in Red or Tiananmen Square it takes place on the hallowed ground of Broadway.

To get through the evening I imagined staging it in Guantanamo Bay, my friend wondered about one of those bombed out Syrian cities… the culture of the US empire is certainly akin to a decaying Ancient Rome.

I was wondering what to say to my niece the next day but thankfully, she was also critical – not keen on playing the bimbo or ‘the dame’, had been a little horrified by the film with its tracking shot through the legs of the line-up of chorus girls. But at her age it’s all experience.

Before 42nd Street, there’d been time to catch Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo, where his usual seeking of authenticity is focused on a historic action, the parliamentary reform movement of 1815 and its repression. The acting was superb but I was also struck by the costuming, where the same seeking of the real had been taking place. The film put to shame most costume drama you see – only the Russians have managed this before. At the same time, the effort required to capture the real was also apparent, so that the now existed as well.


Still from Peterloo

Home through the snowy alps, all the dross momentarily cleansed and happy families sliding around the geological playground, no more important than the insects and the birds.

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