Easter Saturday saw the unveiling and memorial gathering for Dean Parker; family, friends and colleagues being able to finally express their aroha for this much respected playwright and activist − some would use the expression cultural worker. There were many tributes and on the journey home I reflected on the occasion. In the midst of an overwhelming feeling of solidarity, there was nevertheless a certain discomfort, almost embarrassment at the fact that Dean, both in the UK and in New Zealand became for a period, a member of a communist party – a card carrying member as they used to say − rather than merely a sympathiser. What was the meaning of him doing so, as a writer, even if, after a period, he left? Having been similarly a member of a communist party – in my case I didn’t leave, rather the organisation folded − the matter interests me.
To be a committed communist means, firstly, that you share the belief in the working class taking over, sometimes violently, the means of production of a society. There is no accommodation with capitalism. The means to the takeover vary, from a syndicalist alliance of co-ops, unions, community and rural organisations replacing the state, to the Leninist version of an advanced proletariat, with the party’s guidance, taking over the state apparatus and using that as a means of taking control of production. There are other variants: Mao’s emphasis on the peasantry; Fidel and Che’s guerrilla interventionism, but it is a totalising belief, rejecting mystification and compromise.
And having joined, what is the creative worker’s role and how does the party discipline – once an analysis has been worked through of, for example the women question or the national question, collective commitment is required − how does this commitment affect the content of a work – or the form? The creative process and the creative worker are unreliable in this regard, story and characters assuming a life of their own and the writer usually going along for the ride.
And then the creator has to grapple with the issue of the mode of production. Is she going to produce works with the correct line for the middle class audience characteristic of most of the art forms, or try and take art to the working class in their own venues? If so, how does the latter happen and who pays for it? Is the creative worker in capitalist society a worker working for a boss or is she someone who has independently produced a product which she is then selling to an outlet; or being guided by an intermediary (agent/publisher/producer). Are they then working for the theatre or simply selling something to the theatre? And how is the price determined? Or is it a co-op of actors, writer, director, designer producing the work? How are the shares determined? The closest we get to a binary worker-boss relationship would be writing for a soap opera, in which case is a union required? And finally, what is the role of the private or state patron – sometimes both – and what is the relationship with the worker?
Complex issues, which, being a party member, creates some clarity and often a whirlpool of contradiction, for does the party have an analysis of these issues? Unfortunately, in New Zealand anyway, that has often been unlikely. Dean experienced this complexity and it informed his work and his career, And that energy rubbed off onto others. It would be a grown up moment for NZ theatre for a biography of Dean to be written within this framework. That is one task. Another of course would be the publication of a collection of his best plays with a lengthy and conscious introduction. We’ve done the praising, and in many ways, that is easy. But the real challenges remain.
And finally there is the wit to keep alive as well and it seems to me the Bloomsbury nights could continue as an annual event, someone putting together moments from Ulysses with short extracts from Dean’s plays, plus some songs.
Let’s keep the praxis of Dean Parker – that’s the task.