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Dean Parker

Dean

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.

Dean

In the midst of the corona virus melodrama, normal life and death processes seem to be suspended or unnoticed. Hospitals are vacant and doctors’ surgeries sparsely attended. But last week, playwright, Dean Parker unexpectedly died and grief must be registered, outside his bubble.

Dean was a prolific writer of the well-crafted three act play (so prolific he has at least 38 titles to his credit). Dean’s career paralleled that other writer of well-crafted plays, Roger Hall. But whereas Roger has written about the foibles of the Kiwi middle and wanna-be middle class  (who tend to be the theatre goers) and as a consequence achieved popularity with that mainstream audience, Dean was a leftie who wrote about political subjects and social contradiction, so had a career-long struggle getting his plays produced. Rather than bums on seats he was interested in ideas in the mind. He required a national theatre like the Royal Court with managers who hold onto the Greek democratic tradition of the theatre playing a vital role in the necessary  debates among citizens, rather than the NZ provincial theatres’ struggle to survive as they compete with beers around the barbie and commercial television..

Dean was never bitter about the struggle to get his plays produced and he kept on writing no matter what. Of late, BATS in Wellington proved a more sympathetic venue, with a small theatre company being keen to put on his work.  But a BATS co-op is not capable of providing a living and Dean never bothered the arts council, so he sensibly made his money though writing for film and television. This led to his work helping to found the NZ Writers Guild which set itself up as a trade union negotiating on behalf of writers with the main employers, National Radio and Television and the NZ Producers Association. Despite some initial success this remains an uphill struggle.

Dean became renowned as a script doctor for film projects – if a script wasn’t working send it to Dean. He had a lovely story. Once the producers of a film about to go into production were tearing their hair out over a script that had gone through umpteen versions and called on him to help. Send me the first draft, he requested. They did so and he retyped the script and sent it back with his invoice. That’s it, they enthused, that’s what we’ve been looking for.

He had a sardonic relationship with the Auckland Theatre Company which was logically his production house. But think of the Remuera crowd, they would plead with him as he presented them with another well-crafted play written from within a working class consciousness. Fuck them, he would reply.

Like any expert craftsman he kept himself out of the work, although for a playwright that is difficult. He admitted the influences of Catholicism and his Napier teachers, his mother, the themes and events of the late sixties, the Irish struggles and his flirtation with the Party. He loved James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s monologue. Of all his plays, Greek Fire, set in Cairo during WW11 and with John Mulgan at its centre, seems most like him. Sadly, I don’t think it has ever been produced. I saw a rehearsed reading and it has stayed with me. There was something of the foreign agent to Dean, the cadre in hiding, the monk in his cell, and he felt a kinship with John Mulgan, the Kiwi who wrote Man Alone, went to Oxford, served with the British Army, worked with the Greek resistance, experienced the dreadful betrayal of that country’s left after the war and committed suicide.

Dean remained stalwart during the post-modern fragmentation, was always generous and always ready to meet for a beer at the Grey Lynn Working Men’s Club when I was in Auckland. We would swap yarns. He was the one who suggested a working class museum in Blackball. I never attempted the mainstream theatre but like Dean kept on working no matter what and he appreciated that.

He will be sadly missed, a man out of his time, out of place in some ways, yet resolutely creative, maintaining a culture which , one day, hopefully soon, the world will return to.

RIP comrade.

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