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.


Notes for a play

A play about the land? It’s a tricky subject. Whenua and Gaia of course, but land is mainly about money and subdivision: DP4/ Lot 78, rates, fences, mortgages, interest, investment, capital, farms, suburbs, factories, roads, warehouses – even google needs land. And then there’s colonisation and the planting of the flag. Most wars are fought over land.

Land’s at the heart of the financial system.

Would it be wiser to treat it scientifically, as a matter of chemistry and geology – planet earth and the accident of life-giving water. All those geological eras: millions of years of plates grinding, heat, pressure, upthrust, erosion, rivers and glaciers…

How do you make a play about all this?

The original impulse was to tackle dairy farming, but that immediately involved the land:  factory production, may as well have the cows in barns except for the clean green image; the Chinese start coming into it, water bottlers as well, mining of course, climate change, too much nitrogen, tangatawhenua and tiriti issues…

And then there are the national parks and the conservation estate. Lock it up and drop poison on predators, let the tourists tramp or bike through taking their photos; be careful about the number of helicopter concessions, freedom campers, adventure tourism… another commodity.

Trying to do a play about the land takes one to the heart of alienation. We’ve detoured to look at Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. And seriously considered Gaza as a location – there’s a land imposed upon. Prisons need land. Mental hospitals as well in the past, but now chemicals do the job of restraining…

The slow plod of the cow off to milking, the farm worker on the quad bike – could be a Filipino (or a Palestinian). And then the latest threat, Mycoplasma virus. Impossible to stop the cows moving around. They move around a lot it seems. Like bees. Nothing’s still. My grandparents had thirty cows which provided a living. It was a time when people stayed still, unless the Great Depression forced you to swag along the back roads in search of tucker.

It’s perhaps ridiculous doing a play about the land? We should do a musical instead, Grease or something with young girls dancing, that drags in the punters. Or cowboys thundering across the prairie.

That first Maori play, Rowley Habib’s Death of the Land. I played the Pakeha judge a couple of times. The awa, the maunga. Identity. DP4 Lot 78. Two worlds.

Now you have to have the soil tested before you build. It usually involves scraping out a metre or so, filling the hole with gravel and compacting it, before the concrete is poured.

When I first went to Europe I was instantly aware of the sheer weight of concrete that has been poured on the land.

Somewhere in here, Grotowski is lurking. Tell the truth: a true gesture, a true sound. Take off the mask.

Anyway, something will hopefully come of it. And the task is the work of performance rather than the performance itself; to grow the whenua rather than bury it.

Core Business

Back to rehearsing. Core business. It makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does: to find the emotion, the thought, the gesture, the shape of a story, to go behind the mask, to be the other and therefore more oneself, the interaction past daily chat and routine, to tell the truth or at least endeavour to do so. And it is innocent, for it leaves no mark on the planet.

It takes me back to directing my first play at university and thinking, I can do this. For some reason I know how to do this.

And all those places where I’ve rehearsed, often odd places, for rehearsal space can be an expensive issue so it’s a matter of seeking spaces that are under-used. For years, it was the Kelburn Scout Hall, nicely situated in the Wellington Botanical Gardens near the top of the Cable Car. It was only used one evening a week and otherwise free. A couple of memorable incidents. Once, during the voice exercises there was a knock on the door and a Japanese man bowed and gestured that he wished to enter. He did so, sat and watched for a while then got up and performed his own voice exercises (he was probably a Kabuki actor). Afterward, he bowed and left. On another occasion, policemen with a dog burst in the door, it having been reported that someone was in distress.

The Scout Hall became unavailable so we moved to the derelict NZ Players Building in Newtown with its multitude of memories for NZ theatre. Then it was bought for apartment development and for a period we had a space in a short-lived artist’s co-op which rented an old woolstore with lovely lanolin floors from the sheep wool. Then we started slumming it, using the abandoned Mataraunga School in Aro Street, an old factory in Dixon Street, before finally acquiring a studio, the gracious ballroom of the old Working Men’s Club in Petone. Each place had its stories and its ghosts. Each place was marginal. One rehearses on the margins.

In England we found a Girl Guides Hut in Haslemere, Surrey. Once again the police turned up, this time a Bobby on his bicycle. And then there was the time Karlite Rangihau took us to Ruatahuna to rehearse – a life changing experience. Twice I’ve had the privilege of working on a play at Tapu Te Ranga. Now, in Mawhera, we have the luxury of a big school room without desks. It has a heat pump for winter, is generally available for evenings and weekends and is on a koha basis – there is less pressure on space in the regions. Last night there were a couple of young people there, learning to improvise, slightly startled by their seasoned elders still capable of erupting into emotion. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and the process.

As I said, Core Business.

Theatre and performance

Reading the biography of Sue Bradford, and it’s a good read, left me pondering on the difference between performance and theatre. In the modern world the demand for performance is pretty universal, and the higher the importance ladder a person climbs, the greater the performance demands. Sue is a performative person and I wondered, reading the book, how much performance, more generally, is driven by the Oedipal complex. Her performance evolved from Progressive Youth Movement activist, to drug taking hippie, to communist, to community activist, to politician, to academic, back to community activist, to radical intellectual…and there were parent and partner  roles to play as well.  It’s an admirable and coherent ensemble of performances, emanating from the bosom of a middle class family.

37. Pou Mahi a Iwi. Sue Bradford in the Unemployed Roadshow, 1996.

Sue Bradford in the Unemployed Roadshow, 1996.

When I worked with Sue on a theatre project in the 1990s, I suspect she found theatre a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle because of the dialectic that is at the heart of acting, as opposed to the certainty required in performance. Let me explain.

The basic acting mantra was succinctly expressed by the Russian master, Stanislavski: If I were this person in this situation how/what would I feel/think/do? The ‘If’ is crucial, because it requires the imagination. I’m not Hamlet, but if I were Hamlet in this situation (a rotten state with a usurper king) what would be going on in my head and heart and what would I do about it? The play states what Hamlet does and what he thinks and feels, to an extent – but there are still immense subtleties to be created by the actor bringing to bear his own experience of like situations. For example, in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates suicide, but to make it ‘real’ the actor has to bring his own knowledge of contemplating suicide to the scene. The actor will experiment with past situations that might work; which memory of despair? And then, in dialogue with the director, intuitively choose.  For one works better than another. From that comes a score of physical movement. Hamlet slowly unfolds. And in becoming another, the actor becomes more himself.

This I-I dialogue is at the core of acting and is more complex than the politician performing the role of him or herself as politician; the key to that performance being the casting aside of the doubt that imagination produces. Doubt and imagination are fatal for the politician, and for other performative roles: real estate salesperson, talk show host etc. Accordingly, as the 21st century becomes increasingly and noisily performative, this I-I duality is banished. In many ways the imagination and the doubt from which imagination emanates, are banished, to be replaced by public opinion polls, sales figures etc.

This perhaps goes some way to explaining the extraordinary increase in suicide, especially amongst young men. Their tendency to become attached to the screen, to play those games, means both the performance is a solitary one and the I-I breaks down, for the screen can never be an I, despite its promises. It is a series of digits, that’s all, colonising the imagination. When doubt hits, it must overwhelm.

When I think back to previous cultures, perhaps God was once the other ‘I’, providing a dialogue. Or was it that performance was a matter of birthright, reserved for the aristocracy, the peasant simply tilling the soil? And here, there remains continuity. The performance of those who work with their hands lies in the work of their hands: the builder, the mechanic, the road maker, the digger driver… Sure, there’s greater help from the tools but there is still a physical object to have a dialogue with. The I-I (or is it I-it) prevails.

In this way the old class paradigms remain intact.

There’s probably more to say on this issue, some of it to do with the Oedipal pattern and how that’s changed as well, but I’ll leave it there.

High Art

Living on the Coast it is a relief to be able to avoid the middle class art event. But just occasionally it is useful to remind oneself. Having a gift voucher for the Regent, we went along to a video recording of the National Theatre Production of Harold Pinter’s, No Man’s Land. It proved to be a Hunger Games sort of event. Here we were in the remote provinces having a look at what people in the centre are up to. There was the extraordinary atmosphere of importance which the initial spin gave: the skill of the set, the props – even the butter, the lighting, the makeup, the actors talking of how great it had been working together… all this introduced by a woman of Middle Eastern appearance to make this very white event politically correct. This was high art, mate, and we in Greymouth were having a peak- thanks to modern technology.

The chatter ceased, the lights dimmed and we watched  two old men stuck in a room talking past each other, inhabiting what Raymond Williams calls, ‘the negative group’. At a certain point in bourgeois society, the alienation that capitalism produces became so severe that communication was no longer possible.  Fair enough, but in that case, better shut up and let the working class have a go. But if you own the theatre, then no, better keep trying to speak of how important you trying to speak, is.

The acting was not that good, the actors playing their adjustments (in Stanislavski’s term). If I drank that much whisky that quickly I would be in hospital, so a sense of reality was not useful. Two young blokes turned up and provided a bit of threat, but one of them didn’t know what to do with his hands (an amateur theatre problem). Pinter once said, I take people I don’t know and put them in a room and try to think what they might say. It’s a strange writerly experience – I tried it once and won a prize. Anyway, the experience was all so English – the Europeans would have made something philosophical or political of this, but the English just maunder along, assured of a previous imperial importance.  I was reminded of Tony Blair. Meanwhile, the audience tittered occasionally at rather obvious jokes and were having a cultured experience.

I suspect the budget for the production would have been something in the vicinity of the cost of Greymouth’s new town square, which we went along to after Act One, to have a more pleasant cultural experience sitting on the grass in the afternoon sun, listening to a local lass sing, very humbly, a few of her songs.

Rapanui: The Song of Stone

On Thursday we had something of a visitation in the form of a story telling show by Nelson actress, Lisa Allan. Great for the show to come here, and it also christened a new intimate venue (something Greymouth lacks), an upstairs space in the Regent complex whose only disadvantage is the lack of disabled access.

Rapanui, The Song of Stone, has to be considered from two angles: as a performance and as a content. Lisa Allan is an experienced and very competent performer, always a pleasure to watch. Movement, voice and choice of costume and props were all graceful. There was a touch of the cute little girl in her acting, but that was forgivable.

When it comes to the content, things became more complex. Solo performance is often closely linked to the performer who has devised/written the piece, often as an expression of self, so that the boundary between objective and subjective content is seamless.

Home and belonging provided the theme. Each member of the audience was greeted by Lisa, offered a small stone and asked, Where is home for you? She then proceeded to explore the topic for herself, using stone as the symbol of absolute foundation – of the planet, the universe, the soul etc. Where to from there? A bit of intergalactic travel, an encounter at a Reiki workshop, and it was threatening to become a new age ramble until we hit the real story: the Waitaha project.

This is a contentious project, which has led to something of a cult. Waitaha were a tribe living in the south who were conquered by Ngati Moemoe and then by Ngai Tahu. The cult belief is that they were the founding people of Aotearoa, here before the Northern tribes turned up. They were a peaceful folk, in touch with the strong spirits of the island – hence the cave drawings. The mythology has been taken up by some Pakeha, for it fits into the noble savage paradigm. It is also a way of avoiding the more earthy and challenging Tiriti and colonising dramas and their impact on Maori and the subsequent need for reparation. Instead, Pakeha can join Waitaha in a retrospective new age, leaving behind the hurly burly of the 21st century for a more spiritual time. This cult is a curious South Island phenomenon.

Nevertheless, the next day I was feeling a spiritual connection with the extraordinary landscape that is Te Wai Pounamu, a different landscape and a different sort of connection from that which one has with the more intimate and softer Northern island. So, I thank Lisa and her storytelling for this.

Kia ora.

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