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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.

The Writer

Reading Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water again, reminded me of how elemental she is to NZ writing. For she was just a writer, whose sole task is to find the words to describe people and environment. Her madness, which is unexplained except as a nervousness, an anxiety about the world, gave her the content. It forced her into contact with society as madness, made up of the patients and the staff of the looney bin; the asylum as microcosm.  She is not interested in politics except as a sort of class system among the mad, which led to patient distribution to this ward or that. The patients and their peculiarities, the staff and their’s, the natural world – that’s it. The writer’s task is to write. There is no explanation, no Freud or Jung here, the madness just is. ECT is administered to enable forgetting. Whatever it is that’s bothering you, best to forget it. ECT will help the process. If that doesn’t work, a leucotomy.

We know the story of her being saved from that by a story, by publication, the doctor realising she was a writer and therefore it was a mistake to fry her brain permanently.

Writing, once she was out of the bin, was a restoration of memory through writing. She lived reclusively, for the shyness, the anxiety presumably remained. But as pure writer, as writing as a singular vocation, she has no peers. The genius in the attic, or in this case, the provincial town suburb is a correct paradigm.

There is one description that remains with me: of her getting on the wrong side of one of the staff through perceiving an empathy for the patients lurking behind the brisk nurse’s mask. She is caught watching, caught understanding, becomes a caught-out consciousness, possessing the power which consciousness brings. Thereafter the staff member hates her and punishes her, for she has been exposed. It remains the writer’s dilemma: to shut oneself away and just write or to reveal her knowledge in the public arena and become threatening or foolish.

I can have that dilemma in the village in which I live. Consciousness is threatening, a negating of daily routine, of daily mask. To know can be an act of unkindness, even arrogance. Bill Pearson made no friends locally when he wrote Coal Flat.

There have been a lot of diggers operating in the area lately, so let me finish this post with a poem.

The mechanical arm

The compressed power

Of hydraulic fluid

The bucket scraping and lifting

The man in the cab

A strange animal

A beast of prey

Devouring the earth.

Time stands still –

Green leaf, insect life,

Worms, caterpillars

Aphid, grub,

Stone and rock

Powerless.

Flat and tidy the result

Ready for concrete or asphalt

Those lifeless materials

Of modern man

 

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