Book review: The Plays of Bruce Mason, John Smythe

By Roger Hall

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The first comprehensive survey of playwright Bruce Mason’s dramatic works has left fellow playwright Roger Hall in a reflective frame of mind as he considers Mason’s contribution to New Zealand theatre
Plays of Bruce Mason - A Survey. By John Smythe
Plays of Bruce Mason - A Survey. By John Smythe

Last month, I watched a re-screening of that charming movie, Pleasantville, in which the main characters get transported back in time to a small American town, where everything is in black and white, and no one wants anything to change.

It seemed vaguely familiar. Then I had it: it reminded me of New Zealand when I arrived from Britain in 1958. One of writer Bruce Mason's satirical songs (which gave its name to a show) was We Don't Want Your Sort Here, a mocking attack on those who reject anything outside the orthodox. It could well have been sung by Pleasantville's citizens.

In 1958, Mason was struggling to make a living - any sort of living - as a playwright. There was no television here then. Shops were closed all weekend, so people were more active (though a lot of that activity meant do-it-yourself on a grand scale, including cleaning the car once a week).

At first, I missed television but it made me more active; one activity being to join a couple of drama societies as an actor.

Amateur theatre was very strong in Wellington: Repertory did popular plays; the Thespians did Shakespeare and other costume dramas; Unity did high quality presentations of recent (and often political) overseas works. Many suburbs had their own drama groups.

But professional theatre had, at best, a tenuous grip. Each company toured and went broke after a number of years, and rarely produced New Zealand plays. The British Drama League (its name indicative of its stance) ruled over the amateur scene and while it ran numerous playwriting competitions none of these hit the professional stage.

By the mid-1950s, Mason had written several plays but it wasn't until The Pohutukawa Tree, one of the best plays ever written in this country, that he had a professional production: five (only) performances from The New Zealand Players.

In his book The Plays of Bruce Mason - A Survey, John Smythe argues had the play been performed more often, Mason's life would have been easier and New Zealand drama would have developed more quickly. True enough but audiences were very self-conscious about seeing themselves on stage.

Hearing a New Zealand place name uttered on stage evoked nervous giggles. As I've observed, on the poster you had to put "New Zealand play" as a sort of
Government Health Warning.

Generally, plays were set in our past, not our present. Mason wrote some pieces ostensibly set in the present that usually presented a bleak view of marriage or New Zealand manhood or womanhood. This was not box-office material: why go to the theatre when you could get all this at home?

Had theatres done more of Mason's works, he might not have resorted - in desperation - to writing one-man plays, that he could perform, direct and, at last, get a decent return on. Those endeavours resulted in one of our iconic theatre pieces, The End of the Golden Weather, which I saw early in 1960. Coming from London, I'd been a terrible snob about the arts in New Zealand but here - at last - was something special, not only a great performance but something very New Zealand I could recognise and admire.

A few years later, our paths would cross with increasing frequency, with the opening of Downstage Theatre in 1964, when Mason was about halfway through his playwriting career. Downstage's opening was a pivotal moment in our theatre history when a professional theatre opened, hung on and survived.

I was performing in late-night revue there and Mason was involved on the board and performing there regularly. (He once put together a show, To Russia with Love, in three weeks to stave off the theatre's financial crisis.)

His play The Evening Paper, written first in 1953, was broadcast on television in 1965, and provoked a storm of abusive comment, literally hundreds of angry letters to Mason and/or to the press. Its major sin was showing New Zealand unfavourably. Even 12 years later, in response to Middle-Age Spread, I was told that it was, "my duty to write plays that show New Zealand in a good light".

From the 1950s to the end of his life in 1982, Mason wrote about 20 plays, ranging from large-cast dramas, numerous revue sketches and songs, to his solo shows. They included domestic (bleak), political, farce, solo, five plays with Maori themes and the final (over-rated) Blood of the Lamb produced amid a febrile atmosphere as everyone knew Mason was dying. Smythe faithfully records them all with detailed plot summaries. Alas, summaries rarely reveal a play's merits or its faults and can be dull reading but that is the book's brief.

One theatrical highlight for Downstage was its production of Mason's Awatea performed at Wellington Town Hall in 1968. It starred Inia Te Wiata, and attracted 9000 people over four performances. Despite the generally unfavourable reviews, it generated considerable excitement. Indeed, theatre was at an exciting time in the late 1960s with professional theatre popping up all over the country.

However, Smythe gives the impression Mason had no fellow playwrights around. For the record, from the mid-1960s Peter Bland, Warren Dibble, James K. Baxter, Owen Leeming, Mervyn Thompson, Alistair Campbell and Joe Musaphia were writing, with another generation of playwrights just around the corner. Add to that Jenny McLeod's epic dance drama Earth and Sky (a sensation) and Green Are The Islands, a half-pageant, half-military tattoo, commissioned and performed at Osaka for Expo 70 with a cast of - get this! - 270!

There is supposedly a biography on the way but, in the meantime, Smythe does us a service with biographical glimpses (including the fact Mason was almost certainly bisexual), which add to our understanding of Mason's work. There are references to him as theatre critic, music critic, accomplished pianist, linguist (he performed Waters of Silence in English and French on alternate nights). He was also an outspoken defender of political freedom and the arts; a man ahead of his time, a sole crusader, possibly relishing the role of solitary champion.

Smythe, alas, also has no room for the hilarious and prolonged epistolary duel with Sir Donald Wolfit (an English actor and manager who travelled from Britain to tour Shakespeare productions) and whom Mason dared give a less than favourable review, but there is mention of a lengthy "Theatre in Danger" correspondence back in 1956.

This a worthy volume for any theatre lover interested in our dramatic history - pity about the uninviting cover - and, I think, Mason would be astounded to see the breadth and number of plays being produced nowadays. I wish he were here to see and be part of them.

The Plays of Bruce Mason - A Survey.
By John Smythe (VUP $40).

- Canvas

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