LITERATURE – DRAMA
Since the first performance more than 100 years ago of a play written in this country, the story of New Zealand drama has not been an impressive one. There has been only sporadic production of local work and no body of dramatic writing of any consequence. Billed as a “new Shakespearean drama in two acts”, the first locally written play was Marcilina or The Maid of Urnindorpt by James Henry Marriott who presented it at the Britannia Saloon, Wellington, in 1848. Six years later the nautical farce Our First Lieutenant by David Burn, an Australian writer who spent the last 20 years of his life in New Zealand, was performed by the Gentlemen Amateurs in Auckland. In 1862 a company of New Zealand actors visited Sydney in two melodramas, Whakeau or The Pakeha Chief and The Maori Queen, by R. P. Whitworth, who was better known for his farce Catching a Conspirator. During the sixties of last century, Otago saw Life's Revenge and a number of burlesques by Benjamin Farjeon, the novelist, then resident in Dunedin. In 1877 Mr and Mrs F. M. Bates commissioned Check and Counter Check, a tale of the American Civil War, from the journalist J. J. Utting, author of The Two Vagabonds. Another journalist-playwright, W. J. T. M. Hornsby, was the author of The Kelly Gang or The Career of Ned Kelly, the Iron-Clad Bushranger which met with a vociferous reception all over the country in 1880.
From the seventies of last century to the First World War, resident stock companies occasionally produced a locally written piece, and during this time touring managers like Walter Reynolds, George Darrell, George Leitch, and Barrie Marschel included their own works in their repertoires. Reynolds, author of 11 melodramas, presented several of these in Christchurch, among them being Tried and True and The Sprissaun, the story of an Irish family on the New Zealand goldfields. Darrell began his career in Dunedin. A prolific author of highly coloured melodramas, such as Struggle for Freedom, Transported for Life, The Pakeha, and The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, the last an adaptation of Fergus Hume's novel, Darrell scored his greatest success with The Sunny South. George Leitch wrote the spectacular The Land of the Moa and the melodramas Hands Up, The Old Homestead, and The Kelly Gang. Another actor-manager of the nineties, Barrie Marschel, wrote and produced Murder in the Octagon, Humarire Taniwha or The Greenstone God, and The Hut in the Red Mountain.
The earliest New Zealand drama was ephemeral stuff, either sensational drama or sentimental pieces with virtue triumphant. By the end of the century their authors were drawing more and more upon local colour for their settings and upon colonial stories for their themes.