Story: Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu

Page 1. Origins of Māori theatre

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Te whare tapere

Kia kawea tātou e te rēhia

Let us be taken by the spirit of joy, of entertainment

This whakataukī (saying) indicates that performance-based entertainment was central to Māori society long before the first arrival of Europeans. Whare tapere was the name given to sites used for entertainments such as storytelling, dance, music and games. Sometimes this name referred to a special building, but more often a suitable outdoor location such as the base of a notable tree was designated a whare tapere. A whare mātoro was a form of whare tapere that offered entertainment specifically by and for young people. A travelling troupe of entertainers who staged whare tapere in a succession of communities was called a whare karioi.

Impressive performance

In 1868 the missionary Thomas Grace listened to speeches in a Māori village near Whakatāne. ‘One old man attracted my attention more than all the rest … This man’s performance has made an impression on my mind that can never be erased … I could not help thinking at the moment, how infinitely superior it was to all the elaborate, theatrical shams that draw people at Home [England] to crowded theatres. Were this old man to sing his song in London, I believe that [theatre] professionals would have nothing to do until he left.’1

Ōrotokare Trust

In the late 19th century whare tapere fell into disuse and many of their associated customs were lost. In 2008 Charles Royal formed the Ōrotokare Trust to research whare tapere traditions. The trust aimed to build on these traditions to explore new approaches to Māori performing arts. In 2010 the trust held its first contemporary whare tapere at Waimangō marae, Hauraki. Several others have been held since. They featured traditional Māori instruments and marionette-type puppets known as karetao, but also modern elements such as digital soundscapes.

Māori settings for non-Māori theatre

Early New Zealand stage dramas such as The land of the moa (1895) and Tapu (1903) exploited the dramatic potential of Māori forms such as the haka. Māori occasionally took minor roles in these productions, but were not consulted over the scripts or staging. The earliest New Zealand feature films, such as Hinemoa (1914), also employed Māori actors, but only rarely consulted Māori over the content. Some of Rudall Hayward’s films, such as Rewi’s last stand (1940), were exceptional in incorporating some Māori viewpoints.

Māori themselves formed concert parties to demonstrate action songs, haka and other examples of their culture. More ambitious productions were sometimes attempted, such as the Maori Musical Society's 1941 production of Hinemoa in Rotorua.

The pohutukawa tree

In 1957 Bruce Mason’s play The pohutukawa tree, the first New Zealand play to deal with domestic race relations, received its first performance. Director Richard Campion struggled to find experienced Māori to fill the lead roles. However, Hira Tauwhare had performed with concert parties in the Second World War and taken part in amateur theatre. She gave a powerful performance in the lead role of Aroha Mataira, and repeated it for British television. Tauwhare remained in the UK, performing for the stage, screen and radio under the name Hira Talfrey and working with famous British actors such as Sean Connery, Anthony Quayle and Hayley Mills.

Parihaka play

In 1971 journalist Harry Dansey wrote Te raukura: the feathers of the albatross, the first play by a Māori playwright. It described the destruction of Te Whiti’s settlement at Parihaka, and was first performed, with George Henare as Te Whiti, at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1972. Two years later Te raukura was performed at Wellington’s Ngāti Pōneke marae by members of Victoria University’s Te Reo Maori Society.

Maori Theatre Trust

In 1965 the New Zealand Opera Company performed Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s opera of African-American life, with Īnia Te Wīata in the lead and 30 other Māori in the chorus. Several of them, such as Don Selwyn, George Henare and Apirana Taylor, went on to have outstanding careers in theatre. This production’s success led to the formation of the Maori Theatre Trust. In 1967 the Trust performed a classical drama, He mana toa, and a comedy of life before European settlement, The golden lover. One reviewer said, ‘Both the plays have opened exciting vistas for Maori theatre.’2

In 1970 the Maori Theatre Trust toured internationally. Its members first contributed to New Zealand’s large-scale pageant at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, then toured to Hungary and several cities in the Soviet Union. However, a tour of the US was cut short due to falling ticket sales, and financial pressures forced the trust to disband.

Mr King Hongi

Trust member George Henare starred as Hongi Hika in the highly successful musical Mr King Hongi, first produced at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1973.

  1. Thomas Grace, A pioneer missionary among the Maoris, 1850–1879: being letters and journals of Thomas Samuel Grace. Palmerston North: G. H. Bennett, 1928 (originally published 1872), pp. 177–178. Back
  2. A. Armstrong, ‘Māori Theatre Trust’, Te Ao Hou 59 (June 1967), p. 51, (last accessed 19 December 2013). Back
How to cite this page:

Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith, 'Māori theatre – te whare tapere hōu - Origins of Māori theatre', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 February 2024)

Story by Mark Derby and Briar Grace-Smith, published 22 Oct 2014