New Zealand plays
Plays can be written by one person or by a group, they can last 30 seconds or three days, they can have hundreds in the cast or just one, and they can be performed on street corners or in opera houses. Plays always exist in three versions: the written or recorded text, the version of the text used for a production and the performance on any particular night. For a play to be a New Zealand play, it needs to have significant connection with New Zealand in terms of its authorship, its content, or its time and place of performance.
First New Zealand play
Marcilina, or the maid of Urmindorpt, billed as a ‘new Shakespearean drama in two acts’ and written by the enthusiastic amateur performer and playwright James Marriott, lays claim to being the first original play staged in New Zealand. On 11 July 1848 it was performed to enthusiastic applause at the Britannia Saloon in Willis Street, Wellington.
Later 19th-century plays
A few plays written later in the 19th century had some local content. For example, Lancelot Booth’s Crime in the clouds (Auckland, 1871) was largely set in England but contained one act depicting the New Zealand wars of the 1860s. Guided by the Auckland public, or the fortunes of a new chum (also by Booth, 1871) and the anonymous The tomahawk, or Auckland and its insolvent laws in 1870 (1871) clearly made direct comment on local issues of the time.
Charles Owen and Alfred Dampier’s production The growing of the rata was performed in Auckland’s Opera House in April 1904. The Herald’s reviewer called it ‘the first production in this city of a play dealing effectively with New Zealand life in the days of the early settlers’. Dampier, his daughter and son took lead roles in this ‘adventurous and sensational drama, in which love encounters hatred, poverty contends against cupidity, and innate justice against brute strength and cunning.’1
In the 19th century melodrama, burlesque and satire dominated the theatre, and the few known local examples followed this pattern. Kainga of the ladye birds, by ‘Grif’, described as ‘a new grand Semi-Maori Christmas pantomime’, premiered at the Academy of Music in Wellington in 1879.2 Like Kainga of the ladye birds, George Leitch’s melodrama The land of the moa (1895) survives as a script. Arthur H. Adams and Alfred Hill’s opera Tapu (1903), and Charles Owen and Alfred Dampier’s The growing of the rata (1904, more of a social drama) are examples of the ‘Maoriland’ period of cultural history. This celebrated a romanticised and backward-looking version of Māori, who, at the time, were widely predicted to fade away.
British Drama League
Playwriting needs a theatre in the same way that poetry needs a printing press. In 1933 the recently founded New Zealand branch of the British Drama League instituted a series of playwriting competitions. These encouraged many budding playwrights to try their hand at one-act dramas within the network of amateur theatre clubs, which had emerged in the late 19th century and became widespread in the 1920s and 1930s. However, this was playwriting as a hobby, because almost none of these plays saw a life outside the competition.
Violet Targuse’s 1931 one-act play Rabbits centres on the character of Maggie Blake, a lonely woman enduring an isolated existence in a shack in south Canterbury. Her son's caged rabbit symbolises her own condition. Her hopes for a life-changing move to the big city end in disappointment: ‘What's the sense in trying to escape when you know Fate’s against you?’3 Targuse was an ardent reader who played first violin in the Timaru Orchestra. A Spanish translation of Rabbits was performed as part of the multimedia production Airotiv in Vitoria, Spain, in 2009.
Before the 1970s playwrights struggled to produce quality work and to get their work staged, let alone published. However, they also had their memorable moments. Alan Mulgan’s Three plays of New Zealand was published in 1920. In the 1930s agit-prop-style dramas from a left-wing perspective were authored by the poet R. A. K. Mason (To save democracy) and conscientious objector Ian Hamilton (Falls the shadow). J. A. S. Coppard (Sordid story, Machine song) and Eric Bradwell (Clay) introduced some elements of European expressionism. Violet Targuse (Rabbits) was a playwright who took part in the British Drama League contests and whose work was widely performed. Merton Hodge’s play The wind and the rain (1933) had a three-year run on the London stage.
Several locally written plays in this period were broadcast on radio. The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) encouraged playwrights to submit scripts. Both actors and playwrights favoured radio over live performances of their work, since broadcasting offered better employment prospects.