Story: Plays and playwrights

Page 2. Plays of the mid- and later 20th century

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Extrav and Kiwi Concert Party

From 1936 to 1946 Ron Meek provided political satire and commentary through the capping revues he wrote under the generic title of ‘The Extrav’ (short for ‘extravaganza’) for Victoria University. These were staged annually in Wellington’s State Opera House. The Kiwi Concert Party, a performers’ theatre par excellence, created a series of variety revues for their wartime army audience, and had an extended professional life when peace arrived. These might be seen as New Zealand’s greatest theatrical product of the war years, even if not strictly dramatic.

Colonisation metaphor

Allen Curnow’s first play, The axe – a verse tragedy, debuted in 1948 at the Little Theatre, Christchurch. It describes the outbreak of war on the Pacific island of Mangaia after a Tahitian missionary arrives proclaiming a new Christian God and bearing the gift of an axe. A radio version was broadcast in 1961. Curnow saw The axe as a metaphor for the colonisation of New Zealand, and it has been described as the first significant full-length New Zealand play of the 20th century. Theatre director Ngaio Marsh called it ‘much the best play that has been written in New Zealand’.1

Plays by poets

After the Second World War, attempts to develop playwriting in serious and ultimately professional ways slowly consolidated. Allen Curnow’s 1948 stage drama The axe, based on a historic incident in Mangaia in the Cook Islands, provided an allegory of colonisation. All the Polynesian characters were played by Pākehā (perhaps providing a further allegory for colonialism).

Attempts by British and American playwrights to revive verse drama may have inspired New Zealand writers to do likewise. Poets such as Charles Brasch and D’Arcy Cresswell attempted this mode, and the New Zealand-born Australian poet Douglas Stewart’s verse drama Ned Kelly was produced by Edith and Richard Campion’s New Zealand Players Company in 1953.

Other literary playwrights

Other established literary writers, from the 1950s to the present, tried their hand at writing plays:

  • Frank Sargeson (A time for sowing, 1961)
  • Alistair Campbell (When the bough breaks, 1969)
  • James McNeish (The rocking cave, 1973)
  • Maurice Shadbolt (Once on Chunuk Bair, 1982)
  • Vincent O’Sullivan (Shuriken, 1985)
  • Witi Ihimaera (Woman far walking, 2000)
  • Albert Wendt (The songmaker’s chair, 2003).

Curnow and Baxter

Allen Curnow (whose plays included Moon section, 1959) and James K. Baxter (The wide open cage, 1959) were two literary writers who tried consistently to produce drama for stage and radio through the 1950s and 1960s. Baxter’s Collected plays (1982) contains 16 dramas, while Curnow’s Four plays was published in 1972. Poet and actor Peter Bland wrote four plays that were staged at Wellington’s Downstage Theatre, which Bland helped to found in 1964.

Success, finally

In Stella Jones’s play The tree, retired Herbert Willis leads a contented life with his twin daughters. When a third daughter returns, old family wounds are reopened. Fifteen years earlier, engaged to be married, she fled the family home. The tree was rejected by numerous local theatres, including the New Zealand Players, before an English company gave it a professional production in 1957. After it became a hot property overseas, the New Zealand Players toured the play nationally. It met with acclaim and was one of the first full-length local plays to reach a wide audience.

Women playwrights

Through the 1940s and into the 1950s a number of women playwrights emerged who were not attached to the serious progressive nationalist literary scene. They included Isobel Andrews (The willing horse, 1941), Marie Bullock, Kathleen Ross (The trap, 1950), and notably Stella Jones. Her play The tree (1957) which had its first professional production in Bristol, England, was toured by the New Zealand Players.

Two male playwrights who produced notable work in a similar realist mode were Claude Evans in Christchurch in the 1950s (Overtime, 1954) and Campbell Caldwell in the 1960s (Flowers bloom in summer, 1962). Caldwell’s work was mentored and directed by the founder of the New Zealand Drama School, Nola Millar.

Bruce Mason

From the mid-1950s until his death in 1982, Bruce Mason was the dominating figure in New Zealand drama. From his short, realist early works (The bonds of love and The evening paper, 1953) to the operatic monologues of his last play, The blood of the lamb, Mason wrote over 30 plays in his 30-year career. He was also a solo performer, a reviewer and a campaigner for the advancement of New Zealand theatre and drama.

Mason’s ‘Māori’ plays, as they came to be called, have been superseded culturally and stylistically since the 1970s by Māori dramas by Māori playwrights. However, the best-known of these works, The pohutukawa tree (1956), has attained the status of a classic. Probably Mason’s most enduring work is one of his most eccentric, the solo monologue The end of the golden weather (1959). This was constructed from two published long stories. Mason performed it over 900 times, including on overseas tours, and it was later turned into a film (1991). It is possible to see this work in retrospect as New Zealand’s original stand-up comedy.

  1. Quoted in Theatreview news, 12 March 2012, (last accessed 30 January 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Murray Edmond, 'Plays and playwrights - Plays of the mid- and later 20th century', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Murray Edmond, published 22 Oct 2014