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.
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.
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 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 George Leitch’s melodrama The land of the moa (1895) survives as a script. Arthur H. Adams and Alfred Hill’s opera Tapu (1904), 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.
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.
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.
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
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 established literary writers, from the 1950s to the present, tried their hand at writing plays:
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.
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.
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.
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.
New Zealand’s first professional theatre, Downstage, opened in Wellington in 1964. Downstage staged plays by such local playwrights as Peter Bland, Bruce Mason, Warren Dibble (Lines to M, 1969) and Edward Bowman. The arrival of professional theatre, plus expanded opportunities in radio drama, promised playwrights a potentially continuous, rather than spasmodic, professional life.
The musical dramatist Richard O’Brien is not often counted in the ranks of New Zealand playwrights. However, his camped-up musical The rocky horror show became a worldwide hit following its first production in London in 1973. O’Brien co-wrote the screenplay for the 1975 film version, The rocky horror picture show, and appeared as the character Riff Raff. He claimed to have seen all the characters for his show in the streets of Hamilton when he was growing up, and the show provides a musical allegory of Kiwi provincial Gothic.
Alexander Guyan (Conversations with a golliwog, 1962) began writing for the stage, but then moved to writing solely for radio. On the other hand Joseph Musaphia, whose first play, Free, was staged by the New Zealand Players in 1960, spent most of the 1960s writing for radio before returning to the stage. In 1975 his new play, Mothers and fathers, moved to the larger venue of the State Opera House after a sell-out season at Downstage.
In 1976 a group of Downstage actors left and founded their own theatre in Wellington – Circa. One of their first productions was Roger Hall’s Glide time (1976), which, like Mothers and fathers, moved to the State Opera House. Hall and Musaphia both wrote broad comedy bordering on farce, with numerous local and topical references, and continued to do so in 2014. For more than 35 years Hall has been New Zealand’s most commercially successful playwright.
Robert Lord was one of the more formally inventive 1970s playwrights. His first play, It isn’t cricket (1971), premiered at Downstage and used farce for more thoughtful purposes than the work of Hall and Musaphia. Early plays such as Meeting place and Balance of payments have debts to absurdist drama. Lord’s last play, Joyful and triumphant (which echoed Bruce Mason’s The bonds of love), is a 40-year epic saga of family history as a reflection of national history.
Dean Parker’s first play, Smack (1974), an in-your-face dramatisation of the world of drugs, also premiered at Downstage. Still writing in the 2010s, Parker has demonstrated an ongoing left-wing political commitment in his work, as in the 2011 play Midnight in Moscow. Gordon Dryland went on to be a prolific playwright in the two decades after his first play, Dark going down (1966), was too sharp-tongued for straight commercial success. Dryland’s work confronted issues of homosexuality (If I bought her the wool, 1971) and post-colonial exploitation (Unlikely places, 1979).
Two notable plays from the 1970s were Brian McNeill’s study of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, Two tigers (1973), and Craig Harrison’s vision of latter day Māori–Pākehā armed conflict, Tomorrow will be a lovely day (1974). Mervyn Thompson, a director and educator as well as a playwright, was inspired by British dramatists Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl to develop the ‘song play’ form. His two strongest works are the collage-like picture of the economic depression of the 1930s, Songs for Uncle Scrim (1976), and Songs to the judges (1980).
The mid-1970s saw a revival of cabaret. In 1977 alternative theatre troupe Red Mole took over The Balcony, the Wellington nightclub of transgender identity Carmen Rupe, and presented a series of cabarets that had queues stretching down the street. Cabaret capital strut ran for seven months and featured topless dancing and fire-eating. Almost 50 people appeared in the various productions, including Carmen herself.
A further development in play-making was the emergence of companies collectively creating large-scale original theatre, sometimes together with writers. Poet Murray Edmond wrote with the Living Theatre Troupe (The shadow of Lionel Terry, 1972, directed by Ken Rea); and Alan Brunton, also a poet, wrote with Red Mole, the longest-lasting of these experimental companies. Notable works of this sort include ’51 (1972) and Gallipoli (1974) by Amamus Theatre, directed by Paul Maunder, and The best of all possible worlds (1973) and Once upon a planet (1972) by Theatre Action, directed by Francis Batten.
The impact of film-making on live drama also began to be felt in the 1970s. Another collective-creation company, the travelling troupe Blerta (1973–76), produced live shows with sketches and music, and also made films. Few New Zealand plays have been turned into films. Middle age spread by Roger Hall is a notable exception.
Plays and playwrights speak about and impact on the society that has nurtured them. A play called Maranga mai, by the Māori theatre group of the same name, had a major impact. First performed in 1979, Maranga mai combined the growing Māori theatre movement with the mode of collective creation. It dramatised Māori protest over land rights, and a performance at Parliament in 1980 made top headlines on national news.
Harry Dansey is thought to be the first Māori writer to have a play professionally performed and published. Te raukura: the feathers of the albatross, based on Te Whiti’s passive resistance movement, was written in 1971. Dansey said that ‘many parts of the play were written first in Maori and then recast in English.’ Some sentences remained untranslated, and at the debut production at the 1972 Auckland Festival, ‘the Maori actors, once the Maori sentences began flowing from their lips, could seldom resist the temptation of carrying on in Maori – departures from the script which were to me occasions of sheer delight.’ 1
Māori dramas by Māori playwrights stepped into the world of light in the 1970s. Harry Dansey’s Te raukura (1972) dramatised the struggles of the prophets Te Whiti-o-Rongomai and Tohu Kākahi in 19th-century Taranaki. Poet Hone Tuwhare’s In the wilderness without a hat (1975) and Death of the land (1977) by Rowley Habib (later Rore Hapipi) followed.
New Māori playwrights made the greatest impact on New Zealand theatre in the 1980s, and subsequently flourished in the 1990s. Significant plays were written by Rawiri Paratene (Saturday morning, 1980), Selwyn Muru (The gospel according to Taane, 1983), Riwia Brown (Roimata, 1988), Roma Potiki and the company He Ara Hou (Whatungarongaro, 1990), Bruce Stewart (Broken arse, 1990), Rena Owen (Daddy’s girl, 1991), John Broughton (Michael James Manaia, 1991) and Apirana Taylor (Whaea Kairau, 1995).
The Depot Theatre, which focused on New Zealand work, played an important role in staging many of these plays. In 1990, New Zealand’s sesquicentennial, The Depot focused its programme on Māori theatre and was renamed Taki Rua. Taki Rua was dedicated to producing new Māori work. After it ceased to function as a venue, it remained the country’s main production house for Māori plays.
From this movement two playwrights, Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith, have established deserved prominence. Kouka’s trilogy of plays Waiora (1996), Home fires (1998) and The prophet (2005) constitutes a landmark achievement. Grace-Smith has written in a variety of modes, from the magic realism of Purapurawhetu (1997) to the thriller genre employed in When sun and moon collide (published in 2007).
Plays can also represent New Zealand to the world. Te Haumihiata Mason’s Toroihi rāua ko Kahira, directed by Rachel House, adapted Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida into classical Māori and a pre-colonial Māori world. It opened a season of versions of all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays on the 2012 anniversary of the playwright’s birthday at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Mason and House’s reworking stood at the centre of world drama.
A whole new aspect of playmaking was added to New Zealand theatre when companies and playwrights from the Pacific community began to present original plays on the professional stage in the 1990s. Two companies, Pacific Theatre in Auckland under the direction of Justine Simei-Barton, and Pacific Underground in Christchurch, were instrumental in initiating this during the 1990s.
Oscar Kightley began writing with Pacific Underground, collaborating with Simon Small on Fresh off the boat (1993), David Fane on A frigate bird sings (1996) and Erolia Ifopo on Romeo and Tusi (1997). In 1998 male members of Pacific Underground and Pacific Theatre formed a comedy company called the Naked Samoans. It was out of this grouping that the award-winning television cartoon comedy bro’Town was created.
Significant plays from Pacific women writers include Makerita Urale’s Frangipani perfume (1998), Dianna Fuemana’s portrayal of working-class life in West Auckland, The packer (2003), and Nina Nawalowalo’s Masi (2012).
Victor Rodger’s plays Sons (1995) and My name is Gary Cooper (2007) have had several productions. Of all Pacific writers, Toa Fraser (Bare, 1998, and No. 2, 1999) has had the greatest impact in New Zealand while also being toured overseas. No. 2 was made into a feature film, also directed by Fraser.
In 2014 recent and promising Māori and Pacific playwrights included Albert Belz, Miria George, Whiti Hereaka, Vela Manusaute, Suli Moa, Mitch Tawhi Thomas and Louise Tu’u.
Playmarket, an organisation representing and marketing playwrights and their work, was founded in 1973 by Nonnita Rees, Judy Russell and Robert Lord. In 1980 Playmarket ran its first playwrights’ workshop. These events, seven to 10 days long, were held biennially from 1980 to 1994. Selected new and original scripts were tested by actors and directors working alongside the playwright, who was supported by a dramaturge (a specialist at developing plays for performance). These workshops brought together the literary and collective-creation methods, which had been widely separated during the 1970s. The gatherings had a strong impact on the development of plays, playwrights and play-making in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wellington’s Depot Theatre (later renamed Taki Rua) began life as an actors’ collective. Founding member Colin McColl says, ‘We wanted primarily something for New Zealand writers and also Maori and Pacific Island writers. That was the initial vision.’ During the 1980s the theatre adopted a policy of staging only New Zealand plays. Anthony McCarten’s first play, Cyril Ellis where are you?, was staged at The Depot in 1984, and his Ladies night (1987), co-written with Stephen Sinclair, was a national and international commercial success. James Beaumont’s startling neo-punk drama Wild cabbage (1985) also premiered at The Depot.
Dramatist Greg McGee attended one of the early Playmarket workshops. His play Foreskin’s lament (1980) is set in the world of small-town club rugby, with dialogue, accents and crudities more authentic than theatre-going audiences had ever encountered. It rapidly achieved an iconic status rivalled only by Roger Hall’s Glide time. McGee quit writing for stage in the 1980s (though he made a bold return in 2010 with Me and Robert McKee).
Another writer to emerge from the workshops was socialist-feminist playwright Renee (originally Renee Taylor), whose trilogy of historical plays about four generations of working-class women began with Wednesday to come (1984). Renee moved from drama to fiction in the 1990s.
Gender was a major concern of theatre in the 1980s. Issues of rape, incest, women’s prisons, marriage, pornography, childbirth, homosexuality and striptease appeared variously in such plays as Carolyn Burns’s Objection overruled (1982), Norelle Scott’s Promise not to tell (1984), Hilary Beaton’s Outside in (1982), Fiona Samuel’s The wedding party (1988), Stephanie Johnson’s Accidental phantasies (1985), Sarah Delahunty’s Stretchmarks and Lorae Parry’s Frontwomen (1988) and Strip (1988).
Second-wave feminism also picked up on the power of cabaret, initially with Kate JasonSmith’s The carefree show (1976) at Unity Theatre, Wellington. In 1988 JasonSmith created the women’s comedy show Hens’ teeth at Circa Theatre, a format that became an annual event for a number of years.
Not all writing by the new women playwrights was in such territories. Rachel McAlpine (Driftwood, 1985) and Fiona Farrell (Passengers, 1985) wrote for youth casts, though Farrell’s Bonds (1986) was for an adult audience. The women playwrights’ movement, later supported by the Women’s Play Press, diversified as an entity, notably with Jean Betts’s rearrangements of Shakespeare, such as Ophelia thinks harder (1993). This play was still regularly seen around New Zealand and overseas 20 years after its first publication, and may be the most widely performed New Zealand play.
Other notable women playwrights in the 2000s included Lynda Chanwai-Earle, Pip Hall, Jo Randerson and April Phillips.
It is a paradox that the culture that venerates Shakespeare pays so little attention, in the modern world, to playwriting as a literary form. In 1970 the Auckland critic J. C. Reid published an 80-page survey of New Zealand literature in a series of volumes about ‘literatures of the British Commonwealth’. He devoted just three pages to dramatic writing. When Patrick Evans wrote his Penguin history of New Zealand literature in 1990, he left dramatic literature out altogether. The Auckland University Press anthology of New Zealand literature (2012) allots 20 pages out of 1,068 to playwrights.
Male playwrights also introduced new sensibilities and aesthetic strategies. Michael Heath had plays staged at Circa and Downstage and overseas in the 1970s before his Salvation Road (1982) was produced at Circa. After the 1980s Heath moved into film as a writer, director and actor.
Simon O’Connor, beginning with Lift (1974) and Song of Johnny Muscle (1975), was another of these new writers. O’Connor also had a career as an actor and notably as a teacher of playwriting at Otago University from the 1990s onwards. Craig Thaine’s Today’s bay (1982), which dramatises the work of Katherine Mansfield, was written for the New Zealand Drama School.
The number of people writing for theatre increased in the 1980s, as did the sheer volume of activity in professional theatre. Old theatres collapsed (Theatre Corporate in Auckland in 1986 and Mercury Theatre in 1992) and new ones were born (The Depot in 1982 in Wellington and The Watershed in Auckland in 1990).
Stuart Hoar, whose first play, Squatter (1987), was aired at the 1986 Playwrights Workshop, has had over 30 radio plays and nearly 20 stage plays produced. Peter Hawes, whose work was staged at the Court, Mercury and Downstage during the 1980s, has not continued to write plays.
Several playwrights still actively producing new work in 2014 began their careers at the beginning of the 1990s:
Gary Henderson won an award for The big blue planet earth show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 1992, and his Skin tight (1994) won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1998. Henderson and Duncum, like Simon O’Connor and Stuart Hoar, have taught playwriting in tertiary institutions – drama and theatre as subjects had become widespread in the education system by the end of the 1990s.
Jacob Rajan’s masked play Krishnan’s dairy (1997) won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1999. Rajan founded Indian Ink Theatre Company with Justin Lewis and together they have co-authored further masked dramas. The candlestickmaker (2000), The pickle king (2002) and The guru of chai (2010) have been variously performed in Australia, Singapore, the US, Britain and Europe.
Other playwrights producing interesting work in the 2000s included Dave Armstrong, Phillip Braithwaite, Eli Kent, Jamie McCaskill, Arthur Meek, Carl Nixon, Paul Rothwell, Pip Hall, Paolo Rotondo and Rob Mokaraka, Thomas Sainsbury and Kirk Torrance.
Campbell Smith won first prize in a 1986 national playwriting competition for his drama, Take me over the sea. It was inspired by letters from First World War veteran Bert Hart, troubled at the execution by firing squad of a friend charged with desertion. In such circumstances, the death sentence was mandatory, with no appeal on grounds of shell shock or temporary mental illness. Renamed Soldier’s song, Smith’s play was performed in Parliament’s Legislative Chamber in 2000, during the final reading of a bill granting posthumous pardon in such cases.
As well as works by individual playwrights, companies have continued to make collective productions in New Zealand in the 2000s. Tim Spite’s SEEyD Theatre Company was named after its first production, SEEyD (2000), which explored the issue of genetic engineering. Stephen Bain has worked in an auteur director role, notably in his 2008 creation Kafka’s The trial (with script by Dean Parker). The Christchurch Free Theatre, connected to Canterbury University through director Peter Falkenberg, in October 2011 produced Earthquake in Chile, in collaboration with Richard Gough, Director of the Centre for Performance Research in Wales.
A trinity of companies have brought the skills of circus and puppetry to theatrical playmaking. Kate Parker and Julie Nolan’s Red Leap Theatre staged a 2009 production of The arrival (based on Shaun Tan’s graphic novel), which took out six prizes at the 2010 Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards. Beth Kayes’s Co Theatre Physical’s 2009 show Oh baby staged childbirth as circus. Eve Gordon’s The Dust Palace company did the same for sex in Venus is (2011). This wealth of creations and creativity goes to prove that the arts of playwriting and playmaking are alive and flourishing in New Zealand.
Balme, Christopher B. Decolonizing the stage: theatrical syncretism and post-colonial drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Hall, Roger. Bums on seats: the backstage story. Auckland: Viking, 1998.
Maufort, Marc, and O'Donnell, David, eds. Performing Aotearoa: New Zealand theatre and drama in an age of transition. Bruxelles; New York: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2007.
McNaughton, Howard, ed. Contemporary New Zealand plays. Wellington; New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Smythe, John. Downstage upfront: the first 40 years of New Zealand’s longest-running professional theatre. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2004.
Tarling, Nicholas. Wit, eloquence and commerce: a history of Auckland’s Mercury theatre. Auckland: Connacht Books, 2007.
The Theatre Archive works to preserve New Zealand’s theatre heritage.
Playmarket represents and markets the work of New Zealand playwrights.
The Playwrights Association advises and supports playwrights.
An organisation promoting and supporting community theatre.
A directory and review of New Zealand performing arts.
New Zealand’s national drama school, in Wellington.