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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

The Dance evolved Oratory in New Zealand and — the Histrionic Art in Polynesia

The Dance evolved Oratory in New Zealand and
the Histrionic Art in Polynesia

(14) It was doubtless the religious atmosphere in the worship of Tu that kept the Maori war-dance so free from innovation till recent times; it was in the hands of men, and their influence extends to other dances, even the lascivious and obscene, preventing them from degenerating into mere spectacular posturing of women. Hence it was that the dance helped to evolve oratory, a purely masculine art in all but the most advanced civilisations. The fugleman in the hakas must be an orator, if he is not a poet; for he has to invent rhythmic speeches of a highly figurative style to interval the choruses. All the imaginative power of the chiefs and priests in New Zealand developed in this direction, and speeches became as essential to every meeting of Maoris as they are to every type of assembly in England. The tohungas and chiefs grew adepts in moulding and rousing the feelings of their audiences; and though they revelled in figures of speech till the Oriental arabesque overlaid the original aim and meaning, as important an essential of the orator was the dramatic gesture and action. He paced hither and thither, at first with slow dignity; but when he had roused himself and his hearers to the requisite pitch, he postured, and grimaced, and acted as wildly as he page 210would in a war-dance. But the art ever remained an extemporaneous one; its products-were for the occasion, and not meant to be handed down by tradition, like the songs and incantations. Thus it was not a branch of literature, but retained the traces of its origin in the dance. It was mimetic and masculine, and hence to some extent religious.

(15) The literary side of dancing took quite a different course in Polynesia, and especially in Eastern Polynesia. Samoa and Tonga, though they admitted women to the exercise of the art, and developed the lascivious side of it more than New Zealand did, show their greater affinity to the latter in keeping it simpler and more extemporaneous. In the east of the island region it was the dramatic element of the dance that was developed; but it was only in the Hervey group and the Tahitian that it was developed into histrionic art. Cook saw again and again the performances of the Areois, those aristocratic actors of Tahiti, who sailed from island to island, and entertained the people with their dramatic dances, whilst themselves indulging in the most licentious excesses. He once saw sixty canoes setting out full of these histrionic celibates about to make a tour of the islands. One play he saw represented a successful robbery, another an accouchement, a third the habits and acts of himself and his countrymen. We hear of their libertinism and policy of infanticide from all early visitors. Such a singular and deliberate degeneracy was doubtless due to the havoc that the luxurious idleness of these Eastern Polynesians and the enervating climate worked upon their moral fibre. It would have been well-nigh impossible in New Zealand, with its hard-won subsistence and its bracing air. The strenuous character of the Maori dances, as of the Maori life, obstructed the evolution of the drama, histrionic though the Maoris were in this art and its offspring, oratory.