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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 4. 22 March 1972

Drama — Baxter, why don't you come Down from the Cross?

page 11


Baxter, why don't you come Down from the Cross?

A group of alcoholics were parading outside The Band Rotunda with placards reading 'Baxter, Why Don't You Come Down From The Cross And Be Buried' and 'God Is A Bad Substitute For Meths'. They claimed to be demonstrating because they could not afford admission to and were denied any part in a play which dealt sincerely and graphically with their depest problems and cauterised their vivid intricate speech in a bleak, truncated poetry, (All alkies are intellectuals - that's the whole point of The Band Rotunda ) At a time when most alkies are unemployed, the use of scab labour to act out the spiritual problems of the alcoholic intellectual was an insult to people who drank real meths and occasionally tried Communion wine as well. "I've never broken into a vestry to get the altar wine like some people 1 could name," a spokesman for the demonstrators said, "but I wouldn't mind trying it on for a week or so. And I could stick a sheila on the stage a damn sight better than that guy Marray Alford. How can all these people who've never drunk meths straight in their lives speak for us? What Unity Theatre needs is Alkie Power." At this stage as Byron Buick-Constable entered the theatre, the demonstration turned violent and after a scuffle in which I was threatened several times with broken meths bottles I retreated into the theatre office to call the Salvation Army, who beat up several of the demonstrators with jagged castanets.

Salient's preview of James K. Baxter's play The Band Rotunda (an official Unity Theatre advertising handout made in a desperate attempt to counterbalance the effects of the Salient review) declared in its one accurate statement that, in the play, "Baxter's concern for the plight of man is left for the actor to interpret." The actors certainly do have a big responsibility in this play, as they are let down successively by the playwright, the producer, the stage manager and the wardrobe mistress as the play progresses. The meaninglessness of the whole play - as Baxter explained afterwards, a play written to expound Catholic agnosticism must lack meaning - was consistently ignored by a good cast which manfully and womanfully substituted their stage experience for the playwrights incompetence. Bill Smith as Concrete Grady gave personality to a character Baxter conceived as depersonalised man searching for identity. Marray Alford and Ray Fry, as Jock Ballantyne and Snowy Lindsay, managed to turn their roles as drunken philosophers into something much more closely resembling decent gormless alcoholics. Even Margaret Bell as Rosie O'Rourke, in spite of her own, and Baxter's middle-class inhibitions, came far nearer to being a solid bouncing pub prostitute than Baxter intended. Baxter explained afterwards that she was really intended to be a Women's Lib advocate (her best line echoes Kay Goodger in a demand that God, Baxter and Unity Theatre, sometimes known as the Holy Trinity, provide her with "only one decent man") who wants to start a social revolution in order to raise six sprogs with the Catholic Church's blessing.

The costumes, clearly borrowed from the City Mission for the occasion, are far too clean (when did you last see a metho with a clean singlet?), none of the shoes are down at heel (they are just splattered with paint), and in spite of the play's publicity poster all the actors are completely clean-shaven. Anybody in the cast could have wandered down past the library and made an alkies day for him by swapping Unity's clean City Mission clothing for sweat- beer- and tobacco-stained, torn used clothes, but if the cast were afraid even to avoid shaving for a week in case the blokes at work commented, any close contact with the people whose lives they parody would be a bit much to ask. I felt out of place at the theatre, since my worn shoes with holes at the toes, un-ironed, uncreased longs and totally untrimmed beard made me look more like an alkie than anyone else in the theatre. But as a better Catholic than Baxter once said, human kind fears too much reality.

The Band Rotunda was written by Baxter while on a Burns Fellowship in Dunedin, which indicates that Burns may have more to answer for than the bastards with whom he populated the Scottish lowlands. Baxter's Dunedin guru, Patrick Carey, once told James K., on James K.'s own account, that "the play is a fiction", and this wise lesson has been well learnt in The Band Rotunda. There can have been few plays written in New Zealand with so small an admixture of reality. Because Baxter believes that there is "not enough language in modern plays", which are "too bureaucratic" (the New Left theory of dramatic criticism), there is no action whatever in Act II, which consists of seven consecutive alcoholic monologues relieved by one arrest, a song ("influenced by Brendan Behan", according to Baxter - it certainly has no dramatic point), and culminating in an alchoholic death like a good Trotskyist at rehearsal).

The first act is technically so competent and says so little that I suspect Patrick Carey must have written most of it. Apart from the miserable hymn singing, which would disgrace a Jehovah's Witness congregation whose choir leader had endured a forcible blood transfusion, the acting is first rate and the stage action is so straight forward that not even the producer has been able to reorganise it. If the story-line had been at all coherent, or something else happened besides the introduction of the major characters, it might have had the makings of a play good enough for NZBC Television to reject. As it is, rewritten in the narrative prose style of Sylvia Ashton-Warner's latest novel it would be just bad enough to win a Listener short story competition. All one can say is that the chaos of the play's story-line symbolises the chaos of humanity without Christ, the Church and the Resurrection. Both are exactly pointless. In the face of the complete absurdity of the total despair of secular man, all one can do is echo Snowy's words, when he challenges the empty formulas and spiritual cliches of the Salvation Army : "Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; and Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Arom". This is indeed the word of God to man in our time, and, if The Band Rotunda says nothing else (and it does), this is its most vital message.