Salient. Official Newspaper of the Victoria University Students' Association. Vol 44 No. 5. March 30 1981
Macho confusion — Foreskin's Lament
The much-acclaimed Foreskin's Lament gets its impact from sound writing which enables it to take off as a play of ideas. Too few New Zealand plays to date have been able to achieve both these things; either they have been intellectually unsatisfying, or too theatrically or structurally weak to carry ideas. Not so with Foreskin's Lament - 1 rank it at the top with Jennifer Compton's Crossfire.
It is a play which, for once and for all, dispells the egalitarian myth - it affirms class differences in New Zealand and unashamedly looks at the bitterness which results from the differences. As Clean, an archetypal rugby player says to Moira, a lawyer, "The distance between me and you is a fucken world".
Like David Williamson's The Club, which has also been widely performed in New Zealand, Foreskin's Lament is set in a rugby environment, but McGee goes a step further and works in the physicality of the changing room rather than with the administrators in the clubroom. Seymour, or Foreskin, is a student who plays for his home team; he values both the more enlightened minds of the university, and what he believes is the more honest, down-to-earth, working-class mentality of the rugby players - that they are somehow more in contact with what it takes to be human. He says to Moira: "If you think they're pigs then you'd better look close and get used to the smell, because their smell is your smell", and of the university, "Sometimes up there I get the feeling that life itself is just an abstraction."
What are New Zealanders?
But by the end of the play, his belief in this myth has crumbled. He discovers that the nitty-gritty is a charade too, and the increasing chaos and violence in the last ten minutes of the play bring about the final disintegration of the myth, culminating in the smashing of a TV set showing a rugby game, and Foreskin launching into his climactic lament for the inadequacy of both the rugby and intellectual standpoints. Thus there is no resolution, and Foreskin's final question of "Whaddarya?" is to the audience - What are New Zealanders? Without the egalitarian myth to hide behind how can we have a national identity?
This ending is very theatrically powerful and is made all the more provocative by McGee's careful arguing of ideas throughout the play. He uses characters representing different social positions, (most obviously, Moira as the intellectual, Clean as the rugby man, and Foreskin caught between the two), and in the second act plays off these representatives against eachother. This is done unobtrusively by setting the conversations on a balcony outside an off-stage party. This enables him to group various individuals together for confrontation.
However, the characters are not merely types. Like Arthur Miller in Death of Salesman, McGee exposes characters enough to make us hate them, and then justifies them because they are human beings. Miller has Linda say of her husband: "I don't think he's a great man... He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being... Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person".
In the same way, it would be easy to despise the chauvinistic, animalistic, Clean, but McGee shows that he has been a victim, and Foreskin defends him against Moira in saying: "If you haven't had to wonder where your next buck is coming from, then you've missed out on the major preoccupation of the waking hours of the Western world."
Death of a Conformist
Less obviously, but also importantly, the play is about individualism, and its defeat. The team ethos is at the expense of the individual, so that Ken is expected to play for the sake of the team regardless of his injuries, and his eventual death is the sacrifice of an individual to the idea of the team. Foreskin loses in both the academic world where he finds it has all been said before ("What could I possibly say that was original"), and the rugby world where he is told he is too much of an individual and must conform. (This rugby phenomena has been satirically elevated to myth in Vincent O'Sullivans novel. Miracle). Also, the language and attitudes of the rugby world work against individuals in its terms of abuse against minorities, especially women, foreigners, and homosexuals, and its inability to see these people as people.
It is a pity that there are not more parts for women in Foreskin's Lament, but it is an excellent play which is funny as well as stimulating, and will be well worth seeing in its Wellington season. Hopefully the quality of its writing and content will provide a model for more and better New Zealand plays which are not afraid to deal with ideas.