The Spike or Victoria University College Review September 1927
The literary artist seems to have given to the world productions of two kinds. There are those which nearly all men will seize and devour greedily, because they are "such stuff as dreams are made on"—they picture for him what he would wish to be and to have; and there are those upon which most men will not, dare not look, because they paint, in drab shades, men as they are. Naturally, it is works of the first kind that are most widely read by ordinary people, and are spoken of as "popular," while readers of literature of the second-class are regarded as being possessed of the devils of perverted taste or malicious intention.
That is why the play which Munro entitles "Progress" is never likely to be popular, in the common acceptance of that word. For "Progress" has neither hero or heroine, no one with whom the reader would really like to identify himself; there are no romantic passions portrayed, love and joy are absent. We nowhere hear the music of soft voices or birds or streams, or catch a glimpse of such verdant beauty as the poet loves. Instead, the background is one of discord and creeping suspicion, distrust and hate, feigned friendship and self-deceiving hypocrisy. In a word, "Progress" is neither romance, tragedy, nor comedy, but political satire, and satire of the most effective and deadly kind.
The plot is simple. It depicts simply the development—sorry word!—of the island of "Koko-land" by a British firm, with the complexities arising from the fact that France and Germany also have an "interest" in the island. As the author characteristically remarks at the outset, "the three States referred to as England, France, and Germany are intended to typify merely any great modern States. Moreover, .... the whole action pursues its course as if no other States existed." We move from the British Prime Minister's room, with its atmosphere of scheming political intrigue, to palm-clad Koko-land, where we are introduced to the "developed" natives, recently converted from heathenism to Protestantism, and therefore singing Protestant hymns, repeating Protestant prayers, and wearing Protestant loin-cloths. The coffee-stall of "the Count"—which might well be situated in London—is often before our eyes—often enough to keep us aware of the kaleidoscopic political changes which are continually taking place. The shrewd soliciting of the favour of one State as a protective—or rather aggressive—measure against another; scenes on the island, when the white men, reverting to that oft-assumed hypocritical pretext that the natives must be handled according to a different principle because "their mentality is different," administer "corrective justice"; dissention in the Cabinet; pious speech-making and mob acclamation of "the man who won the war"; the treatment of the conquered Germans solely as "public opinion"—mob opinion—dictates; a final glimpse of Koko-land, when the natives, now handed over to France, are tersely told: "From now on you're Frenchmen and Catholics. See?' Not British and Protestant any more. Is that clear? Right! Dismiss!" —all page 28 this is done in the name of "Progress"; "Progress" is the watchword of every political party, the keynote of every Cabinet oration, the justification for every kind of policy in international dealings and in the treatment of the unhappy "Kokos."
This cannot but produce a surprising effect on the reader. For one slowly realises that all this is not fancy, but fact; that the opinions, policies, and catchcries of the play characters are those of our modern politics, our newspapers, our propaganda, our mob enthusiasm. And one thinks in a new way of the late lamented Naval Limitations Conference, of the British Government's decision regarding the Singapore Base, of certain features of the recent Samoan affair, of Senator Goff's talk but yesterday of "peaceful intervention."
This is the enduring success of "Progress": not just its trueness to life, its subtle humour, its spontaneity of expression, but the simple fact that it jars the enquiring mind into the startled realisation that far more things are wrought by hypocrisy than this world dreams of!