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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

Student Pranks

Student Pranks

So far the earnest seekers after a native New Zealand literature have quite overlooked the Extravaganza. Yet, in its spontaneity and its unselfconscious expression of the New Zealander's interest in politics and all the strong things in life about him, it is as much an expression of a New Zealander's view of life as the plays of Aristophanes were of the Athenian outlook.

Because of its composite origin, Extrav. is a particularly valuable manifestation of local art. There are often many writers of a Wellington Extravaganza, to say nothing of interpolations made by the cast and the contribution to the total effect made by the costume designers, "prop"-men and others. It is directly a social work of art like the ballads and sagas of a more coherent age.

Unlike most New Zealand literature of today, Extrav. is distinctly local and regional. The comparatively adult revels of Auckland, for example, are quite different from the uninhibited Saturnalia of Wellington.

It may be objected that Extrav. has not the permanence of Aristophanes or W. S. Gilbert. True, the Extravs. survive mainly by oral tradition, but survive they do in the Orongorongos and backstage at subsequent Extravs. When wartime brought into the open, at least in army camps, much balladry that had led an underground existence during peacetime, Rollo the Ravaging Roman began to be heard in camp-concerts along with other traditional material.

However, it may be interesting to glance back over the years, so, with our Time Machine in reverse, off we go—

Back in 1903 ... the days of the "New Look" . . . we find a slim issue marked sedately Students' Carnival, the precursor of Cappicades yet unborn. In this we read that Diploma Day is Wednesday, 24th June, and a Carnival is to be held in the Sydney Street Schoolroom at which the whole thirteen graduates will be capped! On the front cover we are also informed that New Laid Eggs may be obtained from the Fresh Food and Ice Company, and that Tonkin's Linseed Emulsion is useful for your cough. (Sold Everywhere.)

Peeping inside, we find the programme from which a few selections would not go amiss:

Part I

The Victoria College Song No. 1, and Maori Haka. Pianoforte Solo, Caprice Espagnol—Mr Grauhauf. Solo, Bedouin Love Song—Mr H. P. Richmond. Plantation Song, De Lecture (apparently the singer was too bashful to give his name).

Now for Part 2, the beginning of Extrav. This appears to me to be worth reproducing in full.

Farce "My Turn Next"

Scene: A country chemist's shop parlour.
Taxicum Twitters (a village apothecary) R. M. Watson
Tim Bolus (his professional assistant) O. N. Gillespie
Tom Trapp (a commercial traveller) A. S. Henderson
Farmer Wheatear (from Blenheim) J. L. Stout
Lydia (Twitters' wife) Miss F. G. Roberts
Cecily (her sister) Miss H. M. Batham
Peggy(Twitters' Domestic) Miss N. Heath

God Save the King

The Fresh Food and Ice Company is with us again on this page, this time extolling the virtues of their Prime Table Poultry! Happy days! People paying good money to the Capping Book Committee to advertise eggs for sale!

Then the farce disappears from the scene until 1906, when it again makes its appearance as a two night stand. There are also, incidentally, thirty-five graduates! On Part Two of the programme is Munchums, or The Origin of Genus, written by Messrs F. A. de la Mare, S. S. McKenzie and S. Eichelbaum. Unfortunately, no trace of this noble script has yet been found. In Tableau 3, the Historic Age, is an item worth noticing:


Lady Commissioner Miss Daisy Isaac
Sailor B. J. Jacobs
page 81

The words have been preserved for posterity, so herewith a selection:


"Prithee, hoary sailor, sitting on the strand,
(Hey, but he's salty, bellow, bellow baily!)
Were you of the party that first found this land?
(Hey, billow, baily oh!)


Split my bowsprit, yes mum, I was of that crew!
(Hey but I'm salty, billow, billow baily!)
Me and Cook was pals, mum, just as thick as glue;
(Hey billow, baily oh!)
You should see the gals, mum, smiling at us pals, mum,
(Hey billow, baily, oh!)
etc., etc.

(Apparently the Fresh Food and Ice Co. have found other methods of bringing their goods before the public as Myrtle Grove Cigarettes appear to have taken their place on the front cover.)

In travelling on to 1911, it appears that the same names are in the programme year after year, as now. In 1911 the show is now full length. Part 1 of the programme having died a well deserved death. In Reform or The Metamorphosis of the Evoluters we note:

Herlock Sholmes A. E. Caddick
Queen Elizabeth E. M. Litchfield
Harem Skirt Girl L. P. Leary
Thomas de la Huntaire P. B. Broad

In 1911 another change has taken place. The Extravaganza (yes, it really was called an Extrav. that year) has moved to the Concert Chamber of the Town Hall (Heaven help the stage manager). Also the odd types which haunt the back-stage are appearing—the properties manager and the stage manager.

Now, strangely enough, in 1912, Part 1 of the early programmes is resurrected, and again we are entertained with violin solos, glees and the rest. The main show was Wumpty Dumpty with a distinguished cast featuring Messrs Caddick, Hall-Jones and Sievwright.

The Modern Era

By 1914, the persistent Part 1 has been interred forever, and the Capping Book appears with its first art cover, a two-colour cover in fact. Extravaganza seems to be an established word for capping shows.

At the end of World War I, the formalized cover returns. A full-length show is presented in the Town Hall, Der Tag, or The Path of Progress, with a distinguished cast including the following:
Sgt-Major Cheetah P. Martin Smith
Lord Liverpool A. J. Mazengarb
Japhetrow Wilson H. G. Miller

Now we come to the modern era. 1920 marked the first show held in the Opera House, with all the present accessories, orchestra, props, stage manager, business manager and the rest. This was called The Dogs, featuring such well-known players as P. Martin-Smith, S. A. Wiren, and many others. This auspicious move was celebrated by another return to the art cover in colour.

Now, on to the thirties. B B in 1929, Willum the Conk in 1930. Of the early examples of the "modern" type of script, Redmond Phillips deserves mention. He wrote some excellent shows such as Coax and Hoax (1932), Murder in the Common Room (1934), and probably his best, Medea and Soda (1934). The latter contains the song "Karitane Blues" which is still sometimes heard in Extrav. dressing rooms after the show. The Phillips shows were ably presented by people such as Dorothea Tossman, H. C. Middlebrook, A. H. Scotney and the late Kingi Tahiwi.

The late nineteen thirties produced another set of brilliant and prolific script writers—the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Ron Meek. Of the Pillars' efforts the best are probably Hell's Bells (1936), The Book of Bob (1937), and Adam in Wonderland (1939), starring The Voice, Mr W. S. Austin.

Then come John Carrad's delightful variety shows with their inconsequential nonsense and their catchy songs, Daze Bay Nights, Port Nick Iniquity and The Dinkum Oil.

The last decade of the Extravaganza is dominated by the influence of Ron Meek. Meek admired Aristophanes and W. S. Gilbert and combined something of the talents of these figures in his writing. He brought to his art intellectual brilliance of the highest order and the highly allegorical, satirical and witty plot has tended to become standard. Meek's influence is plainly seen in the 1941 show, which he did not write, and it is with us still. The political figures have become as inevitable as Punch and Judy in another sphere, and even in 1948 when Sid and Peter were treated with a strange new gentleness, the Peter who spent two hilarious hours in Blunderland is still recognisable.

Intellectual brilliance was perhaps the "fatal flaw" in Meek as an Extrav. writer. Sometimes the allegory becomes strained to breaking-point. The Cinderella scene in Centennial Scandals (1940) illustrates this. Cinderella in a pink dress (the Labour Party) was required to heap coal (social-democratic reforms) on a fire (progress) while her two ugly sisters, Bobadolf and Razor go to the National Ball. (This represents two noted New Zealand leaders supporting the war effort.)

This was an extreme case, but it may be doubted whether brilliant lyrics are effective on the stage. It is not easy to follow an argument through a catchy tune.

In another mood, however, Meek's wit found outlet in exuberant satire. The "two grey mares" of 1944 were completely successful. Fools who somehow bad survived lucid exposures are now hilariously bludgeoned off the stage by irresistible laughter.

page 82

In 1945 the intellectual strength was so evenly maintained, so neatly ready with the right dig at each turn, that the show went with the force of a burlesque but on the level of a surely thought-out satire. It is tempting to call it "hilariously witty." It was written by Meek and Bland. Research suggests in the face of probability that both names are genuine.

Meek has now left New Zealand and memories of his successes are in the minds of present scriptwriters. This is not altogether good as he was a difficult writer to imitate. His scripts had unity of tone in a subtle but recognisable intellectual clarity rather than in a rich imagination. Missing this, imitations could be lifeless and incoherent. This is particularly likely where several writers combine to do a script.

There are many possibilities for future development. Extrav. may never be as witty as in 1945 but humour may become more prominent, or imagination, or pantomime fantasy. In 1948 a tendency towards pageantry and spectacle was popular.

Perhaps some (so far) mute, inglorious Meek lolls in the common-room as we write, ready any minute to burst into script. There's room for him.

G. W. Turner

H. Williamson