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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Extrav

The Extrav

At Victoria College in the 30s and 40s anyone interested in either drama or left-wing politics was involved in the annual capping show, otherwise known as the Extrav, a revue-style production of music, irreverence, enormous casts and extravagant costumes. The capping revue was a long-standing university tradition, but from the 1920s Victoria's Extravaganza had established an unrivalled reputation for political satire, humour and bawdiness. The Extrav was a Wellington event. It filled the State Opera House (which seated 1200) each year and was reviewed at length in the press. Its audiences included local and national public figures; Peter Fraser was a regular attender. The show consisted of a main musical item on a topical theme, supported by several shorter, usually less political skits and the customary male ballet. Between 1936 and 1946, with the page 199 exception of the years 1941-3, the major items were written by Ron Meek, who was then studying law and economics at Victoria. In the early 40s while Meek was in Hamilton they were penned by philosophy student John McCreary, who was later (after a three-year stint in prison as a conscientious objector) a member of Unity Theatre, and chairman of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society in the 1950s.' (In later years he became Professor of Social Work at Victoria University and was awarded an obe.) J. A. Carrad was responsible for many of the supporting sketches.

Under Meek's pen the traditional Extrav satire became increasingly and more earnestly political. Borrowing Walt Disney characters and Gilbert and Sullivan tunes, Meek presented a critique of local, national and international politics with at times a quite explicit Marxist theme. His first contribution in 1936 was a curtain-raiser entitled 'Brave New Zealand', a 'futuristic Morality' which featured Mickey the Super Savage, Hash and Simple (Michael Joseph Savage, Walter Nash and Bob Semple) in a satire on the Labour Party.96 The following year Savage appeared as Stanley Sausage and Nash as Oliver Mash in 'The Plutocrats', which described 'the advent of the heads of the Labour Party into Hades . . . and their government of it in accordance with strict Labour principles'.97 Labour politics and politicians continued to provide a major target for his satire. In 1944 'Zealous Zombies' followed the fortunes of Sidi Ben Holland and Jonnalio (Sid Holland and John A. Lee), who have been raised from their sleep in the Graveyard of Reaction by Herr Scuttler. The two set forth together to subvert the government of the land, aided by Applop and Hissleton (T. Hislop and W. Appleton, former and current mayors of Wellington respectively), only to be thwarted finally by Dr Silverstone (Harold Silverstone, Wellington branch secretary of the Communist Party) and his magic potion, The Party Line.

In 1938 and 1939 Meek turned his attention to the more pressing international scene with 'Olympian Nights' and 'The Vikings', his programme notes in each case presenting a left-wing analysis of the international crisis. In Meek's view the political message of the show was paramount, although not to be pushed at the expense of the traditional Extrav humour, and in the case of 'The Vikings' his satire clearly hit its mark. In a scene referring to Chamberlain's 'surrender' at Munich the spectacle of 'Nev', 'an ancient British merchant', trying to sell 'Hit' a length of red, white and blue cloth provoked, in the student literary review Spikes words, 'certain reactions of a hysterical or even pathological jingoism expressed in a certain quarter.' Members of the audience walked out and 'the Attorney General put up a hell of a stink about the whole thing'.98 In 1944 'Zealous Zombies' invited a similar if less extreme reaction, as the People's Voice recorded: 'Most people saw the "moral of the play". Mr. Hislop certainly did— and we have it on good authority that he wasn't pleased.'99 The Communist Party page 200 also came in for its share of debunking, and also took offence; in 1940 Meek was personally reprimanded by the local Party hierarchy for a song entitled 'The Communists':

We're emissaries of Stalin,
We're the agents of a foreign state;
. . .
We listen in to Moscow
Every morning into Moscow—
We do just what we're told.100

This being the country's centennial year, Meek turned his attention once again to New Zealand with 'Centennial Scandals, or 1840 and all that', which presented a Marxist interpretation of New Zealand's 'Past, Present, and Future' in three acts. The explanatory notes discussed the capitalist basis of the colonisation of New Zealand as embodied in the Wakefield scheme, this comprising the first act in which the 'discovery, colonisation and growth of New Zealand [are] seen through the red spectacles of a mocking, Marxist humourist'. The second act showed the contradictions of liberal democracy as exposed by the present global crisis:

Cinderella . . . represents the New Zealand Labour Party; the fire in Cinderella's kitchen represents socialist reconstruction; and the coal is anti-capitalist measures. This rather ponderous allegory is continued through the scene. The playlet shows the manner in which Cinderella was at last compelled to go to the Reactionaries' Ball, and to leave the fire to the tender mercies of her Fairy Godfather. Notice, please, that Cinderella was compelled to go to the Ball. She didn't really want to go. She went unwillingly, because she was placed in such an anomalous position that she simply had to go.... The reactionary measures of the Labour Government are economically inevitable. Under a social democratic system of government, in moments of crisis it is more essential to save civilisation—i.e., capitalist civilisation—than to save social-democracy.101

A full script of 'Centennial Scandals' has not been found so we do not know what the third act—the future—promised in Meek's view. A synopsis of the scene in the student newspaper Salient is not helpful: 'the Future is a far-off, mystical, and dialectical romance concerning the great and wise Wizard that Woz'; however, 'The oracle... turns out to be Dr. Weevilbole [J. C. Beaglehole] who has lost the key to the City.'102

The Communist Party evidently did not have much of a sense of humour. 'Centennial Scandals' was not as ponderous as Meek's long and discursive introduction suggests. Among the more memorable lines from the show are the following, from 'Cakefield, with chorus, or Down in Taranaki', sung to the tune of 'Three Little Fishes':

page 201

Half a dozen cabbage plants, a carrot and a leek.
The Frogs of Aristophanes in expurgated Greek.
A yo-yo, a Bible, a broken rubber band—
That's what I'll offer for a little bitty land.

And from 'The Tin Man':

I'd distribute warm pyjamas
To the Taranaki farmers—
That would be a start;
And terminate dissension
By an unemployment pension,
If I only had a heart!
Lee did his best to balk us
In the Labour Party Caucus,
So we asked him to depart.
But I'd express my sorrow
By writing to 'Tomorrow,'
If I only had a heart!103

Spike was pleased to find that, with the exception of the 'clumsy, awkward and obtuse' third act, 'Centennial Scandals' managed a 'narrow escape from the heavy drudgery with which Mr Meek has usually shovelled his message onto the stage. That the annual Varsity Entertainment, which seems ordained to be in the form of a bright and airy musical farce, should be made a vehicle for directing the social upheaval and the imminent class struggle is regrettable.'104

Although Meek was now busy with the People's Theatre in Hamilton the outspoken political content of the Extravaganza did not abate in the next three years. The original script for the 1941 show written by John McCreary was an adaptation of Pinocchio and The Ascent of F6 featuring John A. Lee as 'Jonnalio' in the title role. The script was ordered to be withdrawn by the student executive on the legal advice that it would breach wartime emergency regulations, and a replacement was hastily prepared, with only the 'Song of Jonnalio' from the original script surviving from the first version. The first verse went:

It's the fault of the cockie
The country is rocky,
And that is the reason the trains are so slow;
He'll fill up the scenery
With modern machinery,
The powerful and potent Jonnalio!105

The Extravaganzas shared many similarities with the agitprop productions of the Auckland People's Theatre. They were topical and dynamic. The scripts page 202 were often a collaborative effort and allowed for a considerable amount of ad libbing in their performance. Their humour relied upon an assumed political and cultural frame of reference. The revue style, in cabaret and music hall, had been one of the bases of the British and European agitprop theatre of the 1920s and early 1930s. However, the context of the Extrav militated against its usefulness as a medium of serious political comment. Lamented Meek in his introduction to 'The Vikings': 'It's so awfully hard to make people take a Varsity Extravaganza seriously' (although he was no doubt pleased to see that in this instance some did).106 As Spike opined, 'the form is not easily adaptable to prophesying and preaching.'107 The Extravs provided an opportunity to momentarily and vicariously transgress political and moral bounds (the male ballet was always very popular). In a review of 'Olympian Nights' entitled 'Role in Democracy. Akin to Aristophanes' the Evening Post described the Extrav as 'a popular institution with Wellington audiences.... It gives people once a year the chance of a good laugh at the powers that be caricatured on the stage', and observed that, 'Pleas . . . sometimes received by newspapers for the suppression of the college students' annual extravaganza' were unlikely to succeed 'so long as the "extrav." does not exceed the bounds of commonly-accepted decency'.108 The Post's review of 'The Vikings' the following year made no explicit reference to the show's obvious political context, and no reference to the adverse reaction recorded by Spike, observing that it 'shows an extremely ludicrous situation, being staged at the early English period.'109 The Extrav was less an agent of politicisation than a ritual debunking. Nor was it 'popular' theatre in social terms. Only in its content and its cooperative means of production could it be described, as it was by the People's Voice, as being perhaps 'the nearest thing to a truly popular New Zealand theatre yet achieved.'110

In other university centres the capping revue did not make the impact or gain the notoriety that it did in Wellington, although political and moral satire remained its essential element. In Auckland, for example, some shows of a mild political tone were written by J. A. Carrad, and on one occasion John Mulgan, while the majority over this period were 'sometimes anti-unions or anti-communist.'111 Similarly, the Victoria University College Dramatic Club also registered the political currents of the time to a greater extent than its counterparts in the other university colleges. Nevertheless it did so comparatively little, despite the fact that its producer for much of this period, D. G. Edwards, a member of the Wellington Thespians society, was also responsible for the Wellington Left Book Club's drama group. The extra-curricular centres of student radicalism at Victoria were, not the Dramatic Club, but the Free Discussions and Debating Clubs, and the Tramping Club. In 1937 a 'large number of trade unions and educational bodies were circularised' for a production of Till the Day I Die, and the following year 'an evening was devoted to Spain', with a page 203 screening of the film Defence of Madrid and a talk by W. B. Sutch.112 Aside from these the Dramatic Club's staple diet through the 1930s consisted of Coward, van Druten, A.A. Milne, Lonsdale and Trevelyan, with one or two plays by Drinkwater and Somerset Maugham, Shaw's Candida, and the like. The early 1940s proved a little more interesting. Harvest in the North by James L. Hodson, a play set in northern industrial England, was performed in 1941 with the involvement of teachers' college students. In 1942 there were productions of J.A.S. Coppard's 'Machine Song' and Where's That Bomb?, a popular play of the left theatre (its performance was interrupted by an air-raid warning). A planned production of Love on the Dole, however, was cancelled when copies of the play 'mysteriously vanished from all libraries' and the one remaining script was found to be at the bindery.113

The Otago University Dramatic Society, by contrast, gave major productions in the 1930s of plays by Shaw, J.B. Priesdey, Patrick Hamilton, Allen Hall and A. A. Milne, which were performed in His Majesty's Theatre, and readings of Maugham, Barrie, Synge, Sheridan, Shakespeare and Aristophanes. Canterbury University College, meanwhile, distinguished itself in drama in this period not with political plays but with Ngaio Marsh's Shakespeare productions in the 1940s. In the 30s there was a 1937 performance of Masses and Man by the Radical Club, produced by Evelyn Lawn, alongside a Drama Society repertoire consisting of Maugham, Conway, Wilder, Shaw and the occasional Chekhov. There appears to have been no drama club of any note at Auckland University College in the 1930s, and few students were involved in the People's Theatre.

96 Cappicade, 1936, p.23. The script of this and other Extravaganza shows, 1932-49, are held by P. Macaskill.

97 Cappicade, 1937, p.26

98 Spike, 1939 (v.38, n.67), p.38; R. Bailey. Interview with author, 3 May 1984. This incident is also recalled by J. McCreary. Interview with author, 24 May 1984

99 'Radical Students' Play Packs Wellington Opera House', People's Voice, 24 May 1944, p.2

100 Cappicade, 1940, p.36

101 Spike, 1940 (v.39, n.68), p.46; Cappicade, 1940, pp.22, 28

102 Salient, ? 1940 (v.3, n.4), p.[9], ? 1940, (v.3, n.7), p. [6]

103 Cappicade, 1940, pp.34-5

104 Spike, 1940 (v.39, n.68), p.46

105 Cappicade, 1941, p.46

106 Cappicade, 1939, p.26

107 Spike, 1940 (v.39, n.68), p.46

108 Evening Post, 21 May 1938, p.28

109 Ibid., 26 Apr. 1939, p.5

110 'Radical Students' Play Packs Wellington Opera House', p.2 in K. Sinclair, A History of the University of Auckland, 1883-1983. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1983, p.185

111 K. Sinclair, A History of the University of Auckland, 1883-1983. Auckland: Auckland University Press/Oxford University Press, 1983, p.185

112 Spike, 1937 (v.37, n.65), p.79, 1938 (v.38, n.66), p.80

113 Ibid., 1942 (v.41, n.70), p.33