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James K. Baxter Complete Prose Volume 1

Jack Winter’s Dream; a Play for Voices

Jack Winter’s Dream; a Play for Voices

‘I wrote the play in about three and a half weeks. This was in the evenings after teaching during the day,’ James K. Baxter told the Listener. ‘In Jack Winter I was concerned with two problems: one, to write a play with an authentic New Zealand setting; secondly, to write it as especially suited for radio. I wanted something that develops from a yarn – thus the narrator, introducing and commenting on the characters, plays a large part. I noticed in Laurie Lee’s Magellan that a play gains more by having a narrator; this method was also used in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, which play I used as a springboard for my own.’

There were three separate themes in his play, said Mr Baxter. Age in the person of Jack Winter; death, in the murder of the young miner; and love – in the scene between the young miner and the pub-keeper’s daughter. One of the three miners staying at The Drover’s Rest (Preaching Lowry) could be called the conscience of the piece.

Another ingredient of the play was locality. ‘When I was a child I spent a good deal of time in Otago and the Lake district – an area, I suppose, that has come often into my poetry – and this landscape I tried to make come to life, to play its part, animistically, in the story. What I had in mind was somewhere near Naseby, but whether the yarns told me by my father which form a basic stratum in the play were really centred there, I would be unable to say.’

What dictated his choice of strong poetic language – as opposed, say, to the more astringent style of T.S. Eliot?

‘In a radio play,’ Mr Baxter answered, ‘all those things that would otherwise, on the stage, be visual – gesture, setting and appearance of actors – must find emotional equivalents in the spoken word. That is why the poetic prose method is very suitable.

‘Language can make this difference: if it is the language of the people it is figurative language and helps the writer. This is true in broad Scots, also in Irish – that is what helped Synge; he could draw on figurative language used by the people. You cannot do that here.’

T.S. Eliot, said Mr Baxter, in his thinning out of language, tends to be ‘passing blank cheques’ all the time. His characters do not speak as people speak in the street; for a convention of real language he has substituted one of thin language. This was all right on the stage, but not in radio.

‘Thinning down is not so suitable for radio. That is why Ashley Heenan is just as responsible for the final form of the Dream as I am. His music givespage 351 body and is complementary to my words which, by themselves, would be too bald and too thin.’

1958 (179)