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The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924



In the days when Capping Songs were the really distinctive features of Capping Carnivals it was quite easy to believe that the festivities were actually in honour of the graduates of the year. In 1904, when the Rt. Hon. Joseph Chamberlain was welcomed by the Prime Minister for the delectation of Victoria College, it is quite certain that most of the audience knew the name of the baker who supplied the unequal loaves, and certainly no doubt existed as to the wardrobe which supplied the frock coat, of Mr. Seddon. The students and their friends formed a small and happy company and if no one sent in a song celebrating the more notable graduates, well, a member of the Committee was detailed for fatigue duty. The graduates are now so numerous and the faculties so separate that the graduates of the year tend to be lost in the crowd. A worse thing has happened. The Carnival has become the means of providing yearly funds for the Students' Association. All the Colleges now hire the largest halls, satisfy the public, and lodge in the Bank surpluses beyond the wildest dreams of twenty years ago. In some cases professionals are employed to manage or take leading parts. The Capping Carnivals are acquiring commercial attributes. The graduate is rather an outsider, and the Capping Song has lost its character.

There are only two of our Colleges which may be said to have developed distinctive carnival traditions, Otago and Victoria. page 36 Auckland has made a number of attempts, from conventional drama to musical comedy. Even the series written by L. P. Leary, trained as he was at Victoria College, are not of any distinctive University type. Had they been written for Orphans or Savages they would have been equally appropriate. They have certainly no characteristics which connect them with the past or suggest a distinctive claim on the future. Canterbury College has even developed a revue of the Cabaret type. Those who know what a Cabaret actually is do not delight to see University men and women smoking cigarettes on one another's knees for the purpose of providing University funds.

The type of the Otago Carnival was fixed long since, and has remained fairly constant. The incidents of the academic year, including both civic and political, are represented in a series of independent tableaux. It has stood the test of popular favour. It has brought no literary achievement. It belongs essentially to the "revue," and as the other Colleges gravitate towards the type, as they appear to do, the call for the Capping Song becomes less insistent and the quality of the Song declines. Is there anything to be done about it?

The Victoria College extravaganza has had a somewhat chequered career. It dates from 1906, the year of "Munchums." This was a deliberate attempt to face the situation afresh and on a priori principles. It was followed in 1907 by "The Golden Calf" and after two years of variation by "The Bended Bow" in 1910. These three were worked out by the same people on the same principles. The authors of "The Bended Bow" were appealed to as a last resort exactly fourteen days before the performance, so that its production probably constitutes a record in speed. It is perfectly clear that these three extravaganzas stand alone, so far as New Zealand is concerned, as Carnival literature. From a dramatic point of view they were not failures. They belonged to the University. What were their characteristics?

In the first place, the Capping Song was adopted as the basis. The extravaganza was written, not for prose speech, but for singing. It was not one Capping Song, but a series of Capping Songs. It was deliberately laid down that the series should be bound together by some general idea, and the unity was preserved as far as possible by such devices as the "run through" chorus. The extravaganza was to be a glorified Capping Song. Conventional acting was discarded for mechanical dances and "cake walks" because drill movements are more readily acquired than other forms of stage-craft. It is, on the stage, curiously easy to be grotesque and curiously difficult to be natural. Numbers will multiply the effect of grotesqueness, but only increase the difficulty of conventional acting. Grotesqueness was to be essential to the spirit of the Victoria College Carnival.

"Munchums" was written to celebrate the building of Victoria College. It traversed the history of Universities from the time of the prehistoric Chancellor. "The Golden Calf" was bound together by the idea of "worship" showing how "idolatrous generations prostrate themselves before heathen shrines." The last of the series, "The Bended Bow" commemorated the formation of the newly-formed O.T.C. and showed how "the call to arms was obeyed at certain stages in the ascent of man." It is difficult to over-estimate the effect of the central idea in the composition of an extravaganza. Consider the effect of the idea of "duty" in the "Pirates of Penzance."

page 37

It may be suggested that the glorification of the Capping Song at Victoria College between 1906 and 1910 was due to the presence of two exceptionally gifted song-writers. It is quite true that S. S. Mackenzie and S. Eichelbaum have a record in Capping Song unique in New Zealand. It would, however, be more true to say that, had such a man as H. F. von Haast or A. E. Currie (Canterbury) been engaged on extravaganza of the same type their work would have achieved an importance impossible in the isolated Capping Song. Some of the characteristics of this type survived, but the most notable attempt at whole-hearted revival, during recent years, was made by Miss Edith Davies and H. G. Miller in "Der Tag" (1919).

I suggest that the Carnival should revert to the Capping Song as the basis of its programme. It is that, in University Carnivals, which has proved, historically, the most characteristic thing in student humour. We are at the parting of the ways. We may pander to low tastes, or we may follow a decent tradition. People enjoy extravaganzas because young people are having a fling. A University audience is always tolerant.