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The Spike or Victoria University College Review Silver Jubilee 1924

Capping Carnivals

page 34

Capping Carnivals

In American universities it is the custom to use Commemorations as suitable opportunities for extracting shekels from hardhearted millionaires, and worthy young men, it is said, are apt to be called upon to read their theses to the multitude. It is the strange seriousness of a business people getting its money's-worth out of culture. This method is contrary to the spirit of British Universities. It is our custom to hide any feelings of triumph behind the comic mask. While it is natural that our feelings should overflow, it is good sense that we should not treat the beginning as though it were the happy ending, the promise as though it were the fulfilment. So we pass the milestone in good company, arm in arm, singing our Community Songs. That is the spirit of our Carnival.

For our present purpose it is not necessary to trace the evolution of the Carnival programme as it exists to-day, except to point out that in times past the Capping Song held a much more important place. From very early times it was recognised that the weapon of the student was the topical song. Through all the changes, in all the University centres, the Capping Song is the one constant element. The book of words is also the one permanent available record, though as an index to the merits of a Carnival it is curiously limited. It will help us to compare only carnivals of the same type. It will help us in appraising the series of musical extravaganzas of Victoria College but will tell us practically nothing about the tableaux which have been the staple product of Otago. From one point of view the success of a Carnival has one test alone—its effect in drawing and interesting an audience. It is quite clear that the songs of Otago and Auckland will not bear comparison with those of Victoria and Canterbury Colleges, yet it is equally certain that Otago was drawing her thousands while Victoria College was content with hundreds. There is another sense, however, in which success is not unrelated to literary merit. "The Mikado" is better than "Chu Chin Chow" whatever the ticket-box may say.

If a just comparison is impossible, however, it may not be impossible to make a few deductions from the facts. The tradition of Otago has made her success independent of songs of high merit. This is probably the reason her record is so barren. The tradition, at least in the sense of a Carnival of a characteristic and uniform type, is far older than that of any other College in New Zealand. One guesses that some shrewd theatrical manager saw a Carnival of the Otago type, and from it produced the modern "revue." To this type all the Colleges seem at the moment to be converging. This article is written in the hope that the traditions may be strengthened in a true University sense, that the producers will not be content merely to fill halls and to minister to what seems at the moment to be the prevailing taste.

It is probable that few realise what a nightmare the Capping business is to the small and devoted band who have the responsibility thrust upon them. Work must be sacrificed and a full programme produced—and whence? The natural guide is the year before, and, as time is short, the tradition tends to remain unaltered. Somehow success is achieved and those few alone who strove for something which was not attained feel the bitterness page 35 of failure. Success of a kind is, indeed, not difficult to achieve. The audience is friendly and expectant. It is ready to take student, wit, especially when it is not understood, at its own valuation. It actually loves the freedom of comment and criticism which youth justifies and custom condones. The performance will go well enough when the time comes, but the student should do some real thing to justify the belief in his ability.

I suggest that the students have not done their job well unless the programme, bought at a price, contains some topical verse of reasonable quality. I do not refer to those old songs which have survived. I refer merely to the song which hits off the academic year with some smoothness of rhythm and with criticism which is shrewd and apt. These should, in my view, give flavour to the production. They are always helped out by the University songs and anthems, but these belong to the same type as the orthodox school song. Victoria College is much richer in these than the other Colleges.

Those who are interested in School Songs should read the "Harrow Song Book," a wonderful collection for one School. It serves to illustrate the difference between the School and the University. The School song does not admit of impertinence. It belongs to the seriousness of childhood and the discipline of adolescence. The University begins with something of the excess of emancipation. That is the note of the yearly crop of songs. Everything is done in haste. It is good form to "borrow" words and music, and it is bad business to miss a really rollicking chorus which has the public ear at the moment. There is little that is sacred in the tradition and personality is its orthodox weapon. There is, however, subject to exceptions, often political, the feeling that there is something of bad form in using personality in a bitter sense. It is, therefore, a compliment to be racked and pilloried, for we are dealing with friends.


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.


It may not be out of place before concluding to say a few words on the manufacture of humour, and, more particularly, student humour. It may save advice from sterility. We are apt to think of humour as spontaneous. Yet it may be doubted whether a comic paper could carry on for a month unless the sources of humour had been more or less scientifically considered and the results tabulated. The output of "Punch" is not greatly dependent upon the digestion nor the private afflictions of its staff. It. is dependent upon the fact that, from the editor to the office boy, it is recognised that humorous effect is produced by placing the accustomed thing in the unaccustomed position. Place a silk hat on a Rugby rough or a Cardinal's hat on a Presbyterian elder. The effect is the same. Even put the Cardinal's hat at a rakish angle. It is the same old trick. That is the first, the crude stage. When "Punch" during the war published its pages of cartoons of politicians dressed in khaki, it carried the process further. Instead of the one familiar and accustomed thing you had at least two—you had the politician and khaki. You had more, you had two sets of things, a series of politicians and a series of grades of khaki. So Private Asquith saluting his superior officer Major Lloyd George made a pretty picture. The interplay of army and politics had a further complication. The personal appearance and characteristics of the individual were exploited, the accustomed solemnity appearing under unaccustomed conditions. It. is a very simple and obvious device. It is reproduced every day, and it delights us at every turn—if it can only be effected with surprise. Put the City Fathers in football jerseys, the Professors riding on an elephant at the Zoo. Make Professor Mackenzie an acrobat, Professor Hunter a curate—but the series is infinite.

With this knowledge concerning the manufacture of humour clearly in our minds, we are in a position to contrive further expedients for our purpose. It has been noted that in its simplest form the process, though it may be effective, tends to crudity. How can we get a more complex effect, the double cross? The most illuminating answer I can give may be expressed in the words page 38 "general idea." A general idea fixes a point of view. The sceptic may be referred again to the idea of "duty" in the "Pirates of Penzance." It irradiates Mel" irradiates the opera almost as "old Mel" irradiates "Evan Harrington." It is dished up at every meal. It has a curious magic. Apply, as "Punch" did, the idea of military discipline to politicians, the idea of political procedure to the army. Apply the ideas and clothing of an ancient or alien civilization to our own times—and you have established a whole series of dramatic possibilities. At its best the idea is philosophic and simple, for humour is at bedrock philosophic and exploits truth at some angle. It ought not to be beyond the ingenuity of a University College to find an idea appropriate to any set of tableaux suggested for the year. Without the "general idea" it seems to me, there is an overwhelming tendency for work, otherwise good, to degenerate into triviality.

It will be observed that illustrations of the theory of humour derived from comic papers are subject to the limitations of pen and ink. When a Roman Praetor or a Prehistoric Chancellor steps upon the scene he is subject to no such limitation. He is given a new and appreciative audience, a wealth of local colour, and his discussion of old themes in new settings is apt to be very diverting. It forms a cross-current with the general idea in the manufacture of humour.

Much more might be said and many illustrations given to show that, if the matter be approached in the right way and in the right spirit, much may be done even with a mediocre team. With such a team as a University may select great extravaganzas will appear from time to time if good work is attempted. It is thought we are drifting away from this ideal. It is conceded that with increasing numbers it is becoming more difficult to score with the purely personal touches. This is of moment in capping song, which depends on personality. It is of little moment when the capping song is rooted in ideas, and personalities are merely incidental. The point that needs to be stressed is that the capping song belongs for good reasons to the genius of student carnivals and should not be discarded. The price paid for the recent commercial successes has been too high, but it has also been unnecessary. The way out, it is suggested, is not third-rate revue but a reincarnation of the capping song in the form of a musical extravaganza. Under modern conditions the capping song must suffer eclipse or become much more important than it was in the old clays. Some machinery has been suggested for use in the production of the yearly offering to the University gods. It may be thought that the matter is taken too seriously. My answer is that, in its own way, the literature of capping carnivals has, and should have, a niche in the literary Pantheon. It is a thing worth doing to produce a good song; it is better to produce a good extravaganza. Wit and humour, literary form and expression, are given very extensive opportunities—the opportunity, moreover, is given to men and women, some of whom are thoroughly well equipped to avail themselves of it. At any rate the work has to be done, well or ill. Victoria University College had a tradition worth maintaining. The modern tendency, to produce a spectacle without literary merit or University character, a spectacle which challenges comparison only with third-class revue, is surely degenerate. Though the University public is tolerant, it appreciates merit. Is it possible to bring about a reversion to type?

F. A. de la Mare.