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The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The Dramatic Club

page 75

The Dramatic Club

Victoria college had been in existence for six years before the foundation stone of the main portion of the present building was laid—to the accompaniment of an Ode which, expecting rather too much of Pallas, bade her 'clear face' to

'Lift to our lips the cup wherein is mixed

The potency of Knowledge, Science, Truth.'

(The more cultural faculties will appreciate the segregation of Science from Knowledge and Truth.)

The foundation stone of the Dramatic Club, however, was then no more than a series of scattered pebbles. True, there had been one or two plays during the second halves of concerts. There was already a habit, swiftly approaching a tradition, of executing bawdy riots known as Annual Capping Carnivals. Yet these activities were by no means integrated within the organisation of a distinct Club. As the need arose—apparently when a harassed social organiser thought that a play would fill out the evening—then a play would be presented.

It must not be inferred that the plays were no more than elevated charades. One of the first recorded presentations was Horace at Athens (Trevelyan) produced in 1902 by Mr H. E. Nicholls and staged in the old Sydney Street Schoolroom. It seems that long, long ago, 'Varsity women were comparatively modest, for in that play the female parts were taken by men, warmly-rouged and garnished with tow pigtails. Even the men were unduly coy (or perhaps the stage-space was limited), for the number of the cohorts was so small that an ingenious arrangement of mirrors had to be used to multiply them.

In 1903, W. S. Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guitdenstem was played. This was well received by the 'Varsity audience. It was memorable particularly for the dramatic collapse of a rabbit-skin 'arras' (this, of course, drew cries of "' ow 'arassing" from the pun-conscious audience), which left the promptress exposed to public view. Just how exposed she was is unrecorded. Hamlet was left standing outside the front curtain when it fell later, but he probably had the presence of mind to commit suicide and clear the stage completely.

In 1904, an 'uproariously mirthy farce' convulsed an audience of antiquity.

Our attention is rudely attracted to a full-page advertisement in the 1905 The Spike headed "Coo-ee" and artfully drawn in a series of alliterations, among which we are told to attend "the Sydney Street Schoolroom Students' Studiously Soniferous Side-Splitting Soiree, with a Soul-Satisfying Supper." Here a work known as 'Sarah's Young Man' was staged. Records disclose that this early milestone on the Great White Way was no more than a bawdy bedlam of backstage bucolics, incidental to the current Capping Ceremony.

For the first time, however, a criticism of Victoria drama appeared in The Spike after the execution of this delicate vignette. The phrases used by the writer: "convincingly displayed"; "carried out in a most natural manner their amorous roles "—give us a clue to the origin of the style and analytical approach of a drama critic who appears, to this day, in a Wellington morning paper. It is indeed refreshing, in the mad bustle of 1949, to see the style of twenty-four years ago perpetuated in at least one of our dominion newspapers.

The records of 1906 abound with Latin quotations, reports of social occasions and the ubiquitous pun—but no reference to drama proper. At length, in 1907, we find in The Spike a single line devoted to drama, as distinct from the cloddish antics of the Capping Carnival enthusiasts: "Mr and Mrs Newton gave a clever and amusing sketch "—at a concert in the Sydney Street Schoolroom.

In October, 1907, it was stated that the erection of the gymnasium was ' within measurable distance,' after a Wellington citizen had come forward with a handsome donation of £250. Present critics of the Gym. suggest that this was the total sum spent on the building. However, there was the plan for a hall suitable for dramatic activities. Where was the plan for a suitable club? Echo, forsooth, answers, 'Where?'

The nights of the 8th and 9th brought a farce by the name of Facing the Music to the Concert Chamber of the Town Hall, presented by Victoria students. The plot was said to be 'thicker than molasses' but—as is the way with molasses—was 'rapidly unravelled.'

There was still no organised Drama Club. The lack of a Drama Club was not even bemoaned.

1909 was a momentous year for the future club in two respects. Victoria had a gym. complete with hall and stage. Also, if the Club was not quite embryonic, it was at least a gleam in its father's eye, for a Reading Circle was started. It is worth recording the original members: Misses or Mesdames Fell, Thornton, Nicholls, Tennent, Davies and Crawford; and Messrs C. H. Taylor, A. E. Caddick, G. H. Nicholls, P. B, Broad, K. Munro, A. Fair, L. P. Leary, G. M. Cleghorn and W. F. Hogg. Shakespeare, Shaw, Bennett, Pinero, Yeats and Synge were tried—fortnightly—at first in the Chemistry Laboratory, and later in the Gymnasium where plays were sometimes read in public.

A writer in the 1914 issue of The Spike described the play-going public of New Zealand as "not necessarily meritorious in drama "—which does not say much for drama. "The supply of drama page 76 is both totally inadequate" (nil?) "and of vastly inferior quality."

Another commentator in 1914 saw the possibilities of University drama as a link with the public.

Still, in that year, the only recorded stage performance given by Victoria students was the Extrav—Boadicea. In the last act, the audience not only witnessed the queen being flogged by the brutal Roman soldiery, but also saw (with their own eyes, no doubt) the marks. This intriguing touch of realism can be attributed only to the licence of these primitive times—for decollete dresses and short skirts were not in vogue then, we imagine. The acting was apparently of a high order, though the Evening Post was perspicacious enough to point out that "an umbrella in the time of Caesar was a gross anachronism."

It seems that the Reading Circle had strutted its hour by 1914, for in that year the Debating Club—by now a venerable institution—inaugurated a series of dramatic readings for the Long Vacation. Of the plays read, six were by Shaw, two by Wilde and one each by Galsworthy, Bennett, Ibsen and Goldsmith. After the "reckless massacring of blank verse," it was decided to forego poetic drama for the time being.

By October, 1914, the Debating Club decided, with "the immediate welfare and future destiny of the Empire" in mind, to discontinue its programme of debates. The Club seemed rather harsh in its estimate of its own seditious tendencies. It was not entirely an ill wind, for the cessation of debates seemed to stimulate greater interest in the play readings at the time.

In August, 1915, two comedies were presented in aid of Patriotic Funds. Gentle Gertrude, or Drowned and Drugged in Digbeth was adjudged "the most pleasing thing of its kind ever attempted by Victoria College amateurs." By that time, the play readings of the Debating Club had been temporarily shelved, it seems, although all the activities of other clubs were flourishing—with the possible exception of the Glee Club, which was at last obliged to seek an audience at the Porirua Mental Hospital.

In 1916 there was some departure from the usual Capping Show. Sundry students acted three "straight" plays, apparently well staged and acted. But there was nothing substantial in the plays. The outline of the plots indicated them to be more in the tradition of the high-school drama club—with a hen-pecked husband, a loveable old cook and a "rough but kind-hearted ward-maid." In other words, the plays were probably rather corny, though it is not easy to pass judgment.

Toward the end of 1916, the play readings of the Debating Club were resumed. Under other auspices, apparently, two plays were acted in 1917, in place of the Capping Carnival. These were described as "two merry little farces, well suited to the powers of the talent available"—a dubious compliment. It was also said: "that this should have been done on a tiny stage and, with the few accessories at the command of the players, reflects immense credit on those responsible for it." This comment could well be applied to the achievements of the present Club.

In 1920, a sub-committee of the Women's Club was set up to consider the formation of a Women's Dramatic Club. Much later, during the 1939-45 war, this dream was more or less realized; but nothing came of it in 1920.

A member of the Debating Society, writing in 1921, referred to the need for a Drama Club, but decided that, as there was none, it was incumbent on the debaters to take its place.

Even as he wrote, the College was charged with expectancy—although it was probably unaware of it. Toward the end of 1921, the vague stirrings of the future club culminated in its proud emergence as a distinct institution—no longer the incidental amusement of another club; no more the isolated outcome of a few students' desire to "do a play."

The Dramatic Club was formed with the object of "discovering the considerable amount of histrionic talent that was lying latent in the students." The originators were justified in propounding their purpose so elusively. Until the club was a going concern, it was impossible to formulate definite plans.

The initial activities were just as tentative. Only readings were attempted. Yet, in the first report in The Spike, it was already stated that member-ship had been limited to fifty and that vacancies were to be filled by application, as they occurred.

Members met once a week (on Tuesday evenings) in the Gym. Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of the officers of the Club at that time.

Some of the readings were held in public, and the proceeds of the box office devoted to the expenses of the Plunket Medal contest; also to the travelling costs of the Easter Tournament delegates.

At the first committee meeting, it was decided to arrange lectures on authors, illustrated by the reading of typical passages.

By September, 1922, the Club had "outgrown its infancy and attained a health adolescence." If that was achieved after one year, it is hoped that the Club is not described as senile after twenty-six more years. Indications are, however, that the Club was still in its pretty lisping time in 1922.

It was then clear to the officers that "the Club's work is to provide mind-brightening, rather than mind-furnishing; amusement rather than erudition.

The Younger Generation was performed in 1923. It was described as a family play, where unconventional sons and daughters bussed parlourmaids ("very kissable"); had affaires and carelessly dropped wine bills—generally wrecking havoc with their dear old parents' hearts. Again, a trite sort of play, and very 1920's, but reports were favourable and the members brimmed with optimism as page 77 to the Club's future. In June, Captain Brassbound's Conversion (perhaps he was weaned away from his box) was read.

At the end of the year the Club looked back on "a record of good performance, sound finance and, magis auro desideranda, an enthusiastic personnel." The strange words are Latin, meaning "a little more audibility would be desirable."

In 1924, broader horizons were scanned. Drama was seen in The Spike article as a means of drawing us out of our isolation and "into touch with the spirit of our age"; of stimulating our imagination and intellect; and of giving the actor an escape from the confines of his individuality. In the same work, appreciation was accorded to Mr A. W. Newton, his sister and Mr H. E. Nicholls, who were the original enthusiasts in the early years of drama at Victoria.

What of the next two years? The pages of the Club's past do not seem to have been heavily thumbed during that period. In fact, it was only in June, 1926, that it was disclosed: "At last we are able to make a definite announcement regarding the Drama Club." What had happened in the meantime? In the absence of minute books, we imagine fatal deadlocks in the committee; deadly duels with other Clubs over the allocation of "gym. nights"; or perhaps the stage was being repaired. At any rate, after the hiatus it was decided to recommence readings, so as to improve members' technique and their knowledge of modern plays. The readings proceeded—in violent contest with basketball practices on the floor above. It is inferred that these kept the Club "at least awake, if not wildly enthusiastic and universally popular."

In 1927, Extrav was temporarily abandoned. Again, it was a wind that was not entirely ill. The Drama Club was reformed—due chiefly to Miss Mary Cooley (later Mrs R. H. C. Mackenzie) and Mr A. E. Campbell. The membership increased. There were regular readings and a major production, To Have the Honour (A. A. Milne). By the end of 1930, the Club had built up a fine library; had produced many successful readings and three more major productions of Coward and Milne stamp, and was financially and numerically strong. This period marked the transition from "mind-brightenment rather than mind-enlightenment" (as an earlier writer had put it) to a more serious attitude.

1931 was the Club's best year on record, to that time. There were two productions: The Dark Angel and Rope. Here at last was meat for the teeth of the Club and the College—raw meat, some of it. This year, the Club proved itself capable of a maturity worthy of University activities, with a wide and well-selected group of plays. The Dark Angel (Trevelyan) was "an outstanding success and voted by the dramatic critics as the best 'Varsity production." Rope (Hamilton) had some technical defects—mainly over-modesty in unleashing the emotions—but one critic said of it:

"As an amateur show it was first-class and no amateur has a right to expect more."

After the dizzy successes of this brief Golden Age in the career of the Club, there was a decline in the quality of its performances and in support. The finances ebbed in 1932. Audiences were meagre at the performances—except The Blind Crowder by E. L. Palmer (an ex-Varsity student). St. J. Ervine's The Ship and Ibsen's Hedda Gabler were also presented.

In 1933, there was little that was notable, apart from V.U.C.'s entry in the British Drama League Competition—a play by an indigenous author, Miss lima Levy, entitled God Made Two Trees. This was described as successful.

In 1934, the chief concern of the Club's officers was the maintenance of solvency. It was decided to confine the production of plays to the Gym., despite the disadvantages. Fortnightly play-readings were held in the first and second terms—including as many new members as possible. There was apparently no major production, but a Revue in July.

However, it was in 1934 that the Club acquired from Auckland Training College front draw and side curtains. Forty-five pounds was spent on these and other stage furnishings and there was still a balance in hand of twelve pounds—described as a "creditable profit." This was to make it clear that it was not a debitable profit. Albeit, the policy of retrenchment followed by the committee was financially successful, and posterity must thank the olficers of that year for sacrificing wider activities in the interests of acquiring valuable assets. Surplus profits, moreover, were credited to the Building Fund.

1935 was, culturally, a more successful year. Two productions—Laburnum Grove (Priestley) and Cocktail Party (a swift Revue)—were presented at Varsity to enthusiastic audiences; four plays were read; a steel track for the draw curtains was provided, and the Club wound up the year "in an excellent financial position." The Committee debated whether or not to descend on the Wellington public with a play, but decided that it was questionable whether the public (or the student body for that matter) wanted to be improved. "Experience has taught us a bitter lesson. The pill has to be thickly coated before they can be persuaded to so much as look at it."

The Revue that year was a succes fou, it appears. Mr D. G. Edwards was responsible for its efficient management. There have been, in the Club's history, Revues and revues. It seems that, given an organiser assiduous in ensuring swift continuity and mature selection of items, they have been very popular. The present Club could give some thought to Revues as sure box-office successes—compensating, perhaps, for other productions which yield cultural rather than financial profit.

The next year, Mr Leo Du Chateau—not a member of the Club—produced Coward's Hay page 78 Fever. The cast gave a remarkably high standard of performance. Similar praise was accorded the players (almost entirely new members) who presented Journey's End.

Again, the Revue was found to be a profitable source of revenue.

Still, with some exceptions, the main body of students was not supporting the Club to the extent it deserved.

1937 and 1938 were satisfactory years, with plays of good calibre and performance, and crowded houses.

By 1939 the Club has again risen to a place of real prominence in Varsity activities. Judging by reports, minute books and hearsay, the success of that era was largely attributable to such people as Miss Dorothea Tossman, Mr Doug. Edwards, Mr Pat Macaskill, Mr Don Priestley and Mr Huddy Williamson.

At the end of 1939, the Club's finances were in a healthy condition, despite heavy expenditure that year on a new carpet, a set of tools and the re-hanging of the main stage curtains. Even before the revival, the Club had been donating to the Building Fund. In 1939, at the peak of another of its booms, it made a further contribution of fifteen pounds.

The zenith was passed in 1940, when the Club, in common with others, was unsettled by the sudden withdrawal of personnel. All the same, excellent plays were produced—including Harvest in the North by James Hodson (produced by Don. Priestley), which ran three nights. The cast included Beatrice Hutchinson, Dennis Hartley and John McCreary.

1941 ushered in bleaker prospects for the Club. Readings were the chief activity, though a juicy melodrama by Dennis Hartley, Her Father's Pride, or Virtue Shines Brighter Than Gold, was staged. Also, Victoria gained third place in the inter-University College Drama Festival which was inaugurated that year. It is not recorded whether more than three Universities competed.

But most of the experienced members had been lost. A sorry picture was painted for 1942. Males were in short supply and plays of a sufficiently high standard, yet played by a majority of females (if that is not a contradiction in terms), were sought in vain. Where s Thai Bomb? was interrupted by an air-raid warning.

It was reported that the Club was still unbowed by the bludgeonings of chance, but it was feared that it would soon be "tottering to its dismal grave."

The Club dragged into 1943, defying all predictions of its imminent death, and produced one or two one-act plays and a major production in the third term.

The Club at last began to creep up to its former glory in 1944, Anna Christie (O'Neill), with Dick Campion and Edith Hannah (later Mrs Campion) received resounding praise. The staging was excellent, considering the space and materials available. The scenery gave little more than an impression, and for that reason was highly effective. tragedy was narrowly averted when Huddy Williamson sucked instead of blowing into the bottle of chemicals which produced the eerie fog. The general effect, he reported, was no worse than that of a certain brand of synthetic gin.

In 1945, casting meetings were little more than committee meetings—each officer furtively appraising his fellows as prospective producers or leads. The Late Christopher Bean was to be read one night, but in the absence of an audience, a seance was held instead, among the members of the cast. A bag of mixed sketches, a one-act evening and a raggled revue completed the year's doings.

The presentation of Bridie's Mr Bolfrey was a promising start in 1946. It was played first in the Gym., where it received large and satisfied audiences; and later in the Concert Chamber of the Town Hall, where audiences were small. The play was undoubtedly well done, considering the cdifficulties of long, sometimes involved dialogues and unavoidable immobilities. Ibsen's Ghosts, the other major production, was adequately performed, though without much controlled emotion or co-ordination. Ghosts was too ambitious for the Club at that stage. It had its moments, but it did not hang together. It was unconvincing, Hallo, Out There (O'Neill) was Victoria's entry in the British Drama League Competition. Absolute simplicity of set and lighting—a single beam from the ceiling creating a stark circle of light in the centre of the darkened stage—contributed much to the power and intensity of the play.

Lack of support, of stage facilities and properties, of storage space and of a proper library were the chief limiting factors in 1946—as they probably are in 1949. There were also too many delays in choosing plays and producers; too many false starts and unproductive casting meetings.

The Constitution of the Club was revised in 1946. We believe the original document had been lost by that time. At any rate, the trend from the "brightenment rather than enlightenment" policy of 1921, was at last authoritatively recorded: "The aim of the Club is to present to University and public audiences, plays which have the power to stimlulate their audiences to creative thought. The value of the Club's productions will be primarily intellectual and aesthetic, and secondarily entertainment."

1947 was eventful for the production of Jean Cocteau's The Infernal Machine. The hall and stage were too large; the weather was at times shocking. With one or two exceptions, the cast was not sufficiently experienced to create an outstanding production. In spite of the conditions, however, a good enough job was done. It deserved greater support than it received.

I Have Been Here Before (Priestley), produced in 1948, was adequate, but no more. Audiences page 79 were not large. Included in the 1949 programme is the forthcoming production of She Stoops to Conquer (Goldsmith), which, from preliminary reports, promises to be outstanding.

Here we leave the history—at a point where the Club has made good progress since the end of the war. The plays have been mainly well-selected—although perhaps ambitious—but actual performances have seldom been above average.

What can we learn from the history of the Club? The first lesson is simple. It is probably fair to say that—except in the pre-war Golden Age and, in some instances, in the post-war revival—not enough attention has been given to the physical and mental grind necessary for a satisfactory polish. In other words, student-producers have not troubled, in many instances, to analyse the fundamental spirit of the play; to comprehend each character as a developing entity; to discern the conflicts and harmonies between the characters; to take each line and decide on tone, emphasis and accompanying movement; to create an ebb and flow of emotion. Many actors do not go far beyond the learning of their lines and a perfunctory attention to the personality of the individual they are trying to portray. Their study of techniques is inadequate. When lectures on movements, make-up, authors, have been given, few members have bothered to attend. Yet many members seriously consider themselves qualified to seek parts in such difficult plays as Ghosts or Man and Superman.

It is not expecting too much of University students to take an active interest in lectures on the techniques of the stage; to participate in readings for the sake of understanding the plays, getting to know the characters and their interplay, and even learning to speak the parts correctly. Until the elementary period of learning has been undertaken by a member of the Club, he should not attempt to take part in difficult plays.

This first lesson is, we have said, simple and perhaps obvious. Yet it is clear that the basic training of producers and actors is inadequate. The Club is clearly limited as to its scenery, lighting effects, and other stage properties, but there need be no obstacle to greater polish in production and acting.

This leads to a further suggestion. Undoubtedly, it is desirable that plays should be produced by Club members, if possible. At the present time, however, it seems that there are few Victoria students who can do justice to production. Until there are students who have sufficient stage experience to qualify as producers, persons from outside the University should be asked to produce. There are at least half a dozen ex-Varsity men and women in Wellington who could be approached. Let a member of the Club assist in the production by all means. That is the ideal method of training. But the Club should be wary of looking at, say, the committee members (no offence to the present officers intended) and, by a process of elimination—or reductio ad absurdum—finding someone who is willing to produce. It would be better to postpone the play until a suitable producer can be found.

Some students have proved themselves excellent producers in the past; but these have been exceptional, rather than usual.

From time to time, concern has been felt at the lack of support from members. One obvious solution is to encourage new members to step quickly into active participation. Freshers have often been discouraged at an early stage by neglect. They should be drawn into play readings as soon as they join. That should be the first task of the Committee. Classes in elementary technique should be held, and it should not be long before freshers have simple parts in one-act plays.

There is, of course, the dilemma of stimulating the immediate interest of new members, but at the same time confining parts in serious productions to experienced actors. One-act plays are probably best for freshers, provided they are produced by experienced persons. Past evenings of one-act plays have often been badly treated, mainly by reason of insufficient care in production. Many of them have been no more than casual entertainment for the audiences. As serious media for training new members, their worth has been negligible.

The Club should not confine itself to the more weighty productions. Well-organised Revues before the war were, as pointed out earlier, an excellent source of revenue—particularly if followed by dances. Substantial profits from this form of cultural prostitution are not so tainted that they cannot be used in financing plays of high standard, where the costs of production would otherwise bar their presentation by the Club.

These suggestions are based chiefly on the post-war experience of the Club. Only some of the defects may have been present at any one time.

So much for the debit side of the sheet. On the credit side there have been some productions which can be classed as outstanding; many, as above average. Anna Christie; Mr Bolfrey; Hallo, Out There; The Infernal Machine, to select a few recent examples, have demonstrated the potentialities of the Club. Contending against the difficulties of a ridiculously small stage; lack of properties and storage space; inadequate stage equipment and, above all, the necessity of spending a great deal of time on preparation (which most students can ill-afford), the Club has achieved almost incredible results at times.

A University Dramatic Club has the unique opportunity of playing to an apparently intelligent audience. The Club has had the courage to present difficult and stimulating plays, and when these have been carefully studied and produced the enthusiastic response has not been lacking. It is now the page 80 task of the Club to develop its undoubted potentialities and to build a reputation, at first at University and later in Wellington, for perfection in the production of plays which are especially suited to casts and audiences of above-average intelligence and aesthetic susceptibility. Once the reputation is established, the support of a large number of Wellington residents, as well as University students, should be assured.

G. H. Datson