Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

The Modern Era

The Modern Era

By 1914, the persistent Part 1 has been interred forever, and the Capping Book appears with its first art cover, a two-colour cover in fact. Extravaganza seems to be an established word for capping shows.

At the end of World War I, the formalized cover returns. A full-length show is presented in the Town Hall, Der Tag, or The Path of Progress, with a distinguished cast including the following:
Sgt-Major Cheetah P. Martin Smith
Lord Liverpool A. J. Mazengarb
Japhetrow Wilson H. G. Miller

Now we come to the modern era. 1920 marked the first show held in the Opera House, with all the present accessories, orchestra, props, stage manager, business manager and the rest. This was called The Dogs, featuring such well-known players as P. Martin-Smith, S. A. Wiren, and many others. This auspicious move was celebrated by another return to the art cover in colour.

Now, on to the thirties. B B in 1929, Willum the Conk in 1930. Of the early examples of the "modern" type of script, Redmond Phillips deserves mention. He wrote some excellent shows such as Coax and Hoax (1932), Murder in the Common Room (1934), and probably his best, Medea and Soda (1934). The latter contains the song "Karitane Blues" which is still sometimes heard in Extrav. dressing rooms after the show. The Phillips shows were ably presented by people such as Dorothea Tossman, H. C. Middlebrook, A. H. Scotney and the late Kingi Tahiwi.

The late nineteen thirties produced another set of brilliant and prolific script writers—the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Ron Meek. Of the Pillars' efforts the best are probably Hell's Bells (1936), The Book of Bob (1937), and Adam in Wonderland (1939), starring The Voice, Mr W. S. Austin.

Then come John Carrad's delightful variety shows with their inconsequential nonsense and their catchy songs, Daze Bay Nights, Port Nick Iniquity and The Dinkum Oil.

The last decade of the Extravaganza is dominated by the influence of Ron Meek. Meek admired Aristophanes and W. S. Gilbert and combined something of the talents of these figures in his writing. He brought to his art intellectual brilliance of the highest order and the highly allegorical, satirical and witty plot has tended to become standard. Meek's influence is plainly seen in the 1941 show, which he did not write, and it is with us still. The political figures have become as inevitable as Punch and Judy in another sphere, and even in 1948 when Sid and Peter were treated with a strange new gentleness, the Peter who spent two hilarious hours in Blunderland is still recognisable.

Intellectual brilliance was perhaps the "fatal flaw" in Meek as an Extrav. writer. Sometimes the allegory becomes strained to breaking-point. The Cinderella scene in Centennial Scandals (1940) illustrates this. Cinderella in a pink dress (the Labour Party) was required to heap coal (social-democratic reforms) on a fire (progress) while her two ugly sisters, Bobadolf and Razor go to the National Ball. (This represents two noted New Zealand leaders supporting the war effort.)

This was an extreme case, but it may be doubted whether brilliant lyrics are effective on the stage. It is not easy to follow an argument through a catchy tune.

In another mood, however, Meek's wit found outlet in exuberant satire. The "two grey mares" of 1944 were completely successful. Fools who somehow bad survived lucid exposures are now hilariously bludgeoned off the stage by irresistible laughter.

page 82

In 1945 the intellectual strength was so evenly maintained, so neatly ready with the right dig at each turn, that the show went with the force of a burlesque but on the level of a surely thought-out satire. It is tempting to call it "hilariously witty." It was written by Meek and Bland. Research suggests in the face of probability that both names are genuine.

Meek has now left New Zealand and memories of his successes are in the minds of present scriptwriters. This is not altogether good as he was a difficult writer to imitate. His scripts had unity of tone in a subtle but recognisable intellectual clarity rather than in a rich imagination. Missing this, imitations could be lifeless and incoherent. This is particularly likely where several writers combine to do a script.

There are many possibilities for future development. Extrav. may never be as witty as in 1945 but humour may become more prominent, or imagination, or pantomime fantasy. In 1948 a tendency towards pageantry and spectacle was popular.

Perhaps some (so far) mute, inglorious Meek lolls in the common-room as we write, ready any minute to burst into script. There's room for him.

G. W. Turner

H. Williamson