Mervyn Thompson was a playwright, director, autobiographer, teacher and actor. Born in Kaitangata, he left school at 15 to work, including several years as a coal miner. Influenced early on by Ngaio Marsh, his own first play, First Return, nevertheless rebelled against Marsh’s anglocentric vision of drama. Throughout his life, Thompson was passionately committed to a theatre honestly rooted in the New Zealand experience and in working-class politics of the left. His final one-man show, Passing Through, stands as a monument to Thompson’s passion for a national drama New Zealand could take pride in, and to which he contributed without reserve.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
THOMPSON, Mervyn (1935–92), was a playwright, director, autobiographer, teacher and actor.
Born in Kaitangata, South Otago, he grew up in a working-class family on the West Coast of the South Island, and left school at 15 in order to work, including several years as a coal miner. He entered Canterbury University as an adult student, and was briefly a schoolteacher before returning to Canterbury as a lecturer in the English department.
As a student actor he came under the influence of Ngaio Marsh [Author] (who cast him in the minor role of Proculeius in Antony and Cleopatra, whence the name ‘Proc’ by which he was almost universally known). In emulation of her he became a director, and continued her tradition of high-quality productions with largely student casts. His Cherry Orchard, The Birthday Party, Marat/Sade, Taming of the Shrew and others were powerful and original. But his own first play, First Return (written in 1971, though not performed until 1974 at the Court Theatre), already indicates his rebellion from Marsh’s anglocentric vision of drama. His play is defiantly working-class and New Zealand in its subject matter, and Expressionist and Brechtian by turns in much of its ironic style. First Return is also representative of his entire career in its autobiographical vulnerability as his protagonist wrestles, sometimes literally, with the daemons of his past (a ‘menagerie’ controlled by a ringmaster).
Thompson was passionately committed to a national drama honestly rooted in the New Zealand experience and in working-class politics of the left. This vision informed his teaching, and many of his most successful productions as a director were with students. He also worked skilfully with students in collaborative theatre projects. O! Temperance! (Court Theatre, 1972; pub. 1974; the ironic title is one of Proculeius’ few lines in Antony and Cleopatra) is a documentary play with music, based on the linked temperance and women’s suffrage movements in early-twentieth- century New Zealand. It was created with students at the newly created Court Theatre, of which he became co-director in 1971.
His next three ‘song-plays’ were virtually a genre unto themselves, and enthusiastically presented Thompson’s working-class and political themes. Songs to Uncle Scrim (Downstage Theatre, 1976, music by Stephen McCurdy; pub. 1983) is more than a musical about the Depression (Colin Scrimgeour was the outspoken Methodist minister who championed the poor on radio), since the audience to whom the songs were sung were clearly expected to make contemporary political connections as well. In A Night at the Races (New Independent Theatre, 1977, co-written with Yvonne Blennerhassett Edwards, music by Andrew Glover and others; pub. 1981) Thompson is in lighter mode, joyously celebrating both horse racing and its attendant gambling as working-class release. And in Songs to the Judges (Maidment Theatre, 1980, music by William Dart; pub. 1983) he is at his most trenchantly political, the satiric songs protesting vehemently against a century of injustice towards Maori. In his autobiographical play Passing Through (Court Theatre, 1991; pub. 1992), Thompson refers to this period as fighting for ‘the people I thought were allies (women, Maoris, working-class people, even those who believe that you can’t have a nation if you haven’t got a national drama).’ His faith in a cultural ‘popular front, that community of interest’, was the driving force behind his work as a professional director at the Court, and two years as artistic director of Downstage in Wellington. His autobiography All My Lives (1980) gives the reader a vivid picture of New Zealand theatre at this time, as well as inducing some discomfort at his confessional vulnerability.
When he moved to Auckland University as senior lecturer in drama in 1977 he was returning to a student environment where he could anticipate kindling a greater commitment than he had among professional actors. He looked back with some self-criticism on this move in the song ‘Why are you running away?’, one of several moving sequences in Passing Through (1991). He succeeded as before in the university context, however, with his combination of passion, intellectualism and rigorous standards. The Great New Zealand Truth Show in 1982 followed the O! Temperance! formula of collaborative script development with Thompson the writer of material researched by students.
In professional theatre his greatest influence was through his close involvement in the early 'Playmarket Playwrights’ Workshops. In 1980 he directed the workshop of Foreskin’s Lament by Greg McGee, [Author] a play he rightly predicted would ‘change the face of New Zealand drama’. He also directed and championed the work of emerging women playwrights such as Carolyn Burns, Renée [Author] and others. His generosity of judgment was one of his special qualities.
Thompson’s first work for solo performance, Coaltown Blues (Maidment Theatre, 1984; pub. 1986), is both celebration and lament for the working-class roots from which he sprang. The same year his life changed irrevocably after unsubstantiated allegations of sexual harassment and rape, and a brief and violent abduction and torture (based on events in a feminist play he had workshopped) by anonymous vigilantes. The fallout from these events is painfully described in articles in *NZ Listener, and his memoir Singing the Blues (1991). It is also dramatically evoked in his final one-man show, Passing Through. By the time he started its national tour in 1991 he had left Auckland University, returned to Christchurch, spent a year as writer-in-residence at Canterbury University, and was widely known to be dying of cancer. He had adapted John A. Lee’s Children of the Poor for the stage (Court Theatre, 1989; published 1990). Two final plays dealt with the trials and ideals of sexual obsession and love: Lovebirds (Court Theatre, 1991) and Jean and Richard (Court Theatre 1992); both were published in 1992 in Passing Through and Other Plays. Passing Through chronicles New Zealand theatre for three decades, from the Reefton Drama Club to Ngaio Marsh to Bruce Mason [Author] to Jerzy Grotowski to Thompson’s own fatal instinct for giving his enemies the fight they wanted. Text, performance and audience were inextricably interwoven as a dying writer charted the performance of his life. Passing Through stands as a monument to Thompson’s passionate crusade for a national drama of which New Zealand could be proud, and to which he contributed without reserve.
MEDIA LINKS AND CLIPS
- There is a bibliography in the Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File.
Updated January 2017.