Academic journal article Hecate

What We Want and What We Get: Renee's 'Jeannie Once.' (Play) (Special Aotearoa/New Zealand Issue)

Academic journal article Hecate

What We Want and What We Get: Renee's 'Jeannie Once.' (Play) (Special Aotearoa/New Zealand Issue)

Article excerpt

Dunedin, New Zealand, 1879: the voyage out to New Zealand from Scotland and Ireland has been longer and has taken more of a toll on the passengers than anyone expected. The jobs that were to be "hanging from every tree just waiting to be picked up"(1) prove to be a myth. Jeannie comments rather angrily about her new home that: "I'd expected the differences, [but] it's the similarities that've been the shock!"(2) The promised land is just the same as the class-ridden, poverty-stricken, and prejudiced home she tried to leave behind. This is the social setting for Renee's play, Jeannie Once (1991), which highlights the experiences of at least four women who are displaced from the relative comforts of 'home' by economic constraints, grief, and prejudice. The obvious class, religious and cultural tensions of early migration and settlement create a palpable irony in the play's reprise of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, "Never Mind the Why and Wherefore," from HMS Pinafore:

Though you occupy a station In the lower middle class Ring the merry bells on board-ship, Rend the air with warbling wild, For the union of his Lordship With a humble captain's child.(3)

The "lower stations" have no cause for celebration when many at this time faced high unemployment, a crisis in banking, and epidemics of measles and whooping cough.

The third of Renee's trilogy, but chronologically the first play, Jeannie Once is, in many respects, stronger and more complex than Wednesday to Come (1985) and Pass it On (1986). In being written last, however, Jeannie Once is constrained by having to establish situations for the rest of the trilogy: the opportunity for Jeannie to have a (new) family, Mary's departure, and Jeannie's commitment to social reform. More problematically, its feminist politics seem to be significantly more muted than in her early plays, like Setting the Table (1984).(4) Jeannie Once relates the stories of four women who all encounter difficulties with New Zealand's settler society. Jeannie's work sewing shirts barely supports her; Mary, with whom she shares a house, has abandoned her acting career to guard the safety of her lover's son; Martha ("Nineteen, part-Maori, part-European") feels that she doesn't fit in the strict Victorian social paradigm; and Honoria Wishart, Martha's employer, is traumatised by having lost six children and by the demands of her increasingly rigid preacher husband. The four meet when Honoria and Martha bring Jeannie a length of blue taffeta to make a tasteful, simple dress so that Honoria can attend the

Combined Churches' Garden Party. The unseen preacher intervenes, however, and Honoria does not get to wear the dress. Music-hall theatre also intervenes in the action to offset the Reverend's severity.

Jeannie Once explores a moment in New Zealand's history with a view to demonstrating the ways in which history is cyclical: the lessons Jeannie learns, it transpires, are repeated over the next one hundred years for her descendants to learn. In the second play of the trilogy, Pass It On, Jeannie's great-granddaughter, also named Jeannie and now in her thirties, remembers her mother, Iris, passing on to her (in a moment from Wednesday to Come) the truism that "What we want and what we get are two different things."(5) The failure of dreams and the inevitability of the repetition of this cycle characterises the trilogy as a whole and Renee's current fiction as well. During a march against the Springbok Tour in 1981, Daisy, the narrator of Renee's most recent novel, Daisy and Lily (1993), recognises when she sings "We shall overcome," that "we knew we wouldn't overcome. Not today. But 'never again.'"(6) Jeannie's alter ego, Granna, comments: "I was Jeannie once . . . Granna's me, Jeannie's me. It's all the same, inside."(7) It takes the whole of Jeannie Once for Granna/Jeannie to realise that the circumstances of 1879 are just the beginning of a cycle of monumental disappointments. …

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