Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Landscape, Body, Memory and Belonging in the Plays of Gary Henderson

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Landscape, Body, Memory and Belonging in the Plays of Gary Henderson

Article excerpt

At the start of Gary Henderson's Peninsula (2005), the ten-year-old central character recites a familiar childhood litany:

Michael Hope . . .

. . . Main Road . . .

. . . Duvauchelle Bay . . .

. . . Banks Peninsula . . .

. . . Canterbury ....

. . . South Island . . .

. . . New Zealand . . .

. . . Southern Hemisphere . . .

... The World...

. . . The solar system . . .

. . . The Galaxy . . . 1

Apart from the child view of the world that inevitably places 'me' at the centre of the universe, Michael's recitation serves as a statement of belonging. It lays claim to and evokes the landscape of home - and later in the play, the effect of its loss - both literally and metaphorically. This trajectory of recognition, connection, celebration and enforced separation from 'home' is a frequent refrain in Henderson's work. In Peninsula, it resides in the mind of a child, while in Home Land (2004) it finds its expression in the muted despair of a frail old man. Between these two extremes stands the lyrical and urgently physical evocation of 'aliveness' embodied within the landscape that is Skin Tight (1994). Among his Pakeha contemporaries, Henderson surely foregrounds and celebrates most clearly the intersection of landscape, body, memory and belonging. At the same time, the strong focus on land, shore, mountain, light and water in his work also places Henderson in alignment with certain Maori dramatists - in particular, Hone Kouka and Briar Grace-Smith, contemporaries with whom he shares much common ground. Henderson expresses an equivalent to the understanding of turangawaewae, a place to stand, rooted in the politics of 'home', a passionate and emotional connection associated with memory and self-worth.

But in doing so, Henderson has embraced his position as a Pakeha New Zealander, making no apology for his desire to celebrate Pakeha history, stories and myths. As he states in a 2006 interview:

I regard myself as an indigenous New Zealander in the sense that I don't have another home [...] I know where I belong, I belong right here, this is my home. And even then I try to phrase it as 'this is the land I belong to', not 'this is the land I own'. I don't own it, I don't think anyone does. But this is where I belong and I want my plays to reflect that.2

One may extrapolate from this a desire on Henderson's part to root those Pakeha myths and stories as deeply within the landscape he loves and calls home as those of his Maori contemporaries.

He creates characters steeped in Western theatre tradition, whose destinies seem to echo, sometimes perversely, those of Lear, or Nora, or Firs, but who nonetheless are absolutely rooted in their home land. Like the incessant rain and cries for the sun in Ibsen's Ghosts, set in the bleakness of a Norwegian landscape, the souls of Henderson's characters are imbued with -and take their meaning from - the New Zealand landscape in which they dwell. Hone Kouka has also been drawn to explore a Maori reading of some of the same affinities with Ibsen's use of characters within a landscape, among other elements, in Nga Tangata Toa (1994), which is expressly modeled on Ibsen's The Vikings at Helgeland.3

While Peninsula inevitably expresses a Pakeha sensibility towards the landscape, Michael's chant also fleetingly evokes an association with the Maori mihi (ritual of introduction), where individuals identify themselves in relationship to maunga (mountain), waka (canoe), awa (river), iwi (tribe), descending through ancestors, grandparents, parents, and finally to self. An example can be found in 'Let me feel the magic', an interview with Rangimoana Taylor, which he begins by identifying his tribal and ancestral genealogy.4 As an interesting comparison, here is the opening of a formal mihi delivered on a marae in Hone Kouka's Mauri Tu, in which self is identified first:

MATIU: . …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.