Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Reclaiming a Landmark New Zealand Play: The Tree by Stella Jones (1957)

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Reclaiming a Landmark New Zealand Play: The Tree by Stella Jones (1957)

Article excerpt

If the year 1957 registers on the historical record of New Zealand drama, it is likely for one event only: the first performances of Bruce Mason's The Pohutukawa Tree in Wellington and Auckland in workshops produced by the New Zealand Players. In The Plays of Bruce Mason, John Smythe argues Mason's Tree is a 'seminal work of contemporary New Zealand drama [...] a true classic in both craft and content'.1 However, it was another Tree that made the greater immediate impact. Stella Jones's The Tree debuted in April 1957 in a production by the Rapier Players in Bristol, England. Following workshop productions in Wellington and Lower Hutt in 1958, the New Zealand Players scheduled an inaugural tour by a second company to play in forty-five North Island towns opening in Hokitika on March 10 and closing in Otaki on May 8, 1959. The Players' Artistic Director, Stafford Byrne, recorded in the program that the players were 'breaking new ground [...] although plays with a New Zealand background have been presented before, The Tree is the first to embark on a full-scale tour of the country'.2 The production was designed for both small and large venues, which allowed the tour to include towns the Players had not previously visited. In his review of the production, Robert Chapman concluded that 'there are not as yet many significant New Zealand plays, but Stella Jones has written what is, in my opinion, the finest so far produced'.3 Unlike The Pohutukawa Tree, The Tree has not received any subsequent professional revivals, and is all but unknown today. The red flowers of Mason's play completely overshadow Jones's.

Jones's The Tree was a significant milestone in the period. As Nola Millar wrote in her review, 'few New Zealand plays in the three act field win production on our stages and even fewer of them are ever published'.4 In the 1950s New Zealand playwrights analogised themselves as gardeners and cultivators. James K. Baxter saw Allen Curnow's 1948 play The Axe as a 'seed of a new tradition in drama' in a country that had 'no native drama'.5 Bruce Mason said the prospective New Zealand playwright needed 'climate, soil and "the time for sowing"', but once the seed was sown, the problem was 'how to keep the plant alive'.6 Ronald Barker in 1962 wrote that 'most plays seen on the New Zealand stage are foreign, that is, written for a different country, people and theatre'.7 In one scene in The Tree the characters rehearse J. M. Barrie's 1901 play Quality Street for their regional theatre production, oblivious to the incongruity of performing the play on a New Zealand back porch. Theatre historian John Thomson wrote that 'home-produced plays in general met with indifference, distaste, and even hostility'.8 The 1966 entry on theatre in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand recorded that 'the story of New Zealand drama has not been an impressive one. There has been only sporadic production of local work and no body of dramatic writing of any consequence'.9 While it is true that there was no body of dramatic writing, a re-evaluation of this period sees the skeleton being formed of which The Tree should be recognised as a substantial component.

An important aspect of New Zealand identity developed in The Tree is the pull to leave for overseas travel and opportunities. The Tree opens on the back porch of the Willis family home in a 'New Zealand town', outside of Auckland, circa 1957 (Act Two takes place as a flashback to the 1940s, 15 years prior). The play revolves around the Willis family grouping of ageing father Herbert, and, in a Chekhovian nod, three sisters: Lucy and Daisy who still live with their father, and black sheep Hilda who left fifteen years earlier, aged nineteen, to travel overseas. New Zealander Alice Kemp (taking Alice Fraser as her stage name) played Lucy in the Rapier Players production. Kemp's biography finds echoes in the play: step-granddaughter of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, she left New Zealand for London in 1934 aged sixteen, trained at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and returned to Wellington in 1977. …

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