End of the Golden Weather by Bruce Mason
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $20. Pb, 93pp
Reviewed by Anna Smith
Discussing Carl Bland’s production of Te Po (2016), James Wenley notes how Bruce Mason is generally felt to be a dramaturg from the past, a man ‘with little bearing on how we make theatre now.’ And then Bland turns around and makes him one of the chief narrative drivers in his own play. Although Te Po has not yet come to Christchurch, I find it fascinating that despite Mason’s apparent fading from cultural memory, and despite the fact that End of the Golden Weather and The Pohutukawa Tree are no longer regularly studied in New Zealand secondary schools, his ghost owns a long shadow. Whether readers have met Mason through one of his solo shows or watched Ian Mune’s 1991 filmic interpretation of Golden Weather, or even come to him through Te Po, you only have to dip into VUW’s re-print of the four short prose pieces that make up the original play to be bowled over by Mason’s ear for dialogue, his fascination for people, and his supreme skill for word craft. And to remember all over again just what a great dramatist he was.
Obviously, like any artist, the man reflected his times. End of the Golden Weather originally had no Māori characters (although the 2011 production directed by Murray Lynch for the Auckland Theatre Company did cast several Maori playing a range of parts); while it exhumed the ubiquity of settler culture, it had less opportunity for challenging its mores than later writers – and a later Mason – did.
Still, reading any one of the four short prose works in this collection is enough to show why he shouldn’t be forgotten. ‘Christmas at Te Parenga’ is a favourite, with the childish hopes of the young boys too full of energy to succumb to guilt-inducing sermons the occasion for an evocation of a ‘glorious no-past, no-future: only the immaculate present, endlessly pouring its essence on us.’ (p. 53)
Of course there is a seeping awareness of the inevitable slide into adulthood and disillusionment. The narrator and his siblings put on a Christmas night concert that doesn’t quite come off thanks to a failure of nerve. Still, Mason generally keeps his touch light and it is only in other, older characters that his narrator catches glimpses of a different world. We meet Firpo, the ‘ageing guest artist’ (p. 73), a tragi-comic Made Man who sticks in our minds ‘like a piece of grit’ (p. 75) and a target for bullies and red-necks; the puffing Sergeant Robinson, purely a functionary presence on the beach until the night of the protest outside Te Parenga Council Buildings; and an assembly of elderly adults in togs who drape themselves coyly, shamelessly, over the sands.
It has been a decade since Victoria University Press published an edition of End of the Golden Weather. Timely then for a new one, and a ‘classic’ at that, complete with original cover illustration by Graham Percy.
Anna Smith lives in Lyttelton and writes critical reviews of art and literature, and short stories. She is currently working on her second novel.