[Paul Janman, Ian Powell, and I are holding an exhibition about the Great South Road - or, as we increasingly call it, Ghost South Road - in the middle of this year, an exhibition which will include panel discussions and theatrical performances as well as art. Paul has set up a facebook group for the actors rehearsing for the exhibition; I left this message there last week.]
I commented here recently about theatrical performances that took place during the Waikato War. But there was an intriguing play that was performed for the first time at the beginning of the 1870s, and which presented, in a very dubious way, one of the most famous parts of the New Zealand Wars - the death of Gustavus Von Tempsky, the brilliant and brutal commander of the Forest Rangers, the colonial army's counter-insurgency unit, during the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu in Taranaki.
Launcelot Booth was a Durham-born immigrant to the antipodes who became involved with Auckland's fledgling theatre scene soon after arriving in the city in 1870. In February 1871 a review of Booth's play Crime in the Clouds appeared in both the New Zealand Herald and the Daily Southern Cross. The anonymous reviewer explained that the play had attracted a large audience to Auckland's Theatre Royal. The reviewer praised Crime in the Clouds for 'providing some very good scenery', and was particularly impressed by the 'view of Fort Britomart and the North Shore'.
Later in the 1870s Booth would bring Crime in the Clouds to Christchurch, and a newspaper report suggests that in 1898, decades after he had left New Zealand for Australia, he was performing the play in Sydney.
The reviewer for the New Zealand Herald and the Daily Southern Cross promised to provide a 'synopsis' of Booth's play in a later article, but never obliged. His review does give us a rough idea of how the play unfolded. All but one of the play's acts were set in England. In the first act a passenger in a balloon is murdered high above Buckinghamshire; in the third act the action moved to Taranaki, and Booth portrayed the death of Von Tempsky, who was shot while hacking furiously at the undergrowth of the Taranaki bush during the rout of his men by the army of Titokowaru. Booth's play featured 'real Maoris' and a 'real war dance'.
Crime in the Clouds seems never to have been published. In 1888, though, the Hawkes Bay Herald published a memoir by someone named JF Graham, who had helped to run a theatre troupe in 1870s Christchurch. Graham's reminiscences are quite well written, if you can forgive his casual racism and the orotund prose style that was common in the nineteenth century, and they give a good deal of information about Crime in the Clouds. Graham explains how he and his colleagues created a 'large transparency' for Booth, and how they tried to simulate the flight of a balloon against it.
If Graham's memoir is to be believed, then Booth's portrayal of the death of Von Tempsky was ludicrously and luridly inaccurate. Graham says that a group of 'aboriginals' from Banks Peninsula were persuaded to take part in the play in return for whisky, and that they were obliged to tie the actor playing Von Tempsky up, and dangle him over a fire, as if they were about to cook him. According to Graham, the 'aboriginals' got too enthusiastic, and Von Tempsky got burnt. Here's a link to Graham's text.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]