Mahuki's last home
I visited Unitec last week to talk to a group of third-year students who are taking a course in Community Drama with the playwright and clown Pedro Ilgenfritz.
Pedro had given his students a series of essays about the nature of theatre by his fellow Brazilian Augusto Boal, and asked them to make these texts into short performances. "Boal took up where Brecht left off", the teacher explained, as we sat in Unitec's Long Black Cafe before his class convened. "Boal tried to dissolve the fourth wall of theatre - the barrier between audience and performers. He criticised classical and Shakespearean tragedy, because it creates a catharsis in its audiences, instead of asking those audiences to seek catharsis outside the theatre, in the real world. Boal invented newspaper theatre, by sending actors into poor communities in Brazil's big cities and getting them to perform the stories they heard there."
In the 1990s Pedro belonged to a theatre group which worked for Brazil's trade union movement. They toured the worksites and slums of cities like Rio De Janeiro, performing denunciations of the privatisation programme of Fernando Cardoso's neo-liberal government.
I have mixed feelings about Augusto Boal. I must confess to enjoying the way that, in many forms of art, maker and audience are separated. I love sitting in the dark chewing popcorn and letting a movie wash over me; I love lying on the couch, opening a novel, and letting John Updike or Don De Lillo entertain and instruct me.
And I don't think that art has to merge with life to become political. I agree with Herbert Marcuse that art can be subversive when it is radically unlike life. By showing us a world unlike our own, a painter like Magritte or a novelist like Herman Hesse can show us how our own world might be changed.
But there are other parts of Augusto Boal's creed which appeal to me. I might enjoy lazily consuming a movie, but I also enjoy arguing about the meaning of that movie afterwards over a beer. I'd never watch a movie alone, because that would mean missing out on the fun of arguing about it.
One of Boal's aims was to incorporate discussions about art directly into art. As we finished our coffees, Pedro told me about a play inspired by Boal in which the audience was encouraged to intervene. The play told the story of an impoverished black woman who worked as a cleaner in a luxury apartment populated by wealthy white Brazilians. A cleaner in the audience was soon on her feet, condemning the arrogance of the apartment's residents, and directing her counterpart in the play into a confrontation.
Unitec's drama studios sit on a ridge in the northeastern corner of the campus, close to the brick buildings of what was, for more than a century, the Avondale Mental Hospital. The studios' windows offer wide views across the south of the campus. A tree-lined creek and a rambling organic garden made the scene look pleasantly rustic, until I saw the low rooves and high wire fences between the gardens and the creek, and realised that they belonged to the Mason Clinic, a surviving fragment of the old mental hospital.
I sat in one of the spacious studios and watched Pedro's students perform a series of pieces inspired by Augusto Boal. One group of students simulated a banal edition of the television news, then staged a domestic dispute that drowned out its headlines; three female students negotiated the adoption of a teenage mother's child in surreal language; the members of another group read aloud a series of subtly varying newspaper accounts of the same industrial dispute between garbage cleaners and the Auckland City Council.
Pedro has instructed his students to go into the hinterlands of Auckland, collect stories there, and turn those stories into performances. When he asked me to talk about the sociology and history of Auckland, and about routes that adventurous anti-travellers might possibly take through the city and its past, I pointed out that both Unitec and the nearby suburb of Point Chevalier have histories worth exploring. I talked about the large Chinese gardens which once existed in Point Cheavlier, about the suburb's working class history and the state houses that were built there by the first Labour government, and about Kendrick Smithyman's childhood and adolescence in the suburb back in the '30s and '40s.
I couldn't help thinking, as well, about the generations of remarkable men and women who were confined in Avondale hospital. Robin Hyde was an inmate in the 1930s; her fellow writer Maurice Duggan was treated for alcoholism in the late 1960s.
Hyde and Duggan both eventually left Avondale, but for the King Country prophet Mahuki there was no way out of the institution.
I told Pedro's students about the path-breaking study of Mahuki that Mark Derby published in the recent Oceania issue of the literary journal brief. Derby describes how Mahuki's persistent opposition to Pakeha encroachment on the King Country in the 1880s and '90s saw him branded as a 'madman', and eventually consigned to Avondale. In an interview reproduced on this blog several months ago, Derby compared Mahuki to the dissidents who were imprisoned in the mental hospitals of the Soviet Union.
Here is the part of Mark Derby's essay which describes Mahuki's last years:
In October 1897 he again rode into Te Kuiti at the head of a group of 30 followers, now known as his 'angels'. Using a tomahawk, Mahuki broke the windows of Green and Colebrook’s general store and tried to set fire to it. The store’s co-owner, Percy Colebrook, and his friends armed themselves with fence-posts, shovels and axes to resist the raiders and Colebrook knocked Mahuki unconscious.
The aging prophet appeared in court with two black eyes, but continued to display Te Whiti’s plume of white feathers in his hat. Once again he declined any legal representation and conducted his own defence on religious principles. He invoked the spirit of Te Whiti as his only witness and objected to the all-European jury, saying, ‘I know none of these pakehas.’ He declared that he had gone to Te Kuiti, ‘for the purpose of overturning the tables of the money changers for the land purchasers.’
These were genuine grounds for protest since the town’s storekeepers were still involved in forcing sales of large acreages of Maori land. Judge Connolly responded by describing Mahuki as a dangerous man, ‘capable of almost any act of violence’, and sentenced him to seven years’ hard labour.
Before passing this exceptionally severe sentence, the judge asked for evidence of the old chief ’s mental health. Ever since his first arrest in the 1870s, Mahuki had been routinely described in press reports as a ‘lunatic’, a ‘madman’, and a ‘fanatical fool’ (terms also applied to Te Whiti and other opponents of state coercion, including many union leaders). By 1897 Mahuki’s reputation as a madman was practically unquestioned so the judge may have been surprised when his jailer, who had spent the previous five weeks observing Mahuki, replied that he was perfectly sane. He was committed to Mt Eden Prison but 18 months into his sentence, in April 1899, he was transferred to Avondale Mental Hospital.
This news must have confirmed in the minds of the public that Mahuki’s actions and utterances were prompted by mental instability rather than principle and today he is generally remembered, if at all, as a religious fanatic. It is instructive, therefore, to consider his final medical records. On his admission to the mental hospital, the head warder at Mt Eden reported that Mahuki masturbated, an activity no longer believed to cause or necessarily to indicate mental illness, and that he ‘cries out to spirits and makes great disturbance at night’. This may simply indicate that he continued to practise his Pai Marire faith, which requires adherents to pray aloud at sunrise and sunset. In April the Avondale staff noted, ‘General condition good. He looks happy’. However by August Mahuki showed signs of advanced tuberculosis and his file reported, ‘Physically condition deteriorating. He is wasting rapidly’. On 18 August he was described as ‘Mentally depressed. Today he expressed a wish to go out in the yard to see the sun (“te ra” as he calls it), to which he frequently makes loud invocations.’ Mahuki died the following day of pulmonary tuberculosis.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]