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Speech

Bruce Mason Theatre and Conference Centre

Issue date: 
Monday, 18 November 1996
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Your Worship and Mrs Gair, Doctor Diana Mason, Mr Clews, Mr Dowson, ladies and gentlemen.

- Nga hau e wha

Nga iwi e tau nei
Tena koutou

People from the four points of the compass

Everyone gathered here
Greetings to you.

- Tena tatou katoa

E whai nei
Nga taonga o nga tipuna

Greetings to us all

Who seek
The legacies of those who came before us.

I greatly appreciate the twofold opportunity given me tonight; to open this magnificent theatre and conference centre; and to pay tribute to the outstanding New Zealander after whom it is named.

My pleasure at being here, Mr Mayor, is heightened by the fact that Bruce Mason, you and I, had two things in common. We all attended Wellington College; and we all, in our different ways, were dramatists. Politicians, lawyers, even judges, are essentially performers, writing their own scripts when they can, but always playing a part. I don't know about you, Mr Mayor, but now I have to play it dead straight.

I suppose it's as a dramatist that Bruce Mason is best known. The Pohutukawa Tree, The Blood of the Lamb, and The End of the Golden Weather, were but three of the works that brought him to the forefront of New Zealand theatre.

He once wrote a splendid letter to the editor of the Herald, which, it seems, was not published. It read:

"Sir,

May I thank your critic for his encouraging and perceptive review of my performance in The End of the Golden Weather. I am glad to know that I am no Dylan Thomas; I can place this useful intelligence beside that of the two southern critics who said that I was no Emlyn Williams, and the one who deplored that I was no Ruth Draper. May I add to the list, for your critic's information: I am no Dickens, no Oscar Wilde, and no Mark Twain, either. I am etc."

No, he was uniquely himself, a virtual Renaissance Man of the Antipodes, if that's possible. For his plays and his acting were simply expressions of a much broader talent still, a talent that he devoted passionately to the arts, and above all to the theatre; to its encouragement and its growth, and very importantly, to its acceptance and appreciation by what was at first largely and indifferent, rather philistine community.

By the end of his all-too-short life in 1982, theatre had become well-established in New Zealand, but it remained, to use his own words, "a damnably chancy business," and so it is still. For although the arts, be they performing or graphic, have moved up the scale, they are still very far from their rightful place on the list of our national priorities.

And so one wonders what he would have said if he'd known then, that such a superb theatre as this would one day have his name on it. And expletive of incredulity, probably. On the other hand, it might not have surprised him at all. For he always maintained that the script - the written words that prompted the action - was more important than practically anything else. And it can fairly be said that in an indirect way, his script has resulted in this theatre.

Another of his conclusions was that the theatre being a profession, everyone involved in it had professional responsibilities, just as practitioners in medicine or engineering or law. Drama is a noble art, as well as a common entertainment. Also, he argued, theatre is necessary, if you want to live in a society that can truly be called civilised.

But to return to his belief that in the theatre, the text is paramount. It is important that the audience not be "fussed ... away from the primary purpose," he wrote in 1955, which is "the communication of ideas and the generation of feeling through a formal pattern of speech." Soon afterward, he wrote that "words must still be considered constitutional monarchs if no longer absolute heads of state ... scenery and lighting, to say nothing of the invisible producer and stage manager, have been promoted to be peers of this realm, but no higher."

However, in exchange for their royal status, Mason told playwrights that their responsibility was to "provide themes that stir the roots of their audiences [towards] spiritual growth." Again, "it is the playwright's and the actor's ABC to hold his audience's attention, to entertain them. It is the first step, not the second, third or last ... But to use the word 'entertaining' as being synonymous with amusing, cheerful at all costs, is simply a misuse. Is life trivial? Is comedy? Tragedy? It is the dramatist's first duty to entertain; his second, third and last to show us what we are and, if so persuaded, what we may be."

At best, theatre occurs when plays "happen" to people; when for the duration of the performance, the play's words turn into real life: there is empathetic magic in people becoming, even briefly, someone else. This transfiguration is only, ever, a brief one, but it is the source of drama's spiritual and social value. It is what he called the "ritual magic," that is inherent in live theatre.

And it is this magic that means there can never be a substitute for live dramatic performance.

And so the provision of the buildings and facilities, that enable us all to share in this kind of experience should be a high priority. And Bruce Mason would, I am sure, be happy indeed that the North Shore community has understood this. For much of his life, he may have felt his words went largely unheeded. But now, they have certainly been acknowledged, in concrete and glass, in this multi-purpose building, which will serve not only as a place for that "ritual magic," but also can be put to as many different uses as its physical dimensions can contain. It is the realisation of years of effort; it is a magnificent asset for this, the country's fourth city. I congratulate all those whose vision and hard work have brought it about.

It is a fine thing to have named it after this man who spent his boyhood here, in Takapuna, who gave so much to the development of our national culture, who so greatly loved the beach just down the road, where he inhabited "that territory of the heart we call childhood"; and where his ashes were mingled with the sand and sea.

Now that the planners and builders have done their work, it is over to the performers to make the greater part of his dream come true. Pygmalion carved only a statue. The marble then had to be brought to life.

"Break a leg," is a traditional good luck wish to those who venture upon the stage. So may many legs be broken here, and for very many years.

I am honoured to declare the Bruce Mason Centre officially open.

 

Last updated: 
Monday, 18 November 1996

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