Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.23
Harry Love, Hūrai. Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2011. Pp. 71. ISBN 9781877577529. $19.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Simon Perris, Victoria University of Wellington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Robert Frost once asked, ‘You can’t be universal without being provincial, can you?’ Harry Love would presumably agree: Hūrai, an original play ‘hung’ on Euripides’ Bakkhai as though on a ‘hanger’ (p. 10), is avowedly universal yet resolutely provincial. It dramatizes a violent intercultural encounter between missionaries and indigenous Maori in nineteenth-century New Zealand, based partly on the story of Papahurihia, a Maori prophet. For a fifth choral ode Love substitutes a haka (a Maori dance, often but not exclusively a male victory dance). The play as a whole assumes some familiarity with Maori culture and language, and with New Zealand colonial history. The reception of tragedy could not be more provincial than this.
Thomas Keene, a parson, leads a mission somewhere in New Zealand; the introduction to the play implies the far north of the country in the 1830s. Keene is assisted by his wife, Agnes; a lay missionary, Alexander Williams; and a young Maori boy, Pita. Into this setting comes Papa, a Maori prophet whose followers call themselves Hurai (‘Jews’). Papa, also known as Te Atua Wera (‘the fiery god’), preaches a syncretism of Old Testament and Maori elements. This syncretism, various parallels to which may be found in New Zealand history, is directly opposed to the Christianity of Keene et al. Papa draws the locals away from Keene’s mission, eventually causing Agnes herself to join the Maori women. Papa then persuades Keene to go alone to the Maori settlement to reclaim her. In a stand-off narrated by Alexander, Keene is killed by an axe blow to the head. When Agnes eventually returns, Williams brings her to her senses. She learns that she may even have feasted on Keene’s flesh. Papa arrives and speaks his final dispensation to a distraught Agnes and Williams.
This is not the first New Zealand response to Bakkhai: James K. Baxter’s 1968 play Mr O’Dwyer’s Dancing Party used Euripides to address bourgeois sexual revolution.1 Nevertheless, we have long been due a post- colonially-inflected New Zealand adaptation of a Greek tragedy. I thought Medeia the most likely candidate, given its amenability to (re)interpretation via gender, violence, and race relations. Still, I am not in the least surprised by Hūrai. Bakkhai has always attracted translators, playwrights, and directors from the late 1950s on. And as I see it, the touchstone for Hūrai is not Schechner but Soyinka, notwithstanding Love’s mild disparagement of The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite in the introduction to this volume (p. 11). 2
This is a text for – from? of? – performance. The back-cover blurb describes Love as a playwright, director, and actor, and Honorary Fellow in the Department of Classics at the University of Otago (in Dunedin, New Zealand). The rights are administered by Playmarket, a New Zealand script licensing agency. Published in 2011, the play was first performed in Dunedin in 2009; I saw it recently in Wellington. Generally speaking, then, this is ostensibly a stand- alone piece of theatre. The Euripidean intertext, though inarguable and often heavy-handed, is by no means necessary to enjoy the play. Hūrai enacts an ideological conflict from almost two centuries ago, which resonates with a post-9/11 milieu of fundamentalists, fakirs, and violent partisans.
Nevertheless, what struck me most, in the audience, was the fidelity – excuse that loaded term – with which Hūrai reproduces the structure of its classical source. Each of the dramatis personae is a cipher for one or more characters in Bakkhai, what Love’s introduction calls ‘approximate parallels’ (p. 10). Papa ≈ Dionysos. Keene ≈ Pentheus. Agnes ≈ Agaue. Williams ≈ Teiresias, Kadmos, and the second reporter. Pita ≈ the first reporter. One might even take these as speaking names: pure Agnes, keen Keene, willing Williams. Moreover, Hūrai opens with a soliloquy from Papa, denoted in the stage directions as the ‘Prologue’. Then the chorus (!) enter with an extended address to Papa. Six sections of dialogue follow, separated by five choral interludes. Papa reappears at the end, terrible in his vengeance. This is precisely the structure of Euripides’ Bakkhai.
‘More important, then, than Euripides’ play is the dramaturgy of Greek tragedy’ (p. 11). So claims Love, and in one sense he is right about his own play. But his Aristotelian model of tragic form (pp. 11–14) leaves much to be desired. More generally, his model of tragedy privileges emotion. ‘Greek tragedy enacts the emotional lives of individuals who come up against their world’ (p. 8). In light of my own work, I find more attractive the claim that Bakkhai juxtaposes different emotional responses to suffering (p. 14):3 ‘The significant point is that tragedy of this kind doesn’t merely generate emotion – it is not simply emotive – but offers perspectives on emotions’ (p. 12). All told, Love focuses on tragedy in general as a character-driven, formalist dramatic genre concerned with emotional crisis arising from ideological conflict. Thus he attempts to distance himself and his work somewhat from Bakkhai by treating it as an example of dramatic form. ‘[I]f Bacchae is a model for Hūrai, it is not a key’ (p. 14).
Still, some of the most successful elements of Hūrai play (with, against) Euripides, mobilizing the pleasure of recognition and the shock of the new. Adaptation involves the interplay of similarity and difference,4 and this certainly holds true for me as a spectator and reader of this play. Firstly, the characters are both like and unlike the ‘approximate parallels’ from Bakkhai. Agnes in particular represents a significant expansion of Euripides’ Agaue, appearing onstage in every act. As Love observes, ‘She thus plays a role in the characterization and motivation of Keene that has no parallel in Bacchae’ (p. 11). This (re)imagining of the offstage Agaue succeeds within Love’s emotion-centered model, allowing further dramatization of Papa’s Dionysiac magnetism and its affective potential. ‘The forest was never empty,’ she says to Williams. ‘There were / Others. I don’t know how many. Voices, / I could hear voices, like flickering light, / A whirring that seemed almost visible, / And everything moved, and moved, and / Shifting fragments of light and dark / Pour through your fingers like sand, / And you don’t know if it’s you / Or the trees that spin’ (pp. 29–30).
Secondly, the climax of Hūrai makes good use of its source, particularly the tragi-comic potential thereof, in the report narrative delivered by Williams: ‘Then out of nowhere, Thomas appeared. He / Looked like a fool, some kind of a holy fool. / He approached the women. They laughed / And a couple quietly hurried his wife away, / Out of sight. He stood helpless before their laughter’ (p. 61). Love sticks to the basic, and proven, formula: the narrative of the death, reported to a triumphant chorus, effects a stark change in tone. ‘He [an unnamed Maori man] stamped his foot, protruded his tongue [in the whetero, a traditional expression of aggression] and / Uttered a sharp, guttural cry before snatching the / Axe and, to Thomas’s uncomprehending surprise, / Smashing his skull like the head of a porcelain / Doll’ (p. 62).
Thirdly, the chorus is, as often, a ‘key’ of sorts to this particular reception of tragedy. Love conflates Euripides’ onstage Eastern bacchants and offstage Theban bacchants into a group of Maori chorus members whose loyalties, at least to begin with, are split. Like Agnes, the chorus forms the ground on which Keene and Papa stage their ideological conflict. Yet the chorus is also the basis for a clash (or interaction, if you prefer) between performance cultures. Crucially, this chorus is Maori. Not only are its members characterized as Maori, but their choral performances incorporate Maori elements: te reo Maori (Maori language), waiata (songs), and haka. I am reminded of Molora, Yael Farber’s South African adaptation of the Oresteia, with its utterly successful chorus of Xhosa women. Love’s idea of the chorus, too, is one of the successes of this play. At the beginning of his introduction, Love asks, ‘When cultures clash, or, more specifically, one religion lurches into the space occupied by another, what exactly is happening?’ (p. 8). Yet Hūrai also asks what exactly is happening when Maori performance culture, as constructed by a scripted drama in the European tradition, lurches into the space occupied by Greek tragedy. Papa and Keene embody an interaction between Maori and Pakeha ideology; the chorus embodies an interaction between Maori and Greek chorality. Indeed, a recent study of James K. Baxter and the classics demonstrates that scholarly concentration on the Christian and Maori facets of his oeuvre has obfuscated his engagement with classical material.5 Likewise, Love sees a colonial-era conflict between Christianity and Maoridom, emblematic of ideological conflict more generally, as being what his play is really about. In response, I would suggest that what drives Hūrai, as with Baxter, is a triangulation between three strands of historical and cultural tradition: Maori, Christian, and classical.
Unlike Baxter, Love is no poet, at least not on the evidence presented here. The production I saw certainly treated the dialogue as prose, despite being typeset as though this were a verse drama. One example, from Pita’s report- narrative: ‘I heard them first, before I saw them. / I hid in the ferns at the edge of a / Clearing – I can’t, you know Mr / Keene, just walk into the village; / I don’t belong there. But when I / Heard them I covered myself in the / Leaves and lay, still, like te mokomoko, / The skink, and watched’ (p. 50). The choruses are more redolent of H.D.’s translation: ‘That you brought the god / With you, within you. / And the earth is turned over / Papa /And the story you tell / Papa / The story you foretell / Papa / Brings heaven down upon us’ (pp. 21–2).
So: Hūrai is not a text to which I will return for its sound or savor qua poetic drama. It is, however, a readable, speakable, convincing script; John Bowen’s The Disorderly Women (London, 1969) comes to mind as a reasonable analogue. I can imagine Hūrai travelling well overseas in the hands of a New Zealand company, much as Euripidean tragedy, for all its provinciality, travelled well outside Attica. Indeed, though recent attention has been paid to the (post)colonial contexts of reception, Oceania has missed out,6 and Hūrai extends a little-studied corner of classical reception studies. In so doing, it illustrates once more the continuing global interest, even after the (short) twentieth century, in Bakkhai and its dramatization of intercultural violence.
1. In Baxter’s Collected Plays, ed. H. McNaughton (Auckland, 1982).
2. R. Schechner, ed., Dionysus in 69 (New York, 1970). W. Soyinka, The Bacchae of Euripides: A Communion Rite (London and New York, 1973).
3. S. Perris, ‘Perspectives on Violence in Euripides’ Bacchae,’ Mnemosyne 64 (2011): 37–57.
4. E.g., L. Hutcheon, A Theory of Adaptation (Abingdon and New York, 2006) and J. Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (Abingdon and New York, 2006).
5. G. Miles, J. Davidson, and P. Millar, The Snake-Haired Muse: James K. Baxter and Classical Myth (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011). See also S. Harrison, ‘Catullus in New Zealand: Baxter and Stead’, in S. Harrison, ed., Living Classics: Greece and Rome in Contemporary Poetry in English (Oxford, 2009).
6. E.g., B. Goff, ed., Classics and Colonialism (London, 2005) and L. Hardwick and C. Gillespie, eds, Classics in Post-Colonial Worlds (Oxford, 2007).