Campbell Smith (1925 – 2015) Obituary

With the death last year of Campbell Smith, Playmarket lost its oldest client. Campbell was also among the agency’s most long-established figures, having been represented by Playmarket since the early 1980s. He was one of only two clients (Roger Hall the other) to have been awarded an honorary doctorate (in 2012 by the University of Waikato) and also became in 2012 one of only two clients to have had a volume of his Collected Plays published (James K. Baxter the other).

Despite these achievements, it is likely that many in the New Zealand theatre industry would be unaware of his work. The reason for this is that he was probably the clearest example this country has had of a regional dramatist, whose extensive output of at least two dozen plays was relatively little seen outside of the area in which it was created and staged, the Waikato.

Campbell was born in Masterton, and after trade training studied art (particularly wood engraving and print making) at Canterbury University and in London, then taught in schools in London, Waihi and Hamilton. He co-founded the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum and in 1971 was appointed the Director of Art at the Waikato Art Museum (now absorbed in the Waikato Museum: Te Whare Taonga o Waikato).

A number of his plays take as their subject Waikato artists (Quite a Woman! about Ida Carey, This Green Land (2002) [a.k.a Waikato Green] about Margot Philips) or featured artists whose works were being exhibited at the Hamilton gallery (such as the two Francis Hodgkins pieces, Frances Hodgkins, Painter and Three Women, about Hodgkins, her mother and her sister).

He was drawn repeatedly to biographical subjects, usually New Zealanders, whose achievements, often in the face of adversity, he celebrated while not hesitating to present a rounded picture including flaws and foibles. His best-known full-length work is almost certainly Mabel, a portrait of the larger than life early Labour cabinet minister, Mabel Howard, which after it won the Playwrights Association of New Zealand (PANZ) full-length play competition in 1982 received three professional productions (at Circa, where Grant Tilly who had judged the competition directed the play, the Court Theatre and Theatre Corporate). Campbell donated some of the Mabel royalties to PANZ to be used as prize money for later competitions.

There were also professional workshops supported by Playmarket of Burning Sun (1984, about the missionary Thomas Kendall, highlighting the in-fighting among members of the Church Mission Society in the Bay of Islands) and Through Dark Clouds Shining (2005, about the pioneering World War One era safe sex campaigner, Ettie Rout).

The First World War was a subject to which Campbell was drawn repeatedly. His best-known one-act play is Soldier’s Song (1986), which was a PANZ competition prizewinner and was also highly commended in a competition organised by Leicestershire playwrights. It was staged at Parliament by the Tawa Community Theatre in 2000 at the time of the Third Reading of the Bill which pardoned New Zealanders shot by the British for desertion but who were in fact suffering from shell-shock or temporary mental derangement. Other pieces with a 1914-18 setting include Blighty, Sapper Moore-Jones (the Gallipoli artist) and The Miners of Waihi. The latter is also one of two plays (The Red and the Gold the other) which explore Waikato labour history

Not all his plays were historical. The best known of those with a then-contemporary New Zealand setting is Jubilee, his first stage play, which with its clear-eyed view of the sometimes destructive role of rugby in New Zealand society anticipates by a decade and a half Foreskin’s Lament. It was written for a playwriting competition organised by the long established Hamilton amateur society, Playbox Theatre, to mark the city’s centennial in 1964. However, the competition’s judge, Auckland University English Department professor, J. C. Reid, declined to award a prize, declaring that Jubilee ‘would do New Zealand theatre no good.’

Campbell also wrote for children (three plays centred on the character Kenny the Kiwi) and for Theatre in Education (The Fame Game, The Legends of Maui).

Playmarket holds copies of a number of uncollected plays. These include a full-length piece about pioneer Australian aviator, Charles Kingsford-Smith (Luck of the Game, PANZ full-length competition winner 1991), and Sunnybrae (1980), in which one of the devisers of the Welfare State is brought face to face in his retirement with unflattering representatives of the younger generation whose uncaring behaviour, the play contends, is the product of socialism. There is also a draft of a full-length work (Light from Coloured Windows, which won 3rd place in a 1999 PANZ competition). This play offers interesting comparisons with Bruce Mason’s The End of the Golden Weather with its Depression and World War Two setting. It is located in a New Zealand small town where innocence is progressively lost by an adolescent boy, his mother, and, by thematic extension, this country (as it experiences international warfare) and the world (with the dropping of the nuclear bomb). In Transit, with elements of the Absurd, is a one-act piece which won the PANZ competition in 1983. Magpies is his contribution to the two men on a park (here a cemetery) bench genre.

As a look through the Collected Plays (Steele Roberts Publishers, 2012) will quickly reveal, Campbell’s strongest plays deserve to be more widely known outside the Waikato and the range of subjects, well-developed leading roles and often substantial supporting casts commend them to consideration for production by larger amateur groups anywhere.

Alister McDonald