Dean Parker Tribute

In October 2019, Dean gave the Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture at the National Library in Wellington. In it he said:

“I think writing began for me when I went and saw the movie of John Osborne’s stage play Look Back in Anger in Napier and I thought this sort of shouty sulking done by others was ultra-cool and fitted my pretensions. After that writing became a place to hide while I avoided a career. Then, like a false prophet it seemed to promise an income. This period of illusion began a few years after I returned to New Zealand from London. In 1974 I had my first play staged, two years before Roger’s [his emphasis].

“It was a small late-night piece at Downstage directed by Jean Betts. At a climactic moment of the play I asked for a great banner with an image of Lenin to be dropped from the flies. Fortunately the director chose to ignore this…”

In 1974 when I was working as a director and dogsbody at the fledgling Centrepoint Theatre in Palmerston North, I saw the original production of that first play of Dean’s. It was called Smack, and had been brought from Wellington by Downstage Theatre. The production was charged and held the late night audience in the tiny 90 seat theatre in thrall of its energy.

In his review, Bruce Mason called it “a major breakthrough in New Zealand drama” and praised it’s authentic theatrical fury and passion. He went on to say “Mr Parker has the best ear for New Zealand dialogue I have come across. He allows his chief character, Quinn, vast monologues of raging obscenity and eloquence, some bitter and tormented, some hilarious. There is a wild poetry in much of it and he writes marvellously rhythmical speeches. The effect is enveloping, gripping and stunning.” 

Although there was a gap of several years after his first couple of plays, Dean seemed unstoppable and continued writing for theatre for close to five decades completing many plays that had an impact, but which were also shamefully ignored by producers.

He said “I've read of a question put to writers have they ever seen a play that made them change their minds. I thought, have I ? – and I couldn't think of one, but - I have written a couple that made me change my mind. And that’s one of the pleasures of writing, you’re never quite sure where the keyboard beneath your fingertips is going to lead you. I’m aware that there’s a political dimension to our lives and these lives are shaped by government policies and economic orthodoxies which can all be changed by political action.

“But, I don’t write political pamphlets disguised as stage plays. I happen to have written enough political pamphlets in my life to know the difference between them and a stage play. And a political pamphlet is one issue, no characters, a simplified argument, and unless someone can supply a good cartoon, very little entertainment. A stage play is the opposite, particularly when it comes to entertainment because people are paying for a show and if you give them a pamphlet they feel rightfully they’ve been mugged.”

“Plays don’t cause revolution – it’s the other way round,” he said.

His plays provoke and entertain audiences while examining New Zealand's political history and the political perspective of individuals. He wrote plays set on a factory shop floor, within the National Party caucus, war-ravaged Baghdad, the New Zealand Legation in Moscow, and the story of Robert Muldoon.

He could be sacred or profane, often in the same play, angry, frustrated, filled with provocations but he could also be appreciative and unexpected in his taste, as well as persistent in his obsession with the Cambridge spies. All of his focus was towards a better place for our theatre in the hearts of the population. Dean’s plays often arrived with erudite informative introductions which were almost as long as the play.

He had an enormous love of theatre, and was a champion for writers of all stripes, especially emerging playwrights. But he was also a fierce critic of theatre managements. In the introduction to Midnight in Moscow he takes time to berate the reception of his scripts by theatres and doesn’t hold back.

He said: “A half decent play about New Zealand is better by far than a good Chekhov or a radical Ibsen. By far better for the theatre, better for the audience, better for the writer, better for the box office. I say better for the box office because if it’s merely entertainment the theatre is selling, which seems increasingly the norm, there are other more comfortable and far cheaper ways for an audience to experience a perfect but meaningless couple of hours.”

Dean indisputably loved the theatre but a lack of productions often disillusioned him, or theatre writing would take a back seat to the income gained from the screen. He said “I soon realised that writing is not actually a very good means of earning a living but I persevered with it and as the years went by it became a comforting habit like a priest reading his breviary.”

But he completed fifty-eight plays that are in our catalogue at Playmarket. Often he would turn his own screenplays that had never been filmed into playscripts; and he loved adapting novels or non-fiction books. Close to half of his works are adaptations and he even wrote versions of other playwright’s plays: including Gorki’s Enemies, Kafka’s The Trial, and Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl.

He wrote a raft of excellent radio plays from early in his career right up to the time that Radio New Zealand stopped commissioning drama. When they were still broadcasting repeats of his plays decades later, he rued that, with the Writer’s Guild, he had successfully negotiated higher fees by giving away longer broadcast rights.

Years after my first experience of Dean’s work, he created an adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations for Tantrum, a company I founded with a team of wonderful actors in the late ‘80s. Dean created a skilled distillation of the novel which lovingly highlighted the social conscience of the story. Dean was terrific to work with on it and it was a thrill to see him glow at its realisation. 

I next worked with Dean when I directed the premiere of Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, a magnificent play and a deeply personal story for Dean that frustratingly didn’t find its audience. Dean had wanted the audience to experience the full play and in rehearsals deferred some inevitable cuts. After opening night we heavily trimmed his script together and such was the respect newspaper critics held for Dean’s work that unprecedentedly two of the most-read local critics returned to review the production a second time and a few days later published revised and much more favourable reviews. 

Midnight in Moscow is his most successful stage play, which The Press reviewer Alan Scott called "entertaining and thought-provoking" and "one of his best to date". It had a tumultuous start in its premiere at The Court Theatre.

As Roger Hall puts it: “There was some debate as to whether Dean was an unlucky playwright, or whether his plays inflicted bad luck on theatres. The run of his Midnight in Moscow at Court Theatre, Christchurch, came to an abrupt halt on 22 February 2011 when the earthquake brought the house down. A season of the same play performed by Auckland Theatre Company was halted by fire, and had to be transferred… his adaptation of Macbeth was to [due to go into production] …at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre, [when] the Board permanently closed the theatre. Had his latest work at Circa gone on a bit longer, he might well have been blamed for Covid-19.”

Dean revealed something of his past in the Rona Bailey Lecture he gave and I think his most personal play was called Wonderful.

Wonderful, so brilliantly displays the influence of his exposure to musical theatre through his mother and entertainingly ties this in with how an individual must adhere to their principles in order to spiritually survive – which is at the heart of all of Dean’s work. This is the most recent play of his to premiere and will be seen at The Basement, here in Auckland, 22-26 June this year.

But there are many plays still to be staged - including two adaptations that Dean completed mere days before he died.

In my role as director of Playmarket I regularly received multiple emails a day from Dean, not to mention new plays arriving frequently, dense with New Zealand history and stirring politics.

His play Greek Fire, set in Cairo during World War II had John Mulgan at its centre. Dean felt a kinship with Mulgan and wrote an adaptation of Man Alone.

His one venture into prose fiction was to write a sequel to Man Alone, which he named after the main character, Johnson. Dean almost delighted in saying it sold about six copies. He had originally intended to call the novel Hooray Fuck – the title he saved for a later 378 page epic stage play which comprises his earlier unstaged Man Alone adaptation brought together with a dramatisation of his novel; he provided the following, in front of the script under the title of Instructions:

'Total running time 10hrs uninterrupted. Could be run in its entirety over a 12-hour period, 8pm to 8am, with a break at midnight; thus the audience enters the theatre as night falls and emerges into a new day, transformed. Or it could be two five-hour nights, parts 1-2-3-4, then parts 5-6-7. Or it could be a three-nighter, of parts 1-2-3, then parts 4-5, then parts 6-7. Or it could be one 90-minute part a night for a week.’

Dean always acknowledged the talents of other playwrights. In the time at Playmarket that I worked alongside Jean Betts, who had directed that first play of Dean’s, there was regular sparring between them, over all kinds of issues, but each had a deep admiration of the others’ work.

Dean had a strong relationship with Roger Hall and was one of the great champions of Tom Sainsbury. There are many surviving emails between Jean and Dean on the topic of Tom’s resourcefulness in getting his plays on stage and their admiration of the prolific output of Tom.

“BATS and the Basement are the lifeblood of theatre”, he said “the writers standard ten per cent of the box means you get 5/8 of 1/3 of bugger-all but what you want to say you get out there and it's a lot easier to get a play on at these venues, easier in Wellington than Auckland I might add, and you can tailor shows for these small stages and make your living elsewhere selling drugs.”

Dean was particularly grateful for independent practitioners such as David Lawrence, Conrad Newport and Jonty Hendry who championed his writing and mounted independent productions of his work.

In recent years he produced readings of his own work and celebrations of James Joyce who he loved. For the Bloomsday events Dean gathered some of the best actors around and some of the most committed Joyce fans. The events included his friends Lynn Lorkin and the Jews Brothers band.

After Dean’s death, former Playmarket Director, Mark Amery wrote: “While it often seemed the throngs of the meek were inheriting our small culture, in article after article, play after play Dean argued for theatre as a public forum for difficult conversation, laced with a devilish wit, about our history and our political present. From the Muldoon of Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Don Brash in his adaptation of The Hollow Men to underdog Tommy Morehu, The Man That Lovelock Couldn’t Beat, Parker wasn’t afraid to bring the unpopular and the underrepresented to popular light. He saw that as an artist’s duty, and he did it unceasingly. Might we have many, many more of him.” 

Dean was a force of nature whose writing was under-appreciated but much loved by those of us who had the privilege of working on it. His plays were well received by committed theatregoers who loved meat in their plays, though sometimes audiences left the auditorium.

Dean was the inaugural winner in 2012 of the Playmarket Award given to a playwright for significant artistic contribution to theatre in New Zealand and was named an Arts Laureate by the Arts Foundation in 2013. This year Playmarket dedicated a playwriting prize in Dean’s name: The Dean Parker Adaptation or Non-Fiction Award and I feel confident that he would be proud the inaugural winner was The Haka Party Incident currently showing at Auckland Theatre Company.

I feel privileged to have worked with him, and in later years be his agent, and I was more than proud to present him with the inaugural Playmarket Award. I think he spent a large proportion of the prize that afternoon generously shouting drinks for all of those present.

In closing I quote Dean’s Rona Bailey lecture again:

“What is it theatre can do? It can be a way in which we express human solidarity, even if that solidarity consists at times in the writer leaping up on stage at curtain call to try to shield the cast from the rotten vegetables being thrown from the audience. There's more of a communal experience than the movies and more of a creative adventure than television. It can convince you for a night that to be alive is a gift; it can help you forget about Donald Trump; it can open your mind to arguments different to those you read in the papers or see on TV; for these are the days of miracle and wonder, when all that is solid melts into PR; when we can't trust words because we don't know who's mouths they’ve been in; it should be our alternative Parliament, an honest place of debate; a platform like that vital to the Greeks of old; we need to have a conversation about that.”

Murray Lynch 2021