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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Murray Edmond

Alan Brunton, 1946–2002: A Memoir

Photo of Alan Brunton

My first memory of Alan Brunton is being with him in the cast of the Hamilton Boys’ High School production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1963. He was in the 6th form and played the arch-cynic and conspirator Sebastian. I was a 4 foot 10 inch 13 year old third former and played a ‘Shape of the Island’ and a ‘Reaper’. The next year the school staged a grandiose version of Hamlet in which I was the under-study to Queen Gertrude and Alan played ‘The First Player’ or ‘The Player King,’ the one character, apart from Horatio, for whom Hamlet seems to be able to express uncomplicated warmth and affection: ‘You are welcome masters, welcome all – I am glad to see thee well – Welcome, good friends – O, my old friend!.’  The Player King puzzles Hamlet:

  Is it not monstrous that this player here
  But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
  Could force his soul so to his own conceit
  That from her working all his visage wanned,
  Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
  A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
  With forms to his conceit; and all for nothing?

Hamlet marvels at this seemingly baseless creativity and wonders what such a person would do ‘Had he the motive and the cue for passion/ That I have?’
      I was in Barcelona when Alan died, staying with a very old friend, Scott Thornbury, who had been a fellow Shape and Reaper in 1963. On the day after Alan’s death we went together to see Peter Brook’s chamber production of Hamlet (in French), which was part of the Barcelona Festival. Scott said to me that he had never forgotten Alan’s richly passionate performance as the Player King. By further coincidence I had seen The Tempest in London with my brother, Rod, two weeks before. My brother had been a year ahead of Alan at Hamilton Boys’ High School. He recalled precisely the ironic lean which Alan had adopted to play the character of Sebastian.
      Antonin Artaud played film roles in two of the major achievements of French silent cinema of the 1920s. In Abel Gance’s Napoleon he played the revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat and in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc he played the young priest who comforts Joan. In some economical way these two roles – revolutionary and priest – define the parentheses of Artaud’s achievements and obsessions. In some similar way, those early roles of Alan Brunton’s, for me, stand as similar markers.
      Alan could be as ferocious and mocking a critic as the sharp-tongued Sebastian. His 1976 review of the experimental New Zealand company Amamus’s production of their self-created work, Valita, is worthy of Sebastian:

A large number of recusant romantics are looted, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, T.S.Eliot, Janet Frame and Louis MacNeice (his autobiography). This plundering of minor writers is quite excusable, of course, but to do this seriously is a crime against nature... a monotonous recitation of some bits and pieces from a few slightly loony poets will not serve as redaction... A young actor clutching his testicles while wearing a swastika armband does not a revelation make, someone wandering around in a loincloth does not a symbol make. Not anymore. Things are just not that simple anymore. A valgus does not a Valita make.

This review was published in Spleen, a magazine titled with the appropriate humour, which Brunton had founded with Ian Wedde in 1975 and which produced eight issues through till 1977. Spleen was never a literary magazine; rather it attempted to amalgamate a topical journal of the fine and performing arts with a broadsheet of gossip and political comment.
      Spleen was the second magazine Brunton founded. The first, The Word is Freed (1969), was clearly literary and is better remembered in the history of things cultural than Spleen. Freed was an iconoclastic intervention into and disruption of the presumed course of New Zealand poetry:




     ( — Alan Brunton, Manifesto in Freed One)

Here is, in manifesto manifestation, the passionate voice of the Player King. Alan edited the first two issues of Freed before heading overseas. I have always thought I remembered he had handed me the beginnings of the copy for issue number three, though I think I remember him saying he had no recollection of this. Maybe he was right; maybe someone else handed me the partly assembled issue number three. Whatever, someone passed the stuff to me and so I became the editor of issues three and four (there were only five, Russell Haley editing the last with Bert Hingley).
      Freed spoke passionately, messianically, in visionary tones, of a new realm of poetry. I was extremely young (20) to be editing a magazine and I think now the magazine gave me more than I gave to it. Certainly one thing it gave me was this vision of Alan’s of what poetry might be and surely was not, at that time in New Zealand. He was extremely knowledgeable about times and places in the past when that vision had flourished: the St Petersburg and Moscow of the Russian Futurists, the London of T.S.Eliot, the Paris of Baudelaire (hence Spleen). It was Alan who introduced me to the unique Polish satirical and absurdist poet Konstanty Ildefons Galczynski. When the Welsh poet David Jones (In Parenthesis and Anathemata) died in the mid-1970s, it was Alan who went to the national radio programme and insisted on broadcasting an item commemorating his achievement.
      Physically and mentally Alan roamed the world, a lot of the time quite literally like the Player King as a travelling player, and, in doing so, he accumulated that fulsomely heterogeneous learning which reaches way beyond the constraints of the academy. His formal education had stopped with the completion of his Masters at Victoria University in Wellington, a degree which, if I remember rightly, included a thesis on the imagery of magic and folk wisdom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Sally Rodwell’s documentary film, Zucchini Roma, about the story of the theatre company Red Mole which she and Alan founded in 1974, he says: ‘To have a vision, you must leave home.’
      The voice of the Player King was to become a voice which inhabited the stage for nearly 27 years under the banner of Red Mole. Red Mole began in late 1974. From 1974 to 1978 Red Mole was based mostly in Wellington, latterly in Auckland. Sam Neill shot a documentary about the company for the National Film Unit, Red Mole on the Road, in 1978. Red Mole was particularly famous for turning one of Wellington’s best-known strip-joints into a theatrical venue for a cabaret reminiscent of 1920s Berlin. First Red Mole just played Sunday nights, but before too long they had taken over Carmen’s ‘Balcony’ on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, leaving the business of commercial stripping in their wake. From 1978 to 1984 Red Mole was resident in New York (except for a year back in New Zealand in 1980). From 1984 to 1986 Red Mole lived and worked in New Mexico, based mainly in Taos. In 1987 they were in Amsterdam and then, in 1988, after a decade away, Red Mole returned to New Zealand and set up shop in Island Bay, Wellington, a picturesque seaside suburb of Wellington on the wild southern coast of the North Island.
      Here the company, which by now had an essential core of Alan Brunton and Sally Rodwell with a large and varied number of regular contributors, remained for the next 15 years. As Alan wrote in 1984, in a letter to Peter Simpson discussing his early iconoclasm towards mainstream New Zealand poetry: ‘One wanted to be bigger but paradoxically, more local even.’  But from this local base, the Moles continued to travel with their visions. They were on their ‘Solstice Tour’ in Amsterdam and had just played their shows Grooves of Glory and Zarathustra Said at the annual Porsgrunn International Theatre Festival in Norway when Alan died:

You are now aware that there are mysteries. It will be your doom to travel the world as a group of barefoot players. You will take a vow of poverty. You will be called thin surrealists. You will be called amateur because you talk to the people and ignore elites. You will yearn for paradise but you will always be one mile from those gates. You will call yourselves Red Mole Enterprises. Forever you will kick walls. Sadly the group departed from that place and started to travel the world. That is what they do: travel the world and play. Once they went to the former Dutch colony of New Amsterdam now called New York. Always, they search for paradise. Lately, there is an urgency to that search. Large geopolitical forces are conspiring to destroy the possibility of paradise. However, there are also bus stops on the moon... For the time being, nothing is final. The only certainty is that walls remain to be kicked. And that oceans must be travelled. The only allegiance is to the bloodred sea of the south. Red Mole will always be down at the hall on Saturday night.

(Alan Brunton – publicity material for 1980 New Zealand tour by Red Mole.)

Alan’s scripts provided the main dramatic material for Red Mole’s shows. A collection of short plays, A Red Mole Sketchbook, was published by Victoria University Press in 1989.
      During the Island Bay years Alan started a small publishing venture, Bumper Books, which published his full-length play, Comrade Savage (first performed in 1989), about New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage. A collection of poems from Auckland University Press in 1991, Slow Passes 1978–88, brought together a substantial part of the poetry that he had written during the decade outside New Zealand. As the dates of these publications indicate, Brunton’s return to New Zealand was marked by a significant creative output. Yet a feeling of marginality persisted. The New Zealand theatre establishment, flimsy as it is, would not deign to take Red Mole seriously. I suspect Alan may have willingly returned the compliment.
      Yet he worked tirelessly in theatre beyond the Red Mole brand when time allowed. He co-directed a Samoan Romeo and Juliet for the Auckland University Summer Shakespeare. He directed Martyn Sanderson in Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination. He himself, while Writer-in-Residence at Canterbury University in 1998, performed a version of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape using video rather than reel-to-reel sound tape. On the poetry side his work was little reviewed. His 80 page poem Moonshine (Bumper Books, 1998), about New Zealand’s most illustrious intellectual son, the physicist Ernest Rutherford, has been steadily ignored. I notice in the front of my copy Alan wrote: ‘Murray – down we are but up we look.’  Even Shakespeare totally forgets the Players after they have done their bit to allay Hamlet’s doubts.
      When Michele Leggott and myself came to work with Alan on creating the anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960–1975 we all knew that we were setting out on a less than popular path. (Reviewed in Jacket 16 .) The narrative of New Zealand poetry established since 1975 in the academy and in the literary world pretended that the radical and experimental verse of that period did not exist. We realised we were undertaking an intervention in the received culture. Our first attempt to publish the anthology was through Bumper Books. Creative New Zealand, the national arts funding body, advised us that Bumper was too small to handle such a sizeable anthology, which runs to 350 pages. We took this advice and found Auckland University Press, the kind of publisher Creative New Zealand had suggested we find, who was willing and able to publish Big Smoke. But a second application to Creative New Zealand for funding received a flat refusal. ‘Why?’ we asked. ‘Because the book contains no new poems,’ we were told. This is a perennial problem with anthologies we thought, yet other anthologies have received some of the biggest literary publication grants.
      We asked again. ‘Ah, because the book is ‘Auckland-biased’!’  For a book in which all the poems were at least a quarter of a century old, geographical bias seemed more a result of historical circumstance than contemporary literary politics. Yet when, in some despair, we checked where the majority of the poems had been published, we found that Big Smoke was, in fact, Wellington-biased. There had been no basis for the reason given.
      At this point the feeling of marginality that Alan would mention from time to time became common to all three of the editors. It was clear that Big Smoke was not welcome. For this reason, and because it contains the record of a period and broadly based poetic movement for change, we three, as editors, felt very pleased that Auckland University Press kept faith, and that Big Smoke was finally published in 2000. Alan’s essay in Big Smoke, ‘1960–69: Restoring the Commune’ is an exemplary evocation of the 1960s.
      But does marginality in New Zealand culture matter when you go to New York and put on your own shows and Erika Munk praises your work in The Village Voice? One of the New York shows was The Excursion, which was performed at the Theatre for the New City in the Lower East Side for three weeks in 1982. Using masks and puppets the scenography and costuming evoked the Egypt of the beautiful flat images of hieroglyphs. And Brunton cut into the text passages from Flaubert’s account of his visit to Egypt as well as passages from The Egyptian Book of the Dead. In December 1981 a Declaration of Martial Law had been imposed on Poland. This too went into the text. Another of the parts of the text of that show is a poem which was published in Slow Passes, ‘Dialogue: A Man and His Soul.’  This poem, for two voices, remains an extradordinary evocation of the moment of dying:

A voice which only the oldest part of my body can understand
Intuition is small and indecisive
beside the crocodile on the staircase
It’s impossible to look at someone and talk
at the same time
When I walk I concentrate so much on breathing
I no longer know where I’m going
I cannot register changes in atmospheric pressure
I distinguish between neither glass nor ice entering my skin
I see the future city thrown into the skies
falling back as black dust
over a number of days

I had been going to meet with Alan and Sally in Warsaw on Monday 1 July for the street arts festival in that city and spend some days taking in the performances. On Wednesday 26th June I was in Barcelona and received an email from Michele Leggott that Alan had had a heart attack in Amsterdam. He died the next day.
      So I returned to Warsaw to take the news of his death to his hosts, Wojtek and Jola Krukowski. Jola had come to NZ in 1999 to perform at the Magdalena Women’s Theatre Festival in Wellington, which Sally had organised. Jola had landed in New Zealand in Auckland and I had hosted her beautiful solo performance at the University Drama Studio. I played a small cameo in that performance – quite a frightening one as the action consisted of carrying a large sheet of plate glass between our shoulders, held up by mutual force, then letting the glass drop and shatter (explode is a better description). In Wellington Alan had been the man who carried the glass with Jola. We had talked about it afterwards – the fear of the glass falling on us, of the glass entering our skin.
      Before leaving New Zealand on our separate journeys, Alan and I had exchanged emails to arrange meeting in Warsaw. His last email haunts me, especially its final sentence. ‘Capital, capital – we shall meet in the Polish capital then... Sally (unstoppable) is suggesting a New Zealand poetry&jazz evening in Warsaw to Jola – maybe even in some-one’s lounge. Meanwhile, we have your number, you have ours. See you in another country then...’

Photo, top, of Alan Brunton, wearing a jacket
Photo: Joe Bleakley, September 2001

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