As a young navy officer during WWII, Bruce Mason witnessed his first professional theatre productions overseas. Mason felt some of those on stage in New York were giving performances that “Wellington Repertory could equal and often had;” meanwhile professional theatre in London “was mainly marking time”.
Such experiences helped fuel Mason’s belief in a level playing field; a field where there was no reason why you shouldn’t send your latest script to Stanley Kubrick or JB Priestley; and where insights from New Zealand could surely be "as valid and viable as from anywhere else”. In the period that Mason began writing plays, such thoughts were arguably borderline revolutionary.
Mason spent much of his life as a generous, sometimes provocative judge of the Kiwi cultural zeitgeist. Aside from critiquing it, for many years Mason simply “was New Zealand Theatre” (as Roger Hall put it), creating and performing local plays at a time when sightings were rare.
Having been underwhelmed by English theatre, Mason set about showing he could do better. Mason sent his play to An Inspector Calls playwright JB Priestley, who liked the dialogue, but said no one would sit through the whole four hours.
Mason’s interest in theatre derived partly from his rugby-mad father, whose outbreaks of comic performance helped instill a belief in Mason junior that “the universe is in essence comic, divine play”. Mason’s mother was a war bride from Hertfordshire; growing up, he felt different, partly because his English-influenced accent stood out in the crowd. As the semi-autobiographical End of the Golden Weather reveals, Mason began performing as a child in Takapuna. While studying at Victoria University and teachers' college, Mason acted in and wrote plays that he later described as “outrageous pieces of kitsch”.
After the war Mason married and spent three years in England, where he abandoned dreams of being a concert pianist. Relocating to Wellington, he began writing and performing at Unity Theatre.
Often regarded as Mason’s first real play, The Bonds of Love was arguably the strongest social drama written in NZ to that date. Both it and The Evening Paper won prizes in a 1953 playwriting contest. Both attacked conventional Kiwi mores, resulting in horrified letters to the editor, though for The Evening Paper the major scandal came 12 years later, after he adapted it for television. Mason counter-argued that the negative reaction (almost 1000 strong) revealed a country “smug, insular, militantly respectable, unwilling or unable to face itself, full of pious cliches” — just like the characters on screen.
The Verdict — inspired by the Parker-Hulme murders — was also criticised for going where playwrights shouldn’t. Mason finally won over the mainstream with The Pohutukawa Tree. First completed in 1955, and updated many times, this tale of Māori-Pākēha collision and marriage spawned 170 plus productions, including a 1959 BBC adaptation that attracted 20 million viewers. Māori and Pākēha viewers in England each protested it insulted their race. Others praised its authenticity.
Mason won over Italian star Anna Magnani to the idea of starring in a big-screen version, and fired off “interested?” letters to Kubrick, Kazan, Lean and a host of name directors, without result.
The Pohutukawa Tree was the first of five Mason works examining “the Māori under European occupation”. Author John Thomson has noted that both Pohutukawa and 1969 play Awatea are built around a Māori protagonist of heroic stature; and that both captured the vernacular of ordinary New Zealanders with a conviction that "puts to shame most previous dramatic dialogue of this kind”.
Mason’s comedy Birds in the Wilderness won a London season in 1958. By now Mason, tiring of often vociferous critical attacks at home, was considering giving up the game. Knowing many touring plays fail to break even, he decided, in desperation, to create a "do it yourself” play — something easily tourable, requiring no props. The result was The End of the Golden Weather, a tale of childhood, vacations on the beach, and innocence lost. Mason played all 40 characters himself.
Launched in August 1959, Mason would perform Golden Weather across the country almost a 1000 times. Mason expert Howard McNaughton (writing pre Foreskin’s Lament) called Golden Weather “easily the most popular single work that New Zealand drama has produced”. Mason talked in detail about the show's birth in an episode of magazine show Looking at New Zealand — a transcript is collected in the book Bruce Mason Solo.
In the 60s, Mason kept up a close involvement with stage and radio. In 1965 alone he performed in four plays at Downstage (one in French), saving the theatre from going under by writing and preparing solo piece To Russia, with Love in a single week; that year he also directed another two, and wrote a trio of works for Inia te Wiata.
He had begun writing drama and radio criticism back in the 50s. For many years, argues Roger Hall, Mason was NZ's Man Alone of Letters, "the only person offering serious dramatic criticism”. The attacks and controversy resulting after he politely refused to bow at the feet of touring Brit actor Donald Wolfit — outlined in book Every Kind of Weather — likely played a part in breaking down local mindsets that quality theatre could only mean mother England.
Mason continued to write and monitor the creative pulse into the early 80s. Always generous in noting the achievements of others, he fired off letters praising Don Selwyn, novelist Witi Ihimaera, and the television work of Ian Mune.
Though for Mason television was a poor cousin to his chosen medium, he dabbled with it in the 70s, with episodes of Close to Home and Ian Cumming directed TV series Hello Goodbye. In the latter show, Mason's script weaved together a recent history of popular music, through studio performances and stock footage.
In 1978 Mason was diagnosed with cancer. He recovered enough to record his solo works over 16 gruelling sessions, be awarded a CBE, and write hit play Blood of the Lamb. In 1982 Mason was thrilled to be asked to write a trio of tele-plays on his own theme: the importance of tolerance. The results were Daphne and Chloe, a tale of romance and rumourmongering, Do Not Go Gentle, chronicling the last days of a philanderer, and The Garlick Thrust, a rare TV drama to address the 1981 Springbok Tour. He also did an extended interview for Kaleidoscope.
Mason died on the last day of 1982. Eight years later, Ian Mune (star of Mason’s Bonds of Love) finally achieved his dream of turning the End of the Golden Weather into a movie. Mason was listed as co-screenwriter. The film won eight NZ Film Awards, healthy local audiences, and a royal command performance in London. Metro reviewer John Parker praised the result for letting Kiwis see and hear themselves on screen, adding “Mune presents the characters with an over-the-top eccentricity that Bruce Mason revelled in."
In 1996 theatre space the Bruce Mason Centre opened in his beloved Takapuna.
Bruce Mason, Every Kind of Weather. Editor David Dowling (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1986)
Bruce Mason, Bruce Mason Solo (Wellington: Price Milburn and Company, with Victoria University Press, 1981)
Bruce Mason, New Zealand Drama: A Parade of Forms and a History (NZUP, 1973)
Bruce Mason, ‘All in one Basket’ - Listener, 29 July 1967, Page 4
Bruce Mason, ‘The New Zealand Accent’ - Rostra 152, March 1980, Page 306
Bruce Mason and John Pocock, Theatre in Danger (Paul’s Book Arcade, 1975)
David Dowling, Introducing Bruce Mason (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1982)
Robin Dudding (Editor), Beginnings (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1980), Pages 70 - 77
Trisha Dunleavy, Ourselves in Primetime: A History of New Zealand Television Drama (Auckland University Press, 2005)
Howard McNaughton, New Zealand Writers and their Work: Bruce Mason (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1976)
John Thomson, New Zealand Drama 1930 - 1980 - An Illustrated History (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1984)