An Appreciation of THE SPIRAL TATTOO
A full scale production for broadcasting of a Maori legend is something of an occasion. Listeners to National Stations on 15 August heard an hour and a half long production of The Spiral Tattoo. This was a dramatization by Mrs Adele Schafer of Wellington of the ancient legend of Mataora and Niwareka — which appeared in both Maori and English in Issue Number 50 of Te Ao Hou.
The Spiral Tattoo tells of Mata-o-ra who is married to Niwareka, one of the Turehu or fairy folk. Mataora quarrels with his wife and strikes her and she leaves him to return to her old homeland in the Underworld. Mataora follows her there and after many adventures he finds her and regains her affections. During the course of his search, Mataora is ridiculed by the denizens of the Underworld because his facial designs are only painted on. He begs the local people to let his manhood be tested by having himself tattoed in the same manner as they. As a result he learns the art of tattoing, an art which he is later to pass on to the whole of the Maori people. Eventually the two lovers return to the world of men on the back of the sacred bird, Korotangi.
In the June 1965 issue of Te Ao Hou there was an interesting article by Mrs Schafer concerning the underlying meaning of the legend of Mataora and Niwareka and theorising on its affinity with some of the mythology of India and South East Asia. Mrs Schafer believes that Maori and the other Polynesian languages have developed from Sanscrit, the ancient language of India, and in her private studies she has carried out painstaking documentation of this theory. In her article in Te Ao Hou she points out that in Sanscrit ‘nivara’ means ‘rice’. In the Maori legend, the name Niwareka could be derived from ‘nivara’. If this were so it could be evidence of an interesting link with the mythologies of many countries which the tale of a person journeying to the Underworld and coming back again with the aid of someone who loves them, is a symbol for the grain which goes away into the earth by the act of planting and which in the Spring shoots forth again. Probably the best known of the many legends of descent into, and resurrection from, the Underworld is the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Thus Adele Schafer has subtitled her play for radio An Orpheus Legend of the Maori.
Adele Schafer was born in Vienna in 1905 and came to this country in 1939 as a refugee from Nazism. Since then she has made a study of Maori mythology and dedicated herself to bringing Maori legend to life by dramatising it in a way which makes it meaningful in this modern day and age. The Spiral Tattoo was originally conceived as a three act play for the stage and later adapted and condensed somewhat for broadcasting. The N.Z.B.C. has also bought another of Mrs Schafer's plays but no production plans for it have yet been announced.
The Spiral Tattoo was produced in the Corporation's Wellington studios by Antony
Groser. Mr Groser handled his large cast with a sure hand to achieve a result which was wonderfully true to the spirit and conception of the author. An interesting innovation was the use of electronic sound images especially composed by Douglas Lilburn. Despite occasional passages which were noisy and distracting, these images played a most important part in creating the atmosphere of the play. There was a surrealistic quality about the effects which served initially to heighten tension and expextancy as the Underworld was entered, and later to create an atmosphere which gave the dream sequences an eerie credibility. Technical adviser on Maori matters was Bill Kerekere. It is, however, a matter for the greatest regret that in a play concerning a race with a strongly developed a sense of the dramatic as the Maori, it was necessary to have all the parts played by Pakeha. Although the pronunciation of Maori was for the most part exceptionally good, the voices lacked the timbre and richness and the subtle accent of the Maori voice at its best.
The main criticism of The Spiral Tattoo stems probably from the fact that, as a stage play, it was conceived originally in visual rather than auditory terms. The transposition from a stage play to one for broadcasting was not entirely successful, in that some listeners I am sure, would have experienced difficulty in following the progression of the story, despite a sketchy outline provided by the announcer before the programme began. This is indeed a defect, and yet not a grave one for The Spiral Tattoo is not intended to tell a cohesive and entertaining story. (‘Stories are only for children’ says Mrs Schafer). The legend is a means whereby the author seeks to hold a mirror to an ancient culture and to interpret its psychological subtleties in terms which are meaningful to the modern radio listener. For this aim to succeed and for the result to be credible the terms must also be ones which are not incongruous to the mood and age of the original. In this, Adele Schafer has succeeded and succeeded well. Thus in the visions which Mataora has as he undergoes the painful ordeal of being tattoed, the author digs into the subconscious of her hero and calls forth the fear and guilt images which she feels an old-time Maori might have experienced. Mataora dreams of his father Hotoke who was killed in battle. In the dream Hotoke warns his son of the emptiness of honour gained in war. There is a timelessness in Hotoke's sadness for ‘life
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squandered in some doubtful cause'. He tells Mataora that ‘… last year's enemy may be next year's ally, but the dead remain dead’.
One can argue that in a people so steeped in warfare for warfare's sake it is doubtful if such thoughts could gain currency, particularly in one of the warrior caste. Yet such a theory would be tantamount to saying that a race which could produce warrior-poets could not produce warrior-philosophers. The seed which made the Maori people of later times so susceptible to the message of Christianity is contained in Hotoke's words: ‘Living is hard, thinking is harder, the hardest is to live, think and be content in a world made thus’ (where everything lives by destroying other life). ‘Life that comes from nothingness may easily be sent back to the nothingness from whence it sprung.’
Later Kuri the dog comes to Mataora in the delirium of his dreams. Kuri is a personification of the dog that dwells in every man—of the untamed animal within. He is the voice of Mataora's conscience and reminds him of various things which he has done and which are unworthy of a leader—of ‘the Ariki begetting slave-brats without pangs and then rising from the warm ground shaking all consequences from your back; of the shrieks of the women raped by Mataora's war party and of the children killed and eaten afterwards to the sounds of fire crackling in the conquered village.
Namunamu the sandfly expresses the universality of human suffering, a suffering which was as real and omnipresent to the ancient Maori as it is to mankind to-day: ‘I am not part of you. I am part of life. I am the long persistent sting of every day.
Occasionally the listener is jolted back to reality from the world of spirits with language which is evocative of a more modern age (‘I was only pulling your fat leg’; ‘If you were as tall as you're crazy …') or which refers to things unknown by the ancient Maori. Such lapses though are rare. More frequent is the interpolation of Maori words which tend to obscure the meaning in many places for those listeners without a working knowledge of the language. (‘Your wairua wakes while you slumber’) However, these are superficialities in a play of great depth and perception.
Unfortunately, but unavoidably, the radio listeners could not savour fully the rich flavour of Adele Schafer's language as the play moved swiftly on. She uses words deftly to create passages of startling beauty and deep tenderness. Such a passage is when Humarire, Mataora's mother, appears to her son in a dream and says of his wife, Niwareka: ‘Woman, dear son, is more than the delight she gives your flesh and your flesh gives her. She is the warm-swept house, the cooked food in the evening when you come cold and hungry from the outside. She is the summer-sea rocking you in her arms, birdsong, chuckling creek and rattling rain; she is the garden for the next world's crop, the wind driving your swelling sail upon the crests. She is the other half of all creation … she is the earth. Be you her Heaven.’
From the beginning of the play, when Mataora and his uncle, Hohonu come to Te Reinga, the leaping place of the spirits, image piles on image as the listener is wafted into an eerie half-world of creaking trees, rushing waters and spirit voices, into a kaleidoscope of savagery and splendour, fierceness and tender mother-love, sexuality and spirituality. This indeed is the world of the old-time Maori—a world in which the natural and the super-natural blended to make the stuff of life. The Spiral Tattoo provides us with a window into this world and in so doing takes the listener close to the very heart of the Maori people.
It is indeed a sad commentary that most of our daily newspapers, which devote endless columns to silly prattle about the comparative merits on TV of the Danny Kaye and Dean Martin shows, failed to examine, criticise and acclaim a notable work of New Zealand drama.
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