Always My Sister, by Michelanne Forster, (Holloway Press, 2013), handset letterpress edition of 50 copies, $150.
Michelanne Forster’s play Always My Sister, published in November 2013 by The Holloway Press in Auckland and scheduled for its first production at The Basement Theatre in Auckland in 2014, is based on the murder of Hannah and Robert Snow and their baby daughter Mary by Joseph Burns. The murder took place in what is now Devonport, at a time when, as Joseph Burns himself is given to say in the play, Auckland was ‘a handful of soldiers, a few houses made of sticks, natives, liquor and whores’ (p9). The play opens in 1843; the murder took place in October 1847.
The year 1847 in English literature is notable for the publication of two remarkable books. In the same month Burns committed these grisly, vengeful and psychopathic murders, far away on the edge of the world in the ‘old country’ Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in October 1847, and her sister Emily’s only and singular novel, Wuthering Heights, under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, followed soon after in December. Charlotte and Emily gave themselves hauntingly androgynous names, Ellis and Currer, and a family name, Bell, which was designed to ring out a warning. Both of these game-changing novels contain a male who is a kind of monster: Mr Rochester, with his first wife imprisoned in the attic; and the enigmatic ‘dark-skinned gypsy’ Heathcliff, who has only one name. Rochester and Heathcliff are full of allure, yet also offensive, brutal and shocking. What one finds in these two novels, overtly in Jane Eyre and more covertly in Wuthering Heights, is a monumental gender struggle and an evocation of sexuality as a battlefield, in which the stakes are heavily weighted against women, yet the battle-lines and the victory to be won are clearly delineated. These creations and their revolutionary focus were not accidental miracles born from the minds of two isolated geniuses from the bleak moorlands of the West Riding. Through wide reading in contemporary literature and magazines, Emily and Charlotte were engaged with the issues of their age. Charlotte’s best friend Mary Taylor came to Aotearoa/NZ in 1845 and settled in Wellington, where she opened a shop and for a decade ran a successful business. In her earliest surviving letter, from 1848, she describes herself as working on a book ‘which she hoped would revolutionise society’, and she later chided Charlotte for suggesting in her novel Shirley that work should be only for some women: work should be available to all women, Mary corrected.
The struggle of women to lead independent existences was vitally part of the world of 1847, so it is not accidental that Michelanne Forster’s new play should be about two biological sisters, Sophia and Maggie, with strongly contrasting characters. The title of the play, Always My Sister, for modern ears, holds more meanings than it would have in 1847, for we know now that sister has a precise political denotation. The play opens with Sophia addressing the audience: ‘This is the story of my sister, Maggie Reardon, who broke my heart, as sisters sometimes do’ (p1). And the ship at the end which transports Maggie to Van Diemen’s Land, to serve seven years for perjury in The Cascades prison outside Hobart, is called The Sisters: ‘It was a small comfort to me, that name, but one I clung to as I waited for her return’ (p38).
Also not accidental is the fact that this play contains a male monster. Joseph Burns begins the play with a rude kind of charm and bravado, but he falls into violence and self-pity, a combination that soon loses all our sympathy and, by the end, we do not care about him. With dramaturgical good sense, Forster provides a final scene without Joe Burns (he has by then been hung from a pohutukawa tree near the site of his crime, as happened in the historical reality); instead Forster’s final scene is given to the two sisters, Maggie and Sophia. This comes after Maggie, Joe Burns’s brutalised victim, common-law wife and mother of two children, has had a moment of realisation and spoken her last line to Joe: ‘You can try to lie your way into heaven but I’m sure no angel will ever be as stupid as I was’ (p35). Mr Rochester suffers a kind of redemption through conflagration, blindness and maiming. And Heathcliff, who hails from the same streets of Liverpool (that crossroads of the world back then) as Burns, and who, in his marriage to Isabella Linton is not unlike Joe Burns with Maggie, begins life as a suffering foundling, and emerges as a more complex and tormented figure at the end of his life. But there is neither redemption nor complexity for Joseph Burns.
It is a tribute to Forster’s insight that she has located the ‘battles of 1847’ in the raw colonial setting of Auckland, reminding us that these things were happening here too, in what was already a globalising world. The heart of the drama of the play lies in the abrasive and impotent attempts of the sisters to negotiate a world stacked against them. Maggie’s ‘wild Irish lass’ persona is of even less use than Sophia’s sober sense: the one’s fate is to be locked up, the other’s to inherit her sister’s two children to add to her own. A brutal and insane murder is the setting for the drama. As a dramatist, Forster has long displayed a penchant for crazy killings plucked from historical reality: the Parker/Hulme murder of Pauline Parker’s mother Honora in Daughters of Heaven (1991); Senga Whittingham’s shooting of John Saunders in My Heart is Bathed in Blood (2005) and William Larnach’s in Larnach – Castle of Lies (1993) delve into the extremity of minds at the end of their tether. In Joseph Burns, Michelanne has created a truly psychopathic male figure. Like all psychopaths, though initially able to generate some plausible appeal, he rapidly becomes mono-tonal in his egoism and lack of affect. What is interesting in Forster’s portrait of Burns is that she does allow him a moment of justification for his action. In Scene 8, before he commits the murders and before he tries to blame ‘the natives’, Burns pronounces to Maggie: ‘Things on this earth are not equally distributed, we all know that’ (p22).
Here is a moment where common cause might be made, between men and women as workers and women as a group defined by gender. 1847 was the year when the First Congress of the Communist League was held in London. At the end of that year Engels wrote: ‘The year 1847 decided nothing, but everywhere it brought the parties into sharp and clear confrontation.’ 1847 was the year before 1848, when the Communist Manifesto was published in February and revolution became a spectre haunting the globe. Less noticeable among the many (all unsuccessful) revolts of that year was the two-day Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York. It was the beginning of a struggle that still continues around the world. For a moment, Joseph Burns might have been part of all this. But he absolutely is not. His speech turns to self-pity: ‘But why should I be cast as the unfortunate dog, born to misery and privation no matter how I struggle? Why me, Maggie?’ (p22). And it is to the play’s credit that it is never sentimental about Burns. He is a monster. And this may be why Forster has chosen, wisely I think, to keep the lurid violence of the murders off stage. Instead she shows us Burns at his most violent when he attacks Maggie’s throat with a razor to shut her mouth in case she incriminates him. It is after this that Maggie perjures herself to lie in Burns’ defence. Maggie’s profile is familiar today in published data on domestic violence and intimidation. How badly Maggie needed a ticket to that Convention in Seneca Falls, New York State, rather than a passage to Tasmania!
Always My Sister tells a plain tale of plain murder, 16 scenes, 38 pages, unadorned, nasty, brutish and short, a tale of brutalisation and degradation, of women fighting to find a position and failing. Unusually for a play, it has been published before it has been performed. However, the launch of the book was accompanied by a dramatised reading from Paul Barrett as Joe, Laura Daniel as Maggie and Lauren Gibson as Sophia (the play is a three-hander), with Paul Barrett’s piano-playing bringing to life an important musical element that is written into the script. This reading played at 53 minutes. There is a major time jump between Scenes 6 and 7, so in some ways it is more like a short play with two acts than a one-act play.
Always My Sister was written while Forster was the Michael King Writing Fellow at the University of Auckland. The historical incident of the murders took place in the vicinity of the Michel King Centre. This serendipity has been enhanced by The Holloway Press’s publication of the play under the rubric of The Signalman’s House, being the second book in a projected series. (The historic Signalman’s House on Takarunga/Mt Victoria in Devonport is where the Michael King Centre is based.) Alas, Always My Sister is likely to be also the last in that series. The University of Auckland has withdrawn its support for The Holloway Press, and with one book still to come the Press will cease operating when Director Peter Simpson’s contract runs out in September 2014.
The loss of The Holloway Press will be substantial and deserves to be noted and mourned. We shall lose a fine print press that draws its inspiration from Ron Holloway and his Griffin Press and its connections to the tradition of fine printing in New Zealand that can be recalled through names such as Bob Lowry, Denis Glover and Leo Bensemann. The printing at Holloway has been done principally by two printers, Alan Loney between 1994 and 1998, and Tara McLeod from 2000 until the present. We shall also lose an important publisher of local literary productions. Holloway between 1994 and 2014 has published 34 separate titles (six of these were published in two formats). Poetry formed a major slice of these titles, perhaps because it fits easiest with the often ‘short’ text of the fine press product. But the Press also published diaries, translations, essays, letters and art books; and now a play. Throughout its existence The Holloway Press has been under the creative guidance and inspirational management of Peter Simpson.
It would be nice to think that as the big publishers quit, local small presses might be advantaged and move in to fill the gaps. However Holloway is a special case, as each of its products constitutes an objet d’art in itself. More then it is to be regretted that the University of Auckland cannot find a way to sustain this enterprise. Last year Auckland lost Parsons Bookshop as Helen and Roger Parsons retired and could not find a buyer for the shop. Parsons carried the kind of publications that Holloway produces, but from all round the world. Both these literary losses are unlikely to be replaced, and stand in contrast to the state of the fine arts (the new Auckland Art Gallery) and especially the lively state of theatre in the city: the new Q Theatre in the centre of town, Tapac at Western Springs, the new Mangere Arts Centre in the south, the Basement beside Q where Always My Sister will play in 2014, the Pumphouse on the North Shore, the Herald in the Aotea Centre, the Maidment at the University, and companies such as Silo, Auckland Theatre Company and Indian Ink who produce regular programmes, as well as a plethora of smaller inventive producers. When Always My Sister moves from page to stage, it will move to a world able to celebrate its achievement as a play.
The quotation from Mary Taylor’s letter comes from: Beryl Hughes, ‘Mary Taylor’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography: www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t21/taylor-mary
The quotation from Frederick Engels comes from: Frederick Engels, ‘The Movements of 1847’, first published in Deutsche-Brusseler-Zeitiung, 23 January1848: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/01/23.htm
The Holloway Press and its publications can be found at: www.hollowaypress.auckland.ac.nz
MURRAY EDMOND teaches drama at the University of Auckland. He co-directed and was the dramaturge for Len Lye: the Opera, staged at the Maidment Theatre, Auckland, in September 2012. He edits the online journal Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics: www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/kmko/