Last week saw the welcome return to Wellington of Mervyn Thompson’s play Coaltown blues. The play, a one-person musical, was brilliantly performed by Chris Green, under the direction of Lindsey Rusling, with piano accompaniment by Sue Windsor.
Coaltown blues is a semi-autobiographical play following the birth, childhood and youth of a character called Mervyn Thompson in Blacktown, a small West Coast mining town. While the lead character bears the name of the playwright, the town of Blacktown is fictional. It is, however, largely based on the town of Rūnanga, where Thompson spent much of his childhood. Coaltown blues focuses on the economic and physical hardships endured by West Coast mining families, along with their socialist visions of a better world arising from those hardships.
In the play, each stage of the young Thompson’s life is set against wider historical events that make their mark on his family and town. His birth in 1935 is set against the election of the first Labour government, while further life stages are marked by the war in 1942, the end of the war on VJ Day in 1945, the defeat of the Labour government in 1949 and the miners’ strike in sympathy with the 1951 waterfront lockout.
A strong theme running through the play is that of the dangers and hardships of the miners’ lives. One section centres on the mining death of Stu Kennedy, a friend of Thompson’s father. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic funeral highlights the differences between the children of the ‘Mickey Doos’ (aka Mickey Doolans, meaning Catholics) and ‘Proddies’ (Protestants), but also emphasises the solidarity of the local union.
Thompson’s father, a staunch union man, has dreamed of a new utopia under the Labour government, but is instead disillusioned that Labour has led the country into war and has failed to prevent mining accidents. Thompson senior, who admires the Soviet Union’s war effort despite being a pacifist, is further disillusioned when Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser supports compulsory military training in 1949.
Despite his socialist idealism and supposed pacifism, Thompson’s father is dictatorial to his family and occasionally violent to both his wife and son. The struggle of women in mining families to cope with poverty, while bringing up large families and dealing with the everyday sexism of their men, is another theme running through the play. Unequal power struggles are as evident between Thompson’s mother and father as they are between the miners’ union and the state coal management.
Coaltown blues is not all grim social realism. Some aspects of Thompson’s childhood are presented as great fun, such as the VJ Day parade. There are also obvious times of family affection and closeness, but the abiding theme is the degrading nature of poverty, despite constant hard work. The vision of the past presented in Coaltown blues has no aspect of romance or nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. Small-town life is shown in its narrowness, with the school bullies persecuting anyone who shows signs of difference or weakness.
The fact that Blacktown is in some ways an atypical New Zealand town is only revealed to Thompson when he goes to work in Christchurch during the 1951 dispute. He is surprised to learn that, unlike Blacktown where people solidly support the unions, most Christchurch people appear to see the ‘strikers’ as Communist stirrers who should be crushed.
Thompson is portrayed as the sensitive youth who wants to escape from the confines of Blacktown and a future of life down the pit. He nevertheless gives in to his father’s insistence and becomes a miner. The irony is that Thompson finds he enjoys the miner’s life and the camaraderie he finds in the mines. The joys and struggles of the miner’s work, the strength of the union and the Blacktown way of life are all brought to an end, however, with the closing of the mine.
Coaltown blues was first performed in 1984 by the playwright himself, but the play soon became overshadowed by a controversy that arose around Thompson. The playwright was subjected to a vigilante attack after allegations of sexual assault were made against him. No legal case over the allegations was ever brought against Thompson, but performances of his plays, including Coaltown blues, became the subject of protest and bitter debate.
In a modern performance of Coaltown blues the play can be seen on its own merits, rather than as a framework to discuss the playwright’s personal behaviour. As Chris Green points out in the play’s programme, recent events such as the Pike River disaster have shown that the issues that Coaltown blues deals with continue to have strong relevance in the modern world.