Dean Parker has left the building
Playwright and socialist Dean Parker died last week. Two authors bid him farewell.
Roger Hall, friend and playwright: There was some debate as to whether Dean was an unlucky playwright, or whether his plays inflicted bad luck on theatres. The run of his Midnight in Moscow at Court Theatre in Christchurch came to an abrupt halt on February 22, 2011 when the earthquake brought the house down.
A season of the same play performed by Auckland Theatre Company was halted by fire, and had to be transferred. The day before his adaptation of Macbeth was to open at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre, the board permanently closed the theatre.
Had his latest work at Circa gone on a bit longer, he might well have been blamed for Covid-19.
I first came across Dean in 1974, during one of Playmarket’s conferences in which several Australian theatre people took part. A prominent Oz playwright was giving a talk and Dean, drunk it has to be said, abused him. Bruce Mason and I turned round and rather prissily “tut-tutted” saying that his upcoming play, Smack, (I think it was to follow immediately after the talk) “had better be good”. It wasn't. It was better than good: it was brilliant, still one of the highlights in my theatre-going career.
He had another life as political activist. From Springbok Tour to Blair Peach, the Trades Hall bombing, and membership of Socialist Unity Party, if there was a worthy left-wing cause Dean was probably part of it. His Irish/Catholic background was clearly a huge factor. His partner, Isabel, told me, “The Irish struggle is the most obvious example. Dean produced Magazine Saoirse for over a decade and took a leading role in Information on Ireland, the Irish civil rights group.”
We emailed each other almost every day and often several times. Sport (mostly about his beloved Liverpool), theatre a lot, TV (mutual love of Upstart Crow, The War Against America etc etc); the fact that we had both wrapped copies of Truth when it came off the press. Anything and everything. We made each other laugh and if I could send him a funny comment and get back from him “Ha ha ha” my day was made.
Of course a lot was about what each of us was writing. I used to think I worked hard, but nothing compared to him. I once asked him if he’d like to join my coffee group held in Ponsonby 10.30am on Thursdays. “No,” he said, “That’s during working hours.” And that was Dean. Off to work each day, put in the hours, and the work flows. And how.
Plays (Playmarket holds 59 scripts); movies (co-writer Came a Hot Friday;) TV scripts that barely stir a memory in even the oldest of us: Mortimer’s Patch: and with Greg McGee, Roche, Gold, Betty’s Bunch; radio plays; articles for the Listener. Novels (Johnson, a sequel to John Mulgan’s Man Alone). Only a few days ago he completed an adaptation of the Albert Camus classic The Plague and not long before that a version of Defoe’s The Journal of a Plague Year.
Dean deservedly got two of the biggest awards a playwright can get: a Laureate from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand in 2010, and was the inaugural winner in 2012 of the Playmarket Award given to a playwright “for significant artistic contribution to theatre in New Zealand”.
If he had bad luck with works of his being cancelled, then at least he went out on a couple of triumphs, both at Wellington’s Circa Theatre: a season of the critically praised Wonderful with Andrew Lang in the solo role; and a public reading of Shirley and Bill, a staged adaptation of Shirley Smith: an Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos, which played to a full and enthusiastic house.
It would be a fitting tribute to him if Circa were to give it a season next year. Indeed, why not at the very least commemorative readings of some his plays at theatres throughout the country.
As a speaker, he was at his best giving last year's Rona Bailey Memorial Lecture in Wellington (a condensed version of his brilliant speech was published at ReadingRoom).The YouTube video will instruct viewers that he wasn’t the snappiest of dressers, and helps to explain a story he told against himself. Dean lived in Ponsonby; one day at his local surgery, a new nurse asked him whether he actually owned a house in Ponsonby. He admitted that he did. She peered at him for some time before concluding: “Must have been a very long time ago”.
Marilyn Duckworth, ex-lover and novelist: I was still in bed, wrapped in my Covid bubble, on Wednesday morning when my daughter Sarah appeared in her dressing gown to break the news to me of Dean’s death. It felt like the continuation of some horrid dream. Not quite real. Sarah was wearing a Covid mask to protect me – she’s not quite part of my bubble – which added to the nightmare quality.
Dean had been part of our family for a short time, way back when, and is remembered fondly by us all. It was devastating news. It would shock not only us, of course, but the theatre-going New Zealand public.
In 1972 I was witness to the first stirrings of Dean’s playwriting career, or that’s what I like to claim. We’d been together to a play by a local writer at Auckland’s Central Theatre and returned home infected with an all-consuming itch to write something better than what we’d just seen. He set himself up at the bedside table and began tapping away on my old Olivetti typewriter. (It lolls beside my desk now, a purely decorative artefact.) I sat in bed with exercise book and pen, scribbling, as was my habit. My playwriting enthusiasm had waned well before the morning, but Dean’s simmered on...and on. So I say I’m proud to have been there alongside the birth of his talent; but ‘proud’ was not a word he ever favoured. “Pride. First of the deadly sins, you know,” he reminded me once. It was the lapsed Catholic speaking but total lack of self-pride was a big part of his nature.
When I wrote to him raving about his fine play Wonderful produced recently at Circa, the only thing he said was – "I think it owed rather a lot to the actor."
Dean knew my feelings and interests so well. I could rely on him to keep me up to date with all the latest gossip and literary news. Beside my TV screen I’ve just now propped a charming fantasy painting he once made for me on a piece of rock. It reads - “Marilyn Duckworth as a mermaid. Her dreams as a sailing ship.” It was one of many such offerings intended to cheer my darker days. His Trotsky vase painted on a recycled juice can sits atop my bookcase. A personalised mug to cheer me after a bad review – “Marilyn Duckworth stands on her head...” sits on a window ledge. Dean had a wicked sense of humour. He sucked so much amusement out of life – had a magpie eye for a funny story. But Dean himself was the real thing – an authentic, loving soul. I’m so happy to have known him as a dear friend and feel robbed by his death
My heart goes out to Isabel and to Emmett, the son he was so proud of. Yes: proud.
Dean Parker (1947-2020) died at his Ponsonby home a week ago. His plays included Midnight in Moscow, Wonderful, and an adaptation of Nicky Hager's book The Hollow Men. He was chairman of the Auckland branch of the Socialist Unity Party and wrote in ReadingRoom last year, "New Zealanders like to believe in giving everyone a fair go and not doffing the cap. But being a New Zealander means the exact opposite. It means loving to doff the cap. It means ganging up on anyone stepping out of line. It means being as obsequious as possible to the rich and powerful. It means the most tawdry display of brown-nosing you’re likely to see. We are a little people.”
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