The story of a Catholic brother who took his own life
The playwright Dean Parker remembers the Marist Brother from Napier with a dark past.
Tom Stoppard, the English playwright, says it doesn’t take long to write a play, but it can take a while to get to the first line.
I saw a play years ago, back in the 1970s, upstairs at the old Mercury Theatre in Auckland, called The Christian Brothers. By Ron Blair. Aussie play. Classic Aussie play about a Christian Brother who’s addressing a classroom in a Christian Brothers’ school.
And afterwards I said to a friend who was in the audience with me, the film producer Chris Hampson, “I could have written that.” And he said, “Do it!” I didn’t because it had already been done. By Ron Blair.
But I kept thinking about the priests and brothers who had taught me.
I went to primary school at Napier Marist, whose famous old boys were Paddy Donovan, lightweight boxing bronze-medallist at the Empire Games in Cardiff, and John Gillies, Machine-Gun Murderer of Bassett Rd - the terror of the Standard Twos.
There was a Marist Brother there who was a great movie fan and would tell us the story of the latest movie he’d been to: Hitchcock thriller, Rogers & Hammerstein musical.
Which was totally against the rub of the time because we were all being brought up on sport and going off to McLean Park to see the Springboks and the Lions.
I heard when he was posted from Napier to St Bernard’s in Lower Hutt, the St Bernard’s Head Brother exclaimed, “Calls himself a Marist Brother? He doesn’t know a thing about sport!”
He eventually left the order and took his own life, downing a bottle of sleeping pills and half-a-bottle of scotch, just like Marilyn, lying back in deepest shadow from which loomed white chrysanthemums and dark roses, his arms flung over his pillowed head, flights of angels singing him to his rest.
I mentioned all this to Wellington stage director Conrad Newport in 2008. He was about to do a play of mine at Circa, about Jack Lovelock (2008 was an Olympics year) and he asked me if I had anything new in mind. I brought this up. A one-man play about a Marist Brother set in the 1950s and in which The King and I was more important than the Springboks on tour.
And he said, “Do it! I’ll direct it!”
I think what finally gave me the confidence to write it—the actor not being the only one who finds a one-person play a challenge—was I started working with a group of musicians at a pub on K Rd in Auckland doing cabaret shows. And I thought a show like this could be a type of musical. My Marist Brother could be prone to break into Rogers & Hammerstein numbers and I could lean on that music to keep the audience on-side.
All this finally came together. Andrew Laing was signed up to play the role of Brother Vianney and BATS theatre in Wellington was booked in September, 2018, for an initial run.
I like to have a hand in publicity and figured a good and obvious angle would be hanging the show on this Marist Brother from Napier—who had become well-known round the central North Island in the 1950s for doing musical variety shows with all-boys casts (shows that were entitled, if I remember rightly, Boys On! Revue, a title right up there with Baden Powell’s Scouting For Boys).
I’d even heard he had discovered rock’n’roll legend Johnny Devlin at Whanganui Marist. He had all the showbiz schtick. He’d tell us no matter what happened, the show goes on; then, just as you were about to make your entrance, he’d remove a pin securing your pants. You’d march on, your pants descending, howls and screams erupting from the Napier audience, never known for its sophistication. A long time later I thought of Brother X when I read Samuel Becket’s one note to the director after the premiere of Waiting For Godot: “It’s vital than when Estragon’s trousers fall they fall straight to the floor.” I once mentioned this to Ian Mune who pulled a face and commented, “Not easy; they bunch up.”
So I got in touch by email with the Marist Brothers order, told them what I was doing, and asked for details about Brother X.
Someone on the Marist front desk emailed back that a Brother P would be in touch.
And Brother P did email me. He wrote that he had information I should know about.
In Napier, I’d heard a rumour about the way Brother X did costume fits with certain boys.
He used to do his shows at the local Municipal theatre, musicals with a Napier Marist cast, and would get a good audience response putting boys on stage dressed as Hollywood stars—Mae West, Marilyn Monroe.
Playing these parts would be his good-looking blonde favourites.
And I once heard a rumour that something had happened in the fitting room.
But people I trusted round Hawkes Bay spoke with admiration of Brother X.
As well, I had previously contacted a Marist archivist in 2007 who spoke enthusiastically about Brother X’s talents, and the tragedy of his suicide, but made no mention of anything else.
I had ended up putting the rumour behind me.
I met with Brother P in a coffee bar on Ponsonby Rd. He brought another Brother with him. My heart sank further: two of them. Dressed in black.
“Cults!” the dim-witted Father Dougal exclaims in Father Ted. “I’ve heard about them cults, Ted! Trying to brainwash everyone! Strange men, going about all dressed in black!”
“No, no!” says Father Ted. “No, Dougal! That’s us! That’s us!”
Brother P and Brother D turned out to be as nice a pair of blokes as you could hope to meet.
Brother P explained he was the Brother who dealt with those in the order “who have a black mark against their name”.
He said that in the early 2000s there were four complaints against Brother X. All concerned the period he was at Napier, all concerned “fondling” during costume fitting episodes, which seemed to be his modus operandi.
I heard it again when an old mate subsequently rang from Napier and, in a conversation about Brother X’s penchant, said disarmingly about his own costume fit, “He felt my balls once.”
“Will this affect your play, Dean?” Brother P asked. Well it was certainly a bit of a shadow. I changed a number of names to make things less specific.
But in fact the shadow loomed over the past rather than the play. The play I’d written, which started with the memory of a particular Marist Brother, had developed its own life with its own Marist Brother and set in 1959, with a new Pope on the throne of St Peter.
Before we started rehearsals and before I’d heard about the black marks, I had a drink with Andrew Laing, our actor.
He wanted to talk about my memories of Brother X. “Did Brother X do this, as in the play?” and, “Did Brother X do that, as from the play?”
My replies were almost all no; I’d made things up. Brother X never sang in class, a lot of the play’s material came from memories of other clerics, and the play’s important Mt Roskill and Sydney stories were total inventions.
I’d started off with someone who taught me in Napier, and who couldn’t live on with his demons and gave up, and I’d ended up with someone else entirely, a character trying to find refuge from a barbaric world and finding no solace—but enduring.
Wonderful by Dean Parker plays at Circa Two in Wellington, February 12—March 7.
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