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Gifted: The Entangled Lives of Frank Sargeson & Janet Frame

Gifted: The Entangled Lives of Frank Sargeson &Janet Frame

The Irish author Frank O'Connor has suggested that short stories often originate from "an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups." It's not difficult to identify short stories by New Zealand writers which have surfaced from within disenfranchised segments of our society. For evidence of this (as Owen Marshall's introduction to 'Essential New Zealand Short Stories' indicates) "we need look no further than Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame." 'Gifted' vividly dramatizes the fascinating encounter of these two iconic kiwi writers, whose pseudonymous 'outsider' status enabled them to delineate the communities in which they lived with such penetrating acuity.

Gifted Poster

Frank Sargeson was the nom de plume of Norris Frank Davey (1903-1982). Like the equally idiosyncratic poet James K. Baxter, he helped introduce vernacular speech into modern NZ literature. His stories often focus on terse, unsophisticated, and laconic male characters and their experiences in a spiritually depressed society, exploring subjects and themes in a harshly pessimistic tone. Their homoerotic subtexts, however, suggest they are more than just social realist fictions. He rarely specified the setting of his stories and employed a semi-articulate style; events are simply depicted and rarely explained.

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Sargeson, who was gay at a time when sodomy was still illegal, was arrested on a morals charge in 1929, but later acquitted. During the 1930s, his literary output provided limited income and this financial adversity tinged his political views for the rest of his life. The play is set in Sargeson's cottage in Takapuna on Auckland's North Shore, which he described as “nothing more than a small one-roomed hut in a quiet street ending in a no-man’s land of mangrove mud-flats … It was very decayed, with weather-boards falling off.” Despite it's somewhat squalid appearance, for several decades it provided a notoriously bohemian port of call for Auckland's unorthodox literati.

While the bach itself was pretty basic, it's vegetable garden "ensured that for more than thirty years I would grow on a scale sufficient to provide for myself, with often besides a good deal to sell or give away.” The site was so mephitic, however, that neighbours complained repeatedly about the malodorous drains and lack of sanitary facilities. Even his friend Don Doran, who disparaged bourgeois conventions, refused to stay there, telling his daughter the conditions were "too rough." After the original cottage was condemned by local authorities in 1948, a second one was built by George Haydn who wrote: "[Frank] was highly excitable, fretful, and reminded me of an anxious helicopter hovering over the job.”

Janet Frame was the pen name of Nene Janet Paterson Clutha (1924-2004). Her mother was a housemaid in Katherine Mansfield's family home and her adolescence was scarred by the drowning deaths of two of her sisters and the epileptic seizures of her brother. Frame's life started to unravel in 1943 when she attempted suicide by swallowing a packet of aspirin. In 1945, she was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the local Dunedin hospital for observation. Unwilling to return home, where tension between her father and brother often resulted in outbursts of violent anger, she was instead confined in the Seacliff Lunatic Asylum. Frame was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, treated with a combination of electroshock therapy and insulin, and over the next eight years was repeatedly readmitted to various mental institutions, usually voluntarily. After her death in 2007, an article in The New Zealand Medical Journal suggested she may have been autistic, a claim disputed by her literary executor and niece, Pamela Gordon.

In 1951, Frame narrowly avoided having a leucotomy when her first collection 'The Lagoon and Other Stories' won the Hubert Church Memorial Award just days before the procedure was scheduled. Following her final discharge from Seacliff four years later, she met Sargeson, who invited her to stay in an erstwhile army hut on his property. He introduced her to other writers, encouraged her literary vocation, and fostered an industrious work ethic. During the sixteen months she lived there, Frame wrote her first novel 'Owls Do Cry' behind a hedge that fringed the premises. She was just one of many struggling authors (including Kevin Ireland and Maurice Duggan) who benefitted from Sargeson's generosity and mentorship.

The theatrical production of 'Gifted' is based on Patrick Evans' tendentious novel, which was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. The stage adaptation premiered at the Christchurch Arts Festival in 2013 and garnered generally positive reviews. It drew fierce criticism from Gordon, however, who felt it "was designed to demean Frame." Director Conrad Newport maintained that Gordon was "overprotective of [Frame's] legacy," while Evans responded - "I have publicised her work and popularised it for two to three generations of students. In 'Gifted', the play and novel, you only have to look at the title to see what my attitude is. I really don't think I have anything to apologise for."

Since the play focusses largely on Sargeson's sense of isolation and loneliness, it's hard to understand why Gordon remains so churlish. Harriet Prebble paints an intriguing and intelligent portrait of Frame, while Simon O'Connor (so funny in 'How To Murder Your Wife') gives an equally estimable rendering of the sadly flatulent and conflicted ex-jockey whom Sargeson fretted over and loved. Andrew Laing (familiar to audiences as Dr. Greenlaw on 'Shortland Street') orchestrates the proceedings with his finely-honed performance as Sargeson. In a recent Dominion Post interview, he described how the fifty year-old author was experiencing writer's block when he met Frame:

"After she left, his writing became prolific again, more like the modern novel, so she influenced him too. The play's about language, love, passion, pain and loss. It's a curious, magical piece of theatre. When Frank and Janet meet, there is a clash of cultures and ages. She's in her twenties and of the new generation, and he's baffled by her. In a way, it's a love story, even though he's an old queen, because he created a place for her to discover her writing, after she had suffered so much brutality in her life. Frank … was the first one to give us our voice. Before that, it had been Katherine Mansfield and the English voice, but Frank stripped all that away … This is a way of bringing him back."

'Gifted' is playing at the Circa Theatre until the end of October.

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