Mervyn Thompson

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Mervyn Garfield Thompson (1936–1992) was a prominent New Zealand playwright and theatre director. He was one of the founders of Court Theatre in Christchurch, an artistic director of Downstage Theatre in Wellington and Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury. His theatrical writing championed the downtrodden and featured a revival and refinement of the genre of songspiel. He is regarded as one of New Zealand's most significant and controversial playwrights.


Thompson was born in the small mining town of Kaitangata in South Otago. His family moved to the West Coast where he variously lived in mining towns such as Reefton and Runanga. he left school at the age of 15 and spent 5 years working as a coal miner. during this period he first became involved in amateur dramatics. He attended Canterbury University in his twenties, studying English, and came under the influence of Ngaio Marsh. He played the role of Proculeius in her 1959 production of Antony and Cleopatra, from which he earned the nickname 'Proc' which stuck for the rest of his life. Graduating with an MA in 1964, he became a university lecturer in 1965. Thompson died of throat cancer in 1992. He had one son, who is autistic.


In 1970, Thompson and Yvette Bromley proposed the founding of a professional theatre in Christchurch, following the earlier establishment of Downstage in Wellington and Mercury Theatre in Auckland.[1]


In February 1984, Thompson, then a lecturer at Auckland University, was abducted, threatened to have his penis cut off,[2] and left tied to a tree in an Auckland park wearing a sign labelling him a rapist. The abduction was allegedly staged by a feminist action group based at the University following an accusation by one of his students. Thompson vigorously denied the accusation, admitting he had an affair with the student but claiming it was consensual. The abduction imitates the plot of a stage play Setting the Table by Renee, a friend of Thompson's. Thompson had acted as dramaturg at the workshopping of the play. The incident made headlines for some time[3] and had a major impact on Thompson's career, with protests at many performances of his solo show Coaltown Blues. The controversy inspired the novel The Shag Incident by Stephanie Johnson, published in 2002.[4]


with date of premiere production

O! Temperance[edit]


First Return[edit]


Songs to Uncle Scrim[edit]

A songplay about the Great Depression. Uncle Scrim refers to broadcaster Colin Scrimgeour. First produced at Downstage Theatre, Wellington, 11 March 1976. The play was revived and extensively reworked for a Christchurch production in 1989.

A Night at the Races[edit]


Songs to the Judges[edit]

1980 A songplay about racial issues in New Zealand with music by William Dart. Two of the songs, "Gather Up the Earth" and "On That Day" are based on the sayings of Te Whiti o Rongomai.

The New Zealand Truth Show[edit]

Covers 50 years of New Zealand history as seen through the filter of the tabloid newspaper "Truth". New Independent Theatre, Auckland, 1982

Coaltown Blues[edit]

Probably Thompson's best-known work, a solo show which played 114 performances in main centres and small towns. – 1984

Children of the Poor[edit]

Adapted from the 1934 novel by John A. Lee.

Jean and Richard[edit]

Initially a radio play which won a Mobil Radio Award, it was adapted for the stage and premiered at Court Theatre in 1990. The play is a fantasy in which Jean Batten and Richard Pearse meet in the afterlife.


1990 A semi-autobiographical drama on the theme of sexual addiction. Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde" is interwoven with the story of the tempestuous affair between a sculptor and his lover.

Passing Through[edit]

Directed by Stuart Devenie. Premiere 1991, Court II, Christchurch. A solo performance which was a personal journey through the history of New Zealand theatre, including excerpts from his own work and that of Bruce Mason and others. Passing Through played for three separate seasons in Christchurch and toured to Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland. A planned small town tour was cancelled due to Thompson's declining health.


  • Selected Plays – Pilgrims South Press, Dunedin, 1984 ISBN 0-908634-40-4 (First Return, O! Temperance, Songs to Uncle Scrim, Songs to the Judges)
  • All My Lives (autobiography)
  • Coaltown Blues (playscript) – Hazard Press, Christchurch
  • Children of the Poor (playscript) – Hazard Press, Christchurch, 1990 ISBN 0-908790-11-2
  • Singing the Blues (autobiography) – Blacktown Press, Christchurch, 1991 ISBN 0-473-01497-1
  • Passing Through and Other Plays – Hazard Press, Christchurch 1992 ISBN 0-908790-38-4


  1. ^ Harcourt, Peter: A Dramatic Appearance: New Zealand Theatre 1920 – 1970. Methuen 1978 ISBN 0-456-02410-7
  2. ^ Coddington, Deborah (17 October 2010). "Deborah Coddington: Witch hunts show Kiwis keen to stick the boot in". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 23 October 2011. 
  3. ^ In an essay entitled Whipping up a local culture: Masochism and the cultural nationalists academic Patrick Evans said "the public rape of Thompson was probably the most successful planned interruption of the status quo this country has ever seen, sending a shudder through New Zealand manhood that permanently transformed gender relations in New Zealand universities (for example) overnight and – aided by the victim's unquenchable desire to talk about it in public- threw into the public arena the entire issue of how men have related to women over the years."
  4. ^ Margie Thomson (13 July 2002). "Stephanie Johnson: The Shag Incident". New Zealand Herald. 

External links[edit]