With Squatter, Stuart Hoar has written a heightened, theatrical depiction of the New Zealand revolutionary land acts of the 1890s. I use the word ‘revolutionary’ deliberately, not as lazy hyperbole.
In New Zealand in 1890, vast tracts of land were owned by a rich minority, called squatters. The land acts forced them firstly to pay taxes on the land they owned, and then bought up the huge estates and broke them into small settlement farms. In his introduction, Hoar describes it as the rise to power of a new middle class.
You don’t need to know the history before you read Squatter: the play gives you all the information you need without ever condescending or preaching. It’s an untamed, larrikin sort of a play and was Hoar’s first play (published in 1988).
I loved the absurd beginning, which could easily have signalled a Beckett or Ionesco drama: two travellers appear on stage, one carrying the other on his shoulders along with many cases. This immediately sets up the conflict between servant and master and class constraints, without needing to say a word. (In a lovely reversal, when the same two characters leave at the end of the play, they have swapped positions and, probably, classes.)
Squatter is a historical play and a political one, but it is full of humour and energy. Characters flag their intents with each other before launching into monologues or asides to the audience, like the following:
ELISABETH: Listen to me. I’m going to make a stirring speech.
WADE: I’m not certain it will help.
ELISABETH: (To the audience) My name – for the purposes of this exercise – is Elisabeth McGravity. I’m a nobody. I’m a cook. A small speck of lumpen-proletariat. Uncared for and uncaring. […]
There is murder and intrigue as the land owners scheme to keep their property and the workers plot to get it off them. There are radicals in both groups and also conciliatory souls who’d be happy to find a compromise but are caught in relationships that require big gestures and empty words.
Publisher: Victoria University Press (1988)
Cast: 8M, 3F