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  • "Where Will This River Flow?":Modernity, Indigeneity and Eco-crisis in the Theatre of Miria George
  • David O'Donnell (bio)

I was once taken to task by a group of students for comparing New Zealand playwright Miria George to Shakespeare. As part of a lecture on George's and what remains (2005), I contrasted her poetic use of the repetition of key words and phrases to a similar technique in Shakespeare's later plays. I was interrupted by a Pākehā male student in his 30s who insisted "you can't compare Miria George to Shakespeare." He took up his cause after the lecture, heading a small group of protestors, arguing that it was ridiculous to even mention a young beginner writer from New Zealand in the same sentence as the most acclaimed playwright of all time. This comparison became hotly debated in that week's tutorials and one thing that emerged was that the protest group was in the minority, and that for some students—especially those of Māori and Pasifika descent—George's play was more interesting and relevant to them than the plays of Shakespeare. In part the student protest reflected what Alice Te Punga Somerville, who co-taught this course with me, has described as "the anxieties some students have about talking about 'Māori things'" (2008). Not long before this, Shakespeare was voted the "Man of the Millennium" in a poll run by the BBC, while Miria George (Te Arawa, Ngati Awa, Rarotonga and Atiu, Cook Islands) was a young Indigenous playwright from a small postcolonial nation. In 2005 only two of her plays had been produced. Yet and what remains—which portrayed a hypothetical situation in the near future where people of Māori descent had been exiled from Aotearoa/New Zealand—created a storm of critical controversy. Reflecting on the student debate, I realised that her poetic use of language in and what remains owed as much to the techniques of modernist playwrights as to Shakespeare's verse. The heated responses to her play in 2005 were—on the local level—as significant as similar controversies caused by some of the major works of modernist theatre such as Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896), as their provocative form as well as content disrupted audience expectations of their time.

In this article I propose that Miria George's playwriting practice illustrates new developments in Indigenous modernism in the theatre of Aotearoa/New [End Page 71] Zealand. Susan Stanford Friedman has argued that standard definitions of modernism must be expanded to include the work of Indigenous artists in the former European colonies who are influenced by or have adapted the radical innovations of international modernism. Friedman writes:

we must not close the curtain on modernism before the creative agencies in the colonies and newly emergent nations have their chance to perform. Their nationalist movements and liberations from the political dimensions of colonial rule are central to the story of their modernities.

(2006, 427)

The terms "modernism" and "modernity" are highly contested, but they remain central to discussions of contemporary artistic practice, and take on new meanings in the postcolonial context. In this article I utilize the understanding of these terms in the contemporary sense as articulated by the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms. They argue that recent scholarship has contributed to an "opening up" and expansion of the field and that modernism is caught up in "an ongoing process of redefinition" that relates to theories of globalization and transnationalism (Brooker et al 2010, 3). They suggest:

Modernism is not determined by a modernity that precedes it but is imbricated in it, is inseparable from the self-reflexive nature of the modern-life forms into which it is bound. Modernism is then to be seen in terms of overlapping, criss-crossing, and labile networks.


Crucial to this article, they argue that this complex interaction "gives rise to what Ian Hacking has described as 'a local historicism,'" replacing former "grand unified accounts" of modernism and modernity with "scrupulous attention to specific sociocultural contexts" (as qtd. by Brooker et al 2010, 4).

I suggest that Miria George's work reflects this new understanding of...


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