All week this week we revisit the Mervyn Thompson Affair – the strange, powerful 1984 incident when six women abducted an Auckland university lecturer, chained him to a tree in Western Springs, threatened to castrate him, and labelled him a rapist.
Today: a memoir by playwright Renée, whose play Setting The Table inspired the attack – or was at least copied, in a bizarre case of life imitating art.
When we first arrived in Dunedin we wanted to rent a flat. “Looked at flat in Maitland Street. Some of the paintwork sure is dirty,” I recorded in my diary. Later we were to discover that it wasn’t just the paintwork.
I had time before my year as Robert Burns Fellow started and before the beginning of teaching of a course at the Summer School so the next day we took a bus trip to see the Māori Rock Art in the Waitaki Valley. Now looked after, previously the drawings had been hosed or dampened before people came to see them so that they’d stand out more. The consequences were that some of them were wrecked forever and some damaged very badly. All had suffered the effects of time. For a while now, we were told, any tampering with the drawings had been banned.
It was one of those moments when you stand still and stare in awe at the sight before you and try to imagine the artists and puzzle over what they were telling us from that time.
In a more mundane sort of way I feel a bit like that when I’m looking at the entries in my diaries. There are mysterious names and events, cryptic records, some of which only I know what they refer to. I have read diaries and letters published after the writer of them was dead and shuddered at the thought that someone might pick through my diaries looking for the same sort of unguarded entries. Often therefore, when I felt things deeply or had been hurt by malicious media, theatre or other gossip, I made no written record of it at all. There might be a cryptic note or, in the case of the Mervyn Thompson assault in February, 1984, no note at all. I did, however, write a short article for Broadsheet about it later because I was so angry at the way I was treated both by the media and some of the people in theatre – but mainly because I was both angry and hurt at the way I’d been dumped in it by the women who were responsible for the attack..
In February 1984 Mervyn Thompson, playwright, university lecturer, co-founder of Court Theatre in Christchurch, and one-time artistic director of Downstage in Wellington, was attacked by a group of women who tied him to a tree and hung a sign around his neck which accused him of being a rapist. This was a direct copy of a scene from my play Setting The Table.
So because the attackers kept very quiet (as did everyone else who knew who they were) all the media, police and theatre people had to to go on was me and my play. I had written the play so I must have been involved in the attack. I had done it because I was a vicious lesbian feminist, I had done it because I was jealous of Mervyn’s career and place in theatre, I had done it because I hated all men.
Mervyn himself came to believe I had been involved and took to haunting our place in Richmond Rd, leaving notes in the letterbox and occasionally poems. He wrote an article where he compared me to Salomé with Mervyn’s head on a platter.
In fact, the morning after the attack I got a ring from Mervyn who asked me to go round to his flat because something hideous had happened. Both Bernadette [my partner] and I went. He looked terrible. He told me about the attack and asked me if I’d had anything to do with it or any knowledge of it and I said I hadn’t and he seemed to accept that. I think we even had a cup of tea.
There were some likenesses between Mervyn’s life and mine. We knew what it was like to have to live with the fact that a parent had committed suicide, we knew poverty and hardship as kids, like me he was a playwright and wrote some very good plays. We both belonged to a group called Working Title Theatre, we both loved theatre.
I went to work at Broadsheet and the office was buzzing with the news and I said straight up, “I don’t hold with this sort of vigilante justice – I think its wrong, and you all should know this.” I was steaming and they could see that. I knew instantly that my play would be seen, at the very least, as the template for the attack and that it was only a step to blaming me for it. I had written this play therefore I had master-minded the assault. Setting The Table (Mervyn directed the week-long workshop on it two or three years before and liked it) is really an argument between four feminists, two of whom reckon they should use the same weapon as men use – violence – and two who say that is not the answer. The resolution is that the two who say that violence is not the answer are right.
But of course a few words in an office had nothing to do with anything. Those who were gleeful about the attack went on being so and how the the rest of the world came (or were determined) to see it wasn’t a concern. To the rest of the world, I was that terrible creature, a lesbian feminist, what else needed to be said? I wrote plays about such women. I must be guilty. In any case – there was no-one else to blame. The women who did it kept very quiet, had absolutely no compunction about dropping me in the shit and walking away.
“Sisterhood rules – ok?” is how I finished the Broadsheet article and how I still feel. Sisterhood rules? You’re joking, right? I was angry with myself too because I had been naive enough to think that Sisterhood Rules meant something. Now I saw it meant nothing. Maybe I needed to lose that illusion? I don’t know. What I do know is that I was very, very angry and very hurt. And remained so for years. I’m still angry. I suppose it’s the feeling of being unjustly accused and being unable to do anything about it. If I’d actually done it maybe the anger wouldn’t have lasted so long?
The notes in the letterbox from Mervyn, the vicious theatre gossip which someone always “thought I should know”, the police detective calling at the house, the two men who knocked on the door in the middle of the night and when I sneaked a look out the window could see were standing close up to the door ready to barge in when I was silly enough to open it. When I opened the window a crack and shouted, “Get the hell out of here, I’ve called the police,” they scarpered instantly. The phone ringing constantly, media, callers who wanted to know what colour panties I was wearing, work calls, even friendly calls because who knew if they were friendly or not? I started to jump every time the phone rang and it all started to get me down. Bernadette was worried so she consulted with some friends in Tauranga and between them they decided I needed a break. Bernadette would stay behind and answer the phone and deal with anything else.
Off I went to Tauranga and there, in the house of two friends – having, like my horoscope sign, The Crab, scuttled back inside my shell and suffered it out in silence – I was able to slowly open up my shell again, find some peace and eventually some sleep. In my diary I have recorded my visit to Tauranga but only as an ordinary entry and there is nothing about the reason for the visit or the rest of the sorry saga. Even then I knew I couldn’t be the only one the police approached or were suspicious of and I found out later, I wasn’t. At the time though, it felt like it.
This was the year that Wednesday To Come was chosen by Playmarket as one of the plays to be given a workshop in May and dear George Webby directed the workshop.
Now it was five years later and I was still thinking about the rock drawings as I sat in a large room at Otago University, full of people, while Helen White made the introductory speech to open the Summer School. When she said my name, one male writer there, an alcoholic I was told later – already, at 10am on this particular morning, boozed to the eyeballs – shouted something in which the words, “bloody Renée” featured in every sentence. Everyone pretended to ignore him. My note in the 1999 diary says, “Helen handled it very well.”
By this time we’d taken the flat in Maitland St and spent most of our spare time cleaning the place. I didn’t have much time to worry about a drunk’s stupidity and besides there was this new place to explore, new and old friends to link up with. I started to get to know Dunedin.
From a memoir in progress, with the working title These Two Hands.
Read the rest of our coverage of the Mervyn Thompson case:
– An essay by Thompson’s colleague and friend, revisiting the moment
– A modern take on the incident, and its wider implications, by former MP Holly Walker.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.