Humour in the face of horror

MANY HATS: In Bill Massey’s Tourists, playwright, dancer and actor Jan Bolwell plays, among other characters, Bill Massey, New Zealand’s Prime Minister during World War 1.
Bill Massey
THE GRAND ADVENTURE: Playwright, performer and choreographer Jan Bolwell will perform her solo work Bill Massey’s Tourists at Unity Theatre next week. Bill Massey’s Tourists is Bolwell’s fifth play and the third in a trilogy of solo plays. Standing on my Hands told the story of her father’s World War 2 experiences while Here’s Hilda! was the dramatisation of her grandmother’s life. Picture by Inspire Photography

MEN sank into the shelled mire of World War 1’s Western Front and drowned in the mud. Others were blinded and choked by mustard gas.

Despite the horror, the humour in New Zealand soldiers’ referring to themselves as Bill Massey’s tourists is typically Kiwi, says playwright, dancer and actor Jan Bolwell.

Bolwell has taken the New Zealand soldiers’ ironic bon mot (Massey was New Zealand prime minister at the time) for the title of her one-woman show Bill Massey’s Tourists which she will perform in Gisborne on Wednesday.

The play is based on her grandfather Arthur’s wartime experience as a soldier with the Otago Mounted Rifles.

With no letters or diaries to work from, and little mention of the war from her grandfather, Bolwell talked with family and friends and researched what her grandfather’s, and other men’s experience would have been.

For the play Bolwell cast herself as a 16-year-old who is working on a school project about World War 1, and interviews her grandfather, a North Otago farmer.

“My grandfather would never talk about the war,” Bolwell said.

“That’s what made writing this very difficult. I put Bill Massey’s Tourists together from stories. In the play I’m imagining my grandfather as if he is talking to me.

“What these men witnessed and did was something they could not talk about. In the play I quote a poem by Wilfred Owen who writes about what happened to men when they got gassed.

“My grandfather experienced gassing in Passchendaele. The war deeply affected him. After the war he ended up in a mental hospital where he was given ECT (electro convulsive therapy). I talk about the long-term effects of war on men.”

Bolwell said she found much of the play difficult to write, but that these are stories that should be told.

Her research included a visit to the Passchendaele battlefield in Belgium where row after row of white crosses on lawn tended by locals now stand.

“I asked a Belgian person ‘how can you live here with all this death around?’ He said it was fine. ‘We think of them as our friends’.”

Bolwell was told “The battlefield cemeteries are like sleeping cities”.

She said the hardest part in writing the play was describing Passchendaele.

“You’re trying to describe the indescribable. You’re trying to express the inexpressible. The only way to do that is physically.”

To do this she uses dance and projected imagery, some of which includes black and white photographic slides given to her by New Zealand theatre director Raymond Hawthorne.

Not everything in the play is serious though, Bolwell said.

A lot of New Zealand soldiers were larrikins. Many young men enlisted for adventure, and many lied about their age so they could serve overseas. In one scene Bolwell’s grandfather and his mates refuse to salute a British sergeant.

“When men are thrown together in high stress situations, joking keeps them going.”

Invited by the Auckland Regional Council to stage Bill Massey’s Tourists around the anniversary of Passchendaele, Bolwell performed it at a venue where several Vietnam War veterans told her what she portrayed was what they too experienced.

“War is war is war,” she said.


MEN sank into the shelled mire of World War 1’s Western Front and drowned in the mud. Others were blinded and choked by mustard gas.

Despite the horror, the humour in New Zealand soldiers’ referring to themselves as Bill Massey’s tourists is typically Kiwi, says playwright, dancer and actor Jan Bolwell.

Bolwell has taken the New Zealand soldiers’ ironic bon mot (Massey was New Zealand prime minister at the time) for the title of her one-woman show Bill Massey’s Tourists which she will perform in Gisborne on Wednesday.

The play is based on her grandfather Arthur’s wartime experience as a soldier with the Otago Mounted Rifles.

With no letters or diaries to work from, and little mention of the war from her grandfather, Bolwell talked with family and friends and researched what her grandfather’s, and other men’s experience would have been.

For the play Bolwell cast herself as a 16-year-old who is working on a school project about World War 1, and interviews her grandfather, a North Otago farmer.

“My grandfather would never talk about the war,” Bolwell said.

“That’s what made writing this very difficult. I put Bill Massey’s Tourists together from stories. In the play I’m imagining my grandfather as if he is talking to me.

“What these men witnessed and did was something they could not talk about. In the play I quote a poem by Wilfred Owen who writes about what happened to men when they got gassed.

“My grandfather experienced gassing in Passchendaele. The war deeply affected him. After the war he ended up in a mental hospital where he was given ECT (electro convulsive therapy). I talk about the long-term effects of war on men.”

Bolwell said she found much of the play difficult to write, but that these are stories that should be told.

Her research included a visit to the Passchendaele battlefield in Belgium where row after row of white crosses on lawn tended by locals now stand.

“I asked a Belgian person ‘how can you live here with all this death around?’ He said it was fine. ‘We think of them as our friends’.”

Bolwell was told “The battlefield cemeteries are like sleeping cities”.

She said the hardest part in writing the play was describing Passchendaele.

“You’re trying to describe the indescribable. You’re trying to express the inexpressible. The only way to do that is physically.”

To do this she uses dance and projected imagery, some of which includes black and white photographic slides given to her by New Zealand theatre director Raymond Hawthorne.

Not everything in the play is serious though, Bolwell said.

A lot of New Zealand soldiers were larrikins. Many young men enlisted for adventure, and many lied about their age so they could serve overseas. In one scene Bolwell’s grandfather and his mates refuse to salute a British sergeant.

“When men are thrown together in high stress situations, joking keeps them going.”

Invited by the Auckland Regional Council to stage Bill Massey’s Tourists around the anniversary of Passchendaele, Bolwell performed it at a venue where several Vietnam War veterans told her what she portrayed was what they too experienced.

“War is war is war,” she said.


Bill Massey’s Tourists, written and performed by Jan Bolwell, Unity Theatre, September 6 (7.30pm). Tickets $26 from Stephen Jones Photography

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