By a curious irony of fate, the places to which we are sent when health deserts us are often singularly beautiful – Robert Louis Stevenson.
My recently completed playscript, Waipiata, is a dramatic treatment of the site of a tuberculosis sanatorium, “Orangapai”. Located in the Maniototo (Otago, New Zealand) on the northern slopes of the Rock and Pillar Ranges, Orangapai served as a sanatorium from 1914 until 1960.
Although the site is not widely known of nowadays, Orangapai was an important institution for the treatment of tuberculosis in New Zealand from the early to mid-twentieth century. Dr W. E. Chisholm who worked at the sanatorium from late 1948 until early 1949 described it as “the Arizona of New Zealand… It is the Mecca in New Zealand as Arizona is in the United States, for those threatened with or convalescing from tuberculosis”.
An objective in writing the script was to capture the physical landscape and the sense of isolation experienced by patients and staff. Sound is a key device used in Waipiata to create elements of geographical, meteorological, and temporal tension and expanse. The wind motif, which first appears in the Prologue, is used at key points as a multi-sensory encoding device to highlight the power of the arid climate and geography, and the ghosts and memories awoken at the sanatorium:
A progression and layering of sounds is heard; a pūrerehua, the hustling of wind through tussock grass, the rattling of wind against corrugated iron, and then the growing sharpness of radio frequency.” (Duncan)
The wind motif is layered to aurally render the aesthetics of the site and has a spatial and temporal function with its circular quality, indicating repeated patterns and the return of memories over time. This is represented literally by the pūrerehua (bull-roarer) as it spins to produce its distinctive sound. The elements within the motif (including corrugated iron and wind) are both literal and metaphoric and the motif is an atmospheric gauge in production as dramatic tension rises.
Corrugated iron has qualities that reflect those of the site and the wider Maniototo region. It has an undulating surface (like the Rock and Pillar Ranges); it can bend and produce sound in the wind; it turns a reddish-brown colour when it rusts, a similar hue to that found on schist rock. At a cultural level, it is a building material associated with barns in rural New Zealand and also features in Grahame Sydney’s well known paintings of the area.
Patients at Orangapai had little control or certainty regarding the length of their stay. Former patient Ewing Stevens was proactive in his treatment but was nonetheless prescribed total bed rest in 1948 when his condition worsened. His case illustrates the precariousness of the available treatment at the time and the psychological challenges that the patients faced. As he explains:
this was a tremendous blow to one’s morale and I began to wonder if I would ever get out.”
The sound of magpies is used to highlight this sense of frustration and fear in Waipiata. They are a mocking chorus, familiar in New Zealand and which have literary cultural currency with Denis Glover’s poem, The Magpies (1941). The magpies taunt patients including Florence in Act I, scene vii when she discusses her life post-discharge.
An abstract expression of the patients’ wariness at being isolated and institutionalised in Waipiata is the piercing radio frequency sound that suggests the distance and the expanse of physical space. Included in the play are scenes set in the sanatorium radio station, based on the real radio station set up by patients. It was, according Stevens, the first pirate radio station in New Zealand. It allowed the patients an auditory link with the world beyond Orangapai whilst reinforcing distance. It is sound without the sight of the human speaker.
In the first radio scene in Act I (patient) Bob recounts his story beyond the confines of the sanatorium and makes an oath that he will return to civilian life. He is on the surface a quintessential Southern farming man, pragmatic and jovial, and manages to retain a degree of delight in how he came to be diagnosed at an A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) show. Speaking into the microphone during an interview broadcast from the sanatorium, Bob is not effusive, but his desire to be remembered is strong:
BOB: To get this… It’s taken some getting used to. I’m doing everything they tell me I need to do so that I can get better and get out of here and get back to helping Dad on the farm… And I want to remind people that I’m still here. Bob’s still here, Maniototo. I’ll see you back in the pub. The next round’s on me. (Act I, scene x)
By the 1950s, treatments for tuberculosis had improved considerably. Medications, such as Paramisan, provided cure and patients no longer had to be hospitalised for extended periods (Dunsford 248). In 1960 Orangapai was closed. Although we no longer require sanatoria for the treatment of tuberculosis, they played a significant role in the lives of many New Zealanders before a cure was available. Waipiata was written, in part, as a dramatic haunting to retain memories and voices at the site and within the institution.
FOOTNOTE: Waipiata also covers the period from 1960 until present day. In 1961 the Ministry of Justice requisitioned the institution as the Waipiata Youth Centre, which was disbanded in 1979. A Christian community now owns the property, renamed En Hakkore.
Emily Duncan: Emily is a playwright. Waipiata is a full-length playscript written for the creative component of her PhD research (University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ), submitted in August 2017. To read the script, please contact Playmarket.
- Chisholm, W. E. “Waipiata Sanatorium: Being a Survey of the Various Aspects of Medical Interest at the Sanatorium, Carried out During the Christmas Vacation, 1948–49.” Diss. U Otago, 1949. Print.
- Duncan, Emily. Waipiata. Unpublished Playscript. 2016.
- Dunsford, Deborah. “Seeking the Prize of Eradication: A Social History of Tuberculosis in New Zealand from World War Two to the 1970s.” Diss. U of Auckland, 2008. Print.
- Stevens, Ewing. One Man’s Religious Journey: From Alpha to Omega in Faith. Auckland, NZ: Logos House, 2013. Print.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. “Ordered South.” Complete Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Hastings, UK: Delphi Classics, 2013. Print.