Mark Twain, the tourist

All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so. It is not close to anything, but lies by itself, out in the water.

Newspaper advertisement for Mark Twain's performances [1895]
Advertisement , Star, Issue 5410, 11 November 1895, Page 3 via Papers Past
The talk of the town 120 years ago in Christchurch was the visit of Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, who despite some initial ignorance as to our whereabouts (as illustrated in the above quote), made it safely to the shores of Aotearoa in spring 1895, and would spend 4 days in our own fair city.

It seems that Twain’s visit was on a par with those of pop stars of today. His performances were wildly popular. Originally scheduled to perform 3 shows at the Theatre Royal on Gloucester St, an extra date had to be added due to demand. He was hosted and shown the sights (such as the museum and botanic gardens), and a dinner was given in his honour. And as is still the case with foreign dignitaries, he was thoroughly interrogated by journalists into giving positive reviews of the scenery (some things never change).

Twain had undertaken a world tour due to financial troubles and used his travels as the basis for a “non-fiction” account Following the Equator which was published in 1897. I use the term non-fiction cautiously. Though the book does more or less faithfully document the itinerary of his world tour, Twain was a self-admitted liar and yarn-spinner and some of the stories in the book are of a spurious nature. Take for instance the information he gleans from a fellow traveller about the Moa.

The Moa stood thirteen feet high, and could step over an ordinary man’s head or kick his hat off; and his head, too, for that matter. He said it was wingless, but a swift runner. The natives used to ride it. It could make forty miles an hour, and keep it up for four hundred miles and come out reasonably fresh. It was still in existence when the railway was introduced into New Zealand; still in existence, and carrying the mails. The railroad began with the same schedule it has now: two expresses a week-time, twenty miles an hour. The company exterminated the moa to get the mails.

Oh, really?

This passage is accompanied by an utterly bizarre and grotesque illustration featuring a moa, being ridden by a Māori man, kicking the head off another – while also carrying a bag of mail.

Of course, this tale is related by an unnamed third party so Twain could always just have claimed he’d been misinformed if proved incorrect – which is an old, tale tellers’ trick… and a good one.

In any case, he did get to see his legendary moa (or at least the skeleton of one) at Canterbury Museum. In terms of scenery he thought our riverside weeping willows “the stateliest and most impressive” in the world. He was also struck by the Englishness of Christchurch saying, in his usual sardonic style –

If it had an established Church and social inequality it would be England over again with hardly a lack.

He also applauded the success of women’s suffrage in New Zealand (women had got the vote in 1893), the good sense of which he summed up in the following statement –

In the New Zealand law occurs this: “The word person wherever it occurs throughout the Act includes woman.”

Well, of course.

More about Mark Twain in Christchurch

Cover of Autobiography of Mark TwainSearch our catalogue

Welcome back to the Isaac Theatre Royal

The Isaac Theatre Royal is reopening on Monday 17 November. We have been watching the progress of the renovation, and are so pleased to see this Edwardian beauty come back into the Christchurch cultural firmament.

The people of Christchurch, in seeing the need to establish a venue for the local music society to perform, constructed the Music Hall on the original site in 1863. Then a visiting American actor conceived the idea of a theatre. This met with the approval of the society and in 1863 after some structural alterations the venue was re-opened and re-named the Royal Princess Theatre. Productions staged until the building’s demolition in 1876 included Shakespeare’s Richard II, King Henry IV, The Merchant of Venice, and other classics like Don Giovanni. The second theatre was opened eighteen weeks after the closure. The present Theatre Royal, which stands opposite the original site in Gloucester Street, opened 25 Feb. 1908 with a performance of The Blue Moon. — The Press:, 4 Oct. 1905, p. 7/ 8; The Press, 26 Feb. 1908, p. 7.

Read more about its history on the Isaac Theatre Royal website.

Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening [1907]
Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening [1907] CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0061
Congratulations to all those who have worked so hard to make this happen.


Cover of The Theatre RoyalFind out more:

The Magic Flute and the magic of the Theatre Royal

Southern Opera’s production of Mozart’s whimsical and beautiful opera,  recently performed at the Theatre Royal,  got the full sci fi treatment complete with Star Trek screens and noises. I was bemused by the overly elaborate staging and found it overworked, with a lot of distracting gimmicks. What looked to this viewer like a bank of blue portaloos, I have since found out was a representation of Sarastro’s temple! This left me somewhat confused at times  and I came away feeling I needed to read up on the opera. It now makes a lot more sense, as I’m clearer on the Masonic overtones.

Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening
Exterior view of the Theatre Royal, Christchurch, prior to opening

Nevertheless the CSO was fantastic and Papageno (Jared Holt) and the Queen of Night (Emma Pearson) were outstanding, the Queen of the Night hitting incredibly high notes with ease and grace.  The Solid Energy chorus was powerful and nothing could ruin Mozart’s glorious music. Ultimately it was a great experience.

The grand old Theatre Royal has not lost its magic for me it is always a comforting step back into the past.

For further information about this Christchurch treasure, go to their website, or there is interesting material at the library on its history.

Theatre Royal

When the world famous magician Carter the Great visited Christchurch in 1924, the climax of his act involved making a lion disappear with Carter to be discovered in its place.  Audiences may have marvelled, but Carter found himself in hot water with the local RSPCA, who accused him of giving the lion electric shocks. When the case went to court, experts judged the lion to be in good condition and the charge was dismissed.   The skirmish didn’t put Carter off Christchurch, and he returned again in 1927 to perform his “bloodless surgeries” (sawing a woman in half).  

Carter’s tale is just one of the many delightful anecdotes collected in a new history of Christchurch’s Theatre Royal.  Ghosts, Anna Pavlova and Louis Armstrong have all tread the boards in the theatre’s hundred year history.   This informative and great looking work traces the story of the theatre from beginning to the renovation and renaissance of today.

To coincide with the release of the book, the Central library has a display of theatre programmes from the last 100 years. The display also includes a film show of the documentary Shadows on the Stage. But be in quick, the display runs until 16 March.