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Unsettling Blanket Man: The ‘Ecological Māori’ as a Pākeha Play-Thing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 February 2015


Draped in a tatty woollen korowai (cloak), Ben Hana, aka ‘Blanket Man’, was an iconic, polarizing and mythical presence on the streets of central Wellington, New Zealand, until his death in January 2012. A critical character in contemporary urban folklore, Blanket Man captivated public attention as ‘Brother’, the leader of a band of fellow street-dwellers, a troubled anti-hero transformed into celebrity by the trend-setting hoi polloi as evidence of the capital's underlying quirk. This essay explores the unsettling representation of the puppet ‘The Blanket Man’ in the theatre production The Road That Wasn't There (2013) by the collective Trick of the Light. As a brave tribute or cross-cultural opportunism, the reanimation of the now ‘absent’ Brother as a performing object provokes questions about the representation of ‘real’ indigeneity – exploring notions of authenticity, exploitation and tokenism.

Copyright © International Federation for Theatre Research 2015 

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1 Bronwyn McGovern, interview, 14 April 2013, Wellington, New Zealand.

2 BATS Theatre is one of many public buildings closed in New Zealand for earthquake strengthening following the devastating Christchurch earthquakes in 2011. Wellington, situated on a number of fault lines, is considered particularly vulnerable.

3 McGovern's study of Brother is discussed in Lloyd, Mike and McGovern, Bronwyn, ‘Legendary Life on the Street: “Blanket Man” and Contemporary Celebrity’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22, 5 (October 2008), pp. 701–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lloyd, and McGovern, , ‘World Famous in Wellington: “Blanket Man” and Contemporary Celebrity’, SITES, new series, 4, 2 (2007), pp. 137–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bronwyn McGovern, ‘A Life Lived on the Corner’, PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2013. I am indebted to McGovern for her insight into Brother's life and her feedback on this paper.

4 Sophie Speer, ‘Wellington's Blanket Man Immortalised in Play’, 26 July 2012, at, last accessed 4 April 2013.

5 Tumblr, ‘Trick of the Light’, at, last accessed 12 May 2013.

6 Speer, ‘Wellington's Blanket Man Immortalised’.

7 See Hone Kouka's Waiora (1997) and Briar Grace-Smith's Purapurawhetu (1997) as exemplars of a hybridized Māori performance mode.

8 For a sample of Royal's work see

9 See examples of kareteo used in Charles Royals's Ōrotakare, a contemporary revival of the Whare Tapere: Ōrotakare – Art, Story Motion – Towards Indigenous Theatre and Performing Arts, at, last accessed 26 August 2014.

10 Tom Hunt, ‘The Man behind the Blanket: Courtney Place Won't Be the Same without Him’, Dominion Post, 19 June 2010, p. 4.

11 Wright, Errol and King-Jones, Abi, dir., Te Whanau o Aotearoa: Caretakers of the Land, 2003, CutCutCut Films, New ZealandGoogle Scholar.

12 Hunt, ‘The Man behind the Blanket’.

13 ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ is a successful and long-running print and television advertising campaign initiated by Tourism New Zealand that uses images and ideas associated with the beauty and rawness of New Zealand's natural environment to promote the country to overseas markets.

14 See Lloyd and McGovern ‘Legendary Life on the Street’.

15 Ibid., p. 704.

17 Lloyd and McGovern, ‘World Famous in Wellington’, p. 148. Italics in original.

18 Durie, Mason, Nga Tai Matatu: Tides of Maori Endurance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 7Google Scholar.

20 Ibid., p. 14.

21 Ibid., p. 16.

22 Ibid., p. 20.

23 Ibid., p. 21.

24 Ibid., p. 11.

25 Harris, Graham and Tipene, Percy, ‘Maori Land Development’, in Mulholland, Malcomet al., eds., State of the Maori Nation (Auckland: Reed Publishing New Zealand, 2006), 67–80, here p. 67Google Scholar.

26 Durie, Nga Tai Matatu, pp. 255–6.

27 The title of this section is taken from Ralph McCubbin-Howell, The Road That Wasn't There, Bats Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand, February 2013. See the filmed version of the play at Tane Upjohn-Beatson, Vimeo, at, last accessed 12 April 2013.

28 Speer, ‘Wellington's Blanket Man’, 2012.

30 McGovern, interview, 2013.

31 McCubbin-Howell, The Road That Wasn't There.

33 This emulates the style of Māori comedian Billy T. James (William Taitoko) who adopted a stereotypical vernacular and tone as a means of ‘speaking back’ to cultural hegemony and to satirize cultural inequality in New Zealand.

34 McCubbin-Howell, The Road That Wasn't There.

35 Tangata Whenua is the original and designated Te Reo descriptor for Māori people.

36 Krech, Shepard, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), p. 21Google Scholar.

37 Krech, The Ecological Indian, p. 22.

38 Ibid., p. 17.

39 Ibid., p. 27.

41 As part of the ‘Keep America Beautiful Campaign’ in 1971, the image of Iron-Eyes Cody as ‘the Crying Indian’ epitomized the often ironic undertones of the perpetuation of indigenous stereotypes. Cody was famous for playing Native Indian characters in many films but was revealed in later life to have had no Indigenous American heritage. See Birgit Däwes, ‘Stages of Resilience: Heteroholistic Environments in Plays by Clements, Marie and Nolan, Yvette’, in Maufort, Marc and Däwes, Birgit, Enacting Nature: Ecocritical Perspectives on Indigenous Performance (Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2014), 21–45, here p. 23Google Scholar.

42 Goldie, Terrie, Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures(Kingston, Montreal and London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1989), p. 63Google Scholar.

43 McCubbin-Howell, The Road That Wasn't There.

44 A korowai is a cloak traditionally worn by Māori chiefs.

45 Goldie, Fear and Temptation, p. 128.

48 McCubbin-Howell, The Road That Wasn't There.

49 Aotearoa, translating in Te Reo as ‘Land of the long white cloud’ is the name Maori designated for the land forms which comprise New Zealand. It is now common for both signifiers to be used simultaneously in Government and Academic discourses.

50 ‘Brother’, in Wright and King-Jones, Te Whanau o Aotearoa.

52 Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 143–4, 165Google Scholar.

53 Fuchs, Elinor, ‘Reading for Landscape: The Case of American Drama’, in Fuchs, Elinor and Chaudhuri, Una eds., Land/Scape/Theatre (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2002), p. 30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Marvin Carlson, ‘After Stein: Traveling the American Theatrical “Landscape”’, in Fuchs and Chaudhuri, Land/Scape/Theatre, pp. 145–158, here p. 151.

55 Fuchs, ‘Reading for Landscape’, p. 47.

56 Arthur J. Sabatini, ‘The Sonic Landscapes of Robert Ashley’, in Fuchs and Chaudhuri, Land/Scape/Theatre, pp. 322–349, here p. 335.

57 Ibid., p. 335.

58 Goldie, Fear and Temptation, p. 137.

59 Ibid., p. 138.

60 Smith, Linda Tuhiwai, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London and New York: Zed Books, 1999), p. 74Google Scholar.

61 Dash, Michael, ‘In Search of the Lost Body: Redefining the Subject in Caribbean Literature’, in Ashcroft, Bill, Griffiths, Gareth and Tiffin, Helen, eds., The Post-colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 332–5Google Scholar.

62 Proschan, Frank, ‘The Semiotic Study of Puppets, Masks and Performing Objects’, Semiotica, 47, 1/4 (1983), pp. 344Google Scholar, quoted in Kaplin, Stephen, ‘A Puppet Tree: A Model for the Field of Puppet Theatre’, Drama Review, 43, 3 (Autumn 1999), pp. 2835, here p. 29 (1983)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 Cohen, Michael Isaac, ‘Puppetry and the Destruction of the Object’, Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 12, 4 (2007), pp. 123–31, here p. 124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 Margolis, Harriet, ‘Indigenous Star: Can Mana and Authentic Community Survive International Co-productions?’, Quarterly Review of Film & Video, 19, 1 (2002), pp. 1529, here p. 18CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 In her article, Margolis discusses the role and representational value of distinguished Māori activist Eva Rickard in the films Mauri (1988) and Flight of the Albatross (1995). As a highly respected media personality, Rickard's real-life mana (integrity, prestige, charisma) was critical to the double reading of her filmic role/s: Margolis asserts that ‘Rickard should be seen as an exceptional member of a community whose mana lends credibility to the films’ (p. 18). Evaluating the ways in which the two texts utilized Rickard's mana, Margolis asserts that the German-funded Flight ‘exploits Eva Rickard's mana’, whereas the Māori produced Mauri ‘draws some degree of authenticity both from Eva Rickard's mana itself and from the manner in which the film represents that mana’ (p. 26, my italics). This is not to say that Brother was ‘exceptional’ in the same way as Rickard. But there was a sense of ‘exceptionalism’ in the way in which he became (in)famous despite being homeless – a notoriety which came with a very different, perhaps contemporary, kind of mana, or charisma. I believe that the play exploits this charismatic figure in order to give the text authenticity as a uniquely ‘kiwi’ production. That is Kiwi theatre, but pertinently not Māori. This is the crux of what unsettles me about the representation of the Blanket Man puppet: a sense of exploitation that is connected with form.

66 McGovern, interview, 2013.

67 Griffiths, Gareth, ‘The Myth of Authenticity’, in Tiffin, Chris and Lawson, Alan, eds., De-scribing Empire: Postcolonialism and Textuality (London: Routledge, 1994), 70–85Google Scholar.

68 See Lloyd and McGovern, ‘World Famous in Wellington’; and Lloyd and McGovern, ‘Legendary Life on the Street’.

69 While I initially contacted the playwright to discuss the concerns I had about this representation soon after the first production, the conversation ended when my ‘agenda’ became more evident. During the editing phase of this article McCubbin-Howell then contacted me directly to ask for my advice about dealing with the use of Māori elements in this production. I see this as a really critical recognition and possible shift in the company's approach and hope that they will pursue a different path in framing cultural experiences in their future work.

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