Martin Edmonds’ Bus Stops on the Moon: Red Mole Days 1974-1980 is a marvellous book. Marvellous isn’t a word I’d use often except for ordinary enthusing as in “bloody marvellous”, and that’s not how I’m using it here, because the occasion isn’t ordinary. I’m using it to describe two inter-related but distinct aspects of the book. Marvellous is the right word to describe the book’s out-of-ordinary story, the hectic onrush of marvels constituted by the performances, lives, world travels, and imaginative feats of the theatre collective known as Red Mole in various configurations together with its intrinsic assortments of musicians/bands and the puppet theatre White Rabbit.
But also marvellous is the way Martin Edmond has wrangled the narrative structure of his book. Given the dynamism and force of the Red Mole story, this could well have been an adulatory hagiography by a disciple or, at best, subaltern participant in the events documented and described over six years between 1974 and 1980. Martin’s affection and admiration for the Moles’ lives and work is clear, but he tells the story from the honestly vulnerable and subjective viewpoints of a memoir, with a time limit as flagged in the book’s sub-title (1974-1980) — the Mole’s work continued until Alan Brunton’s death in Amsterdam on June 28, 2002, and indeed after that for four more years in the person of his wife and life-partner Sally Rodwell until her suicide on October 15, 2006. As Martin notes in the Coda to his book, “I am only able to write about those first seven years; which were followed by another 25, during which works were made more in accord with the European and American (including Latin American) avant-garde than with the popular forms explored while I was with the troupe.”
As memoir framed by seven years of involvement with Red Mole at various levels, the book opens with a Prologue subtitled “Fugue States”. Fugue State or Dissociative Fugue is a psychiatric disorder involving degrees of amnesia and loss of identity. The Prologue’s opening sentence reads, “The summer I turned 22 I went mad. Or nearly went mad. Approached the borders of madness, perhaps, and then retreated.” This forthright confession reads jarringly at first — is this book going to be a solipsistic or even narcissistic account of Martin Edmond’s situation about the time he encountered Red Mole or its early manifestations? What actually transpires is honest but a lot more interesting than a me-too. Martin’s temporary but very real and frightening experience was of a ‘fugue state’ in which “Consciousness alters and, with it, reality. All things become questionable, including the questions themselves.” This is Martin’s description of what he experienced and matches well the diagnostic summaries found in the professional literature. But it’s also a better-than-average description of the world generated by Red Mole and in particular by the scripts or scenarios generated by Alan Brunton.
It also describes the mental and emotional effects sought in the performances and staged events of Red Mole. These included the trans strip joint Carmen’s Balcony in Wellington where they staged a phenomenally popular run of shows in 1977 and where Sally Rodwell and Deborah Hunt also earned an honest buck masquerading as strippers.
There were international and historical parallels for these mind-altering strategies, including the European avant-garde (Artaud and Beckett, for example), but the Moles’ nearest relatives were contemporary — Welfare State International in England (I wrote a shamelessly Molesque script, Eyeball Eyeball, for their New Zealand Residency in 1981), the San Francisco Mime Troupe, The Living Theatre (New York), the rather more puritan Theatre Action (New Zealand). Welfare State came closest to the Moles with their 1972 manifesto: “An Entertainment, an Alternative, a Way of Life. We make images, invent rituals, devise ceremonies, objectify the unpredictable and enhance atmospheres for particular places, times, situations and people. We are artists concerned with the survival and character of the imagination and the individual with a technologically advanced society.” They added, for good measure, that their aim was to make art as accessible as “free dentures, spectacles and coffins.”
For me, the Moles were usually more anarchic, cabaret-episodic, satirical and comedic than those models. They consistently exploited a slippery interface between what was serious and what was absurd and often seemed to be suggesting subversively that the distinction was irrelevant.
I was involved in minor ways with early Mole activity such as Vargo’s Circus (1976) and White Rabbit Puppet Theatre, and wrote some scripts or scenarios for both that were cheerfully ignored or subverted for the ends of the moment. With Alan I co-edited the magazine Spleen (“a useful organ”); we also organised the 1980 three poets’ tour State of the Nation with David Mitchell and a trio of musicians, Bruno Lawrence on drums, Bill Gruar on bass, and Wilton Roger playing anything he could get his hands on. It was towards the end of that tour, somewhere on the East Coast I think, that Alan left the stage and passed the poets’ baton to me with an aside to the audience, “Now Ian Wedde will attempt to entertain you.”
There was that biting side to Alan, even where no particular malice was involved, and though I was fond of him and valued him and Sally as good friends, it was about then that I stepped well clear of the Red Mole orbit, having participated in it one way or another for just over a year. It was better than fun while it lasted but could also be demanding in ways I found claustrophobic. It expected compliance with a tribal ethos, even allowing for the extremely individual talents of its core members.
Martin describes a moment when something similar happened or began to happen to him, a moment that also anticipates his decision to leave the Moles around the date, 1980, that separates memoir from a full documentary account of Red Mole extended by another 20 years. The moment was when, shortly before the Moles were scheduled to open their show The Last Days of Mankind at the Theatre for the New City in New York in 1979, Deborah Hunt “looked me in the eye and said, ‘We don’t need another actor.’” Martin writes that he was ready for this conversation: ‘“’That’s good.’ I said, ‘because I don’t want to act any more.’” And so for the duration of his time with the Moles he worked as their lighting operator. But it was then that “I finally began to figure out how to become the writer I wanted to be.” A crash course in the discipline of writing regularly and with “a fluency that, on better days, I still possess”, was his day job in New York, writing pornography for a pulp publication company on 3rd Avenue: “I worked in that place for six weeks and in that time wrote six books.” It could be described as radical sex therapy, perhaps, but in any case was one of the means by which Martin facilitated his transition away from Red Mole and into his ongoing life as a writer, not of porn but with confidence in the voice he was able to find, a voice that enabled him to “immediately channel the multifarious voices of others — the living, the dead, the revenant, the unborn.”
And indeed Martin Edmond did become a marvellous stylist. His closes his account of both Red Mole 1974-1980 and what might best be described as his personal Confession with a flourish, a couple of paragraphs that are at once honest and highly theatrical. They describe the moment when “it was clear that we [Martin and Jan] were going west and they were going east”.
He writes, “After dinner Alan fired up a carousel projector and started going through slides. Some beautiful shots came up: beams of blue and red and green light falling vertiginously across car body wrecks before which four emblematic figures stood: the mother and the father, the crucified child, the fool in motley sweeping up leaves while crying out helplessly against the doom of the times. ‘Who lit that show?’ Deborah asked. Sally, in her rich and lovely voice, said my name, but I already knew. They were shots of the first performance of Numbered Days in Paradise, in St Peter’s Parish Hall on 20th Street, Manhattan, the one for which I’d only been able to change gels and reappoint lamps. Seeing those magnificent images I felt redeemed. However fraught things might have been, however extreme my fugue states became, however many failures I endured or was responsible for, it all seemed worthwhile. The quotidian translated, howsoever briefly, into the eternal; light made solid again; the ineffable, which could neither be unseen nor undone, accomplished.”
A well-lit flourish; a bow; curtain down. Bravo.
Bus Stops on the Moon: Red Mole Days 1974-1980, by Martin Edmond (Otago University Press, $39.95) is longlisted for the non-fiction prize at the 2021 Ockham New Zealand national book awards, and available in selected bookstores nationwide.