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Meet the parents: The actors reliving Tom Scott's troubled upbringing

Michael Hurst and Ginette McDonald. Photo/Angie Humphreys/Listener

Tom Scott’s plays about his parents are being wed into one theatrical season, with Ginette McDonald and Michael Hurst in the roles. The actors talk to Linda Herrick.

Writer Tom Scott’s relationship with his alcoholic, abusive father provided rich pickings for his tragi-comedy The Daylight Atheist, which debuted in 2002. Now the Auckland Theatre Company is partnering that play with a new Scott drama, Joan, based on the life of his mother. Michael Hurst and Ginette McDonald, play – separately – the Irish-expat couple locked into a life filled with hate. In McDonald’s case, she’s portraying a woman she knew through her friendship with the writer.

This revival of The Daylight Atheist resurrects Scott’s portrayal of his father, Tom Scott Snr, thinly disguised as elderly drunk Danny Moffat. What is Danny grappling with?

Michael Hurst: It’s the final days of his life and he’s boxed himself in. He knows what he’s done but he can’t do anything about it. He wakes up late in the afternoon, gets dressed, goes out, gets a beer, buys fish’n’chips, gets back and it’s dark. That’s the action. Old man, old clothes.

The question remains, how do we feel about him, a guy so cruel and horrible and funny and self-sabotaging? Do you, in this day and age, go, “Aw, poor guy”, or do you go, “Well, that’s what you get”?

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Is he self-pitying? Tom Scott’s memoir, Drawn Out, is full of self-confessed bouts of “woe is me”.

MH: Self-pity is the worst thing for an actor to play. Everyone hates it.

Ginette McDonald: Grant Tilly did self-pity rather too well [in the original].

MH: It’s shot through with self-realisation. In the 17 years since it was written, there’s been a huge change, and now you look at men – dinosaurs like him – who go, “Oh, I f---ed it up, I’m sorry, I feel bad about it all”. But what investment do we want to give them? That’s what I’m trying to find out. Do we put backward-looking energy into these characters, or do we say, “You should have got over yourself, let’s move on”, and tell men to wake up. Not just go, “Oh, it wasn’t my fault”.

Joan features two Joans, the younger woman played by Ginette’s daughter, Katie McGill, and Joan as a bitter elderly lady. That gives a broader perspective than The Daylight Atheist.

GM: Before I knew Tom Scott, in the mid-70s, I watched a TV programme called On the Couch, in which a psychiatrist interviewed well-known New Zealanders. Tom was lying on the couch talking about his father in a most unpleasant way. “My father was a brute, he was a drunk, he was horrible to my mother.” I didn’t realise that Tom’s father was very much alive and sitting in Feilding watching the television. It’s just not done. When I got to know Tom, I said, “No one does that.” Who talks like that about anybody who’s still alive?

Tom Scott: tear-filled recollections. Photo/John Williams/Listener

So when he wrote Daylight Atheist he removed himself one step by calling the character Danny Moffat. He’s now decided to write about Joan as Joan – I knew Joan and she was extraordinary – but I didn’t realise she’d had such a relatively lovely youth. She was a coarsened older woman, but she’d been coarsened by her circumstances. So he had the rather ingenious idea of presenting the young one as full of beans, optimism and stylish, and turning into this old harridan.

The key thing if you’re talking about the two of them together – Joan and Tom Snr – was that they’d only met once and promptly had sex in a field. He was Protestant and she was Catholic. So they had sex and off he was going to a promising new life in the RNZAF in New Zealand. Unfortunately, because she’d conceived, he was forced [by her brothers] to marry her. This was after she’d had the twins, in 1947. They pulled all her teeth out when she gave birth because she got septicaemia. When they married, he’d only met her twice, once in the field and once in the registry office. She went to New Zealand in 1949 to join him with the twins, who were 18 months old.

MH: In the play, it’s not twins, just Egghead [the only name he ever used for Tom, his son]. Towards the end of Daylight Atheist, he actually reveals that when the ship was due to dock in Auckland, he was so excited he got a lift on a pilot boat out to meet her. She wasn’t expecting him for another two hours and when he opens the door, she bore no resemblance to the sepia photographs.

GM: She was fat from having the twins; she had no teeth.

MH: Her gorgeous hair was in rollers, her teeth were in a glass of bleach by the bed. And then Egghead, he says, “took one look at Danny and shat himself”. I [Danny] can’t deal with that, so I step outside while she changes the nappy and I’m thinking of a man who was that excited I arrived two hours early.

GM: We spent ages last summer trying to [work out Joan] and suddenly it occurred to me that the key thing about this couple is that they were matched in intellect, clever, well-read, and they saw the potential in a new thing, and despite the lack of teeth, there was an attraction between them. They had six children. The key thing is, the audience is thinking, why is Joan so vulgar?

Tom Scott caricature of Ginette McDonald. Image/Tom Scott

Was the Joan you knew vulgar?

GM: (Snorts.) She was very outspoken. I know she’s had all this privation and he’s been a disappointment, but his life has been ruined, not by her, but circumstances. Same with her. Joan had no means of getting away. 

Tom Scott took the title of The Daylight Atheist directly from his father, who was ill in hospital when his son took his friend, writer AK Grant, to visit him. Scott Snr told Grant: “During the day I don’t give a f--- about God … but at night … I believe in God like you wouldn’t believe. I’m a daylight atheist!”

MH: That’s having it a bit both ways. It’s like a poverty of faith. I don’t have a problem because I’ve got no faith. I’m a proper atheist. I’m properly adjusted but this character isn’t – or is he just saying it? Are his fears not so much about death as him confronting his own foibles?

Does he talk about his children in the play?

MH: All the time. Especially Egghead, whom he hates. 

His photo album had Tom Scott’s face cut out of every photo.

GM: Yes, but that’s because Tom had been on TV saying horrible things about him.

MH: That comes out in the play, too. Over the years, Egghead gets big and at one point Danny is screaming at his mother, “Dingbat, Christ, you’re ugly, woman. Put your teeth in – oh, they are in! Well, take them out, maybe that’ll help.” Finally, Egghead stands up, and he’s much bigger than me now, and says, “No, Dad, don’t speak to my mother or my sister like that again, please.” Well, that’s a red rag. “Look who’s on his hind legs!”

GM: Just a ball of anger and misery and disappointment.

Tom Scott caricature of Michael Hurst. Image/Tom Scott

Ginette, did you go to Joan’s funeral in Napier when she died in 2011?

GM: Of course. Joan had said no priests, no hymns, no scriptures. The only suitable place they could find for Joan, who’d made so many stipulations, was some sort of Jewish funeral home in Napier. It was a very simple service, but I think she would have liked a far more theatrical Catholic-type thing with incense. It was a bare room, a lilac coffin and everyone had a small glass of Jameson’s. Tom made a speech and cried a bit.

Based on what he reveals in Drawn Out, Tom Scott does seem to cry a lot.

MH (in Irish accent): “Fetch me the weeping bowl, we’ll have the royal weeping bowl, methinks.” Tom said over the phone, “Just get the withering scorn and everything else will follow”.

GM: You could analyse Tom, the two plays – why Tom insists on putting these Giles cartoon-type jokes – all of this, you could go on a seminar for a fortnight somewhere in the woods to discuss. 

Giles cartoons?

GM: Joan says, “Giving birth was excruciating and I lost lots of blood.” Tom in the next draft: “Squirting blood, blinding the eyes.” Tom, did your mother ever say, “You go too far”? Which she did all the time. He didn’t take out the line; instead, he adds one. That’s what I mean about Giles cartoons. 

One of the problems for Joan, and this was applicable to many women of the time, is that she was so fertile.

GM: Futile?

Fertile.

GM: Sorry, I’m deaf in one ear. She was a futile woman.

MH: Futile and fertile.

GM: “The only time we did it, how am I to know I’m more fertile than the Nile Delta!”

The Daylight Atheist and Joan, Auckland Theatre Co, ASB Waterfront Theatre, Feb 7-23.

Tom Scott on his parents

His father

When he was a small boy, Tom Scott had to go into Wellington Hospital for an eye operation, so his father drove him from Feilding to the capital in his 4WD Chevrolet with weed-spraying booms folded over the front.

As they drove away from home, “I managed to lose it. I blurted this out to my father. He cuffed me angrily about the head and I began crying softly and didn’t stop for ages. Not a word was exchanged between us the whole trip.”

When Scott was in standard six: “Our father’s drinking got worse. Lawns stopped being mown and broken windows were boarded up. Some mornings, trudging up the drive to catch the school bus, we passed vomit dripping from the window sill of the marital chamber.

“It’s shocking, really, but I never knew and still don’t know the day, the month or the year of his birth.” 

His mother

Scott travelled to Ireland in 1977, where he met his mother’s relatives, who told him, “Mum was a striking, glamorous, glorious force of nature … There is a picture of her with Katharine Hepburn tresses, dark lipstick on full lips, wearing a stylish tweed hacking jacket … She looks confident, poised and carefree. Then she met my father.”

Birthdays were an issue for the Scott kids, with money so tight that one year, Tom and his twin Sue received a book of morality tales Joan had bought from Mormon missionaries. “We both burst into tears and were inconsolable little shits … When we got home we discovered she had push-biked into town to buy us another, more acceptable present each – an eight-mile return trip – and had prepared a lavish birthday tea of ice-cream and jelly.”

The elderly Joan had been living with Scott and his family in Wellington, but the death of another son, Michael, “knocked the stuffing out of her”.

“She wore mittens all the time and complained constantly about the pain, which I suppose you do when the pain is constant. She became very hard to please … It came as no surprise when Mum announced she wanted to move to a retirement village in Napier.”

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.