Agit-prop and Street Theatre

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As early as 1932 the WAC was taking its message out of doors to the general public, playing out short sketches on the back of a lorry to late night Friday shoppers. Over the years the quality of both material and performance improved and at the height of McCarthyism there were more requests for outside shows than could be met. Regular Sydney venues in the 1950s included the Eveleigh Railway Workshop, Commonwealth Engineering Granville, Morts Dock, Elliot Street wharf at West Balmain in front of workers waiting to go to Cockatoo Island, Mortlake Gasworks, Australian Forge and Engineering, Randwick tram depot, Leichhardt bus depot, Kirbys, Ducon Condensor and Water Board workshops, Security Electric, Coopers Engineering at Botany, Malleable Castings and the Bunnerong Powerhouse. There were also concert parties for hospital patients, although headset-wearing consumptives at the Waterfall Sanitorium paid more attention to the horse races.

No opportunity was lost to distribute leaflets on the New’s shows or the causes it supported. The maritime link was strengthened by performances on wharves and at pay depots during lunch breaks and smokos. Ken Rowsthorne “The Singing Wharfie” moved from outdoors to the stage proper as mug shearer Widges in Reedy River.

Most agit-prop scripts concerned workers’ issues and Australian politics. Coal miners traditionally worked long hours for low pay with no social services or sick leave, suffering dust on the lungs and impaired vision from tallow lamps, and risking death or injury from explosions, floods and fire. Their conditions were the subject of the mainstream productions New Way Wins 1940, Men Who Speak For Freedom 1942, Birthday of a Miner 1949, Black Diamonds 1958 and Come All You Valiant Miners 1965.

Betty Roland’s The Miners Speak, recited outdoors in 1938, concluded with a call to strike delivered with clenched fists:

Youth: I am this old man’s son. Young, strong and vigorous.

I only ask the right to work.

But I am 21, you see, and there’s the catch.

“No work for you, my lad, you’ve had your turn.

Nick off!

There’s plenty more at 15 who will take your place.

They work as well as you and don’t cost near as much.”

During the prolonged 1949 coal miners’ strike ~ when electricity blackouts meant the New’s foyer and stage were lit by kerosene lamps ~ agit-prop shows played up to six times a day. One script was Oriel Gray’s Coal:

Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, we are taking our microphone to the swirling cross section of any Australian city. We are testing public opinion by mass observation, and the question before you today is – Coal.

(SFX crowd)

First voice: Oh, the miners again.

First woman: Don’t ask me. I don’t even know what it’s about.

Businessman: Trying to run the country – trying to ruin business, that’s what they’re doing … Reds and foreigners, the lot of them.

First woman: I don’t know … but they can’t always be the ones at fault. Sometimes they must have a good case. That’s how I feel – but you see I don’t know.

(SFX crowd up)

Second woman: The coal’s there isn’t it? Why can’t someone get it out?

A man: As a candidate for the Liberal Party I can assure you my party pledges itself to see that the coal is produced.

A doctor: As a doctor, I’ll give you statistics to prove I’m treating more casualties from dust than I was five years ago … and the condition is more chronic.

Narrator: We can give all facts and figures

How many tons are mined on the northern fields in any given year.

How much profit they made in 1945 –

And that’s a figure for you.

We can keep it statistical and still let you know

The number dead and maimed by the black pit;

But no slide rule can measure agony of bitter hours wept dry

By women waiting at the pit head.

No graph can show the way a man’s life chokes down

When his lungs are silting full of dust –

The tissues hardening to brittle stone.

In 1952 when the Commonwealth government decided to close the Glen Davis shale oil mine, its miners struck. The New was ready with material critical of Australian and US politicians.

Will Glen Davis be a Ghost Town?

No! No! No!

Will we let the Yanks turn off our oil?

No! No! No!

Will they run us off Glen Davis oil?

No! No! No!

Will we let old Truman rule us?

No! No! No!

Will we let Bob Menzies rule us?

No! No! No!

Following an approach from the Miners’ Federation during the season of The Candy Store, the play was performed underground at Glen Davis, lit by the stay-put miners’ lamps, on a makeshift stage at the junction of five tunnels. Some of the younger men showed their appreciation of the actresses’ “brief” appearances; other staunch Labor supporters, who preferred local papers to Communist literature, kept their distance. A repeat performance for the miners’ families was given above ground in a local hall.

In November 1952 Len Fox’s sketch Stay Down Miner was performed with songs, impersonations and skits on Menzies and Fadden before stay-put strikers in the Great Greta coalmine near Singleton. Other strikers supported by street theatre included Metters employees involved in a wage dispute in 1957 and dance instructors wanting to join a union in 1959 (“Arthur Murray taught me dancing in a hurry”).

Building workers were entertained during lunch breaks on sites such as RPA’s nurses’ home in 1954, and David Jones Parramatta in 1961 where reference to the store was woven into the lyrics of one of the players’ most popular songs:

I dreamed that I had equal pay

And believe me children that ain’t hay

When you come to think of what I’m equal to.

I dreamed I owned a Cadillac

And a modest 25-room shack

All paid for from the back pay that came through.

In 1962 the New’s 30th birthday was celebrated with a concert to an audience of 300 in the carpenters’ shop of the Sydney Opera House before any above-ground construction had begun. Two years earlier New members had been present when Paul Robeson sang to building workers on the site.

Conservative politicians were a favourite New Theatre target. For over two decades Robert Menzies provided revue material, the first in I’d Rather be Left in 1941:

There’ll always be a Menzies

While there’s a BHP

For they have drawn their dividends

Since 1883.

and street theatre during the Suez crisis:

I’m the Sheik of BHP

Your canal belongs to me!

and in support of CPA candidates:

If you want Peace, a Home, a Job

To see the last of Pig Iron Bob

Make a communist your new MP

And face the future with a smile.

Menzies’ nickname dated from 1938 when Port Kembla wharf labourers refused to load the Dalfram steamer with pig iron destined for Japan on the grounds that it would be used to make weapons against Manchuria – and come back to Australia as bullets. Attorney-General Menzies invoked the Workers’ Transport Act (dubbed the Dog Collar Act) stipulating that only licensed wharfies could work on certain ports and that an agreement including a no strike clause had to be signed. The BHP product was eventually shipped but for every two bins loaded one fell into the harbour.

Betty Roland dashed off War on the Waterfront. Its cast had to learn their lines fast and rehearse in secret:

Joe (Port Kembla watersider): I say, Bill, I wonder where this pig iron’s for?

Bill: Hanged if I know.

Joe: Wonder if it’s going to Japan?

Bill: Shouldn’t be surprised. They’re the ones who seem to need it most these days.

Joe: Then they don’t get me to load it, by crikey!

BHP (in frock coat and top hat): What business is it of yours where the cargo goes? Your job is to load it and ask no questions.

Joe: Oh, yes, Adolf? Since when was I born deaf and dumb?

BHP: Will you get on with your work?

Joe: Not me, governor. I’m not going to make money from the blood and suffering of helpless men and women. I’ll leave that sort of thing to you.

In Sydney’s Domain War on the Waterfront had barely started on 11 December 1938 when it was stopped by police, after which the actors ended up at Watsons Bay where they did it before an audience of bemused bathers. A week later, protected by a cordon of seamen and unionists, they were back in the Domain, defying a ban imposed by NSW Minister for Agriculture Albert David Reid. No appeal for money was made but the crowd, estimated at 300-400, showered the actors with coins. Vic Arnold, Hal Alexander, Bruce Bull, Robert Mitchell and John Woolacott were arrested. Although testifying constables admitted they transcribed some parts of the play wrongly because they couldn’t hear for the applause, the five were fined. Their defence counsel was John Kerr just out of law school.

After the Domain incident, Port Kembla wharfies formed a drama group and took War on the Waterfront to towns on the South Coast.

Workers, Beware was another Betty Roland script about the Dalfram incident. In it BHP, Shipowner and King Coal are in conflict with a seaman and a waterside worker (addressed by BHP as a bounder, vulgarian, and common low-born thug). The piece finishes with the capitalists linking hands, proclaiming “All for each and each for all!” and exiting in song:

For the more we stick together, together, together,

The more we stick together the wealthier we’ll be!

For your friends are my friends, and my ends suit your ends,

So the more we stick together, the wealthier we’ll be.

Another of Betty Roland’s agit-prop scripts was anti-conscription Vote “No!”. In 1938 a national register was proposed with a card index system classifying Australia’s adult population. The NTL was nervous that this would be used for military or industrial conscription.

The Commentator, Politician, Capitalist and “Granny Herald” were played by Vic Arnold, Dennis Nash, John Sherman and Jean Blue.

Commentator: In 1916 and in 1917 united action won the greatest victory for freedom in the history of Australia. In 1938 the clouds of war hang overhead again. Only united action can prevail today. What do you want? A free Australia or a country under military dictatorship which is only another name for fascism. Men and women of Australia, answer! DO YOU WANT CONSCRIPTION? (Endeavour to get audience to answer “No”. Then the entire group lines up and concludes by singing, to the tune of “Old Black Joe”)

All: Conscription! Conscription! Every man must go.

I hear Australian voices calling

No! No! No!

(Again try to get audience to join in, calling on them to do so and repeating verse. If necessary, hold up placard with the words printed on it.)

Another Vote “No”! agit-prop script was written in 1951 when the coalition government passed the National Service Act (“Nasho”) whereby males over the age of 18 were called up for military training. Menzies was targeted, as was Country Party leader Artie Fadden who likened Australian communists to a venomous snake which should be killed before it had a chance to strike.

I’m an old cowhand and I understand

Just who should govern this wide brown land

Not the Liberal-Country Party, Oh I know that

Not one of them blokes is a democrat...

We’ll fight against you just like Dave Sands,

For you won’t bluff us with your commands,

We’ll vote no, no, no, we’ll seal your fate

The New conducted a major “No” campaign before the November 1951 referendum for wider powers to combat communism, the Menzies Government’s second attempt to ban the CPA after the Communist Party Dissolution Act had been declared unconstitutional by the High Court. The referendum was defeated by a narrow margin.

In the 1941 State election the NTL supported anti-Lang candidates Clive Evatt and Clarrie Martin and claimed credit for helping their re-election. Stage designer and actor Charles Kitchener wrote Vote Labor, a script later modified by Jock Hector for federal elections:

A Skeleton confronts a fat UAP candidate (who’s banging a drum) about issues such as unemployment, rising rents, rising fares, and rising food prices.

UAP: Where are all the people who voted for our Party last time?

Skeleton: They’ve gone over to New Zealand to get a job. New Zealand’s got a Labour government.

Worker: What are you going to vote, boys?

Chorus: Labor … the new ALP.

Worker: Who’s the man you’re going to put your number one against?

Chorus: Evatt… Clive Evatt.

Some New Theatre people were Hughes-Evans Labor candidates in 1941: William Hortin (Canterbury), Rupert Lockwood (Concord), Paul Mortier (Kogarah), Sid Conway (Redfern) and Sam Lewis (Randwick), while staunch communist Diana Gould stood as an Independent. None were successful.

42A And All That penned by the NTL Writers Group was a collection of agit-prop two-minute sketches delivered from the back of a lorry on street corners in Petersham, Newtown and Paddington in 1941. One topic was the boycott on beer by workers demanding its price be reduced. Begun by the WWF in Sydney the ban resulted in waterfront pubs being virtually empty. The strike spread to Broken Hill and Darwin. When the price dropped there was a stampede on the hotels.

Another topic was Regulation 42A of the National Security Act which made punishable disloyal or subversive comments of war policies or administration. It was repealed in March 1941 and replaced with a more precise definition after Dr Evatt campaigned against the original as being too broad.

Boss: Why aren’t you men in uniform? In the Army? Loafing around the streets ... the pubs ... Stick a gun in your hands, that’s what we ought to do! Conscription! What do you do, anyway?

Man 1: I’m a steel worker.

Man 2: I make munitions.

Both: We do more than fight for our country … we make what Australians need. And you? You take the profits. The government taxes our pay.

Boss: Fifth columnists! Reds! Traitors! We’ll have 42A down on you!

Politics played outdoors brought hecklers and missiles. Oriel Gray’s sister Grayce Maxwell was one of those who took part in sketches at noisy meetings, the rowdiest at Kings Cross. Gordon Anderson wrote The Nation Speaks:

White Collar Worker:

A worker’s party must be put in parliament.

A Labor Party that is true to Labor’s role.

Industrial Worker:

You will not find this party with the Mairs,

The Beasleys, Curtins and McKells, the Langs –

They fool the workers for their votes;

Make promises they will not keep.

White Collar Worker:

The UAP, the UCP, Official ALP –

All different labels tied to similar goods.

Take off the tinsel wrappings of these groups,

Examine close the goods within.

Industrial Worker:

They are the same!

They have a common policy:

A slogan we will tolerate no more.

Young Man:

For there’s a Workers’ Party now,

The Labor Party State of New South Wales.

The Party led by Hughes – the Party that has stuck

To Labor’s principles and fights for Labor’s rights.

By the end of the 1953 State election campaign NT players accompanied by the Unity Singers (Ross Thomas) and Unity Dancers (Mrs Lou Smith) were exhausted after performing at over 30 meetings (outside cinemas and pubs, in parks and on streets competing with traffic noise) in support of Communist candidates. The CPA platform included free hospital care, lower public transport fares, nationalisation of big monopolies, expanded social services, abolition of the NSW Legislative Council (a referendum to do this was defeated in 1961) and unlocking big country holdings for distribution to rural workers, ex-servicemen and farmers on marginal lands.

Another policy was smaller class sizes in schools:

I heard of one school with one lavatory for fifty

With all this green fruit that’ll be nifty.

Street theatre, dormant during the Whitlam period of government, was revived under Malcolm Fraser. “The crazy grazier” was lampooned in song and as The Wizard of Oz; parts of The Pirates of Pal Mal were performed on the Sydney Town Hall steps; and “Which side are you on?” sung on marches organised by the Movement Against Uranium Mining:

Oh, people could you stand it

To watch your children die

From nuclear leukaemia

A-fallin’ from the sky?

So listen to your conscience

And help the cry go ‘round

Act while there is still a chance


The Energy Show investigating alternatives to nuclear ~ including solar and renewables ~ played in streets, pubs, and at country festivals during 1979-80. An Australia Council grant financed another rural tour of skits including The Radio-Active Clown Show.

From its inception the New was involved with dozens of organisations promoting peace. Always nervous of Australia’s close defence ties with the USA, in the 1980s it called for the closure of Pine Gap. Opposed to the Vietnam War, its members participated in Moratorium marches and questioned its morality in On Stage Vietnam and several revues. In one street theatre performance actors created a “crime scene” with their body outlines traced with chalk on the footpath. They then held up “No War” and “Get out of Vietnam” signs to passers- by. Other sketches involved a Vietnamese peasant being dragged through city streets and GIs raping Vietnamese women, but Nixon’s aerial mining of Hanoi was called off because of police surveillance. In 1971-2 a street theatre team went into the city nearly every Saturday and played out the plight of refugees, police harassment of Aboriginal people, pollution, censorship, unemployment, homelessness, public transport fares, apartheid, and US dominance of Australian television content and coal mining. Graham Richards, street theatre’s main organiser, was fined for offensive behaviour after pushing a wheelbarrow containing a papier maché phallus at a Women’s Liberation rally.

The cost of living was a favourite street theatre topic. In 1946 Ben Chifley was addressed in What About It, Chief? After 1949 Menzies was the target.

A Woman Who Knows: We’ve got to get into politics. Politics is just another way of saying how much rent you pay… how much meat, fruit, vegetables your pay packet will buy. How much is left over to buy new shoes. That’s politics. You’ve got to see your local Member of Parliament, your local councillor, and tell them we want prices really controlled…. You can do it through your union, through your Housewives Association.

Led by prominent communists Freda Brown, Betty Reilly and Hetty Searle, the New Housewives Association aimed to involve working-class women in agitating for wage rises, price controls, child care and public housing. Later subsumed in the Union of Australian Women, the organisation published The New Housewife and the short-lived The Housewives’ Guide.

A 1948 referendum on government control of prices and rents was defeated.

Meat monopolies (especially Vesteys which exported meat, leading to high domestic prices) were targeted in Mona Brand’s operetta Butcher’s Hook, a potpourri of lyrics set to popular tunes:

Oh, give me a bone I can cook on its own

In a pot, with a carrot or two;

Potato to swell, and an onion as well,

And I’ll give them the old Irish stew.

Land of steak and sirloin

Mutton far too dear

Why should we export it

When we need it here.

By the 1970s Australians were getting hooked on fast food other than fish and chips. Graham Richards had a Ronald McDonald outfit made with “Artificial Food Makes Real Profit” written on the back and with street theatre members would go into a Maccas store and find a (plastic) rat in the order. This exercise involved a few close calls with the police. In another “in situ” operation the group would enter a bank, write “Filling in forms panders to the rich” on the deposit and withdrawal slips, and watch customers’ reactions.

During the 1980s street theatre died out. One of its last ventures brought it almost full circle when invited by environmentalist Vincent Serventy to restage War on the Waterfront in Sydney’s Domain. The day was cold and rainy and the play, which in 1938 had created a furore and attracted a huge crowd, was performed before the author, Vince plus a couple of friends, and a bunch of bemused Japanese tourists. No police and no hecklers, planted or actual.

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