Person - Betty Roland

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BETTY ROLAND (1903 - 1996)

Betty Roland was active at Sydney NTL 1938-9. She wrote and acted in Are You Ready, Comrade? , a “sociological drama” originally titled Prosperity Around the Corner , published in the April 1938 Communist Review and winner of a 1938 WA Drama Festival Competition. Roland played the female lead and her partner Guido Baracchi the firm's sacked accountant Henderson.

The 5 o’clock whistle blows.

HENDERSON: There she goes. I’ve answered that whistle for 30 years. All the best years of my life. Eight hours every day and in return I got enough to feed and clothe my family and a little left over if I saved and did without. And now I’m not as useful as I used to be, the firm can’t get its money’s worth, so it’s not going to feed and clothe me any more nor keep my family.

Roland also wrote a number of agit-prop pieces including The Miners Speak for eight reciters who propagandise for the strikers’ cause. It was broadcast on trade union station 2KY, and performed by NTL in the Domain, finishing 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.”

Roland hurriedly dashed off War on the Waterfront in response to the Dalfram incident when wharfies refused to load iron destined for Japan. The NTL cast had to get their lines down fast and rehearse in secret:

JOE: 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!

Other Betty Roland agit-prop scripts performed in the Domain included Workers, Beware also about the Dalfram incident, and No! No! or Vote “No!”, a call to resist conscription:

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 facism. Men and women of Australia, answer!

Roland's radio play It Isn’t Possible! was written in response to a strike by workers in the Dunlop factory at Birkenhead Point where 140 women claimed they were being paid less for more work when new methods of sewing shoe uppers were introduced. The play was broadcast on 2KY.

SEAMER: I can’t work any faster. 760 pairs a day I do. They’re asking 924 small pairs or 859 of large.

BRAIDER: Three thousand one hundred and ten they want – for lower pay.

ALL GIRLS: It isn’t possible. We’ve given everything we’ve got.

(The three-month strike finished after the Rubber Workers’ Union was threatened with deregistration.)

Betty Roland was born Mary Isobel Maclean in Victoria (she legally changed her name in 1951). She left school at age 16 to work as a journalist for Table Talk and the Sun News-Pictorial. In 1923 she married Ellis Harvey Davies. In 1933 after leaving her husband she started a relationship with Marxist intellectual Guido Baracchi and spent time with him in Russia. On their return to Melbourne, Betty was "dripping in blue fox furs" (which she wore in Are You Ready, Comrade?).

In 1935 she started a modest theatre group for the Melbourne branch of the Friends Of the Soviet Union (FSU) which had a clubhouse with chess, draughts, cards, table tennis, and a radio “capable of receiving Russian stations”. Lacking a theatre or rehearsal room, they performed short agit-prop plays on the Yarra bank, in workshops and on street corners, their most ambitious project Waiting for Lefty.

After she moved to Sydney with Baracchi in January 1937 Roland handed over the artistic leadership of the FSU club to Catherine Duncan. The couple lived at Birchgrove (in premises they shared with bedbugs) before moving with their daughter Gilda into their new house at Castlecrag, used as a venue for May Hollinworth’s SUDS productions, including Maya in which Catherine Duncan played the lead and Bruce Beeby made his theatrical debut. At Castlecrag Betty became friendly with Edgar Yardley's wife Roberta.

Roland split with Baracchi and left the CPA over the Soviet-German non-aggression pact.

There is a lot of material online about Betty Roland including a Wikipedia entry. Her papers are held by the National Library of Australia. Her name is commemorated in the Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting.

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