From Club to Theatre

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Sydney New Theatre began life during the Depression as the Sydney Workers’ Art Club (WAC). Its first known address is 273 Pitt Street where a small clubroom was opened in August 1932. Offered were lectures, music recitals, art classes and exhibitions, plus tuition in Russian, French and German. By October the club had moved to 36 Pitt Street, premises formerly occupied by the Australian Seamen’s Union. In April 1935 the Workers’ Theatre Movement in England became the New Theatre League and a year later the WAC, its dramatic section now the club’s most popular activity, followed suit. (Its parallel in the USA was the New Theatre Movement.) In 1943 the New Theatre League (NTL) shifted to 167 Castlereagh Street, its owner the Grand United Order of Oddfellows. In 1954 what was now New Theatre played at 60 Sussex Street under the auspices of the Cultural Committee of the Waterside Workers’ Federation. In 1963 “The New” moved to St Peters Lane and ten years later into its own building at 542 King Street Newtown. Sydney New Theatre is the sole survivor of similar groups which operated in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Newcastle.


Novelist and Communist Party of Australia (CPA) member Jean Devanny took credit for setting up the WAC, modelling it on clubs she had visited while attending a Workers’ International Relief Conference in Berlin in November 1931. Back in Sydney by February 1932, she lectured widely on her experiences and was in Broken Hill on 23 October 1932 when Sydney WAC was officially opened by Dame Sybil Thorndike, a pacifist and socialist then touring Australasia with St Joan. The Sydney club lagged a few months behind Melbourne WAC which mounted an exhibition of proletarian drawings in April 1932 and a theatrical production of Ernst Toller’s anti-war verse drama Masses and Man in August.

At the time of Sydney WAC’s founding there were a number of workers’ amateur players and, like today’s co-ops, actors and directors – such as Nellie Rickie, Cleo Grant, Harry Haddy, Valerie Wilson, Cliff Mossop, and Tim O’Sullivan -- moved among the various groups, as did elocution teachers Myra Leard and Montgomery Stuart. An ALP initiative, the Theatre of the Hammer planned to build a hall in Newtown but the scheme seems to have come to nothing. Its Socialisation Drama and Art Group put on a double bill at the Bridge Theatre (later The Hub): Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman plus a piece about coalminers. The performance suffered from paucity of material resources and actor training. “Despite encouragement from the back rows” two of the four players could not be heard. Carrie Tennant’s Community Playhouse in Forbes Street Darlinghurst premiered new Australian writing such as Leslie Haylen’s anti-war Two Minutes’ Silence.

The WAC’s biggest competitor for audiences was the Friends of the Soviet Union Dramatic Society formally established in March 1932. The FSU and WAC often staged the same Soviet plays, and the latter was resentful of the richer organisation from whom it sometimes had to hire chairs and a piano. Established in 1930, the FSU was well-heeled with a wide support base, had its own hall, and, until it was banned in 1940, published its own journal Soviets Today generously illustrated with photos from the USSR. Members of its drama group were encouraged to write for weekly agit-prop nights. Longer works were developed from overseas news stories such as the 1931 naval mutiny at Invergordon, and the 1931 Scottsboro case where nine Negro teenagers were convicted on charges of rape (comedian Grouch Marx supported the American Communist Party’s campaign for clemency).

Presented by the Roving Reds in Brisbane and several times in Sydney in 1933 was Bert Thompson’s The Moscow Trial of the Metro-Vickers Workers. Stalin’s Five Year Plans needed technical expertise and Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company engineers were brought from England to work on Russian power stations. When some turbines were found to be faulty the engineers were charged with sabotage. Western powers denounced the proceedings as a show trial using despicable tactics. The FSU piece took the Soviet line, marking the scene changes with actors holding up placards accusing the imperialist Press of churning out slanderous lies.


Many of the WAC’s first members had been radicalised years before the Depression put thousands out of work. Nellie Rickie was jailed at least twice under the War Precautions Act which banned the display of the Red Flag in public. Already a symbol of revolutionary protest, the Red Flag aroused stronger passions after November 1917 when it became the background of the Soviet flag. The singing of its anthem at Communist Party functions in the Concordia Hall opposite Mark Foys provoked loyalist crowds gathered outside on the Elizabeth Street footpath. When audiences at Masses and Man drowned out “God Save the King” with “The Red Flag” questions were asked in parliament.

In Sydney’s Domain members of the Workers’ Defence Corps lined up to protect Communist speakers and there were bloody fights between carriers of the Red Flag and others waving the Union Jack, especially between those returned soldiers loyal to the British Empire and others disillusioned with their postwar lot. Visiting novelist D H Lawrence recalled such a brawl in Kangaroo: “men fighting madly with fists, claws, pieces of wood – any weapon they could lay hold of. The red flag suddenly flashing like blood, and bellowing rage at the sight of it”. After May Day marches in the 1930s violent clashes occurred behind St Mary’s Cathedral between the New Theatre League and the New Guard armed with bicycle chains. Indoors, tempers flared when some refused to stand for the national anthem.

During a prolonged timber workers’ strike in 1929 loyalists and the RSL were outraged on the King’s birthday when a burlesque lampooning the Royal Family was staged in the Communist Hall. A “dishevelled and uncomely person” impersonated the king, and for a penny a shot one could thrash Prime Minister Bruce, ACTU president Billy Duggan and arbitration judge Lukin. Russian confectionery was on sale. Master of Ceremonies was strike leader Jack Kavanagh. Four years later Kavanagh was typecast again, as a revolutionary leader in the Combined Workers’ Art Groups’ The Armoured Train before an audience of 600 in Transport House Central Station, a production marking the 16th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Spence Barden was for decades on New Theatre Front of House duty every Sunday night, the first person the audience met at the top of the stairs and an expert in extracting the 2/- entry “donation”. As a young shearer Spence had been radicalised by meeting the Queensland strikers who had been jailed in 1894. Around a campfire he heard firsthand accounts of the unionists’ burning of the paddle steamer Rodney bringing scabs up the Darling River.

Charlie Reeve was one of the 12 anti-conscription Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) jailed in 1916 under the Treason Felony and Unlawful Associations Acts. In prison he taught himself shorthand, read Jack London, and tried to get hold of a copy of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis”. Reeve acted in several NTL shows during the 1930s and members stayed in his Redfern terrace. His companion at the time of his death -- the Soviet flag was draped over his coffin --was Ernest Guthrie, a self-styled “dramatic artist” who also acted with the New and brushed with the law. In 1933 on a charge of not paying for a stained glass window he had ordered, Ernest stated that he had wanted to put it in a church in memory of his wealthy English mother Lady Ward. Letting him off with a good behaviour bond, the magistrate commented that Ernest must have been looking at some of the stuff they put on at the pictures.

Merchant seamen and members of the Workers’ Defence Corps, “Shorty” Jones and Tommy Morrison dossed down in the WAC until 1935 after being deported interstate for their involvement in the April 1930 “Darwin rebellion” when 100 unemployed men, demanding to go on sustenance instead of the dole, camped outside Government House, raised the Red Flag and sang its anthem. At the WAC’s entrance Jones and Morrison kept guard against young street fighters from The Rocks.

Court-martialled in the First World War, Latvian-born Edward Janshewsky (his surname spelt variously as Janitski, Janisky, Janetsky and Janswesky) was one of many WAC players with no theatrical experience as either viewer or performer. A merchant seaman, Janshewsky in 1915 landed in Sydney where he was persuaded by the Russian consul to enlist. Maintaining that he turned to drink because of his unpopularity as a Russian, his period of service was marked by periods spent in hospitals, base depots and military prison. Despite his heavy accent and imperfect English he was given some big roles, including wordy parts in Shaw plays.

Another drifter who frequented 36 Pitt Street was Dick Whateley. After droving in Australia and picking up odd jobs in South America, he found himself stranded broke in France and joined the International Brigade in Spain. Frail, bronchial and shell-shocked, he returned to Sydney where he got some work on the waterfront. Terminally ill, he held on for months in the hope that he’d survive until fascism was defeated but died in 1943. Nettie Palmer referred to him as a deferred casualty of the Spanish Civil War, and prominent CPA member Adam Ogston delivered his eulogy.

By community standards the private life of WAC and Australian Railways Union member Tim O’Sullivan was unconventional. As a married man, he had a “Red wedding” with Nellie Rickie, crossing hands over the hammer and sickle flag and pledging sexual equality and duty to the Communist Party. After his divorce from his legal wife came through he had a regular marriage with Rickie in 1929 but things soon turned sour when he was bound over for punching her while drunk and breaking her glasses. The couple were divorced in 1938. By 1940 a disillusioned O’Sullivan wrote that it was hypocrisy that the Communist form of marriage would improve home life and equality of sexes.

Journalist John Hepworth also had a “Red wedding” with Oriel Gray’s sister Grayce, an exchange of vows in front of CPA General Secretary J B Miles.


The WAC at 36 Pitt Street was reached by an external narrow rickety wooden staircase above a wine bar which sold cheap plonk, the drink of choice a “fourpenny dark”. The building’s caretaker lived in a dark hole under the stairs, and drunks sometimes managed the steep climb to wander into the club. The main room had a red entry curtain, bare boards, a makeshift stage, an old wood-burning heater, and wooden forms to seat up to 100 people. Left-wing literature was on sale. A dressing room contained storage units made from butter boxes and space for socialising and sewing. Opening the windows provided the only ventilation but this brought in the sounds of dance halls and dustbins being emptied – and the trams which rattled past every few minutes, drowning the actors’ dialogue. In a packed audience on a summer night the atmosphere was suffocating, especially when the windows were closed and patrons lit up their cigarettes and pipes. The only escape was up another stair to an unstable outside platform among the iron roofs.

Office assistant and artist’s model Joan Bretton (born Johanna Breitenberger) was up there once and fell straight through a skylight, landing bolt upright in a chair in the room below, to the amazement of a man working there. “Are you all right?” he asked after a few minutes’ shocked silence. “I will be after a few brandies”, responded Joan as she left for the local pub, probably the Ship Inn at Circular Quay where you could get drunk quickly on a bottle of cheap spirits (“no corkscrew required”) in an area where sailors chatted up painted girls amidst the smell of horses, beer dregs and off prawns. The WAC’s roof became an improvised kitchen in 1933 when Harry Haddy, playing a toreador in a Carmen burlesque, wanted something more realistic than parsnips for the bull’s horns. He got hold of a bullock’s head from an abattoir and began boiling it down in a portable copper on the flat roof. After a week – the smell reaching as far as the GPO and attracting every stray cat in the neighbourhood – the head, with horns still intact, was doused with disinfectant and thrown into the harbour.

At the back of the WAC was a stone courtyard piled high with wine vats. On the Quay side was Madam Gertrud Bodenwieser’s ballet school and Mischa Burlakov’s studio where WAC members drank rough red wine while watching a floor show. Burlakov dancers in turn staged gipsy and Cossack items at the club.

On the waterfront was number 7 wharf where during the Depression the unemployed lined up to get their chits which they had to exchange for food at the Benevolent Society near Central. This took all day for those who couldn’t afford the tram fare. Carrying their sugar bags, they dropped in at 36 Pitt Street for a free cuppa. Applicants for the dole had to fill in a form with 32 questions, many of which were seen as ridiculous and demeaning, and public bonfires were made of the forms. The unpopular questionnaire was the subject of Nellie Rickie’s sketch Weights and Measures. Jean Devanny often interrupted theatrical performances to call for volunteers to help those suddenly faced with evictions.


Formal activities were spread over four sections: art, drama, writing and music. A planned orchestra didn’t eventuate and the music section soon folded. Art classes were popular under the tuition of WAC President George Finey who organised an exhibition of Soviet posters in October 1932, a showing of his own sardonically bitter cartoons the next month, and an exhibition “Saga” of students’ and tutors’ linocuts at an anti-war rally in April 1933. Finey ‘s wife Nat modelled for the art students and performed occasionally with the WAC drama section.

The literature section encouraged writing about proletarian life. Sixty Miler, performed in June 1935, concerned worker safety on dirty colliers carrying coal on the Newcastle-Sydney 60-mile run. These ships sometimes made two trips a day through storms and icy southerly winds. Authors of the one-act play were Sydney University Labour Club law students Jock Smail, TJ W “Wally” Weeks and John C Foster. Eddie Allison played a mutineer. “We want this rattletrap beached and we’ll bloody well see that she is!” he announced and fought with the captain. That actor, aged over 60, was knocked unconscious, striking his head on the stage with a clunk.

From the 1930s to the 1960s the New, with strong connections to seamen and waterside workers, staged a number of plays dealing with maritime issues. The Good Hope (1950) concerned “coffin ships” off the Dutch coast; unrest on a tanker followed the murder of the black first mate in Longitude 49 (1951); and Australian-born longshoreman Harry Bridges was celebrated in song in 1942.

Speakers at the WAC included Don Finley on Russian stage design; Ted Tripp on “Cultural Progress under the Five Year Plan”, Rosine Guiterman on John Galsworthy; and G W R Southern (proponent of gun control, nudism, and shorts for men in summer) on “Morality to Fit the Times”. V Y Chow explained English grammar; and J O A Bourke (he became UNSW’s first bursar) recited proletarian verse. The FOSU also provided a platform for talks on social and cultural topics.

Often behind in the rent, the WAC survived mainly through its Saturday dances (its regular unpaid musicians on drums, saxophone and an old upright piano) and monthly themed fancy dress parties such as “Poets and Plumbers”, “Palettes and Picks”, “A Night with Conan Doyle” and “A Night in Araby”. The last featured murals of desert moons, minarets and palm trees, and a muezzin called the faithful to supper of tea and a biscuit. A great big jungle dance invited guests to come in costume as wild beasts and Tarzans. Fancy dress parties were still popular in the 1950s.

The clubroom was a refuge for the unemployed and those with casual jobs. Some went door to door selling “the economical gas saver”, a metal plate for two saucepans which fitted over a single gas burner (but took twice as long to heat up). Others posed as repairmen, declaring a vacuum cleaner faulty, taking it to the WAC where it was cleaned up with Brasso, and returning it to the housewife the next day for a “nominal fee” ~ having performed an agit-prop play the night before on the evils of the exploitative capitalist class. Others became “shit shooters”: illegal street photographers dodging the police.

At least two con men were involved with the WAC. In 1933 Ian Monteith Vallentine delivered readings with panache and directed The Importance of Being Earnest for George Finey’s People’s Art Club. He claimed experience with J C Williamson’s but was in fact a solicitor who had spent time in gaol and been struck off the roll of attorneys for embezzlement.

In March 1935 Walter Townsend Hunt, twice-divorced and in debt, turned up at the WAC where he delivered stock recital pieces (National Heroes Debunked, or Henry Fifth as Shakespeare Really Saw Him), directed Mrs Warren’s Profession and offered elocution lessons to club members at a shilling an hour. At the time he was facing one charge of perjury and another of false pretences, having persuaded some “bright young people” to part with their money in exchange for roles in The Love Child, a local film for which he had no backing. He said their acting tuition fees would be taken out of their salaries. Hunt, who claimed experience with Vitagraph Pictures in the USA and with Allan Wilkie’s touring Shakespeare Company, was sentenced on 9 April 1935 to twelve months on the false pretences charge and on 18 June 1935 to nine months for perjury. He had a history of exploiting wealthy women, in India as well as Australia.

Not long after the WAC opened, its key founders George Finey and Jean Devanny, both New Zealand born pacifists, left after clashing with the CPA’s Central Committee for choosing popular plays such as Pygmalion over Soviet propagandist pieces and granting membership to “artistic freaks”. Finey also drew abuse from the pro-Trotsky Militant which described him as a denizen of the WAC, a Stalinist-inspired outfit that “has degenerated so rapidly that even the degenerates now shun it”. Finey then set up a short-lived People’s Art Club above a speakeasy at 147A King Street in the city.

A controversial CPA member, Devanny thought women had as much right to enjoy sex as men and admired the rippling muscles of the Russian man in the wheat fields. A fiery Domain speaker who spent time in Long Bay (her first impressions of Sydney were razor gangs, shootings, bag snatchings, the White Australia Policy, and bohemians), she remained in the Party but switched cultural allegiance to the FOSU. As a Workers’ Weekly reviewer she accepted invitations to film screenings but was scathing of Hollywood’s “immoral, sex-soaked” offerings which she critiqued as anti working class, prophesying that “after the revolution” The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Merle Oberon might find some good work despite having married a capitalist Hollywood director. Hostility to the USA was also evident in the WAC’s advertising for musicians to form an orchestra (“no jazz”) and the Australian Casting Directory’s refusal to accept ads from anyone wanting “to equip themselves for a career in Motion Picture Production, or its allied activities”.

Following the departure of Devanny, Finey and the WAC’s first Secretary Honey Sloane, Vic Arnold became Secretary 1933-40 and Jerry Wells President. Both acted in and directed a string of productions, Wells until 1949 after which he had some local professional work. In 1957 “Casting Couch” Wells migrated to England where he shared an Earls Court flat with Reg Lye and got work in film and television, his last roles in The Two Ronnies and The Benny Hill Show (usually as a pincher of female dancers’ bottoms).

After the Writers’ League drifted away from the WAC as the Writers’ Association, it was the drama group which became the club’s most successful section although Sydney’s commercial theatres had shrunk from ten to two with the popularity of cinema. Beginning with Tuesday night playreadings, the New had to hire outside venues when casts or audiences grew too big for the clubroom. The normal club performance night was Sunday when most Sydney citizens were expected to be in church, and a “donation” was extracted at the door as it was illegal for the unlicensed venue to charge admission.


Changing slogans proclaimed the New’s working class philosophy (“Art is a Weapon”, “Plays with a Purpose”, “Theatre Belongs to the People”, "Art for the People") although the occasional audience survey found that most came from Sydney’s North Shore. In the 1930s, when the CPA was only a teenager, Russia was an unknown far-away place and WAC members were encouraged to get access to radio sets to hear about events overseas, especially in the USSR (reception was better in winter when there was less static).

In the general population, some thought the extravagant worship of Lenin was just a phase and that such a backward country was incapable of moving from feudalism to collectivism in a single leap. In some circles to be unsympathetic to “gallant Russia” was to be out of intellectual fashion, and the social experiment looked as if it was working. Others were suspicious, believing that money raised by left-wing cultural activities was sent to Russia (it sometimes was), at the same time questioning how such activities could exist without Soviet financial support. Among the Left themselves there was ongoing debate about proletarian versus “jazz” visual art, or whether there was room in a proletarian library for the “introspective heart searchings of despairing neurotics” or the playwright who placed the individual before the mass.

Within New Theatre such tensions were ongoing, pitting ideologically pure works which preached to the converted against popular plays with no political message. The Crucible (premiered in Australia by the New in 1958) met both criteria, although its hero takes a stand against mass opinion, as does the central character in An Enemy of the People, mounted in 1962 in an atmosphere of bitter controversy. Even Comrade Devanny criticised worker playwrights who hung slabs of propaganda on the barest of dramatic threads; she admitted to the same fault in her own Paradise Flow.

Like the FSU, the New received many of its scripts from the USSR. In July 1933 Nellie Rickie produced Sergei Tretiakov’s mass stage show Roar China, an attack on Western imperialism.

Staged to mark the 21st anniversary of the Russian Revolution was Nikolai Pogodin’s Aristocrats in praise of the builders of the Baltic-White Sea Canal, “aristocrats” of crime transformed under socialism into honest workers. Close to midnight the Sydney audience was prepared for the fall of the curtain by a stirring speech beginning: “Why will the White Sea Canal be famous? Because here the forces that have drawn people to participate in socialist work are operating with unheard-of daring, with true Bolshevik austerity, and on the broad scale Comrade Stalin has taught us… “

Another four-act import was Vladimir Belotserkovsky’s Life is Calling produced in 1936, its program note: “In this play the author raises the theme of Production to the heights of Socialist Construction. Life is Calling You to Develop and Build Socialism. Life is Calling You to the Joy of Knowledge and Reconstruction of Society”.

Valentin Katayev’s Squaring the Circle, first staged in 1935 by both the WAC and Independent Theatre, was repeated in 1937 and 1938. Publicised as a satirical comedy dealing with young people searching for a new code of love, romance and morality, the play revealed Moscow’s housing shortage and the lightning rapidity of marriage and divorce in Russia. With one of its main characters a long-winded poet of the masses, the Independent’s production was reviewed as “ a museum piece rather than a living play”.

Showdown by Tur Brothers and Lev Sheinen concerned the 1936 Moscow trials of fifth-column Nazi spies and wreckers caught by Soviet counter-espionage workers. Promoted as “thrilling Soviet Spy Drama” but reviewed as naïve and dreary propaganda with tedious scene changes, the play seemed an odd choice in 1940 when the German-Soviet peace pact was still operational.

By the same authors was The Governor of the Province staged in 1948 with Jack Fegan in the title role. Set in post Second World War Germany, the play maintained that the USSR had rigidly adhered to the terms of the Potsdam Agreement’s tripartite military occupation, while the USA, through the Marshall Aid plan, had rebuilt the monopolies that financed Hitler. Any crisis in Berlin was because the Soviet Union refused to submit to American blustering. Things had soured since a 1944 program note for Edward Chodorov’s Decision forecast “a future vista of world peace, and economic and cultural advancement” for the “great freedom-loving peoples of Britain, America and the USSR”.


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.

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.


Social problems

Most frequently produced published playwright until 1936 was George Bernard Shaw, the major writer in English dealing with social issues and a favourite with communist theatres as he wholeheartedly supported the Russian experiment. His Pygmalion (directed by Valerie Wilson) and Mrs Warren’s Profession (not performed publicly in London until 1925) were popular successes, with Eileen Robinson and Vic Arnold as Eliza and Higgins in the former, and Cleo Grant in the latter’s title role.

Although denounced by the CPA Central Committee as non-leftist, Pygmalion was revived in 1936. On the Rocks was mounted in 1934, Major Barbara, Arms and the Man and How he lied to her husband in 1936, reviewers commenting on uneven acting ability and paucity of resources. Shaw continued to be produced sporadically: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets 1948, Androcles and the Lion 1964 and Misalliance in 1996. During the Second World War, Act 1 of Geneva (begun as a Workshop where novice directors tried out their skills) played to army camps. Other Shaw plays which were workshopped: Man of Destiny 1944, Overruled 1947, Augustus Does His Bit 1951, Act 3 Pygmalion 1951 and an adaptation Not Bloody Likely 1991.

In A A Milne’s Michael and Mary, staged in 1935, a young couple choose to marry bigamously instead of living in sin.

War & its consequences

From its inception the New was pacifist, although its early fears were of an imperialist war against the fledgling Soviet Union. Over the years it was affiliated with the League for Peace and Democracy, Women’s Commission of International Peace, Australian Peace Council, NSW Peace Council, Peace & Friendship Group, All India Peace Council, Newcastle Anti-Conscription League, and the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament. It sent delegates to peace congresses and festivals at home and abroad, and participated in the annual Hiroshima Day march.

Set during the 1871 Paris Commune, Lieutenant Pernot’s Word of Honour was staged in October 1933 for an Anti-War Congress. Charles Pernot, rich and an officer in the Versailles army, returns to the poor area where he grew up and encounters André a boyhood friend fighting with the Communards.

André: The hungry masses will always be on one side of the barricade and the well-fed on the other. Class against class.

Pernot kills André after he discovers that André’s detachment has desecrated his house, smashing his prize aquarium and killing his goldfish. Suzanne, loved by both men, spits in Pernot’s face after his final outburst: “Private property is sacred”.

A A Milne’s one-act “comedy” The Boy Comes Home was staged twice in 1935. Written near the end of the First World War, it concerned a young returned soldier needing a job.

His uncle James, a jam manufacturer, proposes that Philip start at the bottom in his factory, an offer his nephew refuses.

James: Perhaps you’ve thought of something else.

Philip: Well, I had some idea of being an architect –

James: You propose to start learning to be an architect at twenty-three?

Philip (smiling): Well, I couldn’t start before, could I?

James: Exactly. And now you’ll find it’s too late.

Philip: Aren’t there going to be any more architects, or doctors, or solicitors, or barristers? Because we’ve all lost four years of our lives, are all the professions going to die out? Do you really think you can treat me like a boy who’s just left school? Do you think four years at the front have made no difference at all?

With the growth of the American New Theatre movement, scripts from the USA supplemented those from London’s Unity Theatre. The Face by Arthur Laurents showed the permanent disfigurement many suffered after discharge: A returned soldier (an offstage unseen presence) and his wife are visited by a woman and her young son. The woman goes into the wings then steps back onto the stage:

The Woman: I feel sick. I can’t forget that face. There is no face …and yet alive.

The Wife: Yes, alive. Remember him the rest of your life! Forget that face if you ever can! Forget those stumps if you ever can! He was like your boy! Take off his khaki uniform! Let every mother know that he was like your boy!

In Muriel Box’s Angels of War, reminiscent of Journey’s End, female ambulance officers behind enemy lines in rural France are reading their mail:

Cocky: Remember the Scotties I told you were billeted with Mother?

Salome: Jock and Willie?

Cocky: Went off week before last and left my sister Grace in family way.

Skinny: Phew! Which one?

Cocky: She doesn’t know. That’s the trouble. Damn! I can’t read the rest of it.

Jo: Why not, Cocky?

Cocky: Censored, blast it.

Jo: All the best bits are.

The play ends with their reflections on conflict:

Vic: Don’t you see there can never be another war after this. We’ve proved how futile and hopeless it is. It can never happen again. I feel as though I could look forward ten – 20 years – to 1938 – and I hear people saying “No, that generation gave up everything it held dear in life so that there should never be another war as long as the world lasts. They didn’t let us down and we mustn’t let them down”.

Moaner: But if they do?

Vic: If they do then we’ve been through it all for nothing. But they won’t will they?

Irwin Shaw’s Bury the Dead was revived several times after its first production at the Savoy Theatre in April 1937, its cast including Kylie Tennant, Rosaleen Norton and Beresford Conroy. At the end of the play audience members were so moved that they stood on their seats and threw their hats in the air.

The play opens in darkness, guns rumble, the big curtain lifts revealing moonlight on a war landscape. Soldiers with shovels are digging graves for six corpses sewn into hessian shrouds. But the corpses, cheated of the lives and loves they should have had, rise up out of the trenches and give their reasons for living. The First Corpse passes his hand over his eyes. The men sigh – horrible, dry sighs. One by one the corpses arise and stand silently in their places.

Soldier: What do you want?

First Corpse: Don’t bury us.

Cheated of the lives and loves they should have had, the corpses give their reasons for living.

Other anti-war pieces included Slickers Ltd a London Unity Theatre satire on the arms race and Vickers Armaments, manufacturer of explosives, warships and aircraft; the prologue of German expressionist poet Ernst Toller’s Hoppla! We Live; and Twelve Thousand by Bruno Frank who fled Nazi Germany. John Drinkwater’s X=o a four-hander written in 1917 but set during the Trojan War, was restaged several times, the last in 1948 when Les Tanner designed its set and played a Trojan while his friend David Futcher played a Greek.

Capys a Trojan moving to and fro along the wall:

Or Greek or Trojan, all is one

When snow falls on our summer-time,

And when the happy noonday rhyme

Because of death is left undone.

The bud that breaks must surely pass,

Yet is the bud more sure of May

Than youth of age, when every day

Death is youth’s shadow in the glass.

Another verse play was Catherine Duncan’s The Sword Sung (its title taken from William Blake and its abstract style from Ernst Toller) which won a NTL play competition in 1937. A series of First World War episodes moving between France and Australia, it was staged the next year, and reviewed as a didactic harangue. Joan Hardy played the French prostitute and Barrie Braddock the Australian soldier Michael in a scene outside a café behind enemy lines:

Harlot: Match? Where are you going, soldier boy?

Michael: What does it matter?

This café or that café, they’re all the same.

Then back tomorrow.

I’ve got a home, you know,

A slushy dug-out on the front line.

William Kozlenko’s Trumpets of Wrath, staged for Peace Week in 1938, was set in First World War Europe. Standout performer was Kenyon McCarron as a war-crazed old soldier.

The threat of fascism

Nellie Rickie’s The Emissary, staged in 1933 when the New Guard was active, warned against the danger of fascism in Australia. In 1938 Freda Lewis directed The Home of the Brave, a burlesque on American fascism. Who’s Who in the Berlin Zoo, a sketch developed by the English agit-prop group the Red Megaphones, was part of a double bill in 1935.

The next year Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die, in which Nazi brutality was exposed, brought protest from Dr Asmis the German Consul General as insulting to a friendly foreign power and its second showing at the Savoy Theatre was raided by police. The NSW Chief Secretary then banned the play “for the preservation of good manners and decorum”. Miles Franklin described the production as a gallant and lively effort, and protests from the Australian public and local and international press coverage meant good publicity for the NTL which shifted the venue to its clubrooms for “private” performances. By the time the play’s run was finished an estimated 18 000 people from all political persuasions and professions had seen it, and the theatre was sufficiently solvent to buy a stage pistol instead of the real one borrowed from a NTL member who was a bank teller. The ban was not lifted until August 1941, after Australia had been at war with Germany for nearly two years. “Open the door. Secret police!” became the standard NT door knock greeting.

In 1938 Diana Gould, director of The Sword Sung, was arrested for obstruction when delivering a speech from the top of a motor car in George Street against visiting Count von Luckner, seen as a Nazi apologist. During a von Luckner event in Sydney Town Hall regular NTL audience member wharfie Stan Moran threw bent pennies and torn ‘phone books (the gay old sea dog‘s party trick) onto the stage.

In the months before the start of the Second World War Frederick Hughes directed German exile Peter Nikl’s Bessie Bosch in which a woman learns that her lover is to be executed by the Nazis, and Paul and Claire Sifton’s Blood on the Moon in which a Jewish family is destroyed. The setting is 1933 Berlin where the idealism of youth is debased and utilised by fascism which invents a philosophy to justify its brutalities: “It isn’t enough that they should kill us. They must drive us to kill each other”. Although “several Nazi officers and stormtroopers bawled their way through the action” the German consul did not protest on this occasion. In a program note Jessie Street urged Australian asylum for “these persecuted and tortured people”.

The NTL supported the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War through fundraising, agit-prop and mainstage productions, and invitations to the Spanish Consul to address audiences. In Ramon Sender’s The Secret prisoners are locked up in the Chief of Police’s office in Barcelona. The year is 1935.

First prisoner: I am thirsty.

General: Why are you thirsty?

Prisoner: I have been kept for three days without water.

General: Oh well, the same old story. Neither have you been fed, true?

Prisoner: Sardines and raw salt cod. It would have been better if I had not been given anything. Give me water… I am perishing of thirst. I believe I have the right to be examined by a doctor. I demand that the prison doctor be called.

General (laughs): The prison doctor. Don’t try to precipitate things.

Michael Blankfort’s The Brave and the Blind concerned the 1936 siege of Alcazar by Spanish government forces, “a particularly searing episode from the grim struggle in Spain”. Although the subject was serious, the cast was undisciplined, making their noisy and leisurely way onstage from the dressing room.

Remember Pedrocito was restaged several times and taken to Wollongong:

In 1936 in a town near Madrid a civilian sniper, Manuela, is brought into an abandoned house occupied by Juan, Pablo and Francisco, members of the Spanish Regular Army, a paid force. After their captain kills Manuela’s 10-year-old brother Pedrocito, Pablo shoots him and follows Juan as deserters to the Republican cause. Before he leaves Juan addresses the young woman:

All the fighting isn’t done with guns, little comrade. If they win, your mother and all the others that are fighting with her, they’ll need you to help them make a new Spain, where people can be happy and have enough to eat without stealing, and where men won’t be shot for trying to help their brothers. And if they lose – this time – they’ll need you to be ready for the next time, and to remember Pedrocito, and tell them how he died…

After Juan leaves the room Pablo fires. The Captain stands rigid for a moment, coughs and falls to the floor where he lies motionless. Pablo and Francisco regard his body silently. Pablo suddenly springs into action, gathering his equipment and firearms.

Francisco: Mother of God. Pablo, you must be crazy! What are you going to do now?

Pablo: I’m going with Juanito.

Francisco: God help you if they find you when they take Madrid.

Pablo (pausing at door): Madrid? Hm, yes. We’ll be waiting for you, Cisco! We’ll be waiting for you!

Pablo exits. Francisco stares after him, then looks at the Captain’s body and slowly crosses himself. Curtain.

Bertolt Brecht’s Señora Carrar's Rifles, a version of Synge's Riders to the Sea, was relocated to Spain during the height of the Civil War.

Workers & unemployment

WAC regulars Edward Janshewsky, Harry Haddy, Cliff Mossop and Tim O’Sullivan appeared in the Workers’ Art Theatre Group’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which opened to a packed house in the Rationalist Society’s Ingersoll Hall at Easter 1933. Most of the cast were unemployed with no theatrical experience but they did well enough to start promoting themselves as the RTP Players restaging this play plus Roar China (under the auspices of the WAC), Harry L Broderick’s The Sundowner and Upton Sinclair’s The Spy. In 1935 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists had a successful run at 36 Pitt Street.

An examination of the life and conditions of building workers in the fictional English town of Mugsborough, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was a dramatisation of the popular novel by Robert Tressall who had worked as a house painter. Promising “Love, Pathos, Humour, and a Message” and written “in lurid, blood-red language of men on the job” with an abundance of “bloodys”, its ironic title refers to labourers who work as slaves for their capitalist masters but vote for them at election time. The gulf between the classes is highlighted when after a worker falls from a ladder his headgear is picked up by the house’s new mistress who comments “What a filthy cap”.

The aim of the piece was to exasperate the audience into action and convert them to Socialism. Its first production was reviewed as intelligently done but essentially propaganda for the converted, the puppet-like characters addressing the audience in long speeches.

The workmen give their views on the causes of poverty. The artisan Owen is the spokesman for the Socialist message.

Crass: The country is being ruined by foreigners.

Owen: Hundreds out of employment. Are you going to tell me the waiters down at the Grand Hotel are the cause of that?

Sawkins: Cor blimey, now you’ve started him off.

Harlow: The cause of poverty is over population.

Philpot: That’s right. If a boss wants two men, 20 goes after the job. There’s too many people and not enough work.

Slyme: Drink is the cause of poverty.

Philpot: ‘Ear, ‘ear. I couldn’t arf do with a pint of poverty right now.

Crass: Don’t forget there’s them that’s too lazy to work, when they can get it. Then there’s all this newfangled machinery.

Slyme: Early marriage is another thing. No man ought to be allowed to get married unless he’s in a position to keep a family.

Owen: Landlordism is one of the causes of poverty. Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery, or over-production, or drink, or over-population. I say poverty is caused by private monopoly.

Another adaptation of Tressall’s book was staged by the New in 1987. Very different from the original Manchester Unity script, it contained music and omitted the domestic scenes between Owen and his wife.

Socialism was also seen as the answer to society’s problems in The Bruiser’s Election staged in October 1933. Stephen Schofield’s one-act farce shows how three parliamentary candidates who call on Bruiser and his wife to get their votes are outwitted by the couple who trick them into funding a Socialist candidate.

Nellie Rickie’s Beyond the Road ~ its cast herself, Harry Haddy and Sid Birchal ~ about a couple tramping to northern Australia looking for work was staged at 36 Pitt Street in April 1933 as part of a program of her one-act plays. Between the pieces the audience was asked for feedback.

In Love on the Dole, Ronald Gow’s grim play on the effects of unemployment, the central character becomes a kept woman as her only chance to make money. Before she leaves town in a taxi, to the jeers of the locals, her parents comment:

Hardcastle: Haven’t Ah worked all me life, body an’ soul, t’ keep a home for her? Haven’t Ah kept meself respectable for her, when God knows Ah’ve been near driven to drink wi’ things. And now me own daughter tells me she’s a whore – aye, and proud of it too.

Mrs Hardcastle: Lad, she’s only young – she’s only young. Where should we ha’ been all these months if it hadn’t been for our Sally? It’s her money we’ve lived on since they knocked you off dole, an’ well you know it.

In Carrion Crow, staged several times 1935-6, unemployed Cockney slum dwellers ~ a can man, a cardboard box man and a rag woman ~ rummage through garbage bins at night. Like the scavenging bird they are clever and fearless. In real life, cast member Jerry Wells was then poverty-stricken and near derelict.

Rag woman: Yer ain’t got to do nuffink fer a copper ter git yer. They hoccupies their spare time wiv the likes of us. E’n nailed me twice, this ‘un ‘as.

In Transit adapted from a novelette by Albert Maltz unemployed workers of different ages and backgrounds spend a wintry New Year’s Eve in a New York doss house:

Luke: Is the beds clean? Ah means bugs. Ah sure can’t sleep if they’s bugs.

Baldy: Yeah? You’re like me, I guess – partic’lar about the critters you sleep with. No. You find a bug in here, I’ll cat it.

Luke: What’s that smell? Coal oil?

Baldy: Kerosene. That’s what we use to ride out the bugs. No bugs here without you brung ‘em with you.

In Maltz’s Rehearsal, 1939 City of Sydney eisteddfod winner restaged in 1942, a proletarian theatre troupe is rehearsing a mass chant. An actress recalls her brother’s back being broken by company police during a strike, reminding audiences of “the Ford Massacre” when unemployed marchers in Detroit were shot down in 1932.

In Betty Roland’s Are You Ready. Comrade? a dismissed accountant confronts his cigar-smoking boss:

Henderson: This firm may go broke. I know that, I’ve been keeping the books. But even that won’t leave you with nothing to face but the dole. You’ve got a house, a motor car, your wife’s got jewellery, you’ve got some money in the bank.

(The 5 o’clock whistle blows.)

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.

NTL actors (with an hour’s rehearsal) in 1939 performed Betty Roland’s radio play It Isn’t Possible! on 2KY (supported by New people since 1926 when Nellie Rickie delivered humorous monologues during a fundraiser for the trades union station. During the Second World War the NTL had a regular weekly spot.)

Roland’s script was based on a series of real-life strikes at the Dunlop Perdriau rubber factory at Birkenhead Point, Drummoyne, beginning in 1937 with shoemakers’ complaints that bonus rates had been reduced. After a new method of sewing uppers is introduced and their pay reduced, the female shoemakers react to the news that a time and motion man has been brought in to speed up production:

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.

In 1939 (when Dunlop Perdriau made a record profit) a three-month strike ended after the Rubber Workers’ Union was threatened with deregistration, Arbitration Court Judge Drake-Brockman stating that the women were a handful of rebels who should realise they owed something to the community.

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Forward One, staged in 1937, dealt with the plight of shopgirls afraid of losing their jobs despite difficult customers, unsympathetic management, being on their feet all day, and constantly going up and down ladders to fetch stock:

The shop is hot and the new shop assistant faints.

Miss Drew (manageress): Take her into the packing room… Supposing a customer should come in.

Vera: Let them come. Let them all come and see what you’ve done to this girl and Elsie and me. I’ll tell them that there are scores of girls in the city in other show rooms who are suffering torture with their backs and feet, just because you and your sort won’t let them sit down during business hours, even when there’s no business doing. It’s sheer brutality.

Dismissal for union activity prompts strike action by adolescent workers in a New York candy factory in Ben Bengal’s Plant in the Sun:

Peewee: Today I get notice tuh skiddo. It ain’t gonna be slack for two months yet, so why the epidemic? We know why. Some rat in the joint squealed tuh Horseface that Danny and me was talkin’ Union. Right?

Mike: Right.

Peewee: Now tell me, don’t we need a union on this job like a cripple needs a crutch? (Silence.) Well, Skinny, Tubbo and me says we do loud enough to sit down.

Factory girls in So It Didn’t Work face their first test as unionists.

Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, an exposé of capitalist exploitation and corruption outside and within the trade union movement, after a successful opening in January 1936 added some mid-week performances before settling into a monthly event in 1937. Its crew and cast were a roll call people who had a long association with the New: Vic Arnold, Jerry Wells, Jean Blue, Hughla Hurley, Des Rowan, Edgar Yardley, Jack Fegan, Frank Callanan, Kenyon McCarron, Eddie Allison, Frank Swonnell, Harry Howlett, Hugh Carlsson, Jack Maclean, Peter Harding, Tim McGill, Sylvia Arnold.

A 1938 sesquicentenary event, Miles Malleson’s Six Men of Dorset was propaganda for the trade union movement. The “Vivid, authentic Drama of the Tolpuddle Martyrs” told the story of the six farm labourers sentenced to transportation in 1834 for establishing a trade union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. Its cast of 40 included six-year-old Moira, daughter of NTL actor and pioneer nudist Kleber Claux.

Persecution & injustice

The capital punishment of Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti in 1927 raised as much controversy as that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1953. Both US executions were denounced by the New.

Italian-born anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in 1921 of the murder of a paymaster and his guard, despite the fact that another person confessed to the killings. The execution was delayed for years because of an international outcry that they were being tried for their beliefs rather than the crime. Jack Kavanagh was one of those fined for organising a protest march from Sydney’s Belmore Park to the Domain via the US consulate, although he defended it as a funeral procession.

The monologue Vanzetti in the Death House was repeated several times 1934-5, and the men’s legal case examined in The Advocate in 1965:

Act 1 September 1923, members of Sacco and Vanzetti’s Defense Committee visit a lawyer Warren Curtis to sound him out over taking over the defence.

Curtis: For three years now – ever since the case began – it’s been impossible to express a view without being slotted into a pigeonhole. Say they’re innocent, and you’re siding with the anarchists. Call them guilty, and you’re prejudiced. There’s been nothing but hysteria from every side.

In 1951 as part of an anti-Truman event Charles Sriber read Vanzetti’s last speech:

Not only am I innocent of these two crimes, not only in all my life I have never stole, never killed, never spilled blood, but I have struggled all my life, since I began to reason, to eliminate crime from the earth.

The Rosenbergs were Jewish communists accused of passing atomic secrets to the USSR. The New’s solicitor Harold Rich was on the Save the Rosenbergs Committee and theatre members maintained a vigil outside the US consulate, huddled around fires in bins on a bitterly cold night in June 1953. Peter Leyden’s script Testament recalled their trial and execution. Ethel Rosenberg was a character in Angels in America produced by the New in 2008.

Injustice resulting from the double standards of the Press was the subject of Leslie Clarke Rees’ Sub-Editor’s Room staged in 1937 and 1939. After he is fined for selling adulterated milk a shopkeeper asks that the story not be published or, if it is, his name be misspelt to save him from ruin. In contrast the story of the divorce of a socialite, the niece of one of the paper’s directors, is “killed”. News then comes that the shopkeeper has died, probably by suicide.

Frequently revived was London Unity’s pantomimic satire Where’s That Bomb? Its unemployed hero writes propaganda on toilet rolls telling workers of their duty to their bosses and country. He finally tells a patriots’ organisation to go to Fleet Street:they’ve been printing the workers’ toilet paper for years.

Part of the WAC 1933 Saga exhibition was John Harvey’s linocut “The Daily Dope” depicting capitalists with a giant newspaper obscuring a factory and its workers. Press censorship, ethics and manipulation of the truth has been an ongoing topic for street theatre, revue and mainstage plays such as John Upton’s Waiting for Rupert Murdoch.

A musical satire on the evils of colonialism, Cannibal Carnival was a popular show in 1939. A buccaneer, a policeman and a clergyman are shipwrecked on an island where they impose their code of progress, private property and morality. After banning dancing and erecting a Union Jack, a fence and advertising hoardings, they annex the breadfruit and hot dog trees and set the island’s inhabitants to work. The natives develop a concept of unemployment, establish a socialist government, address each other as “Comrade” and in the last scene bundle the bishop and the capitalist into a gigantic cooking pot.

Soon after landing, the trio meet Egbert, a native, and humbug him into giving them most of his food.

Bumpus: The heathen in his blindness! He doesn’t even know the difference between religion and robbery.

Egbert: But I do, white man. When you take bread it is patriotism and religion. When I take bread it is robbery and violence.

Crabbe: He couldn’t have put it better if he’d been to Oxford.

The cannibals, including Grayce and Oriel Bennett and Marcia Guerney, wore full body make-up.

A later version where the bishop was replaced by evangelist Amee McPherson and the capitalist by Marshall Aid, a tall lean Yank (“Where there’s footprints there’s folks and where there’s folks there’s food … and where there’s folks and food, there’s business”) appears not to have been produced.

Geoffrey Trease’s Colony was set in 1936 West Indies where there was economic recession and unrest among indentured labourers working for the minority planter class. The Moyne Report, not published in full until 1945, found appalling economic and social conditions amongst sugar workers: poverty, child mortality, malnutrition, venereal disease and general ill health.

In the play trouble with the sugar workers expands to a strike of taxi drivers, then to power station workers. Governor Munro was played by Edward Pate (his later stage name Michael Pate), with Frank Callanan and John Reed in black make-up.

The governor is visited by two British MPS, one a Tory, the other a left-wing firebrand Jane.

Lady Munro: I’m so sorry my husband wasn’t here. He’s … he’s at some sort of conference.

Jane: What sort of conference?

Lady Munro: Oh…something to do with the…welfare of the sugar workers.

Jane: So that’s what all the trouble’s about. (SFX: Four shots in the distance.) Rabbit for supper?


Over the decades the New was opposed to all kinds of covert and overt censorship. The New York Times carried a story on the banning of Till the Day I Die in 1936: “Australia Versus Odets. Protecting the people is quite an industry here where there are more books banned than anywhere else in the world save possibly the Irish Free State”. At that time over 5000 books were officially listed in Australia as prohibited publications.

A supporter of the Book Censorship Abolition League, the NTL in 1937 staged the Writers’ Association’s winning sketches The Deputation Waits ~ and Nellie Rickie’s The Censor:

Miss Chizzlewitt (turning pages of Bible): I’ll find you a snappy story. Here. Read the one about Lot’s wife.

Censor (takes Bible): Where is my magnifying glass?

Miss Chizzlewitt: You had it with you when you went to view the statue of Apollo at the Fountain. Oh, here it is.

Censor (reads Bible): Oh. Oh. Oh. (Faints)

Miss Chizzlewitt: Help! Help! The Censor has fainted. Here is your smelling salts.

Censor (shrieks): Salt. Salts. Take it away. I never want to hear of salt again. We must censor that book.

Miss Chizzlewitt: Censor the Bible?

Censor: It can’t go out with stuff like that in it.



When conditions became cramped at 36 Pitt Street the League exchanged premises with the International Seamen’s Club, and in 1943 took out a three-year lease in Angus House 167 Castlereagh Street, a three-storey building owned by the Grand United Order of Oddfellows (GUOOF). Opposite was a telegraph office and next door a chemist at street level where “Mark” helped actresses find the right shade of lipstick. In the same building was the headquarters of the Masonic Club whose male members sang loudly in competition with those rehearsing in the theatre. The local watering hole was the Castlereagh Hotel where, at a time when women were not allowed in public bars, both sexes drank together at a big round table in an upstairs back room: “Ask the waitress – they know us”. The Sydney committees were egalitarian in contrast to Melbourne New Theatre where men and women had to drink in separate areas in their pub.

The theatre was on the first floor, reached by wide concrete steps. The space felt vast in comparison to the old premises, and echoing wooden floorboards added to the familiar noise of trams rattling past. Below was Phillips Café with its smelly garbage bins. Above was a clothing factory run by two Austrians who had escaped from Vienna the day Hitler marched in. They and their children sat in the front row every opening night.

The New managed to stay on at 167 Castlereagh Street for over a decade although the City Council, Fire Brigade and the building’s owners regularly tried to close it down as breaching the Theatres and Public Halls Act. Finally, served with an eviction notice and deciding not to fight a court case, a special meeting voted to find other premises. This was in November 1953 when the theatre’s finances and committee were both exhausted. A month later the smash hit Reedy River turned everything around.

In preparation for the first show in 1943 members pitched in to transform the big, empty rooms, and Jack Bickerdike and his team built a Louis X1V style stage, painted cream with gold decoration with a plush red curtain. But Council workers forced their way in, wrecked the stage, pulled down the lights and curtain and ripped out the switchboard. A new stage, covered in hessian, was hastily built and Let’s Be Offensive‘s opening was delayed, but only by one night. In the audience was newly married Peter Finch who drank with NTL people and who was cast as the lead in the 1943 repeat of Golden Boy. He pulled out, perhaps warned by Security, and the part was taken by Rosaleen Norton’s husband. (In 1948 NT members ~ Jock Levy, Edgar Yardley, Catherine Duncan, Alan Herbert and Ken McCarron ~ acted with Finch’s Mercury Theatre Club. Finch went to England after Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh saw him in a Mercury lunchtime performance at O’Brien’s Glass Factory at Waterloo.)

In November 1943 the City Council again dismantled the Castlereagh Street lighting board and stage, claiming it was erected without Council approval, that the building was being used as a theatre despite having only one fire exit, and that the GUOOF forbade any fixtures on the premises. The next weekend’s Counter Attack was lit by torches and lanterns. League members erected a non-fixture stage, and scenery from then on was provided by flats leaned against the walls like a pack of cards.


War became a reality on 3 September 1939. That night Miles Franklin and Leslie Rees were overwhelmed by “sadness and despair” after leaving a reading of his Lalor of Eureka to hear newsboys crying “Britain declares war on Germany!” This was a month after the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact with the Communists’ arch enemy Nazi Germany. Its allegiances tested, the NTL settled mostly for a program of repeats, guest productions, plays on workers’ issues and pacifism. In Miles Malleson’s Black Hell, set during the First World War, a Sassoon-like character comes back from the front a hero but denounces the conflict as madness and says he won’t go back to the grinding degradation of trench warfare.

In June 1940 the NTL office was raided after the Menzies government banned the CPA under the National Security Act and scripts and Boer War rifles were confiscated. Oriel and John Gray burned their copies of The Communist Review, and Len Fox put his left-wing books in an outside lavatory. In the city with a case full of typed material for the CPA printer, Fox saw two big plainclothes police running towards him. “Grab him!” one yelled. “This is it”, he thought but they rushed past to hop into a taxi. One CPA member convinced police that a portrait of Karl Marx was his grandfather, but another was arrested when her picture of Beethoven was mistaken for Mussolini.

The 1941 revue I’d Rather be Left contained a lot of material focusing on the home front, including the “ARP lecture”:

Our lecture tonight in our series of talks on Air Raid Precautions deals with Bombs. Now Bombs produce a bang and a smell. In the case of high explosive Bombs it is the bang that is to be apprehended and not the smell. The reverse applies in the case of gas bombs where the bang may be ignored but the smell should if possible be avoided.

In 1940 the only Russian play staged was Showdown re the 1936 Moscow trials of Nazi spies and wreckers caught by Soviet counter-espionage workers. Billed as a “thrilling Soviet Spy Drama” it was reviewed as a dreary and odd choice considering the German-Soviet pact.

Wireless Weekly also commented that the NTL had no trouble finding men players, implying that they had not enlisted. Staunchly anti-conscription, the League in April 1940 staged The Patriot and the Fool a short piece by Sydney writer Cecil S Watts:

A patriot Richard Hander tries to talk a simple farmhand into joining up.

Hander: Young man, you should not be here, wasting your time whittling at a stick. Don’t you realise where you should be?

Jimmy: Yes, I ought to be trampin’ up hill and down dale lookin’ for a cow. But there ain’t much sense in doin’ that when the flamin’ beast might be somewhere else where you aint.

Hander: Never mind about the cow. What I want to ask you is this. Wouldn’t you like to be in khaki?

Jimmy: Aw, I dunno. What’s wrong with these dungarees?

Hander: Good heavens, can’t I make you understand? Hasn’t anyone told you there’s a war being fought?

Jimmy: Oh, yes they told me a week ago that a war was comin’ but I aint seen it yet. No I aint seen it yet, so perhaps it aint coming here after all. Nothin’ ever comes here if it can help it.

Australian journalist Rupert Lockwood’s No Conscription was banned after a couple of performances at Transport House and 36 Pitt Street. Set during the heated debates of the First World War, the documentary theatre had actors planted in the audience, newspaper boys running up and down the aisles shouting headlines, and the audience exhorted to fight conscription. Colony was hastily substituted for No Conscription when a CIB officer named Murray and a censor J R Magnusson (who’d asked for exemption from military service) turned up in the audience. The response to a question in parliament from Eddie Ward was that the censor didn’t have to give reasons for the ban. The League tried to put the anti-conscription message in the historical past.

NTL street theatre supported the “No Conscription” campaign. 42A And All That (named for part of the National Security Act which made punishable disloyal or subversive comments on war policies or administration) was delivered from the back of a truck in places like Petersham, Newtown and Paddington. Sketches included the high price of beer ~ and Regulation 42A:

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!

The NTL also opposed the wartime push for increased productivity. Its 1940 May Day float carried a top-hatted monopolist, a worker chained to the cogs of industry and the slogans “Resist Speed-Up” and “Misery for Millions – But Millions for Bosses”. Although it was generally seen as unpatriotic to push for better wages and conditions at this time of national emergency, coalminers struck in early 1940 for guaranteed working hours, wages, pensions, annual leave and workers compensation. In support of their stance the NTL staged No Armistice by Queensland writer Leonard Anzac Reason.

Things suddenly changed in June 1941 when Germany attacked Russia. The NTL flipped allegiance and supported the war effort, marching at War Loan rallies and staging patriotic agit-prop. Some members worked in munitions factories and many enlisted, including Vic Arnold who put down his age by seven years to join the AIF. An English army officer with riding crop and moustache lectured a bored League audience on how to survive the war, escape to mountains or out west and make Molotov cocktails. With the change of attitude the Attorney-General’s Department did not proceed with some planned prosecutions.

The message of No Armistice was reversed in Bill Brown’s Men Who Speak for Freedom: a young miner is injured in a coal fall but the others continue working in the unsafe pit to fill an urgent defence order. The variety show Giggle Suits and Overalls, its cast including Patricia Glasson (step-grandmother of Julian Assange) played at the Ingleburn army camp and Yaralla Hospital. With Germany again the enemy and the ban lifted, Till the Day I Die was restaged.

In According to Plan German soldiers, holed up in a barn near Russia’s Smolensk section and cut off from supplies, realise that Hitler’s strategy may not be going “according to plan”:

Lieutenant Klein: We’ll all be wiped out. It’s only a matter of time before the whole German army will be nothing but an army scattered over a handful of scorched earth. The whole world is against us now. What’s going to happen when the British strike in the west? … We’ve met our match this time, and I’m glad. We’ve trailed over the whole of Europe bringing death and destruction and now it’s our turn to experience what the bloody business means.

According to Plan (its cast including Alan Herbert and John Gray) played at army barracks. At Randwick, American soldiers rigged up stage lights, dressed the set with straw from their bedding and helped make up the actors. Outside performances became fundraising events. The troupe who took According to Plan to Richmond were reimbursed only for their train travel but money was raised for the Russian Medical Aid Fund. The NTL also supported Jessie Street’s Sheepskins for Russia. (After the war there were appeals for British Food Relief and Ted Willis’ royalties were paid with food parcels.)

Winner of two British Drama League awards in 1943, Lloyd Lamble’s production of V Galitzky’s The Cave was performed in hospitals, for War Loan appeals and to armed forces. The title refers to the interview room where “the mere presence of a man of learning turns a cave into a palace”. With a desperate shortage of manpower and physicians, the Nazis offer a Jewish doctor from the ghetto his old hospital back to treat German troops so they can return to the battlefield:

Solomon Levi considers the offer.

Levi: Naturally in my work, I shall often have occasion to resort to blood transfusion. All healthy Germans, as you know, are at the front. There’ll be a shortage of donors. Yet blood will be needed. What do you think, Colonel, may I in case of need use the blood of prisoners-of-war … Czechs, Poles or Serbs?

Colonel Braunkraft: Why, of course. It is the result that matters. Every stormtrooper must be made fit to go back to the front and fight.

Levi: So in case of necessity one must shut one’s eyes to the principle of the purity of German blood…

Counter Attack, set behind enemy lines where Russians and Germans are trapped in a collapsed building, was taken as far as the Albury army camp. Directed by Enid Lorimer, its program was designed by Cedric Flower, his first involvement with the New.

Set in in a northern fishing village of occupied France, Sabotage concerned the French resistance movement. In it a German soldier questions fascism:

The hollow-eyed Willi Decker remembers his dead son, a sensitive boy turned Nazi killer.

Decker: You feel it everywhere… when they look at you, the way they speak…the way they walk past you. It chokes you … it’s all around you … a thick wall of hate. (Walks around the room, touching this and that) This is just like my little front room at home … even down to the piano. The mother … she must love this place… she keeps it nice, cosy. This piano looks well used. You can tell by the keys. I don’t think ours has been played for six years … since Rudolf was fourteen. (He plays a little melody with one finger).

Oriel Gray set her Sur Le Pont in the wardrobe room of the Talma Theatre in Arles, in occupied France:

Fifine (empty-headed revue artist): There’s still some life in Paris. People still go to nightclubs and women wear decent dresses, and men send you flowers and perfume in black glass bottles with stoppers this long! A girl can still make something of herself in Paris, instead of trailing round the countryside, being half a sister act. I don’t know where you’d be in Paris, Emilie, but I’d get along all right.

Emilie (wardrobe mistress): You would. You wouldn’t mind seeing French boys herded on trains to work in Germany – you wouldn’t mind seeing French women queuing up for bread – you’d step off the footpath when the Germans passed you, and speak nicely if they spoke to you first. Oh, you’d get along all right!

Decision warned of fascist elements on the home front and the need for vigilance to win the war.

Tomorrow the World, examining the fate of children instilled with the Nazi doctrine, toured to Yaralla Hospital, the Bathurst army camp and Katoomba. An American professor gives asylum to his orphaned 12-year-old nephew Emil from Germany. Emil is loyal to Hitler, has been an informant and spy, hates Jews, and views Americans as a mongrel race:

Emil sees Frieda, the professor’s German-born maid, accept a telegram (which turns out to be advice of his arrival in the USA).

Emil: We will speak English. I am glad to see you are correctly suspicious of me, because you think I am a child. But you can trust me. We will work together to defeat the enemy.

Frieda: You are insane.

Emil: Please – don’t try to deceive me. I have been informed. There are 8 million of you in America – all good Germans – all working for the Fuhrer. I know all about it. I am prepared.

Frieda: What are you prepared for? In your Nazi uniform!

Emil (with air of authority): You and I will have collaboration. The Herr Professor is engaged in important work. We must examine all the letters; we must open all the telegraphs. Give me that telegraph.

Teenager John Ewart played Emil for Melbourne NT, a production taken to the Heidelberg Military Hospital where “the audience went right up” at the sight of him in full Nazi uniform with swastika.

A film version of Maxwell Anderson’s The Eve of St Mark was screened in Sydney in 1944, the same year the NTL produced the stage play in which a farm boy in the Philippines becomes a local hero in wartime. “Starring Jerome Levy and Annette Moore” read the newspaper ads, against the theatre policy of promoting ensemble Stanislavski style with no featured actors. During the McCarthy period, many programs contained no crew and cast names at all.

Targeted in Oriel Gray’s wartime revues Marx of Time and Let’s Be Offensive were gin-swilling memsahibs who got out before Singapore and Hong Kong fell to the Japanese:

We are the Singapore martyrs

Down to our last twelve frocks.

Once we were upper stratas,

Now we are on the rocks.

To say we fled off

Is quite absurd.

We left ahead of

The common herd.

It’s such a bore, folks,

To be at war, folks,

So let’s make whoopee!

The war in Europe was over by the time Catherine Duncan’s Australian play Sons of the Morning, set in a Cretan farmhouse under siege, was staged in Sydney and the ending was changed, the hero joining the guerrillas instead of staying to face the Germans.

The Shepherd and the Hunter, produced in 1947, dealt with the conflict in Palestine. Although the program noted that the tragedy of the Jewish people and the urgency of their needs “make a sane approach to Palestine and its associated problems most necessary”, one reviewer commented that the author could predict no way out of the conflict between Arabs and Jews. John Hepworth played the British Commandant of an internment camp for Jewish political prisoners near Jerusalem:

It is strange. When all is said, this is but a small and poor country. In a few hours you may travel it from border to border. It is said that Our Lord lived and died here, but also that the Prophet rode from Jerusalem to Mecca in one night. This land has been promised to too many men, many have a good title, but none possess it. Old and new promises are choking them.

By the time Pot of Message was staged in 1949 the Cold War was entrenched:

I’m atom bomb Menzies

I fall into frenzies

Each time I see anything Red

I look through old piles of my Liberal Files

And I even look under the bed.

An item in the same revue was “The Red Boogie Blues”:

You’re red if you want to kill a KKK

You’re red if you want to see a better day

So don’t start scaring if they wave a red herring

If you think Franco stinks you’re a Red

If you hate all the pinks you’re a Red

If you criticise Truman when he acts inhuman

You’re a Red, Red, Red, Red, Red.


When the NTL was barred from performing in the Domain in 1940, speakers at a protest meeting included Rupert Lockwood who compared censorship in Australia with Nazi book burning. A clampdown on the Press came to a head on 17 April 1944 when Sydney papers were confiscated after publishing details of the previous day’s Sunday Telegraph which substituted blank spaces for material censored by the chief publicity officer.

Highly-paid wartime jobs went to political appointees. I’d Rather be Left included a song delivered in moribund Peter Dawson style by John Reed:

My Aunty Rose was a friend God knows to every MLC

But a bit of a slip, by the government whip

Left my aunt with a family.

Now my uncle’s the Lord of the Passionfruit Board

So Menzies said to me

“There’s a limit to what your aunt has got, so a Censor you must be”.

Oh, years ago I gave some dough to the funds of the UAP

But I suffered defeat in a certain seat

So Menzies said to me,

“You haven’t the nous of a mouse or a louse

Or the brains of a chimpanzee,

You weren’t even meant for Parliament, so a Censor you can be”.

NTL member Reed was one of the authors of I’d Rather be Left whose fellow writers/performers came from university revue: law graduate Alan Crawford and poet Jim McAuley, the show’s pianist.

Ironically, the New itself was guilty of self-censorship when it turned down Sumner Locke Elliott’s offer of Rusty Bugles because of its use of “the great Australian adjective”. The subsequent Independent Theatre production was a smash hit after it was banned by the Chief Secretary, and the New then found itself opposing the ban in company with others including the Public Librarian who said the word was not an oath from “by Our Lady” but a Dutch word meaning “very” and used for emphasis. It was not until 1979 that the New staged Rusty Bugles, long after the furore had died down.

The 1949 election revue Pot of Message contained Pat Bullen’s “I Could Write a Book” with two soldiers in a jungle camp:

1: Where’s my blue pencil belt?

2: Oh, go to blue pencil!

1: What the blue pencil have you done with it?

2: I ain’t seen the blue pencil thing.

1: I got something special in the pocket. Some blue pencils all the way from a blue pencil Sydney chemist…

Racism & intolerance

During the war the NTL took an interest in the American Red Cross and the welfare of US servicemen in Australia, especially African-Americans who, unwelcome elsewhere, frequented its clubrooms. A white exception was Corporal Will Lee Lubovsky (Will Lee became Sesame Street’s Mr Hooper) who took acting classes at 36 Pitt Street while stationed in Sydney in 1942.

Musician Jimmy Somerville, who composed for NT 1945-8, during the war played piano in a dance band at the Booker T Washington Club in Durham Hall, Surry Hills, set up for Negro servicemen. According to police (who checked women wanting to join the club for VD) the men were well-behaved, had plenty of cash and were keen to spend it.

Junoesque Norma Polonsky, nicknamed “Greta Garbo”, confronted a waiter and swept out of the Hotel Australia when she and her husband Stan took a black sergeant there for a drink and nobody served them.

In Ben Bengal’s All Aboard, workshopped in 1948, racial tensions are aroused among white passengers when a Negro soldier and his mother board a train. Reference is made to the non repeal of the Jim Crow laws which until 1965 segregated blacks from whites in places such as schools, public transport and restaurants.

Deep Are the Roots, a study of racial prejudice in America’s Deep South, was staged in 1947 when lynchings were still happening:

Questioned by her sister Alice (played by Dinah Shearing), Genevra (Barbara Brunton-Gibb) defends her friendship with Brett Charles, an African-American:

Genevra: No, he didn’t force me. I asked him to go. We went walking down by the river.

Alice: At night! All alone! Walking!

Genevra: Yes.

Alice: You don’t think anybody will believe that? You don’t think I can believe it?

Genevra: Why not?

Alice: You’re trying to protect him.

Genevra: Of course I am.

Alice: Why? Why should you defend him?

Genevra: Because I like him.

Alice: Nevvy! Nevvy! You couldn’t have wanted him to touch you.

Genevra: That’s what you’re bound to believe, isn’t it?

Alice: My God, you must have tried to stop him.

Genevra: Pretty soon you’ll be saying something worse. Rape.

Director Jock Levy also played Brett Charles, “blacked up” as he had been in Of Mice and Men. (It was not until recent years that the New managed to find appropriate ethnic actors.) The limitations of the theatre’s technical equipment were demonstrated by backstage operator Tom Salisbury having to put a mark on a gramophone record and place the needle at the precise moment a crucial train sound effect was needed. Unable to pay the professional royalties demanded, the theatre had to cut the Deep Are the Roots season short and for years had trouble getting rights for works from the USA.

Closer to home, George Landen Dann’s Fountains Beyond focused on Aboriginal people living on the outskirts of white society, their old way of life gone. In the play a half-caste is offered work in exchange for supporting the flattening of a traditional indigenous resting ground for a children’s playground. Four of the seven Caucasian actors wore body make-up.

Jim Crawford’s Rocket Range concerns tribal Aborigines moved off their land in Central Australia to make way for a defence facility. Just after the play was first staged in 1947 what became known as the Rocket Range Bill was passed by the Chifley government, protecting it from boycott or other hindrance by communists and others opposed to the testing ground for Australian and British missiles.

Music for Rocket Range was composed by John Antill and weapons borrowed from Axel Poignant. The Caucasian cast, including Reg Lye and Cedric McLaughlin, wore full body make-up, with the exception of Bruce Bull who played a policeman.

Kajabbi brings news that the white man whom he was going to invite to a corroboree has been killing animals and using the initiation ground as a lavatory.

Kajabbi: I asked him what he wanted on our tribal grounds. He said “This place not tribal ground. This place belong big gubment feller now … belong Prime Minister.”

Namalka: Gubment feller? Prime Minister? Who’re they?

Gimbin (testily): They must be warriors or elders of this rascal’s tribe.

Namalka: They can’t be warriors. Warriors don’t steal tribal territory. Women perhaps – but a tribe’s whole territory – no!

Following the resumption of nuclear testing ten years later Rocket Range was revived. In response to a protest telegram from NT, Minister for Supply Howard Beale sent a press release stating that Australia was the only country in the British world with wide empty spaces and “You can get a higher Geiger counter reading from your wrist watch than after an A-bomb test”.

In May 1957 an Aboriginal family, unaware that the indigenous inhabitants of the Maralinga area had been removed, was found near the crater formed by the “Buffalo 2” explosion the previous October, taken to a decontamination centre and showered. The pregnant woman gave birth to a dead baby. Australian authorities went to great lengths to keep the incident secret.

In Renegade, staged in 1940, a New York rabbi is involved in a confrontation between garment workers and their employers. A plea for tolerance, the play touched on Douglas Credit, a model of monetary reform viewed by some as anti-Semitic. In Australia the Douglas Credit Party won over 4.6% of the Lower House vote in the 1934 federal elections. Appealing to small businesses and those suspicious of banks, it was most popular in Queensland.

Postwar crises

In Ted Willis’ All Change Here, staged in 1945, overworked London bus conductresses, self-reliant in wartime, have problems readjusting to their returning husbands:

Doll: Don’t you see? I’ve altered… you’ve altered… we can’t just pick it up where we dropped it in 1939. We’ve got to make a new go of it. If we don’t, Johnnie, so help me, it’s curtains.

Johnnie: Doll… mind what you’re saying.

Doll: I’m Doll Paine, see? What I do, I do in my own right. See? I’ve finished being a 1939 wife. I’m a 1944 woman… get it? We learned a lot in the last few years. The sooner you men get that … the better.

Set design was by Margaret Olley. The NSW Transport Department lent change bags and uniforms.

The Bells Are Ringing for victory in Willis’ play, staged in 1946, but not for the young who now have to deal with settling into peacetime employment:

Jenny suggests her son David could go back to his old job.

David: Bunson’s shop! Listen. I was 19 when I last worked there, just before I went into the RAF. They were paying me 40 bob a week as second counterhand.

Irene: But you will have to make up your mind soon. What else can you do?

David: Fly a plane. Fire a gun.

Jenny: Your father could fire a gun and fight when he came out of the last lot. It didn’t get him a job though.

David: I didn’t ask to become an object of argument. The Government made me dissatisfied with working in a shop. They’re the ones who’ll have to do something about it. There’ll be flying jobs around soon, when things settle.

The young also have trouble resuming relationships:

Min: Mum?

Jenny: Yes, girl?

Min: What would you say if I told you that John and me wouldn’t get married?

Jenny (quietly): I’d say it was your business. Yours and his. Like as not I’d ask you why.

Min: Aren’t the reasons obvious enough? We’re … well, we’re strangers, if you like. We’re not sure we’ll get on together – make a go of it.

Willis’ What Happens to Love? explored the same issues. Young couples, unable to find a home and forced to live in slums, are not prepared for family responsibilities and end up estranged. The housing situation in postwar England, with little support from the public or private sector, was mirrored in Sydney where there was a critical shortage of accommodation for demobilised servicemen returning from overseas duty.

The setting of Jim Crawford‘s Welcome Home was an Australian bedsit:

A Digger’s hat is thrown on the stage followed by its owner in AIF uniform.

Mary: Billy…How did you get here? You’re not out of the army yet, are you … I posted a cake off to you only this morning … Billy!

Bill: It’s me all right… Got a lift down to Sydney in a Catalina, and a bomber as soon as we landed. Ninety days leave and my ticket, honey …

Mary: You’re not sick, are you dear? You’re looking thin and yellow.

Bill: M & V and Atabrine. I’ll be as handsome as ever when it wears off.

Atabrine was issued to troops in New Guinea after supplies of quinine were cut off by the Japanese advance. The anti-malarial drug was bitter, gave the skin a sickly hue, and produced side effects included headaches, nausea and vomiting.

Flowers for the Living was staged in 1947 and 1949. Set in the “living” room of a London tenement after demobilisation, it argued for the eradication of slums. People should accrue benefits in life rather than death – flowers were for the living not funerals.

Home Brew, the first full-length play by NT member Joan Clarke, dealt with a working-class family who’d been through the Depression and Second World War and now had trouble finding housing. Based on her own experience living in one room with her husband and son, Clarke’s script was revised over a long period of time before its production in 1954.

Workshopped in 1948 was Stove, Sink and View Pat Bullen’s take on postwar real estate, its prologue:

There was an old owner who lived in a mansion

He had too many houses for further expansion

He divided them up for ulterior purpose

Then raised all the rentals and lived on the surplus.

A dull, dreary, characterless room, uninhabitable by humans, such as many people live in today.

Landlady: If you hang right out you get a lovely view.

Husband: Your advert said a cosy, modern flat,

Spacious and comfortable and moderate. It’s not what we expected. I regret it

To think we rose at half past four to get it.

Landlady: There’s plenty more’ll take it, mark my words

They’re after rooms these days in droves and herds.

Enter plumber.

Plumber: Excuse me, m’am, I’ve come about the drainpipe.

Husband: You fool! There’s not a word to rhyme with drainpipe.

In real life NT members Evelyn Docker and Norma Disher lived in Maramanah, a 20-room Kings Cross mansion demolished in 1954 and its land incorporated in Fitzroy Gardens. For a time the theatre’s props were stored there. Evelyn was one of the building’s original 1946 “squatters”; in 1947 her brother ex-serviceman Bert Thomson was convicted as the ringleader of a group who trespassed Redleaf at Double Bay, the magistrate commenting that there were hundreds of other people in Sydney without accommodation.

Workers & industrial action

New Way Wins, set in a Welsh coal town having to choose between sticking with the pick and shovel or adopting mechanised mining, was staged during a coal strike in 1940. In the play a train bringing up scabs from England is derailed.

Because of power cuts, the auditorium and stage were lit by kerosene pressure lamps during the run of Birthday of a Miner in 1949 when miners struck over wages and conditions. Union leaders were gaoled, there were major blackouts and 500 000 lost their jobs. The strike collapsed when the Chifley government brought in troops to operate the mines. Chifley lost that year’s federal election.

Commissioned by the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, Birthday of a Miner like many NT plays had a big cast. Thirty characters were played by 22 performers, the author supplying a doubling list which would work as long as “no actor is required to play two parts in the same scene”. Set design was by Bettina McMahon.

42A And All That included a sketch about two unionists charged with offensive behaviour after stopping customers entering Wollongong’s “The Spot” café, declared black when a dismissed waitress said she’d been victimised and other girls walked out in sympathy. Victor Workman was fined and appealed successfully, an appeal upheld by Judge Nield (a NT supporter in the 1950s).

First man: What about Cranston and Workman?

Second man: I saw them arrested for picketing a café.

Woman: They were helping girls in a fight against lawbreakers.

Women’s working conditions were exposed in The Match Girls re the 1888 strike at Bryant and May’s London match factory whose employees developing “phossy jaw” through exposure to phosphorus. Described by Engels as the “light jostle needed for the entire avalanche to move”, the strike marked the beginning of the labour and trade union movement. Miles Franklin found the play an unbearable indictment of exploitation, and labelled as “fiends” those who lived off the labour and fearsome conditions of others. The cast included writer Eleanor Witcombe and Patricia Hill (granddaughter of composer Alfred Hill); the lead role of Kate was played by Dolores Smith (her later stage name Dolore Whiteman). A musical version was mounted in 1972 and 1981(with Jean Kittson as Kate).

A “musical comedy with a social theme” Off the Leash, directed in 1940 by Hal Alexander, was a mirror of his own activism as Secretary of Actors’ Equity. As a publicity gimmick the first audience members were offered free copies of Unser Kampf by Socialist British MP Sir Richard Acland. CIB security officer W H Barnwell (he overviewed the history of the NTL and urged its banning) reported on the cast which included Equity treasurer Hal Eldridge and committee member Iris Shand. After Ned Pate didn’t show up for the dress rehearsal his part was taken by Eddie Allison, script in hand.

On the opening night of a revue actors strike on stage in front of the audience who are urged to support their campaign for 100% union membership with no victimisation. A supportive trade unionist in the balcony clashes with Major Blimp (played by Russel Ward) and his upper class companions in the stalls.

The actors and Blimp put their contrasting arguments to Flowers the manager.

Blimp: Stand up to them, man. Don’t wobble. By gad, sir, when I was in Poona –

Flowers: Don’t start that again. I’ve enough to worry about here without wandering off to Poona. Have you any suggestions?

Blimp: Most certainly, sir. This is WAR! Give ‘em no quarter. Throw ‘em out.

Bruce: Yes, throw us out and continue with the show yourselves.

Nellie: I bet it would be good. I’d love to see the Major in a strip-tease.

The show, reviewed as clumsy and unsubtle, ended with the triumphant unionists singing “Solidarity” with clenched fists.

I’ve had a motto all my life

Never run away from strife

Whether you’re afraid or game

You’ll meet trouble just the same.

But don’t let trouble wear you out

Face it straight and stare it out.

Here’s a piece of good advice –

Clench your fist, stick out your chin

Say “I’m in, and in to win!”

In 1944 a nationwide strike against J C Williamson’s established the principle of 100% Equity membership. The union’s journal published names of unfinancial “scalers” and “free riders”.


NT performers were regularly involved in International Women’s Day celebrations. Unofficial NT “playwright in residence” for a decade from 1942 was Oriel Gray who developed a more complex attitude to women’s issues than the factory girl Phyllis she portrayed in 1939’s So It Didn’t Work:

Ciel: Who’s the guy?

Phyllis: Which guy?

Ciel: Only a guy can make a girl feel dopey in the morning, and sing in the afternoon.

Phyllis: Well, he’s grand, he’s gorgeous, he’s swell.

Ciel: A pansy.

Phyllis: That’s what you think.

Gray’s My Life is My Affair, staged in 1947, was reviewed as showing a subtle understanding of human nature. The play (involving a returned soldier, his wife and “the other woman”) pitted a scientist’s responsibility for his work (making the atomic bomb) against a woman’s responsibility for her own life.

More overtly feminist was 1948’s The Dangerous Sex by NT member Joan Gibson, a teacher and mother writing in her spare time. A contemporary woman, angry at union objections to women working outside the home, is musing on the female lot when she falls asleep and is taken through a cavalcade of historical women struggling for emancipation and equal pay. The piece ends with a call to arms for sexual equality. The host of characters included Mary Wollstonecraft, Fanny Burney and Florence Nightingale (played by Olga Yarad).

A modern couple discuss the issues:

Iris: When this suburb gets a day nursery where I can leave George, and a play centre where Jane and Teddy can wait till their parents come home from work, I will certainly be working in industry, washing up or no washing up. Till then, I’m tied to the housekeeping, and I can’t walk out on it.

Bill: Unless of course there’s a Depression and out go the men and in go the women, and you have to turn to and keep me.

Iris: You’d better do something about women’s wages in the meantime, for your own sake. Keep the likes of you!


In Oriel Gray’s “dust bowl play” Western Limit unsympathetic banks increase the plight of cattle farmers driven off the land by soil erosion, debt, soil and poverty. The play was broadcast on radio 2KY as a serial.

The 1947 Workshop West of the Panhandle re soil erosion was directed by Norma Parsons, its cast including Les and Betty Horspool (both of whom had CIB files).


When a court order forced it to vacate 167 Castlereagh Street in April 1954, the New had trouble finding other accommodation, city rentals being in short supply. As a “temporary” measure the theatre moved into the hall in the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) building at 60 Sussex Street where it remained until 1963 under the auspices of the WWF Cultural Committee. The hall was booked through Secretary Tom Nelson and Treasurer Stan Moran. Before getting space in the WWF’s Unity House at 52 Phillip Street the New’s office was run from Secretary Miriam Hampson’s flat. A rented garage stored stage furniture and props. Leasing several different addresses was a major strain on finances, lack of proper premises led to the cessation of classes and Workshop, and rehearsals were held in church halls and members’ homes.

The WWF put up with late payment of its nominal rent, requests for extra rehearsal times, and the caretaker having to hang around until past midnight, beyond the 10.30 pm curfew. But there were ongoing problems for NT which could play there only two nights – Saturday and Sunday. Audiences had trouble finding the venue, marked only by an outside banner on performance nights. The stage was small and the wingspace minimal. After the Sunday show sets, props and furniture had to be struck and stored in a tiny loft and the makeshift dressing room cleared. Because of vermin the actors’ teacups were stored in a rat-proof box. When the iceman didn’t turn up the audience’s cordial drinks couldn’t be kept cold.

In summer the hall was like an oven, cigarette smoke adding to the discomfort. A committee decision was made to ban smoking during performances and to put up a no smoking sign, but even after the move to St Peters Lane a Front of House task was to sift out the butts from the sand-tray to avoid having to buy more sand, and a suggestion that patrons be offered a light.

The biggest disadvantage was that the hall was regularly needed for other uses and performances cancelled, sometimes at short notice after ads had already been placed in the Tribune. This meant loss of income, audience loyalty and block bookings, and playing only one night a week did not help actors’ performances. The number of productions dwindled and theatre membership fell. Financial and political stress marked the period at the WWF hall. In 1954 only two productions had seasons there; the hugely successful Reedy River instead played one-night gigs in venues stretching from West Lindfield to Sutherland, from Blacktown to Newcastle.

NT members lugged a gramophone to Mary Gilmore’s Kings Cross flat so she could listen to the Reedy River recording, and June Grivas composed an ode to the New’s most successful money-spinner:

Some people they like Homer, others they like Shaw And others like the “classics”, I could name ‘em by the score. Some people they like “epics” crammed full of blood and lust While others go quite drooly over Marilyn Monroe’s bust. But me, I Iike the stories of Australia land Of the pioneers, the shearers and the gallant Eureka Band. I’m not the only one, there’s at least 10 million more So just give us Reedy River and the Eumerella Shore.

The nexus with those who worked on the waterfront was reinforced by the theatre’s move back to the harbour end of town. A number of maritime workers became NT members. Lionel Parker turned his protest against Daily Telegraph allegations that wharfies were drunk, lazy and strike-prone into a piece of agit-prop, while others supported the Seamen’s Union by performing sketches on wharves and at pay depots in lunch breaks. Ken Rowsthorne earned the nickname “The singing wharfie”.

War & peace

Fear of nuclear war was increased by the USA’s dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, its possible use in the Korean War, and the danger of Japan re-arming. In 1950 the New supported the Stockholm Appeal calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, and was one of many groups attending a NSW Peace Conference (ASIO was given an exhaustive list of delegates and observers including North Sydney Girls High School P & C). Hewlett Johnson the “Red” Dean of Canterbury, in Australia for a Youth Peace Conference, attended Sydney NT’s We, The People. NT protested to Lord Mayor Ernie O’Dea that free speech was being stifled after the Dean and the Australian Peace Council were denied use of Sydney Town Hall.

The next year the theatre supported the campaign for the Five Power Peace Pact between Britain, the USSR, France, USA and China. In 1953 it sent Graeme Stewart as NT’s delegate to the Bucharest World Youth Festival for peace; its 1954 representative at the Stockholm Peace Conference was Bill Gollan; in 1960 Rex Chiplin attended the Hiroshima Peace Conference. Theatre members marched as a group on the annual Hiroshima Day until 1991.

The 1950 revue Press the Point targeted Press bias towards the West in the Cold War:

A newspaper editor A holding tickertape and a reporter B, ready with notepad and typewriter, are in their newsroom. A Blonde bashed in Bondi flat. B OK, chief, get a picture of a blonde? A Yeah, someone off the street will do. Cripes, get a squint of this. B What? A Cable item. Russians shoot at US plane. Trying to start the bloody war! B Unarmed probably. A Bound to be. B Lost its way I suppose. Where was it? A Over Stalingrad. Yeah, guess it lost its way. B Who shot first? A Must have been the Russians of course. They’re taking steps to deny it. B Is that what they mean by Russian steppes? What kind of plane was it? A A bomber. B “Attack by Russians on US bomber over Stalingrad”. A Dastardly attack. B “Dastardly attack by Russians on US bomber over Stalingrad”. A Unarmed bomber.

Set in a third-rate provincial hospital, Leonard Irwin’s The Circling Dove asked the questions: In the event of a third world war what arrangements are made to handle casualties? Which patients will be displaced by urgent cases? CPA member Mel Lowe, like everyone else involved in the production, was not named in the printed program. In the McCarthy period some NT actors, especially those trying to get radio work, used pseudonyms.

Les Tanner played the Mind and fellow journalist Charles Sriber the Body of a professor worried about an atomic war and conflicted by his conscience in How I Wonder! a script rejected by the ABC’s Jubilee Committee after which Professor A K Stout spoke to Charles Moses and a petition of protest was organised. Although the cast, which included Lyle O’Hara, was reviewed as competent, one audience member was “fed up with air-fairy liberal individualism grappling with ideas about the brotherhood of man”.

The Korean War was the subject of an anonymous Shakespearean parody:

Witches: Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble Fire burn and cauldron bubble. 1st Witch: Make the liquid taste diviner With some blood from Indo China, 2nd Witch: Turn around and say a prayer Then mix a morsel from Malaya. 3rd Witch: Just before the brew is made Add a lot of Marshall Aid 1st Witch: Bring the mixture to a boil With a spoon of Persian oil. Witches: How we love to have a war We’ve had two, now we want more Atom bombs are so exciting We hate peace and we love fighting. Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble Fire burn and cauldron bubble. 3rd Witch: By the pricking of my thumbs Something wicked this way comes. 1st Witch: ‘Tis John Foster Dulles to play Macbeth To lull us with grim tales of death.

NT member Bill Gollan was one of the first westerners to visit postwar North Korea. He found Pyong Yang reduced to rubble with most people living underground.

In Mother Riba when the son of a Bronx tenement Jewish family is drafted, his mother signs a petition asking the US President to end the Korean War and develops from a naïve to a politically active woman. The actors didn’t see the set until opening night, the play was critiqued as ponderous, and Jim Kaldis (later a NSW Legislative Councillor) acted too much for laughs. Others in the cast included Edgar Penzig and 10-year-old Richard Walsham.

Staged at height of McCarthyism in 1951 was US worker-dramatist Herb Tank’s Longitude 49 based on a Second World War incident when an African-American seaman was shot dead by a “liberty” ship white officer who said the seaman was a Communist and a trouble-maker. The theatre’s press release described it as a small incident compared with thousands dying in Korea but the pattern was similar.

In response to reviewer Geoffrey Thomas’ criticism that it was propaganda about goodies and a villain too bad to be true, Graeme Stewart cited the social significance of the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin and the 1951 strike by the crew of the US Flying Trader after a chained Negro seaman had been shot by the ship’s captain. Christmas Bridge, an unpublished Australian script by Nance Macmillan ( under its earlier title Land of Morning Calm it was staged by Adelaide NT), concerned an incident in North Korea where UN soldiers turned saboteurs blow up a bridge. The play did poor business. One night an audience of two moved from the front to the back row after interval and the cast thought they’d gone home. Theatre photographer Harry Ciddor was one of the Caucasians playing Koreans, Chinese and an African-American.

Dymphna Cusack’s Pacific Paradise staged two years later also had casting problems but struck a chord with the public. The author wrote the play, its setting a South Pacific island affected by foreign powers’ atomic testing, after seeing Children of Hiroshima and a newspaper placard “Hydrogen bomb test at Bikini kills Japanese fishermen 80 miles away”. Cusack saw the film in Paris when it was banned in England and the USA.

Although criticised for containing too many long speeches, it proved popular, dealing with issues close to home, especially people as guinea pigs: the islanders who refuse evacuation orders and Australians whose long coastline is threatened by contaminated currents. The ABC Weekly called it “a plea from the little people of the world who wish to be allowed to live in peace and happiness ~ indeed, to be allowed to survive”.

A Professor explains why the island has been chosen for the tests:

Because it is surrounded by an extremely large tract of water which contains no other large inhabited islands, and the current goes directly south, it will give the Japanese no excuse to make a fuss about radio-active waters and above all it misses America, Australia and New Zealand. In 1952 and 1956 full-scale nuclear devices were exploded by the UK and USA in the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s north-west coast; atomic testing was conducted in South Australia until 1963.

A “racy record of feminine revolt against war” Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was staged in 1950. (It was reworked as The Olive Branch in 1963.)

Injustice & Racism

The New’s contribution to the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in 1952 was Oriel Gray’s Sky Without Birds dealing with anti-Semitism in a railway town on the edge of the Nullarbor:

Major Harry Robinson, pro-Hitler before the war, and Bartley, owner of the general store, talk in the Post Office. Major: The new loco engineer. Bartley: I heard he was expected. Is he all right? Decent sort? Major: Refugee chap… German. Bartley: Tch. Tch. You wouldn’t think they’d let them in, would you. Not a German. Major: He’s a Jew, too. Bartley: Not a yid! Tch! Tch! They’re the worst, you know. If they’re working for you they’re always stirring up trouble, and if you’re working for them they sweat you dry. It’s true what’s said about them, you know … they count every penny. Every penny.. . (Prepares to go but pops back.) Dear me… I forgot my tuppence change.

Sky Without Birds was attended by ASIO who had files on all the performers and crew.

Written while she was living in a Housing Commission Nissan hut at Herne Bay with her two young sons, Oriel Gray’s Had We But World Enough was inspired by her time in Lismore where she witnessed injustice to Aboriginal people. Lily, a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl chosen by a country town schoolteacher to play Mary at Easter, suicides.

The play had mixed reviews. The ABC Weekly considered it “a superbly lively study of the colour problem in our country”; the author on reflection thought it overwritten and sentimental. Adelaide NT lined up an indigenous girl as Lily but she got sick and couldn’t do it.

Mona Brand’s Better a Millstone, set in a London council flat, examined the effect of a young man’s execution on a postal worker and his family, and the broader issues of child abuse, criminalisation of the young and the influence on them of comic strip sagas of violence and sex. The cast included Les Tanner, Hazel Phillips, Patti Asange and Alex Hood.

The play was based on the hanging of illiterate 19- year-old Derek Bentley in England in coronation year 1953. After breaking into a sweets factory with 16-year-old Christopher Craig, the pair had been confronted by a policeman who ordered Craig to drop his gun. Bentley called out “Let him have it, Chris” and Craig fired. On the day before the execution the House of Lords disallowed an appeal for mercy, concentrating instead on preparations for the forthcoming coronation, including the problem of accommodating in Westminster Abbey all Members of the Upper House and their wives ~ solved by erecting a covered stand outside.

The cheek they’ve got – instead of discussing a young boy’s life, taking up the whole afternoon on whether they’re going to put their bottoms inside or outside the Abbey.

A film Let Him Have It was released in 1991 and in 1998 Bentley’s conviction was quashed.

Brendan Behan’s anti capital punishment The Quare Fellow was staged in 1959. Set in a prison on the night before a hanging, it shows the effect on the inmates of the knowledge that one of their number is to be ritually strangled. Well reviewed were Jack Fegan as the tough but complex warder and Mark McManus as a young prisoner

Cultural imperialism

In the 1950s the New supported the Australian Culture Defence Movement (ACDM), its key founders composer Raymond Hanson, actor Leonard Teale and poet Roland Robinson. The ACDM promoted Australian cinema, music, literature and radio programs which were being displaced by imports from the USA: offensive sex-filled shoddy films, magazines, comics, “unmusical groans, grunts and howls, and juke box rubbish”.

Peggy: Listen, Superman, Henry Lawson was Australia’s greatest writer. Bugs: Writer? That’s all out of date. It’s all in the pitchers now. Books is out of date, sister. Comics, the flicks, the juke box, that’s civilisation.

In 1952 the New sent delegates and entertainers to an ACDM conference in Sydney’s Lower Town Hall where Australian books, films, music, theatre and art were on display. In 1953 the New hosted a night for Raymond Hanson who believed that his association with the ACDM and his later involvement with the Australian-Soviet Friendship Society were detrimental to his professional career and a salaried position at the Sydney Conservatorium: “culture” was then a dirty word, “associated principally with strong left ideas and more principally with communism”. The ACDM folded under the weight of anti-communist criticism.

The revue Press the Point included Cedric Flower’s send- up of the violent decadence of Hollywood lovemaking involving a blonde and a male composite of Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and Dick Powell.

Mona Brand’s No Strings Attached deals with US efforts to influence elections in a fictional Far East country and to sell their products ~ electrical appliances, lipstick, nail polish, Californian oranges and violent films offensive to Buddhists ~ while limited electrical power is available only in the capital city, and what the country really needs is aid for schools and hospitals. Brand had first-hand experience of “The Not So Quiet American” while living in Vietnam. Tourists at the airport include an Englishwoman and an American Doppeldanger (another US character is a businessman Wrexall).

Doppeldanger (banging table with fist and shouting): Say! Where’s my goddam Scotch? Mrs Templeton (looking up from novel): Oh, hasn’t the waiter brought you your drink yet, Mr Doppeldanger? Doppeldanger: No! And I gave that goddam coolie a half dollar. I guess I oughta known better.

ASIO was especially interested in cast members Ming Ah Too, a medical student from Malaya, and his friend William Lim, a university student involved with the Chinese Youth League.


Out of Commission was Mona Brand’s Gilbert and Sullivan satire on the Petrov Royal Commission, its leaflet and poster in the form of a legal summons. A popular show, its season was extended including a performance in the Newcastle Stadium. During the rehearsal period its author dived fully clothed into Lake Macquarie to rescue the script which had fallen into the water. No cast or crew names appeared in the printed program.

ASIO agent F G Murray attended the opening night, a full house where most seats were reserved, special invitations having been sent to witnesses at the Royal Commission. The satire included the Security boys number sung by dark-hatted, sun-glassed, trench-coated stereotypes:

With cat-like tread upon our prey we steal In silence dread Our cautious way we feel No sound at all But when a word you say We jot it down Until a certain day

The real-life agents (who wore suits and oversize hats) reported that the show was of a professional standard, “at no time did the cast falter in their parts” and some players wore “a type of rainproof coat issued to members of this Service”.

Petrov, a heavy drinker, was lampooned as Brandy Cup. Menzies was Captain Pigiron:

I slap at my chest as I gaze at the prow Singing “Liberal, I’m a Liberal, I’m a Liberal”. And a cold perspiration runs out of my brow In a dribble, in a dribble, in a dribble. I think, of myself, what a fool I have made. Oh, why have I lost all our overseas trade? And an echo comes back from the men I’ve betrayed: “You’re a Liberal, you’re a Liberal, you’re a Liberal”

Another G & S parody focused on the bias of the judge: When the lawyer I favour his feet is upon (Said I to myself, said I) The whole of the session I’ll let him run on (Said I to myself, said I) But lawyers defending I’ll ever cut short With lots of sarcastic and bitter retort No patience with him will I show in my court (Said I to myself, said I).

Staged when the Petrov commission was still fresh in the public’s mind, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nekrassov was directed by John Gray and included in the cast Doreen Warburton, Les Tanner, and Norma and Stanley Polonsky, all of whom used pseudonyms. The plot revolves around a con man who passes himself off as an escaped Soviet diplomat and sells his “confessions” to a conservative Red-baiting newspaper.

The same joke of posturing mistaken identity exposing the general foolishness of others was played out in Gogol’s Inspector General (staged in 1952, 1970 and 1998), Jaroslav Hasek’s satire on militarism The Good Soldier Schweik (staged in 1957 and 1967) and Carl Zuckmayer’s The Captain of Köpenick, a Kafkaesque work based on a real-life witless ex-convict whose life is transformed when he puts on a second-hand uniform and finds people deferring to him.

Thirty Pieces of Silver was staged in 1951 at the height of McCarthyism, the cast including Penny Lockwood and Rita Warleigh who shared the part of a child. Its author Howard Fast wrote to the New from the USA: “We were most cheered to read of the struggle being put up in Australia … we are part of a great peace movement whose victory is inevitable”.

In the play Washington DC statistician David Graham betrays his wartime friend, a Russian-born Jew, as a communist. Unlike Judas he receives no 30 pieces of silver but loses his government job in Treasury.

It comes down to this, Graham. You’ve been seeing this Leonard Agronsky. The axe is going to fall on him – and on his friends too. It’s better for you to resign than to go through the whole wretched business of a loyalty hearing and a forced dismissal. Better for you and better for the department.

Over the objections of one committee member (who argued that it was Arthur Miller’s least successful play, of limited appeal and applicable only to an historical period) in 1958 the New staged the Australian premiere of The Crucible. Despite casting problems and exhausting rehearsals, the production was successful (it made a big impression on playwright Alan Seymour and regular audience member Frank Moorhouse sent a congratulatory letter) and the season could have been extended. As was customary, ASIO was given a copy of the printed program.

Miller’s allegory was directed by Norma Polonsky assisted by her husband Stan who also played Parris, with set design by Bettina McMahon and costumes by Miriam Hampson’s niece June Worth. The cast included Brian Vicary (Proctor), Betty Milliss (Elizabeth), Eddie Allison (Danforth), Laurence Booth (Hale), Les Hope (Francis Nurse), Dick May (Herrick), Wendy Howard (Betty) and Evelyn Docker (Tituba). Carolle Boyce (Abigail) went on to work with the Young Elizabethan Players. Roger Milliss understudied the part of Proctor but never played it.

In 1958 Miller’s agent accepted reduced royalties, but by the 1990s the Australian rights were unavailable and it was not until 2007 that The Crucible was restaged by the New, a production taken to Sydney’s Seymour Centre the next year.

Revues regularly satirised politicians such as Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Percy Spender, a key figure in developing the Colombo Plan, its goal to raise Asian living standards in the hope that participating countries would battle communist movements. The USA became the biggest contributor to the Colombo Plan, earlier known as the Spender Plan. Press the Point (1950) included Sir Percy Suspender’s song to the tune of “Lovely Bunch of Coconuts”:

I’ve got a luvverly Suspender plan I wrote it myself in luvverly pen and ink I’ll nip in the bud the red roaring flood Singing rolla and bowl the commos into the clink.

At a local level Press the Point targeted Sydney’s ALP Lord Mayor Ernie O’Dea, created an honorary chief of the Suquamish tribe by the visiting Mayor of Vancouver and presented with a five-foot totem pole and full headdress. Lord Mayor Chief Ban Ban and his secretary are visited by staffer Hia.

Hia: Lord, urgent letter just arrived. Ban Ban: How! Hia: Through post. Ban Ban: How! Hia: PMG’s Department. Secretary: What it say? Hia: Say wharfies marching on Town Hall. Secretary: Must stop it, Lord. Ban Ban: How! Secretary: Tell police. Ban Ban: How! Secretary: Ring them up.

In 1950 O’Dea was given bodyguard protection following demonstrations against the City Council’s refusal to let Sydney Town Hall to the Democratic Rights Council, declared a “Red” organisation. The same year the Dean of Canterbury and the Australian Peace Council were also denied its use ~ as was the Australian Carnival of Youth for Peace and Friendship, organised by the CPA in 1952:

We’re marching to Sydney We’re singing for peace We’re raising the chorus All fighting must cease. Our banner of friendship Is gaily unfurled With laughter and music We’ll build a new world.

A film of the carnival They Chose Peace by the Realist Film Unit was banned by NSW Chief Secretary Gus Kelly and the Commonwealth censor wanted cuts.

ALP Premier Joe Cahill’s 1958 Defamation Act was satirised in Fission Chips:

A kindergarten teacher is arrested for reading nursery rhymes. Teacher: Quietly? What do you mean? Are you arresting me? Cop: I certainly am. Teacher: But on what charge? Cop: On the charge of telling dirty stories to poor, innocent little children –Teacher: Dirty stories! I was telling them the lovely old fable of Little Red … I mean Little Scarlet Riding Jacket …

From 1952 Commissioner for Road Transport & Tramways A A Shoebridge pushed for the replacement of trams by buses. Inspectors were instructed to ask fare evaders to announce their names in front of other tram passengers. Girl passenger waiting at tram stop: Shoebridge certainly doesn’t live on this line. The tram I usually get hasn’t turned up. Trammie: Why aren’t there any trams? Because they’re being taken off the road, because they’re losing money. Why are they losing money? Because thousands are being paid to the British bond holders.

Conductor: Fares please! Fares please!

Fold up your feet and buckle your knees

It’s a luxury tram with exorbitant fees

Fares please! Fares please!

Move right down the centre please

The public don’t get courtesies

The capitalist owners have put on the squeeze

Fares please! Fares please!

Working conditions

Frank Hardy’s Black Diamonds returned to the familiar territory of the coalfields, its subject a stay-in miners’ strike at Cessnock when owners threaten to close a mine because of a drop in profits. The mine owners were portrayed as harsh plutocrats, the miners as the oppressed with a long history of struggle. Despite a slick publicity campaign Black Diamonds did poor business at Sussex Street, but was seen as suitable for out-of-town performances organised by the CPA and miners’ organisations. In Lithgow locals suggested the language be toned down, and in Cessnock (where the actors and crew expected to be billeted but weren’t) that swearing be eliminated altogether. In 1960 Black Diamonds was staged by the Berlin Ensemble in East Germany.

Frank Hardy also acted in the show. One audience member was teenager Noeline Brown who was impressed that he could talk and smoke a pipe at the same time.

Mona Brand’s tributes to ordinary workers included the Pay as You Enter bus driver’s nightmare:

It’s when the peak hour comes around

I really get my fun

I’m cashier driver traffic copper

All rolled into one.

It’s: Here’s your change, move down the bus

Now leave the gangway clear

No, lady, there’s no tramlines now

They dragged them up last year.

And a later version, beginning:

You’ve heard about that Argus chap

Who had a thousand eyes

And all about that Dancing God

The Indians so prize

They say he had a dozen arms

But, hell, what’s all the fuss?

Those blokes got nothing on my form

I drive a one man bus.

Brand paid tribute in song to the dunny man:

Night and day

I am the one

Only me beneath the moon

When daylight is done

In the dead of night I creep

When the families are fast asleep

I work for you

Lousy pay!

Day and night

Stronger than roses now

There’s an oh such an awful ponging donging the nose of you

And its torment won’t be through

While you let me spend my life emptying pans for you

Night and day

On my pay!

And the shopkeeper’s lament:

Out at the door the greengrocer stands

Watching the customers throw up their hands,

Notes how each housewife is gazing her fill

Glory if he gets one, won’t he make her ring the till.

High go the prices high high high

Wise is the housewife when she goes by

She sees the price of cabbages and gives a mighty hiss

And curses old Bob Menzies who’s responsible for this.

High go the prices high high high

Sad is the housewife, I hear her sigh –

She’d like to buy some beans and she’d like to buy some peas

But 3/6 a pound is far too much to pay for these.



The search for a new home continued into the 1960s with the limited availability of the WWF hall plus the discomfort of the occasional flea plague and the birth of a local alley cat’s litter under the stage. In 1963 the New moved to the rear of a car salesroom at 151 William Street Darlinghurst where it remained until 1973. The entrance to the theatre, converted from a motor garage housing two Rolls Royces, was on St Peters Lane, an area frequented by prostitutes who had dealings with the police and with whom some female theatre members became friendly. The NT watering hole was the Lord Roberts Hotel in Stanley Street.

Gambling premises on the first floor were converted into an auditorium while the second level became clubrooms. After a plea went out for help, trade unionists joined working bees at night and on weekends and NT supporters donated items such as a refrigerator and vacuum cleaner. Second-hand carpet was bought from the Prince Edward “Theatre Beautiful” (demolished in 1966) plus 114 cinema seats, Bruce Milliss going guarantor for the seats and a new ticket box.

There were a few problems with the venue (pests like fleas and cockroaches; regular thefts from the theatre ~ including the Tasmanian bush fire appeal box in 1967 ~ and nearby parked cars; the wide shallow stage was not high enough to accommodate flies; allocated seating meant ushers were needed, putting a further strain on Front of House volunteers; and the sound equipment sometimes picked up local police and taxi messages) but during the decade at St Peters Lane NT broadened its audience and its program. Acting classes, Workshops and children’s theatre were revived and more shows, with shorter seasons, staged. Director John Tasker was particularly successful in developing a new style for NT and bringing in new audiences, his usual question whether the theatre wanted to play safe or try something new. His first production, John Whiting’s A Penny for a Song, challenged the theatre’s resources, the staging requiring a two-storey mansion, the gondola of a balloon, an underground well, a gazebo, a fire engine and cannon balls rolling across the stage. Tasker also imposed a directorial discipline, his methods quickly undone with his departure after America Hurrah! (Tasker returned for The Changing Room in 1976.)

ASIO moles continued to report to HQ, the theatre’s phone was tapped and the rego numberplates recorded of cars parked nearby. Checking on a film review in the Spotlight! newsletter, an agent noted that Ingmar Bergman had no previous Security record.

By the mid1960s New Theatres in Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide had shut their doors, leaving only Sydney, Newcastle (closed 1979) and Melbourne (closed 2000). Common reasons for termination were loss of long-term committed members through death or health or family reasons; younger people moving on to co-ops after gaining experience; competition for audiences and writers from professional groups who were successful in getting funding and performing rights to “leftist” works; and lack of ongoing grants.

War & peace

Press bias during the Cold War was an ongoing issue, dramatised in a sketch by Bill Brown: Editor: Right boys, we’ve got a busy day ahead of us. Three rapes, two murders, a suicide and a juicy robbery with the nightwatchman still hovering near death with his brain laid bare to the bone, all in one night. Reporter 1: Sensational, boss. Reporter 2: Yeah terrific. That’s real news, boss. All front page stuff eh? Miss Heartright (entering): Here’s a startling cable from our man in Moscow. It says that Soviet doctors can now put patches on the human heart, replace broken knee, shoulder and hip joints with artificial ones that work perfectly, and new steel wire nerves – Editor: Yes yes Miss Heartright, tell them to cut it down to a one-inch single column story to help fill page 47.

Among the many revue items critical of Press standards was the rock-and-roll parody “Rot Around the Clock”: There’s the front page crime and page three lust The close-up shot of a gorgeous bust We give them rot around the clock all night We give them rot, rot, rot till the broad daylight Give ‘em rot, give ‘em rot around the clock all night.

The first St Peters Lane production was Millard Lampell’s The Wall directed by Paul Williams. At dress rehearsal the auditorium floorboards were being hammered into place and the walls painted, and on opening night the set was still being constructed and the front row seats screwed into place as the audience gathered in the foyer. During the performance there were noisy scene changes involving “prolonged and agitated manoeuvring behind an unsatisfactory curtain”, and during the run of the play undisciplined stage fights resulted in a string of accidents from bruising to lacerations needing stitches. Despite these problems, the play drew audiences.

In 1940 in Warsaw’s ghetto 600 Jews trapped behind a wall discover what is going on and resist. The large cast included Denise Perry, Jennifer Cullen, Lawrence Leabon, and Frank Hardy’s son Alan.

Winner of the 1962 Arts Council Drama Festival City Zone Section, Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall is not overtly propagandist but a drama revealing the protagonists’ different backgrounds and expectations. In 1942 a British army patrol trapped in a hut in the Malayan jungle during the Japanese advance on Singapore have to work out what to do with a Japanese infantryman they have captured.

Postmark Zero by Russian-American Robert Nemiroff was a dramatisation of letters written by German soldiers during the siege of Stalingrad 1942-3, pieced together with commentary. Directed by Roger Milliss and designed by his brother David, it was reviewed as a bit long at three hours and a bit earnest, but worth a visit because of NT’s convictions. John Tasker was impressed by the energy of 1968 newcomer John Hargreaves.

Advertised as a peace play, Operation Olive Branch, Ewan MacColl’s adaptation of Lysistrata, had a cast (including Vincent Gil and Rod Quinn) covering 29 speaking roles. In the opening night audience were a Soviet Union Peace Delegation and other overseas delegates. An interpreter translated loudly during the performance. NT Secretary Miriam Hampson brushed off complaints ~ the cause of peace and friendship was more important than people being irritated.

Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year was staged in 1964 with John Gray as Alf and John Nixon Rabbitts as Hughie.

A ditty in the 1965 revue You’ve Never Had It So Good was by Pat Flower:

Everyone’s using Nuclear

The dirtiest wash of all –

Simply press the button

And watch the fall-out fall!

With Patti Asange replacing Norma Polonsky in the title role, Brecht’s Mother Courage was staged in 1966. Opening night finished after 11 pm and during the long scene breaks the curtain was closed and the audience subjected to the sounds of scene shifting (one viewer thought this a Brechtian touch). But the show tightened and was well received with Carole Skinner’s Kattrina reviewed as impressive and Asange as a towering figure in a mammoth role. The live chicken ~ its neck was wrung on stage ~ was sold after the final curtain.

After a long search for material opposing the Vietnam War the theatre devised its own On Stage Vietnam in 1967, its key creators Mona Brand, Patrick Barnett and Roger Milliss who devised a stylistic mix of stage, slides, mime and dance drama requiring split-second timing of FX and involving 34 people. The show drew audiences, an extra weekly performance was added, and it was taken to Sydney University and Gordon. Security was improved after 22 slides were stolen; they were remade courtesy of Tribune. The New was attacked by the NSW Education Minister for charging half price admission for children and for publicising the show in the Teachers Federation journal where children might see it. The New also regularly sent petitions, telegrams and letters opposing the Vietnam War to the US Consul and Prime Ministers Menzies and Holt.

A revue item was “The Hocus Pocus Stomp”:

You put your first foot in

You move the French right out

You put your small arms in

And you shake them all about

You do the hocus pocus

Twist the facts all around

And that’s what it’s all about.

Speakers who addressed NT members included Tribune’s Rex Chiplin who spoke of his trip to Japan for a Hiroshima Peace Conference. Theatre members continued to be involved in outside events such as the 1962 Radial Peace March and the “Sing in Time to Beat the Bomb” concert at the Trocadero, compered by John Armstrong and featuring the poet Denis Kevans who held the audience of 1500 spellbound.

Racism & intolerance

Its subject racial prejudice in Australia, Here Under Heaven was Mona Brand’s first play written in 1947, its inspiration her seeing a Chinese woman refugee from Singapore (after its fall to the Japanese) and wondering what her situation might be.

Set in 1942 on a Queensland sheep station, the plot involves a matriarch Amelia Hamilton who has thrown Aborigines off her land. One son, killed in the war, has fathered a half-caste daughter. When the wife of another son missing in action arrives from Singapore Amelia is horrified to see that Lola is Chinese but is finally forced to accept the new family member and her unborn child.

Amelia (on phone): Oh, the show. Well, I’m afraid we may not be able to go to the show now – we can’t leave Lola, and of course she needs a good long rest… (to Iris) They know she’s arrived but thank goodness they don’t know everything. Iris, how are we to keep it from them? We can’t refuse to go everywhere.

Iris: You can’t keep it from people, so why try? Why all this fuss anyway?

Amelia: Of course I said we can’t go to the show, but that’s only putting it off. People are sure to hear… (breaks off guiltily as Lola comes on stage) Oh, oh, good morning.

Like many of Brand’s plays, Here Under Heaven was performed overseas ~ in Moscow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin. It was also broadcast on Italian radio as Famiglia Hamilton. NT publicity noted parallel events in 1961: a Kenyan refused a drink in a Queensland hotel; two Nauruan women ordered out of a Melbourne guesthouse; and the attempted deportation of two pearlers from Darwin to Malaya.

The last play staged in the WWF hall was A Raisin in the Sun set in Chicago where a Negro chauffeur dreams of power and his family struggles to attain the dignity of a decent style of living. The author Lorraine Hansberry was a black US writer. The cast included Harry Magnus, Rocky Raath and JEL member Karl Johnson. Publicised as relevant to race riots then happening in Mississippi where black students were trying to gain admission to a white university, the NT in 1961 had written to the Dean of Georgia University in support of the enrolment of African-American teenagers Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes. Holmes, an orthopaedic physician, and Hunter, a journalist, later contacted NT expressing their appreciation of its support.

Purlie Victorious was written by Ossie Davis as a vehicle for himself, its setting a Deep South cotton plantation where Purlie Victorious Judson, a self-appointed coloured preacher, schemes to buy a barn to convert to a church. The play satirises segregation as ridiculous, making good people, black and white, do ridiculous things. Bob Bell as the lead blacked up, as did the other Caucasian actors.

The World of Sholem Aleichem dramatised three stories about the absurdities and cruelties of life for Jews in Czarist times (the Israeli consul came to opening night but the Soviet ambassador, a regular invitee, declined). Well reviewed, it was directed by Joe MacColum who had been with London’s Unity Theatre and who took up a post at NIDA. Acting honours went to Alex Marchevsky and David Copping.

There was huge excitement at the theatre in 1960 when Paul Robeson and his wife saw All My Sons after which he spoke and sang. Another visiting singer Harry Belafonte was invited to the same show.

During the 1960s NT consistently opposed apartheid, supporting The Friends of Africa, urging Verwoerd to end the policy, Menzies to push for the expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth of Nations, and NSW Premier Heffron to drop charges against local protesters.

NT was also a consistent supporter of Australian indigenous people.

When the white man came

Our people owned the land

The white man came

With a Bible in his hand.

Now here is something

We try to understand

How we got the Bible

And he got the land.

The New was invited to the opening of Tranby Co-operative College in 1965, and held fundraisers for the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, the Aborigine Progressive Association, the Northern Territory Council for Aboriginal Rights, and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement. Members called for equal citizenship rights and, during the Gurindji dispute, sent money to the strikers and urged the ACTU to black ban the Vestey Group. Vesteys also featured in a Street Theatre item, David Young’s The Born Loser. Faith and Hans Bandler were regularly in the NT audience and at social events. The children’s musical Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip (its cast including Kingsley Strahan) intertwined Aboriginal legends in its pacifist plea for the protection of the bush. In the 1970s the New raised money for Muraweena pre-school and the Free Kevin Gilbert campaign.


US dominance of the entertainment industry remained an issue:

We don’t need a film industry While cowboys die for us on our TV.

The New supported Equity’s stance on Australian content on television. It was also involved in the long-running campaign to establish a Chair of Australian Literature at Sydney University, in recognition of which Miriam Hampson attended the foundation stone ceremony for the new Fisher Library in 1961.

Going, Going, Gone! by Mona Brand and Margaret Barr, directed by Roger Milliss, was a “financial revue” about Australia’s dependence on foreign investment, especially its sellout of natural resources, from the First Fleet to the 1960s. Performers included Maggie Kirkpatrick, Rod Williams and Linal Haft. John Gaden was cast but got professional work, as did Helen Verstak and Bill Reynolds. At a time when the theatre was broke, the authors donated royalties to the NT premises fund. (Some fundraising events attracted big houses but made hardly any money. A folk concert was packed out but entry was by donation: “It will be a good show and it’s not going to cost us anything”.)

Members took part in protests outside the French Embassy over atomic testing in the Pacific.

Working conditions

Sandhog, an Australian premiere in 1962, is an American folk opera about the compressed air tunnellers who built the Manhattan Hoboken Tunnel under the Hudson River in the 1880s. Such public works were built on the sweat of the workers who were often carried out dead or incapacitated, the danger dramatised in the “Song of the Bends”. If the pressure in the tunnel was high enough to dry out the quicksand at the bottom, the roof was likely to blow off; if the pressure was too low the shield sank into the quicksand. Staging was simple: a bare stage with black curtains, the tunnel evoked by projections of slides across the actors. The cast included Alex Hood. Margaret Barr was choreographer.

Some said they were crazy

Some said they were brave,

Some said they were digging

A muddy grave

Under the Old North River.

There was talk of reviving Sandhog in 1982 when the NSW government introduced new legislation following the Williams Report on industrial health and safety. With increasing computer use came fears of VDU blindness and tenosynovitis.

The 50th anniversary of the Miners’ Federation was celebrated at NT in 1965. The program included songs and speeches; Mona Brand’s Come All You Valiant Miners from material supplied by Edgar Ross, editor of Common Cause; sequences from a 1947 documentary Dust and the 1958 film Hewers of Coal by the WWF Film Unit. The cast included Jenniffer Cullen, Arthur Rudkin and his daughter Del, Shayna Bracegirdle and Declan Affley.

When I was a lad with my lamp in my hat

I manhandled coal from the face to the flat

Full twelve skips I loaded and that was a must

For six bob a day and a lungful of dust.

An item in the 1965 revue You’ve Never Had It So Good concerned conditions on the wharves and shipping owner crooks:

Wharfie’s wife: And what have they done to your Rinso-washed shirt

All along, down along, out along wharf?

Wharfie: A sling broke today and I copped all the dirt


Blue Funnel, Burns Philp and Cunard and Orient and Sitmar, and Uncle Sam’s cobbers and all –

And Uncle Sam’s cobbers and all.

In Frank Hardy’s The Ringbolter an escaped convict on the run after killing a warder (an amalgam of the Dugan-Mears/Simmonds-Newcombe manhunts) stows away on a coastal steamer whose crew are involved in deciding whether to go on strike. The ringbolter (a stowaway hidden below a hatch opened by a ringbolt) is the catalyst who complicates the situation. The unpublished script was staged in 1967; the previous year a seaman at Darling Harbour had been shot by a ringbolter.


After reviewing the 1948 production of Sean O’Casey’s The Star Turns Red as “magnificent theatre” the Sydney Morning Herald boycotted NT plays and refused to accept paid advertising, an act described by Mona Brand as “the first icy blast of the cold war”. In 1960 things suddenly changed when critic Lindsey Browne turned up at All My Sons and NT Secretary Miriam Hampson couldn’t believe her eyes. Credited with the turnaround was a meeting between WWF Secretary Jim Healy and a Herald executive. In 1973 after hearing that amateur productions would no longer be reviewed, Healy’s successor Norm Docker again reminded Warwick Fairfax that all Sydney newsprint passed through the hands of wharfies.

Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, staged in 1961, had been the subject of censorship in Ireland when its inclusion in the 1958 Dublin Tostal Drama Festival was proscribed by the Bishop of Dublin, as was a stage adaptation of Ulysses. Samuel Beckett withdrew his mime plays in protest and the festival was cancelled. A Utopian play about a festival in an Irish town, The Drums of Father Ned carried a message to young people to avoid sectarianism, bigotry, outworn dogmas and hatreds. The Sydney cast included Mark McManus and Denis Doonan. (The theatre had regular correspondence ~ including birthday cards ~ with O’Casey who allowed it reduced royalties.)

The decade’s biggest sensation was John Tasker’s 1968 production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah! satirising the worst aspects of the US way of life and concluding with giant dolls scrawling obscenities on the walls of a motel room. After the play had been running five weeks a grandmother who took her grandson to see it complained about Motel and the segment was banned by NSW Chief Secretary Eric Willis as going “beyond boundaries of decency and decorum”. Rather than risk massive fines a new version Hotel was written by Mona Brand and narrated by Betty Lucas as a comment on Australian censorship laws: “It’s hard to keep things clean these days but where there’s a Willis there’s a way” and the scribbled four-letter word became “F111”.

Despite Tasker’s advice to the NT Secretary to take things quietly and let Civil Rights do the shouting, Miriam Hampson spoke publicly about artistic freedom, a petition was circulated and a lot of office time was spent on problems associated with the ban.

Meanwhile a broad committee called “Friends of America Hurrah” prepared plans for a free one-night performance of the unaltered version at the Teachers’ Federation Hall. Among the thousands who thronged Sussex Street were actor Peter O’Shaughnessy and artist John Olsen. Reviewer Harry Kippax, holding up a note “SMH must review”, managed to get in and watched the show with Katharine Brisbane from the stage manager’s box.

The cast was unnamed and the rumour went round that one doll was played by Robert Helpmann, but it was John Hargreaves and Rod Williams who could just make out what was going on through their masks’ mouthpieces at the end of the performance when police tried to push their way through a bodyguard of wharfies. The “dolls” ran into a kitchen, shed their costumes and mingled with the other actors waiting in their underwear. On the stage, audience members clashed with police trying to take away the set as evidence. Some panels ended up for a short time in Darlinghurst Police Station. “Police Hunt for Two Dolls Continues” read a headline next day.

In the end there were no prosecutions but the America Hurrah! furore paved the way for The Boys in the Band and Hair to be staged uncut. Harry Miller (about to stage Hair) publicly supported the New, as did Don Dunstan (the cast sent him a congratulatory telegram when he became SA Premier), Kim Bonython, Russell Drysdale, Doris Fitton, Harry Seidler (suggested by Tasker to design the Hurrah set), Cyril Pearl and Robert Helpmann. One audience member sent NT a copy of a letter she had written to Willis: “I object strongly to a decision being made according to someone else’s criteria whether or not I may see a play”.

It was John Tasker who had urged the New to apply for the rights to America Hurrah! which he predicted no other Australian theatre would touch: “It could be a bombshell on the Sydney scene”. “To compare this play to the bulk of theatre of today is to compare Sid Nolan’s Ned Kelly to Stag at Bay” read a program note. The production received huge press and television publicity and was taken to Hobart and UNE, but the theatre was soon broke again. The America Hurrah! rights were the highest ever paid to that date, past royalties and old debts were paid off, and the next show War and Peace lost money. And there was no carry-over of interest in van Itallie’s The Serpent staged the next year.



Another rent increase in 1969 signalled that the landlord wanted the theatre out so the hunt began again for new premises. Solicitor Sid Conway was among those recommending the purchase of a building with a separate legal entity to administer it. A Premises Fund was set up and fundraising activities increased. Money also came from members’ loans, with support from trade unions, other theatres and left-wing political parties. In the interim, some old chairs were patched up at St Peters Lane and 32 others bought from MGM’s St James Theatre prior to its demolition in 1971.

In August 1972 the 10% deposit was paid on 542 King Street at the St Peters end of Newtown, within South Sydney Council, its last occupier the Sure Brite television picture tube factory, a cavernous space covered with broken glass. The drainage had to be completely relaid, part of the roof on the King Street side removed and a new mezzanine floor built. The rear on Iredale Street was also extensively reshaped. Work progressed from the front to the back, with all the problems of having to park on King Street.

Miriam Hampson and Jack Mundey were the driving force in getting support from unions and construction company Civil & Civic who secured a bank loan, bricks and second-hand timber, and a full-time leading hand. At a time when there was a shortage of skilled labour because of the amount of building work happening in Sydney, the New engaged a bricklayer, two carpenters and three labourers. Trade union boilermakers built the steel framework for the raked auditorium and a volunteer plumber installed the guttering. Theatre members Jack Kreger, Trevor Finch and Frank Busby worked on the electricals; Jamie Stevens on the drainage. There were only a couple of minor injuries, although Diamantino Cavaco fractured his wrist after falling from a ladder.

In April 1973, amid piles of bricks, mortar and timber, a fundraising “Newtown Prom” featured singers Jeannie Lewis and Marian Henderson, and offered wine with supper instead of the customary keg of beer. A few days later St Peters Lane was vacated for its new tenants the Sydney Film Makers Co-operative.

The Newtown building was formally opened on 15 September 1973 by the Minister for Media Doug McClelland on the opening night of the revue What’s New before an audience including trade unionists and South Sydney councillors. The 160-seat auditorium included two rows of “plush” chairs from St Peters Lane. (In 1982 all were replaced by second-hand seats from Walter Burley Griffin’s ivory- bronze themed Capitol Theatre in Melbourne.)

Settling in at King Street coincided with the period in office of the Whitlam government, supportive of the Arts. A federal grant secured the building and Australia Council grants financed children’s workshops and freelance directors. Keen to show such financial support had been justified, the New promoted itself as a community space, with children’s arts and crafts, workshops and productions; puppetry; folk dancing; karate; street theatre and activities involving migrant groups. Despite these efforts, local and general audiences were hard to find for the mainstage shows and there was continued conflict within the exhausted committees in a sometimes “poisonous” atmosphere. The theatre struggled on until salvation came in March 1975: the Australian premiere of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a work which combined theatricality with a political message, and which could have played for months beyond its extended season. (In contrast, Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, also set in a hospital for the insane, made a loss in 1970 despite “gripping” and “brilliant” performances by Shirley Broadway and Paul Sonkkila.)

War & peace

NT remained affiliated with peace bodies such as the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament, the Movement Against Uranium Mining, the Australian People’s Disarmament Conference, and anti-conscription and anti Vietnam War groups. It retained links with the Council for Civil Liberties and pro-Soviet organisations such as the Australia-USSR Society. NT supported Chilean Solidarity, Indo-China Solidarity, Youth Festival Cuba, and an independent East Timor.

Winner of a $100 NT Play Competition in 1969 was Pauline Mitchell, a peace activist and CPA member, whose Face of an Enemy was set among Australian troops in Vietnam. Judged as dramatically aware with an interesting story line, it was read during a Vietnam Moratorium but not given a mainstage production.

Exposure 70 included John Dengate singing about HMAS Melbourne, and the new fighter bomber on order from the USA but beset with technical problems:

Oh the F one double one it is a lovely plane

It flies at twice the speed of sound and scatters bombs like rain

Its wings go back and forward, it’s the latest thing around,

It’s a pity that it isn’t safe to take it off the ground.

The effect of the Algerian War on metropolitan France was examined in The Sunday Walk where acts of terrorism lead to indifference to the suffering of others:

On a Paris street there is the sound of an explosion but a family on their Sunday stroll continue their conversation. A shot is heard from the wings followed by a second. Grandfather falls dead. Father puts his ear to Grandfather’s chest, then asks his wife for a mirror which he puts to Grandfather’s lips. He gets up and returns the mirror to his wife.

Father: No question about it, he’s dead … his heart’s stopped beating. Pause. A stray bullet. These things happen…

They continue walking.

David Campton’s Little Brother, Little Sister, workshopped in 1970, is a macabre fairytale of the aftermath of a nuclear war, while a program note for the 1971 Workshop of Jean-Paul Sartre’s adaptation of The Trojan Women warned of the devastation of an atomic war. Street Theatre’s The Great International Uranium Show played at Lucas Heights, UNSW, Macquarie University and Mascot Fair in 1977. Discussions were held with guest speakers on the nuclear issue and uranium mining on Sundays after John Romeril’s The Radioactive Horror Show staged in 1978, its cast including David Kerslake and Christine Logan.

Jules Feiffer’s anti-war dark comedy The White House Murder Case, originally a commentary on Vietnam, was staged in 1974 when it was publicised as relevant to Watergate.

Set in Ireland’s troubled Londonderry during a civil rights disturbance, Brian Friel’s The Freedom of the City played in repertory in 1975 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a programming experiment that didn’t work.

Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun, set in an army camp in the British Zone of occupied North Germany in 1954, was produced in 1979 with a strong ensemble cast including Greg Saunders.

O’Rourke: It is indeed a fine gun, the Bofors light ack-ack. It has been, of course, obsolete since 1942, the year it was put on the market, and even the ultimate in Bofors guns has no particular role to play in the event of genuine war, with its nuclear fission… and you have asked me, Gunner O’Rourke, to guard it with my life, thinking that, as my 30th year looms up to strike me between the eyes, I would indeed do anything, anything, to preserve and shelter from all Bolshevik harm, a thing so beautifully useless, so poignantly past it, so wistfully outdated, as my youth, or a Bofors gun. I would, and I shall, lay down my life for it.

At the end of his monologue O’Rourke kills himself by falling on his bayonet.

The play’s author John McGrath founded the 7:84 Theatre Company, its title from a 1966 statistic that 7% of the population of Great Britain owned 84 % of the wealth. The company, which aimed to present the realities of working class life and history to working class audiences, survived from 1971 to 2008.

Set in a Northern Territory Advance Ordnance Depot in 1944, Sumner Locke Elliot’s Rusty Bugles was finally staged by the New in 1979, three decades after its use of “the great Australian adjective” made NT playreaders nervous. Doris Fitton and her 1948 Independent Theatre cast were invited to opening night and signed a program for Kenyon McCarron, unable to attend because now living interstate. Directed by John Tasker and designed by Warren Field, the production drew good houses.

A warning about nuclear conflagration concluded the 1979 Australian premiere of Richard’s Cork Leg, Brendan Behan’s play about drinking, politics and parties.


Conscription into the Vietnam War was held by birthday ballot: marbles with birth dates were picked out of a barrel lottery style. An item in Exposure 70 was Pat Flower’s “We’re all in this thing together”:

The son of a Liberal voter has been conscripted.

Somebody’s made a boo-boo

They’ve got their marbles mixed.

I’ve tried every wangle, dodge and finangle

To get the faux pas fixed.

I’ve badgered my local Member

I’ve pointed out the mistake

I’ve filled in swarms of triplicate forms ...

Imperialism & racism

Resisting overseas cultural domination, the New supported the “TV Make it Australian” campaign, lobbied Prime Ministers McMahon and Whitlam to support Australian content on the ABC and oppose media monopoly, and was one of the first subscribers to publishing house Currency Press.

Australia’s sell-off of its natural resources was a theme in Exposure 70 which included Pat Flower’s “I love your sunburnt country” for a Japanese speaker, and “Crime does pay”:

Yet when I look round at our mad world today,

At the jokers who make prices soar

And the guys who come in to extract all our wealth

And manage our land from next door.

The same revue commented on apartheid, at an England v South Africa cricket match:

Commentator: It’s wonderful weather here today, the tear gas has cleared overnight, not a cloud in the sky, and a slight south-easterly breeze from the demonstrators’ end. The sun is glinting brilliantly on the barbed wire around the boundary, the trenches in the outfield are immaculately trimmed, the minefields at the bowlers’ approaches have been relaid… I’ve never seen the fortifications at Lord’s looking better…”

Reviewed well but with small houses, Niugini! was a program of plays written by members of a creative writing class at the University of Papua New Guinea, a forum for indigenous writers to express the attitudes of an emerging nation at a time when the Free Papua New Guinea Association opposed Australian colonialism. Three of the four works dealt with European/indigenous relations. The cast included Simon Burke and Deborah Kennedy. Full body makeup was again a costly budget item.

In The Unexpected Hawk a Kiap (white patrol officer) comes to a village “like a hawk coming to catch a rat” to take young men away to work as stretcher bearers, and to force villages to amalgamate:

Villager: We cannot move this village. Our fathers lived and died here. Their sweat and blood fell on this land. We cannot give our strength to other villages and other people’s land. We cannot move into their village like women. We are men with penis and testicles. You do not understand us. You are like a floating log, on the river without any roots. We are like snags in the river. We watch you floating past, wherever the currents lead you. You fail to look down into the water to see our roots embedded in the mud.

The Ungrateful Daughter examined the cultural dilemma of a young native woman forced into marrying an Australian by the Carneys, a white couple who have adopted her:

Mr Carney upbraids the houseboy:

Carney: Tom, Tom! Come here quick time. How’s that you no wash him clothes belong Missis yesterday? You lez again?

Tom Tom: Masta mi no ken.

Carney: What do you mean you can’t?

Tom Tom: Tasol masta mi no nap. Em I tambu long ples bilong mi. Man I no ken holim tanget belong meri, bae I kisim sik, bai I no nap painim pis or kapul na baembai I no nap grow. Em I tambu long mi long washim klos belong misis.

Carney: What on earth makes you think you’ll get sick touching a woman’s clothes?

Mrs Carney: He’s just making excuses. He’s lazy that’s all.

The Old Man’s Reward concerns Danuba, an old man whose two sons were killed by Japanese in the Second World War. Awarded a medal by the Australian External Affairs Minister, he is given an old coat and pair of shoes to wear for the ceremony but has to return the “government property” afterwards. Danuba drinks at the ceremony, is locked up for being drunk and disorderly, and becomes bitter and disillusioned.

In the last scene Dorei an evangelist enters with a Bible and prayer book.

Dorei: God be with you all. May the Lord bless Danuba’s house.

Danuba: Get yourself blessed first. Leave me. I don’t want to see your face.

Dorei: What’s wrong with Danuba, the most faithful Christian in the village? The bad spirit must have entered his mind. I’ll read you an extract from the Book of Job.

Danuba: Read it to yourself. Keep your God. He is the white man’s God. I gave all my land to him – now see how he allows his people to mock me.

Dorei: Take courage. Have you not got the medal? Is that not a big reward for all your suffering?

Publicised as a satire on French colonialism and a modern morality play, Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders was staged in 1974. Directed by Sean Surplus, the cast included Mark Onslow and Alastair Stewart (a medical practitioner in real life).

Edward Albee’s The Death of Bessie Smith told the story of the US black singer who died after being driven around trying to find a treating hospital after she had been involved in a car accident. Publicity stressed the race relations parallel between 1937 Tennessee and anti-apartheid demonstrations in the 1971 South African Rugby tour of Australia.

Jack: Ma’am … I got Bessie Smith in that car there …

Nurse: I don’t care who you got there, Nigger. You cool your heels!

In its group-devised companion piece 1971 – A Race Odyssey a green-skinned race persecute a purple-skinned race. Author Bill Noonan had been in New Guinea during the Second World War and observed how paternalistic Australians were. The cast included Wayne van Heekeren (who grew up on a Port Moresby plantation) and Jean-Paul Bell.


An item in Exposure 70 was Mona Brand’s wordless script with a little old lady and a policeman moving among various statues and sanitising them. A chisel is taken to Michelangelo’s David.

In the same show Brand’s “Goodbye, Mr Chipp” included references to Swedish films then popular at festivals. As he sings, the Minister snips film and puts frames into his pocket:

One little scene when it gets a goin’

Can other folks quickly deprave

One little snip cuts out that shot

Never mind about the plot

Whoa – oh – chip, chip.

Another little snip – chip, chip

You join them in a clip.

As Minister for Customs and Excise, Don Chipp largely abolished the censorship of printed material and introduced the “R” certificate for films, allowing previously banned films to be shown to adults.


Before outfalls were extended, Bondi and Malabar beaches were polluted with sewage. Mona Brand’s “every little breeze seems to whisper disease” was sung in Exposure 70, together with her version of “I do like to be beside the seaside”:

Oh, I do like to surf beside the sewer

To surf beside the sewer in the sea

I do like to wallow where the ocean’s strong

Where the outlet flows tiddely-ong-pong-pong.

So just let me surf beside the sewer

The effluent is good for me

And there’s lots of germs beside

I can swallow down inside

Beside the sewer, beside the sea.

In the same revue, John Mulligan’s Crown of Thorns concerned drilling for oil on the Barrier Reef:

Priest: It was just two thousand years ago

He was crucified with a crown of thorns

And on either side a thief

Now for 2000 miles

With a crown of thorns we crucify our reef.

Altar girls: And nobody cares.

Priest: Thirty silver pieces once was the price

But now 30 drilling leases are just as nice

The drilling rig with Ampol prevails …

Mona Brand’s unpublished Pirates of Pinchgut contained a litterbug Major General:

I am a very model man for making muddle general

I love to scatter vegetable, animal and mineral

I always drop my ticket from whatever bus I travel in

My very newest pullover I always am unravelling

When it comes to washing hands I’m not at all particular

I revel in pollution and include it in curricula

I like to fill the atmosphere with vapours quite asthmatical...

I veto every movement to make cleanliness respectable

I empty lots of sewers into areas delectable …


A number of plays on historical figures were staged by the New in the 1970s. In Hair-like style, Tom Paine by New York’s La MaMa playwright Paul Foster was rough Brechtian theatre about the 18th century philosopher who wrote The Rights of Man and inspired the American War of Independence. Foster’s Elizabeth 1, a commentary on money, religion and war, was produced in 1976 with Lorrie Cruickshank in the title role. A “production clean and crisp and right on the mark”, it was directed by Paul Quinn and designed by Andrew Blaxland.

Sydney playwright Kevin McGrath’s John Grant’s Journey tracked the real-life convict’s movements from 1802 London to Norfolk Island where he was chained to an offshore islet. A world premiere in 1974, the play was written after the discovery of Grant’s diaries and letters (he wrote on banana leaves with a quill dipped in bloodwood sap) were found in a London bank vault. Musical director was Peter Sculthorpe.

Another world premiere, in 1978, was Friday the Thirteenth re J T Lang’s last day in office on 13 May 1932. The playwright Kevin Barry Morgan, an ex Labor parliamentarian, also acted in it and was convincing and amusing as an ALP Speaker. Lang was played by Stan Ashmore-Smith, then Secretary of the Kings Cross branch of the ALP and later a City of Sydney alderman and deputy Lord Mayor who organised public meetings on disarmament and voted against a high- rise building which would overshadow Hyde Park. The play attracted good houses, including Laurie Brereton in the first night audience, and school students studying Australian history.

In exuberant circus style, Barry Oakley’s The Feet of Daniel Mannix satirised the Melbourne Roman Catholic Archbishop’s influence on Australian politics in the period 1912 – 63 in areas including conscription, unemployment and the formation of the DLP. The title role was played by Bill Charlton, and the combat sequences (Mannix and Scullin wrestling over Catholic education, Mannix and Hughes fighting with thunderbolts over conscription, and H V Evatt strangled by a red octopus) choreographed by Barry Hart.

The revue It’s Time to Boil Billy: The Canberra Follies of 1972 preceded that year’s federal election. Three of its scripts, including a satire on US control of Australian resources, were by David Williamson. The cast included Les Asmussen as Gorgeous Gorton and Dame Henry Bolte, while Norman Kirkpatrick and Sue Maddock were Bill and Sonia (in that dress) McMahon. On a swing Virginia Portingale sang

I’m just a swinging voter

Don’t know which way to go

Should I vote for silly Billy

Or give old Gough a go?

Original music was by her brother Paris Portingale. Most of the jokes were at McMahon’s expense, but another Prime Minister was lampooned:

I’m a regular rooter tooter

With a kinder crooked smile.

Sure I’ve done a lot of tootin’

But the rootin’s more my style.

My face got smashed in ‘42

But never did I wince,

To tell the truth, my friends

I’ve been smashed ever since.

Mona Brand’s take on the Aeroplane Jelly jingle was revived at rallies in support of Whitlam:

I once swayed like a jelly

As soft and as shaky could be

A dumb swinging voter

Is what they called me

A little each way seemed a good recipe. … I’ve seen Labor get moving

Making life better for me

More money for schooling and uni is free

The Medibank scheme is a good recipe,

Age pensions are high and they’ll rise by and by

Gough’s policy’s beaut

Those are good reasons why

I’m a genuine swinger

A swinger to Labor that’s me.

Whitlam’s sacking in 1975 inspired The Pirates of Pal Mal penned by Mon Brand and John Upton:

I am the very model of a modern gov’nor general,

I live in lap of luxury which might be quite ephemeral,

I strut around like George the Third and snub the mere colonial,

All bowing and all scraping on occasions ceremonial.

I’m below the Queen of England in the order of priority,

But when it comes to governing I’ve really more authority.

I’ve quite a reputation now for smiling enigmatically

While sacking certain ministers elected democratically.

In the same show Wayne van Heekeren played hayseed Doug Anthony:

When I was a lad some time I spent

At an agricultural establishment

I smiled at my tutors as I swept the floor

And polished up my image at the pig pen door.

I polished up my image so carefully

That now I am the leader of the NCP.


In addition to International Women’s Day, NT supported the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, and Women in Solidarity for Peace.

The Disorderly Women adapted from The Bacchae and updated with references to Women’s Liberation (plus hallucogenic drugs and the Charles Manson murders) was staged in 1971. A gory show, a big budget item was a bottle of “blood” a week. Its cast included Kai Tai Chan who in 1973 co-devised Dance Exploration. A stylised blend of dance and drama, its most moving piece was “Four Women” with words by Jean-Claude van Itallie. Costumes ranged from topless to long-john leotards with rumpled underwear showing through. Kai Tai Chan later founded the One Extra Dance Company.

The hardships endured by women convicts transported to Australia was the subject of Steve Gooch’s Female Transport, its cast including Jan Punch and its leg irons fashioned by the blacksmith at Old Sydney Town where it was performed on Australia Day 1976.


By the 1980s more Australian works were being produced, although there was increasing competition for their performing rights, especially from the Nimrod. Until Miriam retired as Secretary in 1982, steady correspondence with Soviet organisations continued and in 1980 money was raised to send athletes to the Moscow Olympics. To mark the New’s 50th birthday a play script competition attracted 92 entries; of the co-winners only John Upton’s Waiting for Rupert Murdoch was produced. John Meredith, founder of the Bushwhackers, submitted his version of Oedipus as a ballad opera set among Greek immigrants in present-day Sydney, the hero Eddie a foul-mouthed cocaine-sniffing guitarist in a rock band The Stars of Mykonos. After his involvement in a gang rape of a Greek woman who turns out to be his mother, Eddie blinds himself with a broken ouzo bottle and throws himself off a balcony.

Also marking the anniversary was a display “50 New Years” in the Exhibition Hall of the Opera House. Speakers included ex NT President Maurie Keane (MLA for Woronora 1973-88) who also attended a testimonial for retiring NT Secretary Miriam Hampson in Sydney Town Hall with fellow ALP politicians Bob Tickner, Tom Uren, Senator Arthur Gietzelt and Lord Mayor Doug Sutherland:

Who ever would have thought it

That we’d see our Mim retire

If anyone had said it

We’d have called them a liar

But if you think of it clearly it’s not so odd

What else can happen to someone as old as God?

With a generous bequest from the estate of Jean Blue amenities were added to the office and the backstage area remodelled. The rehearsal room was renamed in her memory.

War & peace

Oh What a Lovely War, Mate was a popular success in 1980. The script by Joan Littlewood with additional Australian material by Nick Enright uses a pastiche of popular First World War songs, music, dance, comedy skits and political spin juxtaposed with a visual montage of newspaper reports, casualty lists, recruiting posters and battlefield photographs to expose the hoopla that concealed the grim realities of the conflict. A troupe of music hall entertainers entice young men to embark on an adventure with appeals to patriotism and promises of exotic lands, sex on tap and “the King’s shilling” but no mention of them becoming cannon fodder.

Directed by Frank Barnes, lit by Michael John Schell, with musical direction by Tom Bridges and Maurie Mulheron, its cast included Beth Child. Alison Strahan played flute and Terry Chilcott saxophone. (A second production of Oh What a Lovely War, Mate was staged in 2007.)

Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind was an Australian premiere in 1982. Set in contemporary Belfast, it was a plea for peace and a condemnation of the lunatic polarising of political thought in Northern Ireland. Directed by John Tasker and designed by John Pryce Jones, it was reviewed as reaching “sublime heights of lunatic terror and comic climax”.

Peter Nichols’ experiences in the British Army Entertainment Company touring Malaya in 1948 inspired his musical Privates on Parade mounted in 1986 and revived in 2014. The earlier cast included John Grinston, Brett Heath and George Hoad.

In Ron Raygun in the Antipodes a musical play by Stafford Sanders and Tom Bridges, President Raygun comes to Australia to safeguard USA’s interests after the sacking of a Labor government. Targets include Pine Gap, Three Mile Island, Northwest Cape, Omega, Esso, Utah, Pan-Continental, F111, Watergate and Agent Orange, Australian conservative politicians, and Murdoch (Mudrock) cutting his ties with Australia to concentrate on London and New York operations. Directed by Fay Mokotow, the 1983 production was designed by Tom Bannerman with cartoons by Patrick Cook and Jenny Coopes.

President Ron Raygun costumed hero, and deputy George Gosh Superspook:

Ron: Wherever there is suffering, wherever there is war

George: Wherever people are oppressed, wherever they are poor

Ron: Wherever folks are underfoot, and they can’t make it through

Both: Don’t call on us with your low grade fuss

‘Cause we’ve got better things to do.

Ron: We’re Ron Raygun

George: And Superspook

Both: And the riff-raff we deplore

But we’ll fight for the right of American millionaires

To make a whole lot more.

John Morrell’s Waiting for the Parade is set during the Second Word War in Calgary, Canada, where five women cope with the pressures of the war. Also set in the Second World War, C P Taylor’s And a Nightingale Sang … is a “compassionate and moving portrait of ordinary people set against … extraordinary happenings”. In Newcastle upon Tyne a woman’s journey from witnessing destruction to hope for the future parallels Thatcher’s Britain committed to belligerence in foreign affairs and social anarchy at home.

Sink the Belgrano by Steven Berkoff, an angry play about “a pack of fakes” whose sinking of the ship led to Britons and Argentinians needlessly losing their lives in the Falklands War, was reviewed in Colin Kenny’s production as “gutsy, powerful boots-and-all theatre”. In the tradition of saving money for NT, the wool carpet of “Maggot Scratcher” was sold at the end of the run.

C P Taylor’s Good set in 1930s Germany, its theme moral compromise and intellectual betrayal, was rendered “with abundant clarity and passion” in its 1988 production directed by Ros Horin.

Fear of nuclear war was raised in At Last! The 1984 Show in which the US President reassures the public:

I just want to reiterate clearly and categorically that the purpose of our nuclear weapons stockpile is purely as a deterrent to the Soviet Union. We’ve spent billions of dollars building these weapons – but we have no intention of ever using them. We only have them to deter the Soviets – to let them know we have them and that we’re prepared to use them. But you can be sure we have no intention of using them – unless we do use them. I hope that clears things up.

An actual nuclear accident inspired Sarcophagus by Vladimir Gubareyev, as Pravda’s science editor the first journalist to cover the explosion at number 4 reactor at Chernobyl in 1986. Gubareyev filed reports to the paper from the site and talked to survivors. In the play he stresses the appalling dangers inherent in the way this energy source is handled by those responsible for it, nuclear fuels being used for years with no realistic safeguards or solutions for the disposal of radioactive waste. The play is set in a Moscow isolation clinic receiving victims from Chernobyl. Gregan McMahon played a patient.

Anna Petrovna (a physician and research scientist) and Vera (a newly qualified doctor) emerge from cubicle 3 where the director of the Power Station has been isolated. Vera is crying:

Anna: Don’t, my dear. Tears won’t help any more.

Vera: Please, Anna Petrovna, could I go in and be with him for just a little longer? Take another look at him? His face was so peaceful …

Anna: Too late now. No one will see his face again. A lead coffin and a concrete sarcophagus. It has to be like that because his body is emitting two or three roentgens an hour. And it will go on doing so for several decades. I’m afraid you can’t go in there again.

The light in cubicle 8 starts to blink.

Quickly! And wipe away your tears. You must always go into a cubicle with a smile. They’re waiting for your smile. Come on, girl.

Lights are blinking in cubicles no. 8, no. 6 and no. 4. The glowing of burning graphite shines brightly on the cyclorama.


In addition to International Women’s Day, NT supported the Women’s Abortion Action Campaign, and Women in Solidarity for Peace.

The Disorderly Women adapted from The Bacchae and updated with references to Women’s Liberation (plus hallucogenic drugs and the Charles Manson murders) was staged in 1971. A gory show, a big budget item was a bottle of “blood” a week. Its cast included Kai Tai Chan who in 1973 co-devised Dance Exploration. A stylised blend of dance and drama, its most moving piece was “Four Women” with words by Jean-Claude van Itallie. Costumes ranged from topless to long-john leotards with rumpled underwear showing through. Kai Tai Chan later founded the One Extra Dance Company.

The hardships endured by women convicts transported to Australia was the subject of Steve Gooch’s Female Transport, its cast including Jan Punch and its leg irons fashioned by the blacksmith at Old Sydney Town where it was performed on Australia Day 1976.


Nick Enright’s On the Wallaby paralleling personal and political life during the Depression was a popular success in 1981 and 1986, both productions directed by Frank Barnes. Its 1981 designer was John Pryce Jones; its 1986 performers included Nikki Gemmell and Jamie Jackson.

The 1984 presentation of Mona Brand’s Here Comes Kisch! marked the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Egon Erwin Kisch (1885- 1948) as an illegal immigrant. A Czech journalist and anti-fascist communist, Kisch (who had been a fellow student of Franz Kafka) was invited to Melbourne for an anti-war congress. When the ship docked Kisch jumped onto the wharf, breaking his leg. Because of a court application he was able to get to Sydney but was rearrested and subjected to a dictation test. Fluent in many languages, he failed Scottish Gaelic and was given six months’ gaol, a sentence quashed by the High Court. His public appearances attracted big crowds, including Jean Devanny who kissed him in Sydney’s Domain. Kisch, whose legal counsel was left-wing Christian Jollie-Smith, left Australia in March 1935 after his legal costs had been reimbursed. Mona Brand’s play was reviewed as a “wonderful political romp” “fast, funny and vey enjoyable” and the season was extended.

At the 1983 federal election there was a massive swing to the ALP led by Bob Hawke. In “The Return of the Pragmati” Bob Skyhawker encounters Lord Darth Fraser:

Darth: I have, you know, come back -- to turn you into the Right Wing of the Force.

Bob: Ah come off the grass, Darth. If you think with regard to and in respect of my own position and the position of my government I’m about to abandon me Sword of Socialist sympathy aah you’re having an intergalactic wank (and I use the term purely as an ejaculation).

They fight. Bob gets Darth to his knees.

Darth: Eh just a minute, Bob. Before you strike me down. Do the words budget responsibility – business incentive – welfare rationalisation – wage restraint – economic rationalism – mean anything to you?

The Money or the Box? by Greg Stone and 1983 final year NIDA acting students was a rock-and-roll musical review of the Menzies era and the beginnings of TV in Australia.

ASIO was an ongoing topic for satire, as in At Last! The 1984 Show:

I spy with my little tape

No breach of security shall escape

I intend to keep all nefarious Reds

Wedged firmly beneath the nation’s beds…

I spy with my little clip

On those under foreign terrorist grip

To ensure those intruders leave you alone

We’ll hide in your bedroom and tap your phone…

Donald Freed’s The Quartered Man set in the American Embassy in Costa Rica concerned Intelligence interference in South America:

There used to just one superpower … now there are two … the USA and the CIA.

Big Business

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons concerns a maker of planes who lets them leave his factory knowing they have faults. Set during the Second World War, when produced in 1980 it was publicised as relevant: in the previous year profits were prioritised over safety with McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft, and 74 000 Holden Commodores were recalled because of faulty components. There was also controversy over the accident at the Three Mile Island Harrisburg USA nuclear reactor, and the disposal of nuclear waste in deserts and oceans.


A play about pollution, George Sklar’s Brown Pelican was publicised in 1980 as relevant to birth defects linked with Agent Orange. The same year saw Mona Brand’s environmental pantomime The Three Secrets, set in “Crook Look” A city by the sea

Where all the people near and far

Are sick as sick can be.

In every house in Crook Look

The people lie in bed

With coughs and colds and chicken pox

And noises in the head.

At the end of the show the young audience were encouraged to

Ring the Bell!

So let us clean up every street

And keep the air around us sweet

And keep the rivers running clear

To golden beaches far and near.

The New opposed the building of the Sydney monorail.

The Workers

Bill Bryden’s Willie Rough is based on real events in Scotland, during a Clydesdale shipyard workers’ strike in the First World War. The idealistic Willie Rough was played by Elwyn Edwards in the 1980 production.

The 1902 Mount Kembla mine disaster was the subject of Windy Gully staged at the New by Theatre South in 1989.

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s The Workroom, an Australian premiere in 1981, concerned women working in the garment industry in Paris 1945-52. Directed by John Tasker, it was designed by Tom Bannerman after Warren Field got paid work at the Melbourne Festival Hall.

In the Bill Owen/Tony Russell version of The Matchgirls, staged in 1981, Jean Kittson played Kate (in 1948 portrayed by Dolore Whiteman).

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, first produced in 1933, was reprised in 1987 as Stephen Lowe’s adaptation from the original novel.

An open reading was given of Paul Clarke’s The Ninth Stitch about the 1923 strike by Melbourne police over their supervision by plain clothes “spooks”. After the police stopped work on 31 October there were riots and looting and they were replaced by special constables, but much of the disturbance had died down by Melbourne Cup Day.

Publicity for the 1982 production of Reedy River likened the character Joe Collins to BLF fighters for improved conditions and Green Bans (Jack Mundey, Joe Owens and Bob Pringle), all victimised for their beliefs.

The New supported striking Queensland electricity workers in 1985.

An item in Ron Raygun in the Antipodes signalled a break from past portrayals of unionists. Self-serving Patrick Michael O’Sinecure of the Federated Associated National Brotherhood of Ship Plumbers and Dodgers addresses “execkertive” members:

Now brothers, I’m sure you’re all aware that there’s been a lot o’ loose talk about revolutions and that. But before we go about allocatin’ substantial monies to these anti-government rallies and such-like, I believe we should be lookin’ first to consolidate the position of our own membership.

(Some NT members objected to criticism of the USSR in Howard Barker’s No End of Blame where an artist discovers that freedom of expression exists neither there nor in England. There was also disquiet over Howard Brenton’s portrayal of Stalinist-style socialists as worse than capitalists in his Thirteenth Night, a reworking of Macbeth set in modern Labour-governed Britain.)

Imperialism & oppression

Long opposed to apartheid, the New in the 1980s staged two mainstream plays based on real people’s experiences of the regime. The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs and The Biko Inquest, both directed by Frank McNamara, were well received by critics and audiences. The first, based on Sachs’ Jail Diary, is a white South African’s description of his detention without charge or trial. Mark Butler played the lead role in a production praised for performances free from melodramatics matching the script’s spare, unsentimental writing.

Setting a cell in Cape Town early 1960s:

Albie: I was entering my chambers this morning. I had parked my car and was at the entrance of the building. I felt a hand on my shoulder. There were men in suits all around me. I am detained under the 90-day law. After 90 days I can be arrested for a further 90 days. And then again. Ad infinitum.

He scratches 1/10/63 on the cell wall.

It is Tuesday October the first 1963. He scratches his initials. I am Albert Louis Sachs. He scratches a single scratch. Day One.

In the distance he hears the chime of a clock. Albie instinctively reaches for his watch, remembers it’s been taken by a guard. He listens, the clock strikes 6.

Thank God for that.

The Biko Inquest is an account of medical student leader Steve Biko who was involved in organisations promoting the rights of fellow blacks. After his arrest in 1977 by South African police for distributing “subversive” pamphlets, he was chained naked in a cell while being interrogated by security police and died of a head injury. David Ritchie’s portrayal of the Biko family’s barrister was reviewed as outstanding in a work which was a “relentless indictment of police brutality and medical duplicity”.

The subject of Arthur Kopit’s Indians, directed by Stanley Walsh, was 19th century white America’s relations with the indigenous inhabitants, a blend of Wild West Show, vaudeville and circus debunking the Hollywood myth of the brave Western hero taming the primitive savage. (Needing bull skulls, vegetarian production manager Beate Zanner fetched six heads from an abattoir, boiled them and stripped off the flesh, only to have four stolen from her backyard.)

Chief Red Cloud: They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they never kept but one. They promised to take our land and they took it.

Sandinista in agit-prop style portrayed the politics behind the scenes and the extent of American involvement in Nicaragua where, after the revolutionary Sandinistas won power from dictator Somoza in 1979, the USA began destabilising the new regime, withdrawing foreign aid and funding Contra anti-government rebels.

Aboriginal issues were explored in John Summons’ The Savage Heart, short listed in the 50th anniversary competition and presented as a rehearsed reading. (The detailed story of the Myall Creek massacre and murder trials was recounted in NT member Roger Milliss’s epic book Waterloo Creek.) In 1988 and 1989 the New donated to the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust $1 from each sold ticket and $5 from each member’s dues. (In the 1990s a “Sorry” book was placed in the foyer.)

The Death of Phillip Robertson: the true story of a black death in custody was staged in 1988. The Fannie Bay Gaol prisoner was asphyxiated by vomit after being struck on the back of the neck in 1979; a charge of manslaughter against a prison officer was dropped. The play’s author John Tomlinson, Secretary of the Northern Territory Council for Civil Liberties, sat through the inquest and thought a miscarriage of justice had occurred. His play was based on transcripts. The cast included Lydia Miller.

Jean-Claude Grumberg’s Dreyfus in Rehearsal is set in a 1931 Jewish ghetto in Poland where an amateur theatre troupe is rehearsing a play about the Dreyfus affair. Comedy is used as sugar coating for a bitter pill in its anti-fascist message.

An “entertaining and thoughtful production”, No Room for Dreamers by local writer George Hutchinson told the story of eccentric sex reformer William Chidley, a marginalised Sydney figure.

The Press

During a Press industrial dispute in 1980 copies of the strikers’ paper The Journalists’ Clarion were bought by the New and given out gratis in the foyer. That year’s revue And I Still Call Home Australia included a Press baron’s takeover bid:

If I took over the AMWU I’d have a majority holding in the ACTU which means I’d have a controlling interest in the labour force … amalgamate that with the rest of my holdings – I’ve pretty much got Australia sewn up as a going concern and I could really call Australia my home. But who wants to buy a whole country. No, you just buy the bits that matter like TV stations, newspapers, airlines, mining companies, the film industry … now there’s a whole lot of rumours going around about how I’m gonna sell the whole industry off to the US TV factories. Not true. I’m gonna give it away as a tax loss … why don’t we go the whole hog and become the 51st state of America? What’s wrong with that?

Co-winner of the 1982 NT Playwriting competition, John Upton’s Waiting for Rupert Murdoch was staged in 1983. Set in the office of a suburban newspaper, the play examins the ethics of modern journalism where profits are put ahead of keeping the public informed. A NT member in the 1970s-80s, Upton for a time edited the Spotlight! newsletter and handled publicity. Several of his plays were workshopped.


First in a women’s season in 1981 was John McGrath’s Yobbo Nowt re bureaucratic absurdities, the downgrading of working-class women and the liberating effect of political awareness. In comic book style the play tracks the journey of a naïve Liverpool housewife who learns about the workings of the capitalist system as she tries to get a job. There were Sunday post-show discussions on issues raised by the play. Guest speakers included NT member and UNSW School of Psychology academic Bill Hopes, and Justice Staples of the Arbitration Commission whose topic was the strain of living on a weekly wage of less than $160. Yobbo Nowt was given a second production in 1985 with an all NT member cast.

First Class Women, written by Nick Enright for the New, concerned the exploitation and repression of female convicts in the Parramatta Female Factory where life on the inside was possibly worse than outside the institution. Women and girls there were divided into three categories; those in the first class might get a ticket of leave and be assigned as servants.

Just Talk (Apart from the Songs) by Sydney writer Laurel McGowan examining male/female relations was directed by Beverly Blankenship and choreographed by Gill Falson in 1985.


Competition with other companies for performance rights of left-wing plays continued into the 1990s. NT actors and directors also worked regularly at other venues: the Zenith at Chatswood, Iron Cove Theatre, Crossroads Theatre, Belvoir Downstairs, Voices in Dickson Street, Harold Park Hotel, Shakespeare by the Sea, and the Genesians in Kent Street. The decade saw more productions of Shakespeare and premieres of Australian works such as Alan Kelley’s Portrait of An Artist, an account of the controversy surrounded the awarding of the 1943 Archibald Prize to William Dobell for his painting of fellow artist Joshua Smith.

Maintenance on the King Street building and changing fire regulations were a constant financial drain. Fundraising kept the New afloat, particularly activities organised by Sandra Campbell: raffles, jumble sales, picnics, fashion parades, harbour cruises, theatre parties, restaurant get-togethers. Marie Armstrong’s dinner/dance at City Tattersalls (no denim, no thongs) pulled a good crowd.

The decade saw the deaths of key NT members: wigmaker Elsie Dayne; Heinz Richard Harant founder of the Ngunnagan social club at the YMCA and the UNSW Alumni Association; director Colin Kenny survived by his partner and helper on productions Frank Crocombe; designer Rod Shaw whose publishing house Edwards and Shaw had printed the original Penguin edition of the banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover; director and performer Patrick Barnett; director and actor Peter Douglas; director Brian Syron; NT Secretary Miriam Hampson; star of Taggart Mark McManus; Len Grant signwriter and actor; actor John Hargreaves; actor and historian Paul Herlinger; photographer and lighting designer John van Loendersloot in a hang-gliding accident; actor and wigmaker Edie McLaren; treasurer Bruce Hawkins; Vice President and heavy smoker Grace Grant of lung cancer; and actor and director Alan Docker.

In 1995 a party was held in the theatre for Mona Brand’s 80th birthday and the launch of her autobiography Enough Blue Sky. Mona wrote a letter of thanks: “It was good to feel New Theatre’s long history of mateship still alive and well”. Mateship was demonstrated the next year when money from a Cherry Orchard performance was donated to James Warner after his costume hire rooms were gutted by fire.

War & peace

The decade began with NT’s affiliation with the Bring The Frigates Home Coalition opposed to a Gulf War. The New raised funds for the Care Australia Rwanda Appeal and East Timor, and in 1999 refugees from Kosovo attended a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A play about the British government’s pre-war program of taking Jewish children out of Austria and Germany was workshopped in 1997, its cast including Angela Bauer.

Alex Buzo’s Pacific Union, directed by Aarne Neeme, concerned the first conference of the United Nations in 1945 in San Francisco where Australia’s independent foreign policy was created in a hotel room. Nominally led by Deputy Prime Minister Francis Forde, the Australian delegation was dominated by Attorney General and Minister for External Affairs H V Evatt whose team included Paul Hasluck and Sam Atyeo.

Forde: All right, that’s enough of this political bickering, for God’s sake. We’re not here to solve the problems of the world. Atyeo: We are, actually… … Evatt: This is not a peace conference, Mr Winchell. They had one of those in 1919 and look what happened. This is about world security, a pacific union of all nations for all time.

Brecht’s Mother Courage, first staged in 1966, was remounted in 1998 with Gertraud Ingeborg in the title role. It was directed by David Ritchie, assisted by Damien Ryan, with an original score by Ann Carr-Boyd.


Workshopped in 1991, Pieter-Dirk Uys’ Panorama juxtaposes anti-apartheid campaigners in gaol and white middle-class women shackled by their ignorance and fear. (Using comedy to expose the absurdities of the South African government’s racial policies, Uys developed the character of Tannie Evita, an Afrikaaner socialite inspired by Australia’s Dame Edna Everage.)

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 moves from1879 in darkest Africa to 1979 in a besieged “colony” in Thatcher’s London. With hindsight we can ridicule our Victorian ancestors’ behaviour; it’s more difficult to do the same with our own stereotyping.

In Brian Friel’s Translations English Royal Engineers arrive in a small rural Irish- speaking community in 1833 to Anglicise the Celtic place names. A play about military and cultural imperialism, it was reviewed as relevant to multi-lingual and modern techno-driven societies where people communicate in short sharp bursts. Tom Bannerman (awarded the 2002 Chief Glug’s Award for Excellence Behind the Scenes) designed the evocative hedge school set.


Stephen Sewell’s Traitors is set in Russia at the dawn of Stalinism. The 1992 cast of included Helen Dallimore and Richard Payton. When remounted in 2007, it was publicised as relevant “as our leaders tell us to be alert but not alarmed, and citizens can be locked up and disappear without charge…”

Club Cockroach in 1996 hired the theatre for its revue Merry Christmas Pauline Hanson.


Melvin Bragg’s music-drama The Hired Man is a tribute to his grandfather, a representative of thousands of men of his generation who moved from agricultural labouring to working in the pits of Edwardian Britain, served in the First World War and returned to a land which promised nothing but more sweated labour. Set in Cumberland, the play covers the years 1890-1920.


Thatcher’s Women, an Australian premiere in 1990, showed the human price of Thatcherism when the economy in northern England was plummeting with the loss of factory jobs, but flourishing in the south. The title refers to women who during school hours went to London by train to Kings Cross Station to work as prostitutes to pay their bills. In the play three women who try their luck in the two weeks before Christmas run into trouble from local prostitutes and police who fine them. Kay Adshead, who had worked in a Manchester pudding factory, wrote the play after seeing a TV talk program where the English Collective of Prostitutes had increased at Kings Cross with an influx of workers from the north. Directed by Alan Docker, the cast included his son Einar, Denise Stott and Jane Collingwood. Regular NT lighting designer Tony Youlden lit the show.

Lynda: If she’d have told me to go I would have done. Nobody told me it was her flamin’ pitch.

Norah: There’s nothing broken anyway.

Lynda: One minute I was standing there minding my own business, next minute the incredible hulk’s on top of me.

Norah: You’ll have a fat lip, mind.

Lynda: Vicious cow. I could have the law on her. If I’m marked that’s it – I might as well go home now and I’ve forked out £80 on this place already.

Another Australian premiere in 1990 was A Death in the Family by Sharon Pollock, its cast including Thais Alexis. A play about the Lizzie Borden murders, the original title Blood Relations had to be altered because a David Malouf play with the same title had just played in Sydney.

Women On Stage directed by Robyn Davies was workshopped in 1993. Dorothy Hewett’s autobiographical The Chapel Perilous was staged in 1994, as was Jigsaws by Australian journalist Jennifer Rogers. Tasma Walton and Nicolle Dickson were in the cast of five, playing women spanning three generations. In the 1990s the New was a supporter of the Older Women’s Network.

The Media

In David Williamson’s Sons of Cain an old –style investigative journalist, invited to become the editor of a newspaper whose circulation is falling, attempts to trace drug money. Directed by John Rado and designed by Sue Rado, its cast included NT stalwarts Phil de Carle, John Keightley and John Carey. Its 1993 NT production was reviewed as still topical, thought provoking and relevant. (When the play premiered in 1985 the corruption trial of a NSW Labor minister was postponed to avoid coinciding with opening night.)

In Ted Tally’s black comedy Coming Attractions a hard-up theatrical agent with only Dog Acts on his books cooks up a scam with a bumbling thug seeking notoriety. An exposé of American TV hysteria and fascination with serial killers, it was staged in 1995, at the time of the O J Simpson affair.


NT remained a membership-based organisation with most work apart from office administration, publicity and bookings performed by voluntary labour under the guidance of a management committee. Before its own website was set up, Marghanita da Cruz publicised the theatre’s activities on her own site.

Adversely affected at the box office by the Sydney Olympics, the New in 2001 embarked on a massive fundraising campaign to keep its doors open. Major support came from members, the NSW government and the estate of Stefan Kruger. 2008 saw another drive to pay for major fire safety upgrading and disabled access.

Undertaken in 2014-5 were improvements to the foyer including the installation of glass entrance doors, re-upholstering audience chairs and commissioning a street front mural, upgrades made possible by crowd sourcing and the generosity of NT members and supporters, particularly the Australia-Russia & Affiliates Friendship Society.

Key NT members and supporters who died in the years 2000-2015 included: artist Roy Dalgarno; the Bushwhackers’ Chris Kempster and John Meredith; theatre party organiser Bill Bailey; NIDA graduate actor Jim Kemp; casting agent Mitch Matthews; actor, singer, writer and director Cedric McLaughlin; Melbourne NT’s Dot Thompson; writers Len Fox and his wife Mona Brand; wardrobe co-ordinator and stage manager Glenda Major; actor Harry Lawrence; actor Brian Vicary; long-term NT supporter Basil Corvesor Thomas; designer, actor and director Eddie Allison in Canberra; musical director Betty Leone; Denis Kevans singer and “poet lorikeet”; NT Secretary Freda Brown; costume designer trans-gender Gayle Jenkinson; Street Theatre organiser Graham Richards in Hobart; choreographer Susan O’Brien; actor Gary Smith; and actor, director and NT president Frank McNamara.

The New continued to produce Australian plays, notably world premieres such as A Nasty Piece of Work, Mad Before Midday, Pandora’s Garden and works in the New Directions series. Large-scale musicals proved popular: Assassins, Into the Woods, Little Shop of Horrors, Cabaret, The Venetian Twins and Sweeney Todd. Outside hirers included Railway Theatre, headed by ex-NT Artistic Director Mary-Anne Gifford, O’Punsky Theatre, the Gay Games V1 Sport and Cultural Festival, Sydney Homotones, Sing Over King and Theatresports. NT actors participated in regular commemorations of the Eureka Stockade at the Writers’ Centre and similar venues.

War & peace

Lee Lewis’ 2004 production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was set in the aftermath of Ground Zero, its actors entering from backstage covered in white powder. The same year saw the world premiere of War by Lars Norén. The 2006 cast of R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End included Gus Murray as Captain Stanhope. Oh, What a Lovely War, Mate, first produced in 1980, was remounted in 2007, its musical director John Short.

Racism & intolerance

In 2001 the climax of The Diary of Anne Frank had many in the audience reaching for their tissues. Directed by Pete Nettell, its original music was composed by Sarah de Jong. The Diary of Anne Frank had another sell-out season in 2015.

Local writer Cameron Sharp’s Reffo Bingo about the plight of refugees in Australia was given a moved reading in 2003.

Dorothy Hewett’s The Man from Mukinupin (directed by Mary-Anne Gifford in 2007) was considered radical and confronting when commissioned in 1979. A musical celebration of rural life set during the First World War in a mythical Western Australian wheat-belt town, its daytime comfortable middle-class sequences contrast with excluded or disadvantaged night-time characters on the fringes. A repressed collective memory is the massacre of the local Aboriginal population.

Part of the Spare Room guest company season in 2011 was the world premiere of A Quiet Night in Rangoon by Sydney writer Katie Pollock who had spent time in Bangkok and was aware of Burmese refugees. During the Saffron Revolution trying to overthrow the repressive military junta, a journalist becomes embroiled in the real events happening around her, a minefield of political engagement. The cast included four Asian actors.

Another Spare Room production was Lucky, a physical theatre piece by Ferenc Alexander Zavarosa about a refugee who pays a human trafficker to take him to Australia to join his brother.


The All Ordinaries revue marked federal election night in 2001. The 2002 cast of Stop Laughing, This is Serious! 70 Years of Revue at the New included Lee Lewis and Bartholomew Rose who played Prime Minister John Howard and for some years afterwards took that persona into the real world, including the City to Surf marathon. He reappeared in Australia’s Most Wanted, a trivia night fundraiser in 2005, and in Howard’s End, an election night revue in 2007.

Sydney writer Frank Hatherley’s Manly Mates exposes corruption during the period in office of NSW Premier Robin Askin. The political farce is set in 1972 in a bar of the old Manly Hotel where the Premier holds court to his Police Commissioner and other mates including a property developer councillor, an SP bookie and a Mafia salesman, as well as his sherry-drinking wife Mollie.

Alma de Groen’s The Woman in the Window centres on Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova, forbidden to write and under house arrest during the Stalin regime. Her work is memorised by women friends who for decades risk their lives to preserve her words. In a futuristic Australia, a similar oppression by corporate society has suppressed all memory of literature and the natural world. Directed by Kevin Jackson in 2005, the title character was played by Elaine Hudson.

A satire on spin doctoring in modern politics in which New Labour and the Tories are equally ruthless and cynical, Feelgood was written by Alistair Beaton who had been a speechwriter for Gordon Brown. (Beaton’s Follow My Leader was about the war in Iraq.) Set on the eve of the British Prime Minister’s speech to his party’s annual conference as anti-capitalist riots rage in the streets below, the play centres on Eddie, a New Labour press chief who will do anything to support his Party, now in government.

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem comments on the state of 21st century England, lamenting loss of freedom, community and innocence, in its place a manufactured, corporate landscape of shopping malls and food chains, a nanny state of concrete, warning signs and closed circuit television cameras. An anarchic vision has replaced William Blake’s “green and pleasant land”. Its central character is Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a local waster and modern-day Pied Piper who lives in a caravan in the woods and surrounds himself with hangers-on whom he plies with drugs and alcohol. The action takes place on local county fair day St George's Day, a frenetic chain of events starting with Rooster being served with an eviction notice.

Rooster, a towering figure of Shakespearian proportions, was played by Nicholas Eadie. Directed by Helen Tonkin and designed by Tom Bannerman, Jerusalem was voted by Sydney critics as one of Sydney’s best shows in 2013.

The last show in 2013 marked a total break with past uncritical acceptance by NT of Stalinism. Moira Buffini’s Dying For It is a reworking of Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 play The Suicide which was banned by Stalin before it was even performed. In a totalitarian state where informing and corruption thrive, a young unemployed man contemplating suicide is exploited by others (representing the intelligentsia, the business world, the Arts, the workers, the Church) to further their own causes.

Big Business

Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, directed by Kevin Jackson in 2006, concerns financial fraud. When young Edward Voysey becomes a partner in the family legal business he discovers his solicitor father has been defrauding clients for years and that family members knew this but feared scandal.

A satire on big business, the media and consumer gullibility, Ben Elton’s “breathtaking” first play Gasping was staged in 2011. Privatisation is taken to extremes when air is packaged and sold as the Suck and Blow machine. The cast included Alan Faulkner.

Lucy Prebble’s Enron charts the rise and fall of the US energy giant where corrupt practices lead to its collapse and the imprisonment of its executives. The play is set inside the bubble before it burst, exposing a world of glamour, hubris, risk-taking and spin. (In 2001 it was revealed that Enron executives, by means of accounting loopholes and misleading financial reporting, had hidden from its board and shareholders the corporation’s debt of millions of dollars from failed deals and projects. At the time it was the largest corporate bankruptcy in US history.)


Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls is based on real testimonies. Former inmates of the Parramatta Girls’ Training School reunite to face the demons of their shared experiences, the action shifting between the past and the present. (The institution which operated 1887-1974 housed delinquent, neglected, and juvenile offenders, including indigenous girls, who received minimal education. Most trained as domestic servants, many were the victims of bullying and abuse, and there were frequent riots.)

NT produced other full-length plays by Alana Valentine (Love Potions and Singing the Lonely Heart) and works for Brand Spanking New (a season for new and emerging writers) and Women, Power and Culture (new Australian works by women writers).

Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, set in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, examines what it means to be a successful woman through historical and contemporary characters.


Although there had been homosexual members (labelled “artistic freaks” by the Central Committee of the CPA, and commented on by CIB Security) from the NT’s beginnings as the WAC, it was not until the theatre was at St Peters Lane that the first gay man publicly “came out”. Over the years the New supported organisations such as the Gay Solidarity Group and Counteraid, and from the 1990s works dealing openly with gay themes were staged.

Peter Nichols’ cheekily titled Privates on Parade, about a British Army Entertainment Company touring Malaya in 1948, was produced in 1990. Directed by Colin Kenny, the musical featured George Hoad, later NT Administrator, in drag. Hoad also acted in the 1992 production of Peter Kenna’s Furtive Love in which the central character struggles to reconcile his homosexuality with his Catholic faith. Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 staged in 1993 unsettles audience preconceptions of gender, sexuality and race.

In 1994 NT officially involved itself with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras arts festival, after which it annually produced a work dealing with homosexual or cross-gender themes. The first, Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band directed by Kevin Jackson, marked the 25th anniversary of the ground- breaking play.

An original script by Sydney writer Barry Lowe, The Death of Peter Pan was workshopped before its staging in 1995. Directed by Elaine Hudson, it centred on J M Barrie’s favourite adopted son Michael Llewellyn-Davies who drowned in a double gay suicide with Rupert Buxton in 1921. Appealing to a wide audience, the play was nominated for best Sydney Mardi Gras and reviewed by Sheridan Morley in the Spectator: “This is a Peter Pan we must have over here soon”. The performance of Barry Latchford as the ill-in-bed Barrie received special praise. At the end of the season the set’s closet and toy box were auctioned.

1996 saw the Australian premiere of Larry Kramer’s The Destiny of Me about the early days of AIDS, its cast including Dmitri Psiropoulos. In the slot the next year was David Geary’s Lovelock’s Dream Run directed by Ken Boucher, its subject the NZ Olympic athlete. From 1998 to 2000 Gill Falson directed a trilogy of gay and lesbian cabarets ~ No Funny Business, Lots More Funny Business and Life is a Funny Business ~ a creative collaboration from NT writers, performers and musical directors.

As part of regular programming, male homosexual intimacy was the subject of Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love and Poor Superman, the latter in repertory with local writer Gina Schien’s Relative Comfort exploring lesbian relationships. Alex Harding’s Australian musical Only Heaven Knows had a successful season in 1998. Set in the 1940s/50s gay subculture of Kings Cross, it was directed by Pete Nettell and designed by Wayne Harris, with Paul Flynn playing the lead.

2001 opened with Alice Livingstone’s production of Once in a while the odd thing happens charting the struggle of Benjamin Britten to come to terms with his sexuality. This was followed by an Australian work The Man in the Moon is aMiss by Cameron Sharp and George Torbay.

The official 2002 Mardi Gras show was Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde in repertory with Barry Lowe’s concept The Importance of Being Earnest: a prison fantasy with the same performers and production team, headed by director Elaine Hudson. Performance times were changed on “Wilde Weekends”. Added to the season were a moved reading of Michael Neaylon’s Six Pack, and Louise Fischer’s cabaret Lemon Delicious: A Celebration of Sheilas, a concept repeated in 2003 and 2004. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom was a supporting production in 2007, and in 2006 there was a Workshop reading of Ray Goodlass’ Teaching the Fairy to Swim re the unsolved Adelaide murder by drowning of university lecturer George Duncan in 1972.

Mark Ravenhill’s Mother Clap’s Molly House played to good houses in 2003. Staged for Mardi Gras in 2004 was Falsettos directed by Brendan McDonall who also directed Falling Petals by Melbourne writer Ben Ellis the next year. Lee Blessing’s Thief River was the official Mardi Gras show in 2006; Tango Masculino in 2007; the controversial Corpus Christie in 2008; Take Me Out about baseball players in 2009; Hardcore in 2010; Canary in 2011 ("We're still the litmus test of whether a society respects human rights. We're the canaries in the mine”); The Temperamentals in 2012; and Milk Milk Lemonade in 2013. The next two Mardi Gras seasons saw revivals of Privates on Parade and Mother Clap’s Molly House.


In Jubilee year 1951, in a “new move” for New Theatre, Ruth Sriber began organising a children’s theatre committee. The first show was her production of The Emperor’s New Clothes in which she also danced. Young audience members were encouraged to write to the theatre giving their opinions. Another fairy story The Travelling Musicians, with original music by Ross Thomas and designed by David Milliss, was staged in 1952. Peter Francis, who had choreographed the first show, played Mr Rooster. Neville Swanson was Robber Number Two. David Futcher, who began his acting career with the Mosman Children’s Theatre, played Slappy, while Ruth Sriber’s husband Charles played The Donkey.

True to its name, The Travelling Musicians made forays into the suburbs -- Bankstown, Mortdale, North Sydney -- and by mid-1952 had brought in double the profits of either mainstage production Sky Without Birds or School for Wives. However, most of the people involved with these early shows also sat on main committees juggling time around their day jobs, and the children’s theatre committee soon collapsed. An approach to the Women’s Auxiliary of the WWF amounted to nothing and a period of 14 years elapsed before another children’s play was mounted.

In 1966 at St Peters Lane Eleanor Witcombe’s Smugglers Beware! played Saturday matinees in a long run involving several cast changes and a move from imperial to decimal currency. The driving force behind this production was its director Alan Herbert (Channel 7’s “Captain Fortune”) who believed shows for children were an important aspect of the theatre’s work, bringing in finance and future audiences. Tooth’s brewery and Rothman’s supplied the barrels and Schimmelpenninck the cigars used in the show. Despite problems finding rehearsal and storage space and having to bump in and out with each matinee performance and unplug and re-plug power outlets for sound and lights, the children’s project continued under a revived committee (Christine Shaw, John Rowland, Margaret Mannerly and Alfred Lewis). Eleanor Witcombe’s Pirates at the Barn had a three-month run 1966-7. The cast, who chatted with audience members after the show, included Linal Haft and Alan Hardy.

The 1968 show was Peter O’Shaughnessy’s Mumba Jumba and the Bunyip directed by Shirley Broadway who ran regular drama classes for young people. After an opening night “shambles” because of technical problems, the show settled into a long run with understudies rotating some of the roles. Scanlen’s Sweets supplied confectionery for the party scene. In 1969 Eleanor Witcombe’s The Bushranger was staged, with a set designed to fit inside that of the mainstage play and an outside space, premises of the BWIU, used for rehearsals. Its director was John Barnard who had come to Australia with the Old Vic Company in 1948. As usual, no closing performance was advertised in advance, the decision being made when it was felt audience numbers were falling. Its successor, The Hunters and the Henwife, had difficulties and did poor business with only a short season.

In 1970 Mona Brand’s Flying Saucery was staged, directed by Judy Finlason and designed by Trina Parker. The popular show was technically complicated and featured strobe lighting, adding to the usual problems of the changeover from matinee to evening show. Despite misgivings that children’s shows were not fully appreciated or regarded as major productions, Judy Finlason in 1971 directed John Mulligan’s The Magic Travel Box which featured members of the theatre’s Creative Workshop for Children, including nine- year -old Simon Burke. Judy initiated a “Sponsor a Child” campaign to subsidise under-privileged audiences.

Stephen Gard, the show’s musical composer, wrote the words and music of Darryl the Dismal Demon’s Dawning Day which he also directed. This was the last children’s show at St Peters Lane. His You Should Have Seen Us on Venus or a Hug for the Grug, directed by Judy Finlason, opened in late 1973 playing Saturday and Sunday matinees at the theatre’s new home in Newtown. The cast included members of the New Theatre Youth Workshop, the Manton family contributing four young participants. In 1974 The Magic Travel Box was revived, Judy Finlason again directing with Stephen Gard as musical director.

Supported by the Australian Council for the Arts, the New at Newtown provided after-school activities such as drama, puppetry, painting, folk dancing and woodwork. But there were problems with the premises being used as both a theatre and community centre, and undisciplined local children, some on roller skates, running around the foyer and across the stage and making a mess in the rehearsal room. Some key figures at NT then set up KAN (Kids’ Activities at Newtown) operating out of a “magic yellow bus”.

John Mulligan’s Chollobonga directed by Joy Browne played Saturday matinees in 1975. 1976 saw the revival of Smugglers Beware! and Pirates at the Barn was staged in 1978. In 1980 Mona Brand’s The Three Secrets was directed by Gregg Levy whose father Jock had joined the NTL in the 1930s. After Wally the Wheeler, presented by the Bread and Circus Theatre in 1981, children’s theatre lapsed, apart from David Smith-White’s Kangaroo Court which had four performances as part of the 1986 Festival of Sydney. From 2004 – 13 the annual January slot was reserved for children’s shows, beginning with Hating Alison Ashley and an associated book signing by local illustrators. Ethel Turner’s descendants attended the 2005 opening night of Seven Little Australians its cast including a toddler and Jessica Tovey. Packed houses also greeted Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch in 2006, remounted the following year.

A lavish production of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach proved popular in 2008. Dahl was also the author of The Witches the next year. The 2010 production was Midnite adapted by Richard Tulloch from Randolph Stow’s novel, followed by Arabian Nights in 2011 and Stage Fright! in 2012, Paul Jennings stories dramatised by Richard Tulloch, its cast including Gideon Cordover. The 2013 show was David Holman’s The Small Poppies. A children’s variety show Saturday Kids’ Club was staged monthly throughout 2007 and less frequently as the Kids’ Club until December 2010.


Hundreds of small-scale events have been organised by NT since its earliest days. The Drama section of the WAC held weekly playreadings, and it was not until the late 1980s that dwindling interest by members led to the cessation of the long-standing practice of informal readings in the auditorium of forthcoming major productions.

At Castlereagh Street there were a large number of Workshop productions (including a “penile business” piece by John Hepworth which caused a stir). A training ground for directors, actors, designers, writers and technicians, as well as a means of viewing proposed plays off-the-page, Workshop encouraged experiment, and local one-act plays were produced alongside well-known pieces. Workshop was also closely connected with the in-house education program, which covered all aspects of theatre craft. At Sussex Street lack of both an organising committee and space for rehearsals meant that Workshop activity was sporadic. In the period 1959-62, for instance, Mistress Bottom’s Dream and a series of lectures on playwriting by Mona Brand are the only such ventures recorded.

At St Peters Lane it was decided to revive acting classes and to set up a Workshop committee. Each presentation was adjudicated by an accredited director and the audience invited to stay for coffee and discussion. Budgets were minimal and the programs cheaply gestetnered. Projects included The Comedy of a Man who Married a Dumb Wife, ''The Trojan Women, The Death of Bessie Smith (revived as a major production), a variety show On Stage, The Searching Maenads, and contrasting treatments of the trial scene from The Merchant of Venice. Pieces by Ionesco, Sartre, Tennessee Williams, Alex Buzo, van Itallie and NT members John Mulligan, Frank Marcus and Andrew Kemp were presented, the regular actors including Carole Skinner, Linal Haft and James Kemp.

Although many members were interested only in major productions, stalwarts (John Short, Frank McNamara, Sean Surplus, Paul Quinn, Phil de Carle, Rob Steele and Roy Dias) kept Workshop going in the 1970s. Projects included Little Brother Little Sister, Anyway, Christie in Love, The Doomsday Show, Passion, Ile, Dance Drama, Casting, R, Street Theatre’s Born Loser, and scenes from A Life in a Theatre. Building fundraisers included theatre parties, jumble sales, an anniversary ball, garden parties, and an haute couture fashion parade at Greenoaks Darling Point.

At King Street classes were held in movement, acting and voice, and youth activities flourished, an average of 60 each day attending school holiday programs. Workshop and readings included Bermondsey, As It Stands, Out of Our Minds, Woman Alive, Four To Go, Here Comes Kisch! (a major production in 1984), Cages, A Seat in the House, Shadows on the Wall, All That Fall, The White Liars, an adaptation of Gormanghast, Madame de Sade, The Beard, Company Fracture, Offshore Island and Hanging On.

50 Not Out! marked Miriam Hampson’s retirement and the theatre’s half-century in 1982. Other musical evenings in the 1980s: Oh, How We Danced, Drama Sunday, and New Theatre in Concert (with a company of 27, nine musicians, five choreographers and seven on the production team) in 1988. Workshop projects included Three Stories, The Master, The Living Room War, Talking With, Picnic on the Battlefield, Cahoots, All the Lonely People, Drama Break-In, Three Sisters, Swallowing is a Very Private Thing, Busted and All in All: A Shakespearian essay on marriage. There were occasional collaborations with outside bodies such as the Deadly Sins Drama Group at Macquarie University and the NSW Association for Mental Health.

During the 1990s Workshop flourished. Projects included Lulu – The Musical, Everything Old Is New Again, Unlikely Lovers, Damn! Yankees/As American As?, Going Down for the Third Time, In the Desert of My Soul, The House of Bernarda Alba, The Poet and the Pirate, The Rope, Johnny Starkey, Not Bloody Likely!, The Royal Commission, Tadzio, Dream Reef, Summer of the Aliens (a major production in 1999), Fen, Women on the Stage, Everyman, In the Groove, Family Voices and The Torrents. A packed house saw Shakespeare’s “latest play” Edward III. Club Cockroach staged Merry Christmas, Pauline Hanson. A benefit was held for East Timor in 1999. Energies in the first two years of the new millennium were devoted to fundraising activities ~ the biggest a dinner at Enmore’s Cyprus Club where a rush of last-minute guests sent the catering staff into a spin.

After 2003 moved readings, many staged for school students, included The Dumb Waiter and Zoo Story, The Real Inspector Hound, The Plough and the Stars, Gary’s House, Speed-the-Plow, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Double Take: Shakespeare Scenework, Danton’s Death, Going to St Ives, Thief River, The Titanic Orchestra, The Winslow Boy, The Country, Pelleas and Melisande, Running Up a Dress, Black Sail, White Sail, A Beautiful Life, The Club, Not About Heroes, key scenes from Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, Desire Under the Elms, The Removalists and Educating Rita. A number of these became full-scale productions.

To mark NT’s 70th birthday moved and costumed readings were staged of a “hit” from each of the seven decades: Waiting for Lefty, An Inspector Calls, Reedy River, The Crucible, The Season at Sarsaparilla, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cloud 9. Included in the 75th birthday program was Censored!, moved and costumed readings of banned plays.

In 2002 Stop Laughing...This is Serious! celebrated 70 years of political and social revue at the New. Held on the previous year’s election night was the All Ordinaries revue. Most at Howard’s End in 2007 watched the TV monitor in the foyer rather than the entertainment in the auditorium. A local community centre was chosen for Australia’s Most Wanted on election night 2004 so that the audience could sit down to a meal. Another nearby venue, the Dickson Space, was chosen for the end-of-year A Christmas Carol, a production restaged at Newington College where a Victorian music hall was also mounted. Supper followed a performance of East Lynne, played out in members’ Victorian house and garden.

Wayne Richmond brought his Loosely Woven acoustic troupe from the northern beaches to present Bird Sings the Blues, Frilly Red Pyjamas, Aba Daba Honeymoon, Deja Vu and Waltzing With Bears. The musicians also played at the Saturday Kids’ Club, a variety show featuring music, drama, songs, magic and storytelling.

Events in the theatre included a memorial concert for Bushwhacker Chris Kempster; wakes for members Susan O’Brien and Frank McNamara; Oye! New Sudan Celebrates showcasing over 40 Sudanese performers from Blacktown; and A Cultural Kebab celebrating Sydney’s Middle Eastern community.

Outside events included a party at NIDA for Mona Brand’s 90th birthday, and Words Can Be Bullets presented at the State Library and Politics in the Pub.


Identified as a Security agent who played a key role in NTL surveillance in the 1930s was CIB inquiry officer William Henry Barnwell (1912-78). Friendly with Dr Asmis, the German consul who complained about the portrayal of Nazis in Till the Day I Die, Bill Barnwell reported on the 1936 performance in the Savoy Theatre. The play was subsequently banned. On 13 June 1940 he overviewed the history of the NTL, recommending it too be banned. Two days later the NT premises were raided and the CPA banned under the National Security Act. Barnwell is known to have reported on the cast members of Off the Leash which opened on 6 October 1940.

During the Second World War he investigated Germans in Australia, and postwar screened West Germans wanting to migrate here. By 1957 he was said to have retired. Barnwell seems to have always lived in Burwood. A Life member and president of Burwood Bowling Club, he was keen on surfing. Described as of medium height, with a sunburned face and perpetual grin, his favourite adjective was “ruddy”.

A CIB agent named Murray attended The Patriot and the Fool staged in May 1940 instead of the scheduled No Conscription.

There are a number of people thought to have been moles who infiltrated NT after ASIO was set up in 1949. We have plenty of names but proving their association is difficult.


Over the years several NT members have received Australian Honours, ironic as many were members or strong supporters of the CPA. Miriam Hampson was appointed OAM in 1982, Marie Armstrong in 1986 and Jock Levy in 2010. Olwyn Mackenzie née Arkinstall (OAM 2005) performed in the revue I’d Rather be Left; her sister Carol, who was in the revue Marx of Time, had an ASIO file spanning 30 years. Phyllis Johnson (OAM 1989 and Centenary Medal 2001) took part in NTL agit-prop pieces on the back of a truck in the 1930s. Several members of the Batterham family joined New Theatre and had ASIO files, including Harold (OAM 1984) who acted in a number of shows in the 1940s. Enid Lorimer (OAM 1982) directed Counter Attack in 1943. Hazel Phillips (OAM 2005 and Gold Logie winner) played Mary in a production of Reedy River and acted in Better a Millstone in 1954. Simon Burke, honoured in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday list, began his acting career as a nine-year-old at the New.


Before 2008, when a part-time publicist was employed, the only paid permanent position at the New was the person who ran the office under the title Secretary 1932- 82, Administrator 1983 – 2012 after which it changed to Manager. Some tasks such as bookings have been outsourced but many are still undertaken by volunteer members.

Honey Sloane (Wilson) 1932-3

Vic Arnold 1933-40

Freda Lewis (Brown) 1940-2

Lesley O’Toole (Moline) 1942-4

Pat Bullen (Flower) 1944-9

Paul Mortier 1949-50

Miriam Hampson (née Aarons) 1950-82

Susan Ramadan (Wheatley) 1983

Betty Milliss (née Cole) 1983-91

Elin O’Connell 1991-2

George Hoad 1992-2000

Paul Brennan 2000

Lyn Collingwood (née Munro) Secretary 2001

Sue Johnston 2001 (part)

Lee Lewis 2002

Stewart Luke 2003-4

Elizabeth Ivory 2005

Spiros Hristias 2005-6

Elizabeth Ivory 2006-7

Luke Rogers 2007-2012

Barry French 2012 (part)

Gemma Greer 2012