Person - Oriel Gray

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ORIEL HOLLAND GRAY (1920 - 2003)

Oriel Gray was New Theatre’s “resident playwright” for a decade from 1942. Her successor was Mona Brand.

Nicknamed “Sniffy”, Oriel Bennett was born on 26 March 1920. After the death of her mother in 1926, she grew close to her sister Grace who was nine years older. Grace who styled herself Grayce took elocution lessons from Harry Thomas and acted at the Kursaal Theatre, an ex soup kitchen in Kent Street.

In 1937 the sisters saw the New Theatre League’s Bury the Dead and Oriel developed a crush on cast member Frank Swonnell and wrote him a fan letter. The next year she and Grayce joined the theatre and became totally immersed in it. Broke but passionate, they had a lot of fun. NTL members Frank Andrews and Hugh Carlsson helped them move into rooms in “Buggery Barn” in The Rocks which had a tradition of artistic bohemian lodgers including Rosaleen Norton and Cedric Flower.

In 1939 the sisters joined the CPA, played two whores in a revival of Bury the Dead, wore grass skirts and full body makeup in Cannibal Carnival and played factory girls in So It Didn’t Work. Oriel was in the cast of Plant in The Sun 1939. After marrying John Gray at the Garrison Church Millers Point on 21 January 1940, Oriel performed in Off the Leash later that year and was in the cast of the revue I’d Rather be Left in 1941. She had a flair for comedy, often as a good-at-heart soubrette, and, small and dainty, said she could climb over the scenery without it falling down.

Grayce sewed for New Theatre where she was regarded as a good character actress. She acted in Rehearsal 1939, Where’s that Bomb? 1940, and Colony 1940 and performed a cockney version of “Have we to part like this, Bill? ” at the 1940 Naughty Nineties Labor Jubilee Ball at the Trocadero. In 1942 Grayce was in the cast of Oriel’s International Settlement, set in a hotel lounge in Shanghai and performed by The Paterson Players at Bryant’s Playhouse. In 1944 she and Oriel (“a pert comedienne”) were in Office Interlude and in 1945 Grayce was in her sister’s Sur Le Pont. In private life Grayce became involved with a married fireman stationed at The Rocks before having a “Red” wedding with John Hepworth in front of witnesses including J B Miles. She later had a conventional marriage and as Grayce Wood was a foundation member of the Darwin Theatre Group.

Her role model Betty Roland, Oriel (who wrote her first play at age 12, about a fairy and a demon) turned from performer to playwright. She preferred works of personal commitment to those overtly calling for direct political action. These included Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, Eureka, Sub-Editor’s Room, A Touch of Silk and Are You Ready, Comrade?. For NT in 1942 and 1943 she penned the revues Marx of Time and Let’s be Offensive, followed by Lawson 1943 (stage managed by Grayce), Milestones 1944, a dramatised Henry Lawson story The Man Who Forgot 1944, Sur Le Pont 1945 and Western Limit a “dust bowl play” about soil erosion 1946.

My Life Is My Affair produced in 1947, exploring the relationship between a returned soldier, his wife and “the other woman”, was reviewed as showing “a subtle understanding of human nature”. Had We But World Enough produced in 1950 was inspired by Oriel’s time in Lismore where she witnessed injustice to Aborigines. It had mixed reviews: from “a superbly lively study of the colour problem in our country” to “some writing soppy”. The author herself on reflection thought it over-written and sentimental.

NT’s contribution to the 1952 Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship was Sky Without Birds dealing with anti-Semitism in a railway town on the edge of the Nullarbor. Although Oriel retained an affection for the piece, it was reviewed as technically efficient but over-wordy, over-sentimental and containing too much muddled philosophy. This was her final piece written for the New although Lawson was revived. Her last play Burst of Summer was rejected in 1959 because it didn’t follow the CPA’s tenets. (Oriel Gray quit the CPA in 1949. As far back as 1942 she had fallen foul of the Central Control Commission which looked after members’ morals.)

Oriel with John Gray had a son Stephen, and with John Hepworth two sons Peter and Nicholas. At the time she wrote Had We But World Enough she was living in a Housing Commission Nissan hut at Herne Bay with two of her sons. At the end of her life she was living in Housing Commission accommodation at West Heidelberg where she died on 30 June 2003.

Oriel Gray's Exit Left: Memoirs of a Scarlet Woman, written in 1985, includes the story of her association with the Australian Communist Party and New Theatre, her relationships with New Theatre actor John Gray and New Theatre actor John Hepworth, and her eventual departure from the Communist Party in 1949.

Oriel Gray's play, The Torrents, shared the 1955 Playwrights Advisory Board’s prize for best Australian play with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.


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