Russian Propaganda

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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 Jean 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 the 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 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”.

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