The 1930s - Persecution and 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.
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 After he is fined for selling adulterated milk a shopkeeper asks that the story not be published or, if it is, his name be misspelt to save him from ruin.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. Woman Bites Dog, a satire on the Press, was produced in 1947.
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.
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?