The 1930s - War and 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.
Other anti-war pieces included the one-act Slickers Ltd a London Unity Theatre satire on the arms race and Vickers Armaments, manufacturer of explosives, warships and aircraft ("a frenzied gambling orgy during a threatened war period in Europe"); 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=0 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.