The 1940s - War
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 ain't 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 NTL 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 (the players Ken McCarron, Bill Brown, Alan Herbert and Jerry Wells) was part of the 1942 British Drama League Festival of Community Drama. Its cast including Alan Herbert and John Gray, it 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. In Sydney child actors Leo Bates and Tanya Butler were praised for their performances as Emil and Pat.
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 Stanislavsky 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.