The 1950s - War and Peace

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Fear of nuclear war was increased by the USA’s dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, the threat of its use in the Korean War, and the danger of Japan re-arming. In 1950 the New supported the Stockholm Appeal calling for a ban on nuclear weapons, and was one of many groups attending a NSW Peace Conference (ASIO was given an exhaustive list of delegates and observers including North Sydney Girls High School P & C). Hewlett Johnson the “Red” Dean of Canterbury, in Australia for a Youth Peace Conference, attended Sydney NT’s We, the People.

NT protested to Lord Mayor Ernie O’Dea that free speech was being stifled after the Dean and the Australian Peace Council were denied use of Sydney Town Hall.

In 1951 the theatre supported the campaign for the Five Power Peace Pact between Britain, the USSR, France, USA and China. In 1953 it sent Graeme Stewart as NT’s delegate to the Bucharest World Youth Festival for peace; its 1954 representative at the Stockholm Peace Conference was Bill Gollan; in 1960 Rex Chiplin attended the Hiroshima Peace Conference. Until 1991 theatre members marched as a group on the annual Hiroshima Day.

The 1950 revue Press the Point targeted Press bias towards the West in the Cold War:

Newspaper editor A holding tickertape and a reporter B, ready with notepad and typewriter, are in their newsroom.

A: Blonde bashed in Bondi flat.

B: OK, chief, get a picture of a blonde?

A: Yeah, someone off the street will do. Cripes, get a squint of this.

B: What?

A: Cable item. Russians shoot at US plane. Trying to start the bloody war!

B: Unarmed probably.

A: Bound to be.

B: Lost its way I suppose. Where was it?

A: Over Stalingrad. Yeah, guess it lost its way.

B: Who shot first?

A: Must have been the Russians of course. They’re taking steps to deny it.

B: Is that what they mean by Russian steppes? What kind of plane was it?

A: A bomber.

B: “Attack by Russians on US bomber over Stalingrad”.

A: Dastardly attack.

B: “Dastardly attack by Russians on US bomber over Stalingrad”.

A: Unarmed bomber.

Set in a third-rate provincial hospital, Leonard Irwin’s The Circling Dove asked the questions: In the event of a third world war what arrangements are made to handle casualties? Which patients will be displaced by urgent cases?

CPA member Mel Lowe, like everyone else involved in the production, was not named in the printed program. In the McCarthy period some NT actors, especially those trying to get radio work, used pseudonyms.

Les Tanner played the Mind and fellow journalist Charles Sriber the Body of a professor worried about an atomic war and conflicted by his conscience in How I Wonder! a script rejected by the ABC’s Jubilee Committee after which Professor A K Stout spoke to Charles Moses and a petition of protest was organised.

Although the cast, which included Lyle O’Hara, was reviewed as competent, one audience member was “fed up with air-fairy liberal individualism grappling with ideas about the brotherhood of man”.

The Korean War was the subject of an anonymous Shakespearean parody:

Witches: Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

1st Witch: Make the liquid taste diviner

With some blood from Indo China,

2nd Witch: Turn around and say a prayer

Then mix a morsel from Malaya.

3rd Witch: Just before the brew is made

Add a lot of Marshall Aid

1st Witch: Bring the mixture to a boil

With a spoon of Persian oil.

Witches: How we love to have a war

We’ve had two, now we want more

Atom bombs are so exciting

We hate peace and we love fighting.

Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

3rd Witch: By the pricking of my thumbs

Something wicked this way comes.

1st Witch: ‘Tis John Foster Dulles to play Macbeth

To lull us with grim tales of death.

NT member Bill Gollan was one of the first westerners to visit postwar North Korea. He found Pyong Yang reduced to rubble with most people living underground.

In Mother Riba when the son of a Bronx tenement Jewish family is drafted, his mother signs a petition asking the US President to end the Korean War and develops from a naïve to a politically active woman. The actors didn’t see the set until opening night, the play was critiqued as ponderous, and Jim Kaldis (later a NSW Legislative Councillor) acted too much for laughs. Others in the cast included Edgar Penzig and 10-year-old Richard Walsham.

Staged at the height of McCarthyism in 1951 was US worker-dramatist Herb Tank’s Longitude 49 based on a Second World War incident when an African-American seaman was shot dead by a “liberty” ship white officer who said the seaman was a Communist and a trouble-maker.

The theatre’s press release described it as a small incident compared with thousands dying in Korea but the pattern was similar.

In response to reviewer Geoffrey Thomas’ criticism that it was propaganda about goodies and a villain too bad to be true, Graeme Stewart cited the social significance of the 1905 mutiny on the Potemkin and the 1951 strike by the crew of the US Flying Trader after a chained Negro seaman had been shot by the ship’s captain.

Christmas Bridge, an unpublished Australian script by Nance Macmillan ( under its earlier title Land of Morning Calm it was staged by Adelaide NT), concerned an incident in North Korea where UN soldiers turned saboteurs blow up a bridge. The play did poor business. One night an audience of two moved from the front to the back row after interval and the cast thought they’d gone home. Theatre photographer Harry Ciddor was one of the Caucasians playing Koreans, Chinese and an African-American.

Dymphna Cusack’s Pacific Paradise staged two years later also had casting problems but struck a chord with the public. The author wrote the play, its setting a South Pacific island affected by foreign powers’ atomic testing, after seeing Children of Hiroshima and a newspaper placard “Hydrogen bomb test at Bikini kills Japanese fishermen 80 miles away”. Cusack saw the film in Paris when it was banned in England and the USA.

Although criticised for containing too many long speeches, Pacific Paradise proved popular, dealing with issues close to home, especially people as guinea pigs: the islanders who refuse evacuation orders and Australians whose long coastline is threatened by contaminated currents. The ABC Weekly called it “a plea from the little people of the world who wish to be allowed to live in peace and happiness ~ indeed, to be allowed to survive”.

A Professor explains why the island has been chosen for the tests:

Because it is surrounded by an extremely large tract of water which contains no other large inhabited islands, and the current goes directly south, it will give the Japanese no excuse to make a fuss about radio-active waters and above all it misses America, Australia and New Zealand.

In 1952 and 1956 full-scale nuclear devices were exploded by the UK and USA in the Monte Bello islands off Australia’s north-west coast; atomic testing was conducted in South Australia until 1963.

A “racy record of feminine revolt against war” Aristophanes’ Lysistrata was staged in 1950. (It was reworked as The Olive Branch in 1963.)

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