The 1960s - Censorship

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After reviewing the 1948 production of Sean O’Casey’s The Star Turns Red as “magnificent theatre” the Sydney Morning Herald had boycotted NT plays and refused to accept paid advertising, an act described by Mona Brand as “the first icy blast of the cold war”. For the next 12 years the New relied for publicity on the Tribune and occasional ads in the Mirror.

In 1960 things suddenly changed when critic Lindsey Browne turned up at All My Sons. NT Secretary Miriam Hampson couldn’t believe her eyes.

Credited with the turnaround was a meeting between WWF Secretary Jim Healy and a Herald executive. In 1973 after hearing that non-professional productions would no longer be reviewed, Healy’s successor Norm Docker again reminded Warwick Fairfax that all Sydney newsprint passed through the hands of wharfies.

Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, staged in 1961, had been the subject of censorship in Ireland when its inclusion in the 1958 Dublin Tostal Drama Festival was proscribed by the Bishop of Dublin, as was a stage adaptation of Ulysses. Samuel Beckett withdrew his mime plays in protest and the festival was cancelled. A Utopian play about a festival in an Irish town, The Drums of Father Ned carried a message to young people to avoid sectarianism, bigotry, outworn dogmas and hatreds. The Sydney cast included Mark McManus and Denis Doonan. (The New had regular correspondence ~ including birthday cards ~ with O’Casey who allowed it reduced royalties.)

The decade’s biggest sensation was John Tasker’s 1968 production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s America Hurrah! satirising the worst aspects of the US way of life and concluding with giant dolls scrawling obscenities on the walls of a motel room.

After the play had been running five weeks a grandmother who took her grandson to see it complained about Motel and the segment was banned by NSW Chief Secretary Eric Willis as going “beyond boundaries of decency and decorum”. Rather than risk massive fines a new version Hotel was written by Mona Brand and narrated by Betty Lucas as a comment on Australian censorship laws: “It’s hard to keep things clean these days but where there’s a Willis there’s a way” and the scribbled four-letter word became “F111”.

Despite Tasker’s advice to the NT Secretary to take things quietly and let Civil Rights do the shouting, Miriam Hampson spoke publicly about artistic freedom, a petition was circulated and a lot of office time was spent on problems associated with the ban.

Meanwhile a broad committee called “Friends of America Hurrah” circumvented the Public Halls Act with a free one-night performance of the unaltered version at the Teachers’ Federation Hall. Among the thousands who thronged Sussex Street were actor Peter O’Shaughnessy and artist John Olsen. Reviewer Harry Kippax, holding up a note “SMH must review”, managed to get in and watched the show with Katharine Brisbane from the stage manager’s box.

The cast was unnamed and the rumour went round that one doll was played by Robert Helpmann, but it was John Hargreaves and Rod Williams who could just make out what was going on through their masks’ mouthpieces at the end of the performance when police tried to push their way through a bodyguard of wharfies.

The “dolls” ran into a kitchen, shed their costumes and mingled with the other actors waiting in their underwear. On the stage, audience members clashed with police trying to take away the set as evidence. Some panels ended up for a short time in Darlinghurst Police Station.

“Police Hunt for Two Dolls Continues” read a headline next day.

In the end there were no prosecutions but the America Hurrah! furore paved the way for The Boys in the Band and Hair to be staged uncut. Harry Miller (about to stage Hair) publicly supported the New, as did Don Dunstan (the cast sent him a congratulatory telegram when he became SA Premier), Kim Bonython, Russell Drysdale, Doris Fitton, Harry Seidler (suggested by Tasker to design the Hurrah set), Cyril Pearl and Robert Helpmann. One audience member sent NT a copy of a letter she had written to Willis: “I object strongly to a decision being made according to someone else’s criteria whether or not I may see a play”.

It was John Tasker who had urged the New to apply for the rights to America Hurrah! which he predicted no other Australian theatre would touch: “It could be a bombshell on the Sydney scene”. “To compare this play to the bulk of theatre of today is to compare Sid Nolan’s Ned Kelly to Stag at Bay” read a program note. The production received huge press and television publicity and was taken to Hobart and the University of New England, but the theatre was soon broke again. The America Hurrah! rights were the highest ever paid to that date, past royalties and old debts were paid off, and the next show War and Peace lost money. And there was no carry-over of interest in van Itallie’s The Serpent staged the next year.

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