The 1970s - Politics

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A number of plays on historical figures were staged by the New in the 1970s. In Hair-like style, Tom Paine by New York’s La MaMa playwright Paul Foster was rough Brechtian theatre about the 18th century philosopher who wrote The Rights of Man and inspired the American War of Independence.

Foster’s Elizabeth 1, a commentary on money, religion and war, was produced in 1976 with Lorrie Cruickshank in the title role. A “production clean and crisp and right on the mark”, it was directed by Paul Quinn and designed by Andrew Blaxland.

Sydney playwright Kevin McGrath’s John Grant’s Journey tracked the real-life convict’s movements from 1802 London to Norfolk Island where he was chained to an offshore islet. A world premiere in 1974, the play was written after the discovery of Grant’s diaries and letters (he wrote on banana leaves with a quill dipped in bloodwood sap) were found in a London bank vault. Musical director was Peter Sculthorpe.

Another world premiere, in 1978, was Friday the Thirteenth re J T Lang’s last day in office on 13 May 1932.

The playwright Kevin Barry Morgan, an ex Labor parliamentarian, also acted in it and was convincing and amusing as an ALP Speaker. Lang was played by Stan Ashmore-Smith, then Secretary of the Kings Cross branch of the ALP and later a City of Sydney alderman and deputy Lord Mayor who organised public meetings on disarmament and voted against a high- rise building which would overshadow Hyde Park. The play attracted good houses, including Laurie Brereton in the first night audience, and school students studying Australian history.

In exuberant circus style, Barry Oakley’s The Feet of Daniel Mannix satirised the Melbourne Roman Catholic Archbishop’s influence on Australian politics in the period 1912 – 63 in areas including conscription, unemployment and the formation of the DLP.

The title role was played by Bill Charlton, and the combat sequences (Mannix and Scullin wrestling over Catholic education, Mannix and Hughes fighting with thunderbolts over conscription, and H V Evatt strangled by a red octopus) choreographed by Barry Hart.

The revue It’s Time to Boil Billy: The Canberra Follies of 1972 preceded that year’s federal election.

Three of its scripts, including a satire on US control of Australian resources, were by David Williamson. The cast included Les Asmussen as Gorgeous Gorton and Dame Henry Bolte, while Norman Kirkpatrick and Sue Maddock were Bill and Sonia (in that dress) McMahon.

On a swing Virginia Portingale sang

I’m just a swinging voter

Don’t know which way to go

Should I vote for silly Billy

Or give old Gough a go?

Original music was by her brother Paris Portingale. Most of the jokes were at McMahon’s expense, but another Prime Minister was lampooned:

I’m a regular rooter tooter

With a kinder crooked smile.

Sure I’ve done a lot of tootin’

But the rootin’s more my style.

My face got smashed in ‘42

But never did I wince,

To tell the truth, my friends

I’ve been smashed ever since.

Mona Brand’s take on the Aeroplane Jelly jingle was revived at rallies in support of Whitlam:

I once swayed like a jelly

As soft and as shaky could be

A dumb swinging voter

Is what they called me

A little each way seemed a good recipe.

I’ve seen Labor get moving

Making life better for me

More money for schooling and uni is free

The Medibank scheme is a good recipe,

Age pensions are high and they’ll rise by and by

Gough’s policy’s beaut

Those are good reasons why

I’m a genuine swinger

A swinger to Labor that’s me.

Whitlam’s sacking in 1975 inspired The Pirates of Pal Mal penned by Mona Brand and John Upton:

I am the very model of a modern gov’nor general,

I live in lap of luxury which might be quite ephemeral,

I strut around like George the Third and snub the mere colonial,

All bowing and all scraping on occasions ceremonial.

I’m below the Queen of England in the order of priority,

But when it comes to governing I’ve really more authority.

I’ve quite a reputation now for smiling enigmatically

While sacking certain ministers elected democratically.

In the same show Wayne van Heekeren played hayseed Doug Anthony:

When I was a lad some time I spent

At an agricultural establishment

I smiled at my tutors as I swept the floor

And polished up my image at the pig pen door.

I polished up my image so carefully

That now I am the leader of the NCP.


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