The Club's Activities
Formal activities were spread over four sections: art, drama, writing and music. A planned orchestra didn’t eventuate and the music section soon folded.
Art classes were popular under the tuition of WAC President George Finey who organised an exhibition of Soviet posters in October 1932, a showing of his own sardonically bitter cartoons the next month, and an exhibition “Saga” of students’ and tutors’ linocuts at an anti-war rally in April 1933.
Finey's wife Nat Finey modelled for the art students and performed occasionally with the WAC drama section.
The literature section encouraged writing about proletarian life. Sixty Miler, performed in June 1935, concerned worker safety on dirty colliers carrying coal on the Newcastle-Sydney 60-mile run. These ships sometimes made two trips a day through storms and icy southerly winds. Authors of the one-act play were Sydney University Labour Club law students Jock Smail, TJ W “Wally” Weeks and John Cameron Foster. Eddie Allison played a mutineer. “We want this rattletrap beached and we’ll bloody well see that she is!” he announced and fought with the captain. That actor, aged over 60, was knocked unconscious, striking his head on the stage with a clunk.
From the 1930s to the 1960s the New, with strong connections to seamen and waterside workers, staged a number of plays dealing with maritime issues. The Good Hope (1950) concerned “coffin ships” off the Dutch coast; unrest on a tanker followed the murder of the black first mate in Longitude 49 (1951); and Australian-born longshoreman Harry Bridges was celebrated in song in 1942.
Speakers at the WAC included Don Finley on Russian stage design; Ted Tripp on “Cultural Progress under the Five Year Plan”, Rosine Guiterman on John Galsworthy; and G W R Southern (proponent of gun control, nudism, and shorts for men in summer) on “Morality to Fit the Times”. V Y Chow explained English grammar; and J O A Bourke (he became UNSW’s first bursar) recited proletarian verse. There were occasional Shakespeare recitals and, hoping to increase attendance, voice classes were offered in 1939 to study the Bard's works. At 167 Castlereagh Street radio announcer John Dease taught voice in 1944 while ballet classes were conducted by Sybil McKay. In the 1930s the Friends Of The Soviet Union (FSU) also provided a platform for talks on social and cultural topics.
Often behind in the rent, the WAC survived mainly through its Saturday dances (its regular unpaid musicians on drums, saxophone and an old upright piano) and monthly themed fancy dress parties such as "Hooting, Looting and Shooting" a burlesque on war, “Poets and Plumbers”, “Palettes and Picks”, “A Night with Conan Doyle” and “A Night in Araby”. The last featured murals of desert moons, minarets and palm trees, and a muezzin called the faithful to supper of tea and a biscuit. A "great big jungle dance" invited guests to come in costume as wild beasts and Tarzans.
The clubroom was a refuge for the unemployed and those with casual jobs. Some went door to door selling “the economical gas saver”, a metal plate for two saucepans which fitted over a single gas burner (but took twice as long to heat up). Others posed as repairmen, declaring a vacuum cleaner faulty, taking it to the WAC where it was cleaned up with Brasso, and returning it to the housewife the next day for a “nominal fee” ~ having performed an agit-prop play the night before on the evils of the exploitative capitalist class. Others became “shit shooters”: illegal street photographers armed with Leica cameras, dodging the police. Postcard-size prints costing two shillings each could be picked up from their booths in city arcades.
At least two con men were involved with the WAC. In 1933 Ian Monteith Vallentine delivered readings with panache and directed The Importance of Being Earnest for George Finey’s People’s Art Club. He claimed experience with J C Williamson’s but was in fact a solicitor who had spent time in gaol and been struck off the roll of attorneys for embezzlement.
In March 1935 Walter Townsend Hunt, twice-divorced and in debt, turned up at the WAC where he delivered stock recital pieces (National Heroes Debunked, or Henry Fifth as Shakespeare Really Saw Him), directed Mrs Warren’s Profession and offered elocution lessons to club members at a shilling an hour. At the time he was facing one charge of perjury and another of false pretences, having persuaded some “bright young people” to part with their money in exchange for roles in The Love Child, a local film for which he had no backing. He said their acting tuition fees would be taken out of their salaries. Hunt, who claimed experience with Vitagraph Pictures in the USA and with Allan Wilkie’s touring Shakespeare Company, was sentenced on 9 April 1935 to twelve months on the false pretences charge and on 18 June 1935 to nine months for perjury. He had a history of exploiting wealthy women, in India as well as Australia.
Not long after the WAC opened, its key founders George Finey and Jean Devanny, both New Zealand born pacifists, left after clashing with the CPA’s Central Committee for choosing popular plays such as Pygmalion over Soviet propagandist pieces and granting membership to “artistic freaks”. Finey also drew abuse from the pro-Trotsky Militant which described him as a denizen of the WAC, a Stalinist-inspired outfit that “has degenerated so rapidly that even the degenerates now shun it”. Finey then set up a short-lived People’s Art Club above a speakeasy at 147A King Street in the city.
A controversial CPA member, Devanny thought women had as much right to enjoy sex as men and admired the rippling muscles of the Russian man in the wheat fields.
A fiery Domain speaker who spent time in Long Bay (her first impressions of Sydney were razor gangs, shootings, bag snatchings, the White Australia Policy, and bohemians), Devanny remained in the Party but switched cultural allegiance to the FSU. As a Workers’ Weekly reviewer she accepted invitations to film screenings but was scathing of Hollywood’s “immoral, sex-soaked” offerings which she critiqued as anti working class, prophesying that “after the revolution” The Scarlet Pimpernel's Merle Oberon might find some good work despite having married a capitalist Hollywood director. Hostility to the USA was also evident in the WAC’s advertising for musicians to form an orchestra (“no jazz”) and the Australian Casting Directory’s refusal to accept ads from anyone wanting “to equip themselves for a career in Motion Picture Production, or its allied activities”.
Following the departure of Devanny, Finey and the WAC’s first Secretary Honey Sloane, Vic Arnold became Secretary 1933-40 and Jerry Wells President. Both acted in and directed a string of productions, Wells until 1949 after which he had some local professional work. In 1957 “Casting Couch” Wells migrated to England where he shared an Earls Court flat with Reg Lye and got work in film and television, his last roles in The Two Ronnies and The Benny Hill Show (usually as a pincher of female dancers’ bottoms).
After the Writers’ League drifted away from the WAC as the Writers’ Association, it was the drama group which became the club’s most successful section although Sydney’s commercial theatres had shrunk from ten to two with the popularity of cinema. Beginning with Tuesday night playreadings, the New had to hire outside venues when casts or audiences grew too big for the clubroom. The normal club performance night was Sunday when most Sydney citizens were expected to be in church, and a “donation” was extracted at the door as it was illegal for the unlicensed venue to charge admission.