Person - Jean Devanny

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JANE DEVANNY (1894 - 1962)

Always known as Jean, she claimed to have established and named the Workers Art Club (WAC) and to have been its first director, moving from obscure premises to a large hall with offices and a make up room at 36 Pitt Street. Her ideas for the club were modelled on proletarian art and theatre groups (such as the Volksbuhne) she had seen in Berlin when she travelled to Germany and the Soviet Union as a Workers’ International Relief delegate in 1931. She adhered to Stalin right-hand-man Andrei Zhdanov’s cultural doctrine of socialist realism and that artists were "engineers of the human soul". George Finey joined the WAC, hanging some of his drawings and caricatures on the walls, and set up an art section which went well. After the drama section was established, Jean Devanny, on the executive of the Unemployed Workers' Movement, would sometimes interrupt a performance to call for volunteers to help when people were being evicted.

Devanny and Finey left the WAC after being taken to task by the CPA, Finey for allowing "undesirables and artistic freaks" to join the club, and Devanny for writing “petit-bourgeois tripe” and staging non-leftist plays like Pygmalion. She switched allegiance to the Friends Of The Soviet Union (FSU) where she gave talks and helped stage their plays. Her daughter played piano for Jean's lecture on great composers. A proposed talk on “companionate marriage” was banned.

Devanny had a difficult relationship with the CPA. While the official Party line was that the working class should have as many children as they wanted (in real life, women through networking knew where the abortionists were), Devanny wanted birth control information to be readily available. After being gang raped in 1941 at a communist bush camp and protesting to the Cairns district committee, she was expelled from the CPA for “infamous conduct” (but was readmitted after she threatened to publish letters from J B Miles with whom she'd had a long affair). She resigned from the CPA in 1950 because of its criticism of her portrayal of race relations in her work Cindie.

In the 1930s Devanny reviewed capitalist films in the Workers' Weekly through the prism of the class struggle. The Scarlet Pimpernel portrayed the masses as beastly, Andrew Foulkes was a rotten actor with a low appearance, and “after the revolution” some good work should be found for Merle Oberon who had found it hard to resist marriage with an old, ugly but rich Hollywood director. The French Revolution should not be glamorised but portrayed through the sufferings and collective grandeur of the people that led to overthrow of the monarchy.

With time she became more reflective, stating that the biggest fault with young worker dramatists was that they hung slabs of propaganda on the barest of dramatic threads, and that much of her own play Paradise Flow was propaganda and needed drastic pruning. With the isolation of Australia from overseas contacts during the Second World War she advocated the staging of local plays. She was a supporter of a national theatre housing opera, ballet and theatre.

Jane Crook was born in New Zealand, the eighth of ten children. Her father was a boilermaker and miner. She left school at 13 to care for her mother but read voraciously. At a dance in 1911 she met miner Francis Harold “Hal” Devanny (1888-1966) and married him that year; their children were Karl (after Marx) born 1912, Patricia 1913 (as Patricia Hurd she died in 1980) and Erin 1915 (who died aged four of peritonitis, after which Jean never again played piano and violin). The Devannys were active in the miners’ union and in Marxist study circles, and Jean began writing novels, always about women’s economic and sexual equality in marriage. The Butcher Shop , a literary sensation in 1926, was banned as "sordid, unwholesome and unclean".

In 1929 they crossed the Tasman, hoping a warmer climate would help Karl’s weak heart (but he died in 1934). Jean’s first impressions of Sydney were razor gangs, shootings, bashings, bag snatchings, the White Australia Policy and dagoes, timber and mining strikes, and bohemians like Dulcie Deamer. Jean joined the CPA in 1931. As publisher of the Workers’ Weekly Hal was sentenced to six months’ gaol in 1932 for soliciting contributions to the CPA. Jean was also charged for collecting in the Domain, and in 1935 served time for selling working-class literature. At Long Bay she was given a pair of shoes of different sizes and slept in a hammock in a flea-plagued cell. She took issue with the kitchen wardress over the prisoners’ dirty, chipped tin utensils.

A woman of enormous energy, Jean was always on the move, marching and public speaking, travelling abroad and interstate. George Farwell said she was masculine and long-striding; Leslie Rees that she was a strident speaker drawing big Sunday afternoon crowds in the Domain, but an amiable collector of sixpences for tea money for Sunday night meetings of the Fellowship of Australian Writers. An advocate of sexual freedom she made an arrangement with her husband absolving each other of marital obligations. She admired the rippling muscles of the Russian peasant in the wheat fields and said women had as much right to enjoy sex as men.

Jean Devanny, who died of leukemia at Townsville on 8 March 1962, has Wikipedia and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries. Her papers are held by James Cook University. Her autobiography Point of Departure was published posthumously in 1986.

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