The 1950s - Injustice and Racism

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The New’s contribution to the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship in 1952 was Oriel Gray’s Sky Without Birds dealing with anti-Semitism in a railway town on the edge of the Nullarbor:

Major Harry Robinson, pro-Hitler before the war, and Bartley, owner of the general store, talk in the Post Office.

Major: The new loco engineer.

Bartley: I heard he was expected. Is he all right? Decent sort?

Major: Refugee chap... German.

Bartley: Tch. Tch. You wouldn’t think they’d let them in, would you. Not a German.

Major: He’s a Jew, too.

Bartley: Not a yid! Tch! Tch! They’re the worst, you know. If they’re working for you they’re always stirring up trouble, and if you’re working for them they sweat you dry. It’s true what’s said about them, you know … they count every penny. Every penny.. . (Prepares to go but pops back.) Dear me… I forgot my tuppence change.

Sky Without Birds was attended by ASIO who had files on all the performers and crew.

Written while she was living in a Housing Commission Nissen hut at Herne Bay with her two young sons, Oriel Gray’s Had We But World Enough was inspired by her time in Lismore where she witnessed injustice to Aboriginal people. Lily, a 12-year-old Aboriginal girl chosen by a country town schoolteacher to play Mary at Easter, suicides.

The play had mixed reviews. The ABC Weekly considered it “a superbly lively study of the colour problem in our country”; the author on reflection thought it overwritten and sentimental.

Adelaide NT lined up an indigenous girl as Lily but she got sick and couldn’t do it.

In Dick Diamond's folk musical Under the Coolibah Tree ,staged in 1956, shearers take the side of the local Aborigines against a squatter.

Mona Brand’s Better a Millstone, set in a London council flat, examined the effect of a young man’s execution on a postal worker and his family, and the broader issues of child abuse, criminalisation of the young and the influence on them of comic strip sagas of violence and sex. The cast included Les Tanner, Hazel Phillips, Patti Asange and Alex Hood.

The play was based on the hanging of illiterate 19- year-old Derek Bentley in England in coronation year 1953. After breaking into a sweets factory with 16-year-old Christopher Craig, the pair had been confronted by a policeman who ordered Craig to drop his gun. Bentley called out “Let him have it, Chris” and Craig fired. On the day before the execution the House of Lords disallowed an appeal for mercy, concentrating instead on preparations for the forthcoming coronation, including the problem of accommodating in Westminster Abbey all Members of the Upper House and their wives ~ solved by erecting a covered stand outside.

The cheek they’ve got – instead of discussing a young boy's life, taking up the whole afternoon on whether they’re going to put their bottoms inside or outside the Abbey.

A film Let Him Have It was released in 1991 and in 1998 Bentley’s conviction was quashed.

Brendan Behan’s anti capital punishment The Quare Fellow was staged in 1959. Set in a prison on the night before a hanging, it shows the effect on the inmates of the knowledge that one of their number is to be ritually strangled. Well reviewed were Jack Fegan as the tough but complex warder and Mark McManus as a young prisoner.

At the height of the Cold War NT agitated for the reprieve in the USA of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish Communists and parents of two young sons. The couple were accused of passing atomic secrets to the USSR. The New’s solicitor Harold Rich was on the Save the Rosenbergs Committee and theatre members maintained a vigil outside the US consulate in Sydney, huddled around fires in bins on a bitterly cold night in June 1953. Peter Leyden’s script Testament recalled their trial and execution. Ethel Rosenberg was a character in Angels in America produced by the New in 2008.

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