The Sydney New Theatre is one of Australia’s oldest continuously performing theatres, with an unbroken record of performances from 1932 to today. It originally began as part of a network of radical theatre groups which were founded in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Newcastle and Adelaide from the 1930s onwards.
A new book, published by Interventions and edited by Lisa Milner, collects stories of New Theatre branches, filling a vital space in Australian cultural history. Radical left-wing theatre history tales, told by theatre practitioners, historians, academics and political ratbags, reveal a rich vein of Australia’s hidden cultural heritage. New Theatre advocated for freedom and democracy, aiming to activate audiences politically, and create authentic, non-commercial Australian drama by telling the hidden stories about the real lives of working-class people.
In this excerpt from The New Theatre: The People, Plays and Politics Behind Australia’s Radical Theatre, Phillip Deery and Lisa Milner recount how branches defied censorship of the anti-fascist play Till the Day I Die in the 1930s, causing state repression to backfire.
The federal government, under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, banned performances of Clifford Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935) in July 1936, apparently at the request of the German Consul, Dr Rudolf Asmis. The play, written to accompany Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (1935), ran for one hour. It revolved around the experiences of a member of the underground opposition movement in Germany who, after torture by Nazi officials during a brutal interrogation, committed suicide. This already well-known play had ‘caused keen discussion in other countries’ before New Theatre adopted it in 1936, five years before London’s Unity Theatre.
Queensland, led by the Forgan Smith Labor government, permitted the Brisbane Unity Theatre to stage Till the Day I Die and did not interfere with its production; consequently, ‘the trouble anticipated by the Brisbane theatre did not eventuate’. Performances eventually went ahead at several theatres in both Brisbane and Ipswich in February 1939.
South of the border, however, the Sydney New Theatre’s Secretary, Victor Arnold, presented the play illegally at the Savoy Theatre on 22 July 1936, defying Colonial Secretary Frank Chaffey’s prohibition. While they fought the ban, they staged the play every Wednesday night at the New Theatre’s regular rooms at 36 Pitt Street and, subsequently, for the next two years. According to the Australian Quarterly, attempting to proscribe the play was ‘a political error – hundreds have seen it who would otherwise have not heard of it’. Similarly, the left-leaning artist, Rod Shaw, who worked with the New Theatre, remarked that ‘more people would have seen the play than normally’ because of the ban. New Theatre member Eddie Allison went so far as to claim that the play ‘put the New Theatre on the map’. The prohibition lasted for five years, until 1941. The Sydney Secretary, Freda Lewis, maintained that the government’s decision to remove the ban ‘showed the correctness of the theatre’s policy’ in defying it for so long.
Silencing Till the Day I Die was far more effective in Melbourne. The Lyons government lacked powers to ban plays, so it contacted the Country Party Premier of Victoria, Albert Dunstan. Dunstan referred the correspondence to his Chief Secretary, Henry Bailey, who seized the baton. Bailey read the script, thought it ‘undesirable’ and prohibited all Melbourne performances.
The Council for Civil Liberties convened a protest meeting against the ban on 6 November 1936. The audience of 200 heard several speakers invoke the right of free speech. L. F. Giblin, Macmahon Ball and Rev. William Bottomley all voiced their concerns. The resourceful and determined new director, Catherine Duncan, encapsulated the Workers Theatre Group’s (WTG) position – ‘We are not pamphleteers merely disseminating propaganda’ – and announced that WTG would perform the play before or on 11 November in an unlicensed hall without charge. She added that the venue would remain secret until the day before. Like its Sydney counterpart, the WTG sought to exploit a legal loophole whereby free ‘private’ performances (with a one shilling donation) seemed permissible.
Following press reports of this meeting, the Chief Secretary announced that he would ‘use all his powers’ to prevent the staging of Till the Day I Die in any hall, licensed or unlicensed. He clarified his objection: ‘the play offends against good manners’ and would cause ‘class and national prejudice’. It is arguable that Bailey’s objection was less concerned with the play’s anti-Nazi theme than with Odets and the WTG being pro-communist. The Victorian Special Branch had the WTG under surveillance from at least as early as 16 August 1936. Several additional protest meetings were called, and the Trades Hall Council pledged its support. William Slater, the former Attorney- General in two state Labor governments, offered to lead a deputation. And, significantly, the Mayor of Collingwood, Laurence Marshall, agreed to a performance – despite the embargo – under the rubric of a charitable concert to aid the Mayor’s Fund for the unemployed.
A stormy meeting of the fractious Collingwood Council on 16 November 1936 spelt trouble for this last plan. Several councillors asked the mayor whether reports of the proposed ‘illegal’ staging of Till the Day I Die on 18 November or of 1,500 invitations having already been issued were correct. Correspondence from the town clerk to the mayor was tabled, confirming that the Chief Secretary had banned the play, that the booking fee (paid personally by the mayor) for the hire of the main hall had been returned, and that the mayor must ‘clearly understand that in no circumstances will [he] be permitted to use the halls of this city’ for the production of the play. In defence, Marshall told councillors that he was ‘not a Communist’ and – thinking, presumably, of the loophole – reassured them that ‘as long as I am mayor, the law will not be broken’.
He did not reassure most councillors. The next day, 17 November, 12 councillors wrote to the town clerk authorising him to ‘take any action’ he considered necessary to prevent the use of the town hall. The stage was set for a showdown. From 6.30 pm on Wednesday 18 November, a crowd estimated at ‘several thousands’ assembled outside Collingwood Town Hall. It included ‘a large number of artists, journalists, lawyers and students’. Twenty uniformed police and several plainclothes detectives were also in attendance. The mayor and his wife arrived at 7 pm to find all doors locked and bolted. Marshall then tried forcing a window open to admit the crowd. Police stopped him, and he remonstrated: ‘I am the Mayor of this city, and you have no… power to prevent my breaking in to my own town hall’. By now, traffic in Hoddle Street was completely blocked. Also blocked was an attempt to perform the play in a nearby vacant allotment. Two thousand people assembled, until police cautioned them, saying that it was an offence. Catherine Duncan mounted the steps of the town hall and proclaimed to a cheering crowd that the WTG would never be censored. That night, a special meeting of the WTG congratulated Marshall on his ‘courageous stand’, made him a life member and denounced Collingwood councillors for their ‘violation’ of free expression.
Duncan was undaunted. She told a sympathetic meeting of the Social Science Forum: ‘The Collingwood Council, the Government and the censors need not think for one moment that we are going to accept their dictum’. Offers of money and services poured in, circulars were sent to various metropolitan councils seeking an available town hall, and a deputation of three miners from Wonthaggi requested a performance in their town. The WTG was now aiming for an audience of 10,000 for the play. ‘We will fight for freedom of expression in Australia,’ she continued, ‘even if it takes till the day we die’.
Her defiance, and the extensive support for the WTG, withered in the face of resistance. Local councils including Coburg, Fitzroy, St Kilda, South Melbourne and Wonthaggi all refused permission to stage the play. A plan to present the play on the beach at Inverloch to Christmas holiday-makers never materialised. Even the Melbourne Unitarian Church reneged after it was threatened with prosecution under the Health Act if it did not comply with regulations appropriate to ‘a place of public entertainment’. The only hope lay with the Brunswick City Council. When it received an application from the WTG for the use of its town hall, members of the council requested a private rehearsal performance for municipal officers and councillors. This occurred on 21 December. Reactions were mixed: one councillor believed that it was undoubtedly a propaganda play, but to suggest that it would cause conflict was ‘ridiculous’; another thought that ‘there was nothing in it’; while a third remarked: ‘If they don’t improve on tonight’s performance, they won’t get an audience for the second performance’. The council then voted 6–3 to permit the use of the hall on 21 February 1937 for the first public performance in Melbourne of Till the Day I Die. This was more than three months after its first scheduling.
Approximately 1,200 people attended this performance. According to a press report, the reaction was one of ‘enthusiasm’. In the audience were A. E. Officer and a Mr Bird, who were either State Special Branch or CIB field officers, and they were not enthusiastic. The first play, Waiting for Lefty, was ‘practically unintelligible to most of the audience’, because the cast failed to project their voices. During interval, it was announced that a loud air-conditioning plant was responsible; efforts would be made to overcome the competing noise in the second play. Even so, despite the production of Till the Day I Die being ‘much better’, according to the security report, ‘it is doubtful if more than half the audience heard a quarter of what was spoken’. The officers observed that at least 60 percent of the 1,200-strong audience ‘comprised foreigners or persons of alien extraction, jews [sic] predominating’. The officers collected (and attached to the report) a leaflet distributed inside the hall relating to the Spanish Civil War and noted the publications sold outside the hall – Workers’ Voice, Moscow News and Soviet Russia Today. The play ran every weekend for another 18 months; in the words of a New Theatre stalwart, it meant that ‘we became known’.
Access the Book
The New Theatre: The People, Plays and Politics Behind Australia’s Radical Theatre will be launched in Melbourne at the New International Bookshop on November 9 2022. To register for the in person event click here and to register for the livestream go here. Contact Interventions or the New International Bookshop to order a copy.