Defiant history of workers' theatre movement

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Defiant history of workers' theatre movement

Defiance: Political Theatre in Brisbane 1930-1962
By Connie Healy
Boombana Publications
$21.90, 256 pp

REVIEW BY DAVE RILEY

This may seem like an obscure subject. Who nowadays is interested in theatre history? While I am, I doubt if there are many readers who are similarly inclined. But the subject of Connie Healy's book is precisely the sort of theatre we should all be interested in.

I say that because very few activists today recognize how powerful a political weapon theatre was in the period following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Imbued with its own strong sense of class, the workers' theatre movement — as it came to be known — quickly spread during the inter-war years, winning to itself thousands of dedicated practitioners who applied themselves passionately to play-making.

The scale and influence of this creative enterprise is amazing. It fostered talent by creating its own repertoire. It developed new theatrical forms. It merged with its audiences by drawing its actors, writers and directors from among them.

Today perhaps it is difficult to comprehend what made it tick. It wasn't anyone's career, nor a guarantee of a ticket to fame. No one got paid. People threw themselves into production after production because they loved theatre and wanted to use it to change the world.

For the fledging communist parties the troupes they fostered served as handy recruiters, as propaganda tools and sustained a culture more loyal to socialism than their eclectic intellectual fellow travellers.

Today it is hard to understand this. I used to think that this tradition could be revived if enough people put their mind to it. Healy herself presents the movement as an ideal we should aspire to, even though today's "political climate doesn't seem favourable for the re-emergence of working class theatre". But I beg to differ.

Defiance is primarily a history of a movement that ran its course within a particular historical period. In Australia, as elsewhere, it is difficult to envisage it unfolding without the sometime support, sometime begrudging deference, of the Communist Party. In turn the movement's fortunes were dependent on the success or otherwise of the party.

If a theatre anything like this were to happen again it would again need a similar key organizational alliance to sustain itself. But the left's not like that anymore.

Even the radical theatre movement that blossomed in the seventies here in Australia could only muster a lifespan of eight years or less. Troupes have come and gone — the Australian Performance Group, Popular Theatre Troupe, and any number of community theatre initiatives are just as much historical fodder as the political theatre of which Healy writes.

Indeed I think it is a mistake to preach the doctrine that theatre history needs to repeat itself. While there is immense inspiration to be found in the story Connie Healy tells us, it cannot be a blueprint. Perhaps that's frustrating because you can read a book like Defiance and say wow! they really had something.

The history of the Unity and New Theatre movements in Brisbane between these years is an exciting and inspiring one — one sustained by true grit and talent. But I guess the best indication of what theatre suffers from at the moment is indicated by books such as these.

Don't get me wrong, they must be written and read. But Defiance announces the end of a political era because it fills in some of the missing pieces of the history of the Communist Party milieu in this country. And the stature and influence of socialist ideas was such that they even impacted on areas — like theatre — you may not have known about.

Nonetheless, the influence of the CP on its theatrical ally was not always benign. The mid thirties' transition from ultra-leftism to Popular Front alliances was refracted in this movement quite significantly. The Stalinist doctrine of realism, and the keenness to endorse one artistic movement in preference to another, tended to warp the initial clear political impetus, so that many radical theatrical experimenters were simply alienated from it.

The international communist movement's mass base and influence was such that modern theatre and film have been greatly influenced by its legacy. While many writers, actors and directors were keen to turn their back on communism after 1956, many continued to practice the forms they learnt under the party's influence.

As Defiance indicates, the Communist Party was not just a political force, it was a very significant cultural one as well — long before the notion of "counter-culture" became trendy.

However, what that tradition had that we don't have so much now is a commitment to democratic empowerment. Political theatre in Brisbane between the years of 1930 and 1962 was the work of people like you and I who created their own sustaining culture through their own effort.

As Connie Healy writes: "I felt I had a certain duty, as a former member and supporter, to record and preserve the work of these groups, which are an integral part of Australian cultural heritage and pay tribute to those who, although often knocked back, had the courage and foresight to stand in defiance of an unacceptable social order."