Perth Workers' Art Guild: an example of art at the service of social change

Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers' Art Guild
Dylan Hyde
Fremantle Press, 2019
365 pages, $34.99

"Art is a weapon in the People's fight" declared an advert for a 1940 production of the play Women by the left-wing Workers Art Guild (WAG) that was active in Perth from 1935 to 1942.

In Art Was Their Weapon, author and labour historian Dylan Hyde traces the history of WAG in Perth, one of the most isolated cities in the Western world known in the 1930s for its conservatism and parochialism. After reeling from the Great Depression, Western Australia slowly began to recover from the worst of it by the mid-1930s.

As a result of this, Perth's professional theatre scene, which had been effectively killed off by the Depression and a state government imposed entertainment tax, experienced a revival.

Members of the WA branch of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) such as Katherine Susannah Pritchard and Maurie Lachberg started to collaborate with other progressives including theatre director Keith George to discuss the setting up a radical arts organisation in the city in 1935.

Inspired by the workers' theatre movement in the United States, Europe and the USSR and with active groups elsewhere in Australia, the WAG brought together many of Australia’s most gifted artists and intellectuals in “broad and audacious cultural venture rooted in radical left wing politics that encompassed theatre, art, music and writing, resulting in a confluence of radical political expression and great art in one of the most isolated cities in the world at one of the most turbulent times in history.”

Using radical avant-garde techniques, WAG’s productions caused a sensation, It attracted rave reviews while polarising Perth with their radicalism and links to the CPA.

One of its more surprising allies was Paul Hasluck, a future minister in the federal Robert Menzies Liberal government. At the time, Hasluck wrote reviews under the name "Polygon" in the West Australian newspaper, becoming a key supporter of WAG.

The WA branch of the CPA, in line with the prevailing Communist "Popular Front" policy, sought to work with progressive people from all walks of life in response to the rise of fascism and war. It was policy that led the CPA to work with various radical organisations such as the Movement against War and Fascism, the Modern Women’s Club, the Spanish Relief Committee and the Left Book Club and WAG.

Its involvement was crucial to WAG putting on the many productions. From 1936–39, WAG staged productions such as Til the Day I Die, Waiting for Lefty, Bury the Dead, Where’s that Bomb? and Women of Spain. As well as performing plays in theatres such as His Majesties Theatre in Perth, WAG members also performed plays in union halls, outside factories and at progressive fundraisers. In 1939, WAG members perform "street dramatisations" on the back of trucks on issues such as housing problems and unemployment in support of the ALP in that years state election. It also designed floats and banners for that year's Perth Labour Day parade.

This collaboration led to the CPA's WA branch growing from 130 members in 1935 to 350 in May 1939. While still small, the CPA gained influence through its work in WAG and other progressive fraternal organisations. It is estimated that its newspaper the Workers’ Star had a statewide circulation of 2500.

However, as Hyde shows, the CPA intervention would result in many tensions. The working-class CPA membership and the state leadership never entirely trusted the middle-class WAG members. Struggles between the CPA fraction of WAG and its director Keith George would also result in George being ousted from the Guild in 1939.

The start of World War II would also involve a shift from the "Popular Front" after the Soviet Union signed a Non-Aggression pact with Nazi Germany, just before it invaded Poland in September. The CPA opposed the war, which was now seen as merely "an imperialist" enterprise. This shift in policy was used to justify increased state repression and surveillance by the Australian government against the CPA and other left-wing groups through the Commonwealth Investigative Branch (CIB), the predecessor of ASIO.

This would culminate in the Menzies government banning the CPA in 1940, with the WA branch being ill-prepared for illegality. The ban on the CPA wasn't lifted until 1942 by the Curtin Labor government, in recognition of the CPA's support of the war effort after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 by Nazi Germany.

By 1940, WAG was in decline. It would stage its last productions in 1941, a reprise of the 1936 play Till the Day I Die and was wound up due to wartime pressures in March 1942. This ended an important chapter in Western Australia’s artistic and intellectual history which was forgotten for many years, symbolised by the fact that the WAG rooms on the corner of Hay and Elder streetd were demolished in 1960s to make way for the Mitchell Highway.

Hyde’s book shows how even in a place as conservative and isolated as 1930s Perth, it is possible to use art, music and theatre as a means to inspire social change, whether in response to the Great Depression and the rise of fascism and war in the 1930s, or the many crises facing people and the planet today.

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