A history of political theatre in Brisbane as part of working-class cultural tradition and heritage : the Workers' Education Dramatic Society and the Student/Unity/New Theatre (1930-1962)

Healy, Constance (1994). A history of political theatre in Brisbane as part of working-class cultural tradition and heritage : the Workers' Education Dramatic Society and the Student/Unity/New Theatre (1930-1962) M.A. Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics; School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Healy, Constance
Thesis Title A history of political theatre in Brisbane as part of working-class cultural tradition and heritage : the Workers' Education Dramatic Society and the Student/Unity/New Theatre (1930-1962)
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics; School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1994
Thesis type M.A. Thesis
Supervisor -
Total pages 498 (2v)
Language eng
Subjects 410000 The Arts
Formatted abstract The emergence and development of political theatre, committed to social and political objectives which aimed to appeal to and give expression to the working-class, took different forms in Europe, Britain and America. Yet stimulated by historical developments - war, revolution, and economic crisis - they all rejected the social and political values of existing dominant cultural forms in their societies to produce radical theatres of protest in the depression era of the thirties.

In Australia, as the economic depression of the thirties deepened, with widespread unemployment, increased poverty and growing insecurity in a world threatened with fascism and war, amateur political theatres commenced. In Brisbane, two political theatres emerged, producing stimulating, lively drama which tackled contemporary social questions, taking up the issues of inequality, unemployment, workers' struggles, racism, nationalism, gender roles, peace and anti-fascism. These two theatres maintained close links with the social and political life of working people and with developments overseas, introducing Brisbane audiences to new dramatic trends as well as encouraging emerging Australian playwrights. In general, their repertoires provided a contrast to those of other amateur drama groups.

In Chapter One, after defining political theatre, a brief resume is provided of the development of the flourishing political theatres in Russia, France, Germany, England and America which originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their influence was to be significant for political theatre in Australia.

In Chapter Two the establishment of an Australian indigenous drama is discussed based on the British and American models, but modified and adapted to reflect the different Australian environment. The increasing popularity of the film industry is shown to be mainly responsible for the alienation of the working-class from the popular stage. However, indigenous drama was sustained by amateur theatrical groups which sometimes presented plays reflecting contemporary social problems. Attention has been drama to some of the early political drama with themes centered on unionism and working-class struggle (with an obvious racist bias) as well as reflecting the changing attitudes to women in society.

Chapter Three traces the history of the systematic suppression and censorship of political drama and political theatre in Australia and provides an overview of six amateur theatres in Brisbane which developed during the 1930s depression era. It shows how the repertoires of the three mainstream amateur theatres differed from those of the two political theatres, the WEA Dramatic Society and Student/Unity Theatre which emerged in this period. The WEA Dramatic Society pursued an educational role, promoting both overseas and Australian social and political drama with particular emphasis on peace and women's rights, whilst Student/Unity Theatre produced radical plays concerned with working-class struggles, trade union solidarity and anti-fascist propaganda. In addition, in order to fulfil its role as a workers" theatre, it created an agitprop group to present sketches to workers at union meetings, factories and in the suburbs and promoted cultural activities with its art and film contact groups.

The repertoires of both of these political theatres are reviewed in depth in Chapter 4, whilst examining the historical and social conditions - the great economic depression, the rise of fascism, the threats to peace - delineated in the plays, and these fundamental realities also provided the impetus and background for their productions. Political intervention by the State government to suppress what was regarded as a dangerous, minority view, led to the demise of the WEA Dramatic Society in the 1941. Brisbane Unity/New Theatre also closed its doors during the war years, but reopened in 1947.

In the post-World War II period, evoked in Chapter 5, Unity/New Theatre became part of a national theatre and continued its role as a radical political theatre promoting plays critical of capitalism, colonialism, racism and the insidious effects of conservative, right-wing Australian governmental attacks on left-liberal viewpoints and, in this Cold War period, any plays dealing with the dangers of war. In addition, by producing drama which dealt with Australia's working-class struggles and democratic traditions in an historical context, it furthered a revival of Australian nationalism.

In its concluding chapter six, the thesis discusses the reasons for the final demise of political theatre in Brisbane. Subject to suppression and censorship as well as the systematic marginalisation of its plays and playwrights by the commercial media. New Theatre placed increasing reliance on left-wing trade union and Communist press. Its close association with militant trade unions and left-wing organisations had been a source of strength. However, the Cold War atmosphere which prevailed from the end of the Second World War, the theatre's support for unpopular political issues, and its perceived connection with a Communist Party suffering the opprobrium of the Stalinist legacy, all succeeded in further isolating this radical theatrical movement. With loss of membership and diminishing support, it finally collapsed in 1962.
Keyword Workers' Education Dramatic Society.
New Theatre (Brisbane, Qld.)
Unity Theatre (Brisbane, Qld.)
Theater -- Political aspects.
Theater -- Queensland -- Brisbane -- History.
Additional Notes The author has given permission for this thesis to be made open access.

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