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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

Politics and Art in the 1930s

Politics and Art in the 1930s

The late 30s had seen an upsurge of political activity on the left and heightened political consciousness among writers, intellectuals, professionals and other groups; the appearance of the 'fellow traveller'; and rising Communist Party membership. It also generated a significant left-wing cultural movement, as international political events created an awareness of the relationship between art and politics (or, between the cause of socialism and the fate of culture) and the Popular Front brought professional cultural workers into contact with political and working class organisations. But in terms of the development of cultural form—that is, of integrating aesthetic and political radicalism—the rise of the Popular Front can also be seen as a conservative influence.

The theory and practice of left-wing culture in this period was based upon three central ideas: the principle of political commitment, the aesthetic of page 22 realism, and a concern with the collective or social group rather than the individual. These came together in the form of socialist realism. Documentary in the media of film and photography, the Living Newspaper theatre, and 'reportage' in literature emerged as the characteristic forms of left cultural expression in the 30s.

The adoption of socialist realism as the official cultural policy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1930s brought to an end in that country an extremely fertile period of modernist experimentation in literature, theatre and cinema. A similar analysis can be made of the history of left-wing cultural movements in western countries. In recent studies of left-wing film and theatre in the 1930s, it has been argued that the prevailing realist aesthetic, and the relatively simplistic understanding of the relationship between art and ideology on which this was premised, precluded the development of an alternative, genuinely radical cultural practice. In the workers' film movements in Britain and America in the 20s and 30s there was some experimentation with non-realist cinematic forms, drawing on the montage techniques developed by Russian filmmakers of the 1920s such as Vertov and Eisenstein. These dispensed with conventional narrative structure, and can be compared with Brecht's 'alienation effect' in the theatre in their intention to disrupt temporal and spacial unity and the illusion of naturalism. The New York-based Nykino Group, formed in the mid 30s, produced experimental work of this kind. Within the British documentary film movement, an experimental approach occasionally emerged in the work of Alberto Cavalcanti, Basil Wright and Len Lye. Overall, however, partly because of its analysis of 'bourgeois' cinema as distortion and escapism, and because of its lack of a more sophisticated theory of ideology, left film in the 1930s retained its basis in documentary realism, with its predominant forms remaining the newsreel and simple documentary reportage, arguably at the expense of the development of a radical aesthetic.29

In the left theatre the ascendancy of socialist realism and its conservative implications are more clearly seen. The workers' theatre movements in Britain and America in the late 20s and early 30s, which were influenced by the Russian Proletkult movement of the 1920s and by post-war German expressionism and agitprop theatre, rejected the conventional proscenium arch stage and naturalistic theatre as 'bourgeois' cultural forms. They developed instead a mobile, agitprop theatre, of which sketches, cabaret and revue were the principal forms. These incorporated non-realist techniques from the cinema, and also drew upon working class cultural traditions such as vaudeville and the music hall in Britain and the International Workers of the World or 'Wobbly' culture in America. In the early 1930s 'naturalism versus agitprop' was a hody argued topic of debate within the workers' theatre movement.

In the mid 1930s these workers' theatres, and the period of experimentation page 23 they generated, were superseded by a more broadly based progressive theatre movement, in a development which paralleled the rise of the Popular Front. In Britain a New Theatre League was formed in 1936 to act as a coordinating body for all progressive amateur theatre groups and to enlist the cooperation of professional artists. London's Unity Theatre, which was to be the principal model for left theatre groups in New Zealand in the 1930s and 1940s, was founded in a converted London mission hall later the same year. Unity groups were subsequently formed in provincial centres and by 1939 the theatre had a total affiliated membership of a quarter of a million. Unity Theatre abandoned the cultural purity of the earlier period. Some of its material, such as political pantomime and Living Newspaper, incorporated agitprop elements. Much of Unity's repertoire, however, was naturalistic in form, while the involvement of professional actors and directors brought an emphasis on finished production, reviews in the establishment press, performances in the West End and recognition from the amateur repertory movement, all of which the earlier workers' theatre movement had eschewed as the trappings of bourgeois culture.30

Living Newspaper was in a number of ways the characteristic form of the left theatre of the 1930s. It originated in the Russian Proletkult movement and was being performed by workers' theatre groups in Britain as early as 1926, but became a more prominent part of the repertoire of the Unity Theatre movement. Living Newspaper productions used stylised movement, rapidly juxtaposed images, and newspaper headlines presented by placard or voice-over to dramatise topical events. They were directly political, and in some respects avant-garde, theatre, but also expressed the prevailing documentary realist aesthetic of the 1930s.

In America the left theatre movement followed the same broad pattern.

There too a New Theatre League was formed to coordinate the work of progressive theatres, and the Workers' Theatre magazine was renamed New Theatre and adopted a Popular Frontist policy in late 1934. In New York, the mid 1930s saw increasing collaboration between the Group Theatre, a professional, collective theatre of left-wing politics and social realist aesthetics, and the more political, exclusively agitprop workers' theatre groups. The Group Theatre gained international attention in 1935 with the first production of the classic strike play Waiting for Lefty, written by Clifford Odets and directed by Elia Kazan, both members of the theatre's communist 'cell'. Lefty quickly became an indispensable part of the repertoire of left theatre groups in England, America, Europe, and in Australasia: it was performed several times in New Zealand. In New York it ran for 78 performances on Broadway. It represented 'the most mature outcome of the collaboration of Workers Theatre and professional sympathizers and the most potent result of the fusion of Agit-Prop and social realism.'31 The demise of the agitprop workers' theatre movement in America page 24 was partly the result too of the establishment in 1935 of the government-Rinded Federal Theatre Project, one of a number of New Deal cultural projects set up by the Works Project Administration, which absorbed many of the actors who had been members of the workers' theatre groups. The purpose of the Federal Theatre Project was both to provide work for unemployed actors, and to foster a 'progressive people's theatre'.32

It was in the theatre that the international left cultural movement of the 1930s had its greatest influence in New Zealand. Much of the material of the British and American left theatre was unpublished sketches and one-act plays, but these were made available to groups in New Zealand and Australia through mail-order playscript services. Although American drama dominated the repertoire of the left theatre in New Zealand, it was London's Unity Theatre which provided the most direct model in terms of the groups' organisation and ethos, and in giving the name of Wellington's Unity Theatre. Unity also had a more direct influence in New Zealand: several former members of the London theatre were involved in left-wing theatre groups here. By contrast, the American left theatre appears to have provided a more direct model in Australia, as it did for the Sydney New Theatre League. Jean Devanny had been a founding member of this group which began life as the drama section of the Communist Party-based Workers' Art Club in 1932. It changed its name from the Workers' Art Theatre to the New Theatre League in 1936, following the American example, and broadened its performances beyond the monotonously politically-correct agitprop material which (despite Devanny's intentions) had dominated its repertoire.33 Despite their different influences, however, the Sydney New Theatre and Wellington's Unity Theatre were to develop along the same lines in the post-Popular Front and post-war years, as they responded to the changing political climate.

In literature, the term 'reportage' loosely defined a genre which ranged from documentary journalism, of which probably the best-known example is George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) to the more conventionally-styled realist novel. 'Authenticity' was the essential criterion by which left-wing literature was critically assessed. 'Field work', exemplified by Orwell's pilgrimage to Wigan, enabled the writer to reflect society accurately (according to the theory), and brought him or her into direct contact with 'the people'. Novels such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Grey Granite (1935) and Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole (1933) (the film version of which was banned briefly in New Zealand in 194334 ) attempted, with varying degrees of success, to combine aesthetic form, as defined by the conventions of the traditional novel, with the political imperative to provide both a realistic portrayal of urban, industrial life and a suitably inspiring socialist message. It was a task fraught with difficulty, and as the 'proletarian' novels of the 30s on the whole demonstrate, one which was doomed to failure.35

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Socialist realism demanded that literature give a faithful portrayal of an objective reality and that it simultaneously provide a predetermined political message. It contains, in fact, a central theoretical problem in that it is based on a reflectionist model of cultural production while at the same time implying that art, and of course the artist, have an active role to play in the political struggle and in the course of history. In an article in Tomorrow on 'Documentary and Reportage', Winston Rhodes described documentary film as 'films which deal with current social struggle, events, scenes, and people, photographed without distortion', and reportage as 'that branch of journalism which also deals with current social struggle, events, scenes, and people, carefully investigated and faithfully recorded and documented'.36 But he also defined for documentary art an effective, and not just reflective, role: documentary art 'has justification, in truthfully depicting modern economic relationships, in rendering audiences conscious of their interests, of their economic claims, aware of their remedy'.37 The theoretical confusion of left-wing cultural theory in the 1930s is apparent here in Rhodes' understanding of the role of the documentary artist as one of 'faithfully recording' and 'photographing without distortion', while at the same time involving 'the selection and arrangement of material'.38

This was not just a theoretical problem. In the left cultural movement of the 1930s, the nature of political commitment on the part of the left-wing artist or writer, and the relationship between the politically-committed artist and 'the people', who are perceived as both the source and recipient of true culture, were problems of a very practical nature, as we shall see. The essential problem was the role of an intellectual avant-garde in the creation of a socialist or popular culture.

29 See R.A. Armes, A Critical History of British Cinema. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1978, ch.8, pp.127-41; S. Hood, 'John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement', and T. Ryan, "The New Road to Progress": The Use and Production of Films by the Labour Movement, 1929-39', in J. Curranand V. Porter (eds.), British Cinema History. London: WeidenfeldandNicolson, 1983, pp.99-128; R. Bond, 'Cinema in the Thirties: Documentary Film and the Labour Movement', and B. Hogenkamp, '"Making Films with a Purpose": Film-making and the Working Class', in Clark et al, Culture and Crisis, pp.241-69; R. Campbell, Cinema Strikes Back. Radical Filmmaking in the United States, 1930-1942. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1982

30 See R. Samuel, 'Theatre and socialism in Britain (1880-1935)', in R. Samuel et al (eds.), Theatres of the Left 1880-1935. Workers' Theatre Movements in Britain and America. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, pp.3-73; A. van Gyseghem, 'British Theatre in the Thirties: An Autobiographical Record', and Clark, 'Agitprop and Unity Theatre: Socialist Theatre in the Thirties', in Clark et al, Culture and Crisis, pp.209-239

31 S. Cosgrove, 'From Shock Troupe to Group Theatre', in Samuel et al, Theatres of the Left, p.264

32 Ibid., p.269. See also H. Flanagan, Arena. A History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965 [1940]

33 P. Herlinger, 'A new direction for "the New"?', Australasian Drama Studies, 8, Apr. 1986, pp.97-H2; Devanny, Point of Departure, pp. 151,160-4

34 G. H. Mirams, Speaking Candidly. Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade, 1945, pp.83-6

35 See S. Laing, 'Presenting "Things as They Are": John Somerfield's May Day and Mass Observation', in Gloversmith, Class Culture and Social Change, pp.142-60; C. Snee, 'Working-Class Literature or Proletarian Writing?', in Clark et al, Culture and Crisis, pp.165-91

36 Rhodes, 'Documentary and Reportage', Tomorrow, 23 Oct. 1935 (v.i, n.52), p.18

37 'From Jaegars to Films', ibid., 30 Jan. 1935 (v.i, n.28), p.n

38 'Documentary and Reportage', p.18