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

The Hamilton People's Theatre

The Hamilton People's Theatre

While the Auckland People's Theatre was, perhaps ironically, an early casualty of the anti-fascist struggle which it had been formed to fight, the People's Theatre formed in Hamilton in 1939 was a product of the war. Provincial Waikato seems, as Frank Sargeson pointed out, an unlikely place for a people's theatre. The founder of the Hamilton People's Theatre was in fact a Wellingtonian, Ron Meek, also a member of the management committee of the Progressive Publishing Society. Meek was on his way to England to study at Cambridge in 1939 when the outbreak of war forced him to return, and was manpowered to Hamilton for most of the war. He was chairman of the theatre's committee and producer for its major productions before returning to Wellington in 1944. The Hamilton People's Theatre also counted among its members in this period: Blackwood Paul; A.H. O'Keefe, of the PPS and Progressive Books, who was working at the page 194 Public Trust Office in Hamilton in 1940-2; Arnold T. Smith, president of the Ruawai Left Book Club group; Jim McKenzie, later president of the Hamilton Operatic Society for many years; W. B. Bland, who took over from Meek as principal producer in 1944; Haswell Paine, a teacher, and his wife Lesbia Paine; pacifist and Auckland University College graduate, Hector Munro; and several members of the Communist Party, including Lex and Edna Hayward, and Doris and Harold Smart who were later involved in Unity Theatre in Wellington. Meek himself was also a Party member.

For its major annual productions during the war years the Hamilton People's Theatre offered a succession of Odets and O'Casey plays and the occasional Steinbeck and J. B. Priestley. It gave one full production each year along with a programme of play readings, lectures and study classes. Its first production was Odets' Till the Day I Die, which was performed at the Waikato Winter Show Hall in October and the following month taken on tour to Te Aroha, Cambridge, Morrinsville and Hundy. Proceeds were donated to the Red Cross. Odets' anti-fascist play was followed in 1940 by Golden Boy (the only production for that year). The next year the theatre presented O'Casey's The Star Turns Red, in aid of the Russian Red Cross, and had two entries in the British Drama League festival, winning second place with an American play entided 'We Got Rhythm'. It also 'fostered at least two original plays, written by members'; 'Some Day They'll Pay' by the theatre's president, John Mackie, was described as 'an interesting sidelight on the conflict between capital and labour'.79 Other readings included The Ascent of F6 and a scene from local playwright J.A.S. Coppard's Cartoon. The Irish season continued in 1942 with O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars presented in 'a rather mixed assortment of Irish accents' (with proceeds donated to the Home Guard funds), and Robert's Wife by St John Ervine; lectures were given on Toller, Synge, 'dramatic technique' and 'drama in its relation to society' and a reading of Where's That Bomb? was followed by a discussion of'the general question of working-class drama and its value as an art form'.80 The 1943 major production was The Moon is Down, a stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel about partisans in Norway, which 'with its message of the inevitable victory of the people,' wrote Meek in the Peoples Voice, 'will be eagerly awaited by people throughout the Waikato.'81 Theatre evenings that year included discussions on Eugene O'Neill, black American playwright Paul Green, Ibsen, Chekhov and 'The Elizabethan dramatists'. An eclectic choice of readings included 'According to Plan', an anti-fascist play set on the Russian front; and the Russian play Distant Point; Shaw's Major Barbara and Village Wooing, The Importance of Being Earnest, Julius Caesar and New Zealander Isobel Andrews' The Willing Horse. In 1944 there was a reading of a Maupassant story of the Franco-Prussian war, a 'semi-production' of The Silver Tassie by O'Casey and a full production of J. B. Priestley's They Came to a City in September.

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The Hamilton People's Theatre did not function as an agitprop theatre, as did its Auckland counterpart with its political sketches, more diverse theatrical forms and trade union performances. There appears to have been no formal relationship with the trade union movement in Hamilton, nor are any union officials known to have been involved. Publicly, the Hamilton theatre did not define itself specifically as a working class theatre and dissociated itself from 'any political association'; it was 'concerned solely with the fostering of significant modern drama in the Waikato.'82 Its constitution defined its policy in broad terms as the production of 'drama which is real and sincere in its presentation of life', a phrase adopted from the constitution of the London Unity Theatre.83 Extensive programme notes by Ron Meek emphasised realism as the defining quality of art; but the political orientation of the theatre was implicit in his definition of 'realism' and 'art', as in the choice of plays:

The object of the People's Theatre is to produce and foster drama which is real and sincere in its presentation of life, and we interpret this to mean drama which does not neglect the fundamental issues of today, which is concerned with real people as they are and not as we would like them to be, and which breathes the spirit of humanity.

The theatre is not, as many people imagine, linked with any political ideology; but its members are agreed that a play which is false in its presentation of life is, no matter how brilliant the technique with which it is written, a bad play, a degradation of art. In the world in which we live today many people like to escape, in the theatre or cinema, into a dream world where the unhappiness and annoyances of reality do not exist. The People's Theatre rejects such an attitude and by its constitution is debarred from the production of plays which are mere entertaining diversion.84

The Hamilton People's Theatre survived the peace as well as the war and over the next decade was to become a major force in the development of amateur theatre in that city. But it was not the foundation for the national progressive theatre R.A.K. Mason had looked forward to. There were major changes in the post-war years. Odets and O'Casey were replaced by Shakespeare, Sheridan and Somerset Maugham. The major production for 1945 was Macbeth, and readings were from Wilde, Synge and Saroyan. In 1946 the theatre presented 'Scenes from Shakespeare's Plays', produced by Haswell Paine and Barbara Chisholm, a teacher at the local Diocesan School; The Sacred Flame by Somerset Maugham and Ibsen's The Dolls House. In May 1947 the People's Theatre in cooperation with the local repertory society, the Hamilton Playbox, opened the Hamilton Little Theatre in new premises provided by the city council with a programme of one-act plays including a Noel Coward comedy, 'Fumed Oak', and 'The Tinker's Wedding' by Synge. Productions in the late 1940s and early 1950s page 196 included the Shaw comedies You Never Can Tell and Too True to be Good, Sheridan's The School for Scandal and The Rivals, On Approval by Lonsdale, French without Tears by Rattigan, readings of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire , and four Noel Coward productions. The theatre retained its initial emphasis on production standards and on educating its members in the dramatic arts, as was affirmed in a 1950 programme which considered the history and future development of the organisation:

it has reached the stage where it must decide whether to go on as another dramatic society or become a Theatre Workshop'. . . . a workshop where the art of the Theatre is studied and practised—but seriously, and not, as is only too often the case with our New Zealand amateurs, in the spirit of the dilettante.85

But priorities had shifted. Whereas earlier the theatre had rejected 'plays which are mere diversion', the 1952 programme for Private Lives made

no apology for presenting Noel Coward's 'Private Lives'. The People's Theatre, with this production, have no wish to point a moral, leave you chewing on a message, or experiment with your emotions. Laughter is the best medicine in the world and 'Private Lives' has all the ingredients for such a potion.

It no longer identified itself as part of an international theatre movement, but as belonging within 'the Amateur Theatre Movement'.86

These developments were accompanied by a change in the theatre's membership. Ron Meek left Hamilton in 1944, Blackwood Paul moved to Wellington at about the same time, and Communist Party members no longer appear in cast lists after 1945. Although no membership records have been seen, the lists of players and executive members in the programmes and reviews support members' recollections that it was a quite different group who ran the People's Theatre after the war. Leading roles appear to have been taken by teachers: the president and secretary in 1952, Ken Duncan and Rona Chew, were both staff members of the Hamilton Technical College, and one of its major producers in the second half of the 1940s and the 1950s was teacher Haswell Paine, who was also area tutor for the British Drama League.

The theatre's public profile changed accordingly. Its productions had always been generously reviewed by the Waikato Times theatre critic, but cooperation with the city council and collaboration with the Hamilton Playbox society in 1947 suggests a degree of public acceptance and status unlikely to have been accorded in the earlier years. Even more so does the support of the Mayoress of Hamilton as patroness in the early 1950s. By contrast, the theatre probably achieved its highest profile during the war years with its controversial production of The Pbugh and the Stars in 1942. Both the play and the production received a positive review in the Waikato Times but provoked several outraged letters to the editor, page 197 complaining not so much of the play's political nature (although this did not go unnoticed), as of its 'unnecessary use of profanity', 'exhibition of sordidness, shamelessness and filthy language' and 'lack of womanhood and manhood'. The latter critic continued, 'I can only say if that is how the Irish spend their time, or have done, rule by the British would certainly show them something far better, as did the Romans show us in our barbaric days.' Another objected to 'the disgusting part allotted to one female member of the cast' and complained that 'the British Army was held up to ridicule'. Ron Meek replied that the play contained exactly three popular swear words used a total of seven times, one 'bawdy' song, an occasional invocation to the Deity, and a prostitute; he defended its realism of language and subject matter as continuing in the tradition of 'Aristophanes, Horace, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne, the Old Testament and hundreds of others'.87 But even the Waikato Times critic, reviewing Golden Boy in 1940, worried that through the use of'choice' language 'the objective, realism,... was defeated by the jar on the nerves of the audience, which caused them to lose track for a while of the play.'88 The Palmerston North Left Book Club's 1939 production of Waiting for Lefty had provoked a similar reaction from the more conservative members of the audience. While most participants in this debate, conducted through the correspondence columns of the Manawatu Evening Standard, had attacked the Left Book Club's political agenda, others were alarmed by the language and what they saw as immorality in the play. To some, of course, these were both expressions of a general disintegration of the social fabric. Wrote 'New Zealander':

We New Zealanders profess to be Christians. Our National Anthem is 'God Defend New Zealand'—it was sung at this entertainment on the same programme as 'Workers of the World, Unite'. What are we going to do about the staging of a play that is literally peppered with 'hell's' and 'flaming hell,' and profane expressions containing the name of God?89

It was not only provincial New Zealand audiences who found the work of the new left-wing playwrights a little too realist for their liking. Waiting for Lefty was banned on several occasions in America, ostensibly at least because of its language rather than its political content, and when it was performed by the New Theatre League in Sydney was censored of 'natural words and oaths'.90 Political interference, however, came into play when the Sydney New Theatre produced Till the Day I Die in 1937: the theatre made headlines after the New South Wales government, acting on a complaint from the German consul and advice from the Commonwealth Attorney General, Robert Menzies, attempted to have the performance stopped.91 When this play opened in Auckland the Prime Minister, present on the opening night,

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was interviewed by the editor of the Christchurch periodical Tomorrow, who says that 'in conversation Mr. Fraser made it clear that plays will not be censored, people will be free to read or perform any play; action would be taken by the police only in the case of a play being obscene/92

It was probably on these grounds that moves had apparendy been made either to ban or censor the People's Theatre production of Lefty the previous year.93 Waiting for Lefty had also offended sensibilities when it was performed, in 1937, in Wellington.

79 Hamilton People's Theatre. Programme, The Star Turns Red, [1941]. Ephemera Collection: Theatre, 1940s. Hamilton Public Library; Waikato Times, 23 Aug. 1941, p.11. All Hamilton People's Theatre programmes cited subsequently in these notes are in the Hamilton Public Library collection.

80 Waikato Times, 29 Sept. 1942, p.4; programme, The Plough and the Stars, Sept. 1942; Waikato Times, 30 May 1942, p.4

81 'Anti-Fascist Play for Hamilton', Peoples Voice, 18 July 1943, p.7

82 Waikato Times, 28 Sept. 1940, p.13

83 Programme, The Moon is Down, [1943] (and others)

84 Ibid.; programme, They Came to a City, Sept. 1944

85 Programme, What Say They, Sept. 1950

86 Programme, Private Lives, [1952]

87 Waikato Times, 30 Sept., 9 & 7 Oct. 1942. Newspaper clippings, Hamilton Public Library

88 Waikato Times, 10 Dec. 1940, p.7

89 Manawatu EveningStandard, 4 Dec. 1939, p.6

90 S., 'Auckland Braves Censors who were Waiting for Lefty', Tomorrow, 11 Nov. 1936 (v.3, n.1), p.21

91 Herlinger, 'A new direction for "the New"?', p.100; H. W. Rhodes, 'Writers in Australia', Tomorrow, 17 Mar. 1937 (v.3, n.10), pp.307-8

92 Fairburn, 'No Police Visit. Auckland Production of Anti-Nazi Play', New Zealand Observer, 17 June 1937, p.7

93 'Auckland Braves Censors', p.21