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

The Teachers' Training College Drama Club

The Teachers' Training College Drama Club

It is the Wellington Teachers' Training College Drama Club rather than Victoria's which is remembered for its productions of contemporary, political drama in the 1930s. Between 1937 and 1939 its major productions were Waiting for Lefty (1937), Judgment Day (1938) and The Ascent of F6 (1939). In the following years the sensitivities of wartime dictated a more cautious choice: Fanny's First Play by Shaw, Thunder Rock by Robert Ardrey, Isobel Andrews' The Willing Horse and Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, a musical comedy by Brighouse, and Uncle Harry (Job). The club's producer throughout this period was English lecturer W. J. Scott.

These productions caused something of a sensation among Wellington theatre goers, and alarmed the college authorities. Lefty was given only one performance after members of the Wellington Education Board present in the audience complained to the college principal, apparently over the language in the play.114 The Ascent of F6 did not meet the same fate, despite its strong anti-imperialist message and being performed only months before the outbreak of page 204 war. But it did make an impact because it was intellectually demanding and theatrically radical. The cast included Anton Vogt, and John McCreary as Michael Ransome. One person in the audience who was strongly influenced by the production was the young Bruce Mason, who was to write many years later: 'authentic New Zealand drama began with F6'.115 The Ascent of F6 was not in fact a politically radical play in terms of the left-wing cultural orthodoxy of the time: socialist realism. As Ron Meek pointed out in an article in Spike 'Auden is an "intellectual of the middle classes" and has approached, and still approaches, politics through psychology. He is divorced and isolated from society'.116 But it was difficult, avant-garde and controversial theatre, and as such was a 'radical' play within its context: radical in the same way that the productions of the WEA Dramatic Club were in Auckland. 'It caused a terrific sensation because half of the audience didn't understand it',117 with its thematic mixture of Freud, mysticism and anti-imperialism and the use of a chorus drawing from classical Greek drama—a theatrical device which was quite new to an audience accustomed to the productions of Wellington Repertory Theatre.

Wellington Repertory, formed in 1926, had been the first of the country's repertory societies established and was also the largest. Less adventurous than its Auckland counterpart, it offered in these years a programme of English drawing room dramas and 'West End comedies ad nauseam'118 (with the notable exception of Juno and the Paycock (1937); in the late 40s it managed to introduce a few more interesting choices, including Jacobowsky and the Colonel and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth in 1946, and Love on the Dole in 1948). Repertory gave six major productions each year in the State Opera House, which were reviewed at length in the local papers with 'chatty paragraphs about the costumes worn' and the individual performances of the actors—a mode of reviewing, Ron Meek commented in a letter to the Evening Post in 1946, in which

the amount of praise . . . is too often in inverse proportion to the degree to which the play departs from the stuffy conventions of drawing-room dramas and 'sophisticated' middle-class comedies.119

Repertory performances were as much social as cultural occasions, which meant 'society' events and not social occasions in the sense implied by the term people's theatre. 'To go to a Repertory play one always wore a black tie and the women wore gloves and stoles and fur capes and barked their way up and down the theatre'.120 Partly in reaction to the glamorous, 'high society' nature of Repertory, the Wellington Thespians had been formed in the early 1930s. The Thespians took a more serious approach towards drama, their programme dominated by Shaw and Shakespeare, but effectively occupied the same social and cultural space as Repertory and provided little respite from a generally conservative, light-weight and repetitive dramatic culture.

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These two societies dominated amateur drama in Wellington, and are the context in which the teachers' college productions can be seen as not only politically but culturally radical. With Lefty and The Ascent of F6 W. J. Scott shocked Repertory-trained Wellington audiences just as he shocked many of his students with lectures on D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. To those who were 'children of the World War One generation, brought up on pictures of the King and Queen in the classroom, on patriotism and Anzac Day' and now to discover Wilfred Owen, this teaching was a revelation. His 'readings of Sargeson's short stories, and of poems by Curnow, Glover and Fairburn' by the same token brought 'the revelation that writing could be about one's own country'.121 In the Drama Club's productions of plays like Lefty, Judgment Day and The Ascent of F6 can be seen the same conjunction of political and cultural radicalism that was expressed in the ideal of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society. They were a product of the political climate of the decade, reflecting an interest in 'plays that dramatized the social and political conflicts of the day'.122 But they did not necessarily signify an interest in popular or people's theatre in R.A.K. Mason's conception.

114 W. J. Scott, in P. Macaskill (ed.), Ako Pai. A Special Issue to Celebrate the Centenary of Wellington Teachers College 1880-1980. Wellington: Price Milburn for the Centennial Committee, Wellington Teachers College, 1980, p.59; Ako Pai, 1937, p.56; McCreary interview; P. Macaskill. Interview with author, 7 June 1984

115 B. Mason, in Macaskill (ed.), Ako Pai, p.132

116 R. Meek, 'Auden in the Theatre', Spike, 1941 (v.40, n.69), p.47

117 P. Lowe. Interview with author, 22 June 1984

118 L. Atkinson, 'Wellington and Unity Theatre'. Unpublished article, [nd]

119 Mason, 'Wellington's Unity Theatre', Landfall, 34, June 1955 (v.9, n.2), p.156; Meek, correspondence, 21 May 1946. Unity Theatre Records. Ace 80/1: box 3. Alexander Turnbull Library

120 McCreary interview

121 Lowe interview; T. Easterbrook-Smith, in Macaskill, Ako Pai, p.124

122 Scott, ibid., p.58