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

Unity Theatre

Unity Theatre

It was on the latter model that Wellington's Unity Theatre was formed in the early 1940s, as an agitprop, anti-fascist theatre intent on taking its message to the people. It was as a successor to the teachers' college Drama Club, however, and a reaction against the cultural deprivation represented by Wellington Repertory, that Unity was to develop in the post-war years.

Unity Theatre had its origins in two dramatic performances in 1940. The organiser of these events was Henry Martin, a fitter and turner by trade and Communist Party member who had worked with Ron Meek in the Hamilton People's Theatre in 1939. The first was a 'Pageant', similar in style to a Living Newspaper, which was written 'by various people' and performed in the Oddfellows' (later the Savage Club) Hall in Kent Terrace. Its theme was class struggle and fascism. A series of voices representing the various peoples of the world—of New Zealand, Great Britain, Europe, Spain and the Occupied Countries—presented a people's history 'spoken over a loudspeaker with a spotlight focused on the person representing the particular country'. The style was declamatory:

I am New Zealand
I am hills and rivers. I am butterfat and wool, . . . anthracite, gum, flax. ... I am a watersider. . . . a shearer . . . bank clerk . . . trammie . . .
A hundred years ago workers left the bitter old world to find a place where page 206 they could free themselves from oppression. Chartists . . . workers . . . But they brought oppression with them.
. . .
I am the people of Europe. . .
I carry no national flag, for these flags lie buried in the mud trampled by the feet of Hitler's armies and degraded by the treachery of the Quislings and fifth columnists.

This continued for 13 pages, concluding (after Waiting for Lefty) with a rousing call for unity in the present, final struggle: 'In the world's darkest hour I call for unity—unity! unity!'123 The second effort was a one-act play entitled The Reichstag Fire Trial', written by Alun Falconer (who was later to become a film producer in England). This original production appears not to have proceeded beyond rehearsals but the play was later performed as a reading at the Communist Party's Unity Centre. As the above excerpt might indicate, neither of these productions attained great heights of dramatic, or popular, success. But they were indicative of the direction of Unity in its first years.

In April 1942 Henry Martin placed the following advertisement in In Print: 'Will all those interested in forming a dramatic group to produce Dramatic and Anti-Fascist plays please communicate with people's theatre . . . Wellington'.124 The group which was subsequently formed was initially known as the 'Theatrical Group of the SCR' and until 1944 it shared rooms (leased from the RSA) and finances with the Society for Closer Relations with Russia. It was renamed the Unity Theatre Group in mid 1942 and held its first annual general meeting on 28 February 1943. The constitution adopted at this meeting, like that of the Hamilton People's Theatre, took from the original Unity Theatre its policy of'the study and practice of the art of drama which is real and sincere in its presentation of life'.125 It established a democratic structure and cooperative working methods, with a democratically-elected committee and formal procedures for the selection and casting of plays. The annual subscription was set at 7/6, considerably higher than the 1/- or 2/6 subscription of the Auckland People's Theatre. 'Passive membership', for 10/6, entided one to preferential bookings but not voting rights. There was no provision for affiliated membership by organisations. The group's cooperative ethos was also expressed in the discussion session which followed each performance. These sessions were intended to maintain the accountability of the producer and executive to the theatre's membership and audience, and political and dramatic standards.

Unity's chief producer and source of energy from 1942 until 1949 was Robert Stead. A carpenter and a member of the Communist Party, Stead had worked with the London Unity Theatre before coming to New Zealand in 1939. He was 'a dedicated Marxist and he strode around, with his slight and permanent limp, emitting torrents of eloquence carrying as it were, "Das Kapital" in one hand

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Robert Stead (Alexander Turnbull Library)

Robert Stead (Alexander Turnbull Library)

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and Stanislavski's "An Actor Prepares", in the other.' These words are from an obituary by Bruce Mason, who also described Stead as 'a quiet, courteous and quirkish man, with a marvellous ear for accent and nuance, capable of wicked impersonation.'126 When he left New Zealand at the end of the 1940s Stead trained as a producer at the Old Vic Theatre and later made a successful career as a television director in England.

Unity was not formally a Communist Party organisation but until about 1946 it was a 'Party concern', and along with Stead several of its founding members were also Party members. Its first president was Hein Jorgensen, a German political refugee. The secretary-organiser was Henry Martin. The remaining members of the first committee were Rona Meek (later Bailey), who was a public servant, Bili Martin (whose husband was Doug Martin, former pacifist and now a Party member), Pearl Wood, Doug Evans and Cazna Gawith, all Party members. Others prominent in the early years were George and Vivian Hoerr, a carpenter and a journalist respectively, who had arrived in New Zealand with Stead in 1939 but came originally from Germany; Chip Bailey, Party member and variously a taxi-driver and piano repairer; Allan Bagley, a seaman and Party member; Tahu Shankland, who was also involved briefly with the Progressive Publishing Society, and his wife Dulcie Shankland. Of the committee for 1943-4 all but one or two were Party members. In 1945 the president was Henry Martin and the secretary Rona Meek; the committee consisted of Bob Stead, Vivian Hoerr, Tahu Shankland, and Lee Garvey and Nan Cadman, both clerical workers.127

Unity Theatre was formed at the time of the German invasion of Russia and the total commitment of the Communist Party to the war effort, and its activities reflected this political background. While the SCR was busy screening Russian war films depicting the successes of the Red Army, Unity Theatre's earliest productions were mostly short, agitprop plays with an anti-fascist message. Their first effort, an anti-Nazi play entitled 'Blood of the Martyrs', was abandoned while still in rehearsal 'on the grounds that it offended all the rules of good theatre.'128 They had more success with their second choice: 'According to Plan' by Geoffrey Parsons, a one-act play 'which shows members of a German panzer division stranded in an empty barn on the Smolensk front. One lieutenant and a corporal finally revolt against Hitlerism and go over to the Russians.'129 This was performed on several occasions, including a social evening of the Hutt Valley branch of the Communist Party, a rally at Trades Hall, and a Communist Party concert on 7 October 1942. The programme for this concert included Where's That Bomb?, Russian folk dance, and American and Russian folk songs performed by the Unity Theatre Choir led by Tom Wood; the audience were requested to 'join with them and sing as a tribute to our Russian allies the Internationale'.130 Folk dancing featured at a number of Unity's page 209 early performances. Like the Auckland New Theatre Group, Unity showed an interest in folk culture which reflected the populist ethos of the left-wing cultural movement of the 30s.

'According to Plan' was also performed as one of 'Three Playettes' at the RSA hall in Vivian Street in December that year, along with 'Erna Kremer', 'a fragment of life inside Nazi Germany', and 'Royal Inn', 'a study in social morality'.131 Happily, after the official establishment of Unity Theatre in February 1943, and as the anti-fascist fervour aroused by the victory at Stalingrad abated, the group's repertoire broadened. The first major production was John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, which was performed at the teachers' college hall to favourable reviews in March 1944. Other productions and readings in the years 1943-5 included: the inevitable Waiting for Lefty, and Odets' Awake and Sing!; O'Neill's The Hairy Ape, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour and Watch on the Rhine, The Ascent of F6; Love on the Dole, Chekhov's 'The Artist'; J. B. Priestley's They Came to a City as the second major production in November-December 1944; and Jacobowsky and the Colonel byWerfel as the major production for 1945. A programme of lectures illustrated with readings covered such topics as 'The international theatre of protest' (given by W. J. Scott), 'The American theatre and drama' (Rona Meek), 'Mime and satire as a weapon of the theatre' (Elsie Lloyd), 'Unity Theatre, London' (Robert Stead), 'Ibsen' (Ron Meek), 'J. M. Synge, the famous Irish playwright' (Blackwood Paul) and 'Hollywood and the status quo' (Gordon Mirams). In 1943 Unity entered the Wellington regional British Drama League festival with 'According to Plan' and 'The Red Velvet Coat', a Mexican folk play, and the following year won second place with a Russian play entitled 'The Cave'.

Like the people's theatres Unity placed an important emphasis on training. It intended 'to develop its own producers, script writers and technicians, as well as actors' and emphasised that 'the people in the group are made up of enthusiasts interested in the serious study of all aspects of drama.'132 As well as its regular lectures it held 'two week-end schools covering dramatic technique and production. One-act plays have been used as a training medium for members.'133 Theatre was a serious business. Appended to the constitution was an 11-point schedule of 'By Laws or Rules' which included the injunction that:

No member shall bring wine, spirits or any alcoholic beverages to the place of meeting, rehearsal or production of the Theatre, nor shall it be deemed sufficient to say that such a meeting, rehearsal or production is at an end.134

At first Unity's regular Sunday evening readings and lectures were held at the SCR rooms in Lambton Quay, but by late 1944 the group was well enough established to lease its own premises in Cuba Street, which it shared with and later leased from the Tua Toru Lodge of the Royal Ancient Order of Buffaloes.

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Of Mice and Men cast, March 1944, with: (back row, fourth from left) Francois de Maunay, Pearl Wood, Tahu Shankland, Robert Stead, Rona Meek (Bailey), Dulcie Shankland; (middle, right) Ian McClymont; (front) Don McClymont, Dennis Hartley, Harold Smart, Letty Black (McClymont), Allan Bagley, Henry Martin (Ian McClymont)

Of Mice and Men cast, March 1944, with: (back row, fourth from left) Francois de Maunay, Pearl Wood, Tahu Shankland, Robert Stead, Rona Meek (Bailey), Dulcie Shankland; (middle, right) Ian McClymont; (front) Don McClymont, Dennis Hartley, Harold Smart, Letty Black (McClymont), Allan Bagley, Henry Martin (Ian McClymont)

Relations between the two groups were not entirely cordial, however, and Unity was forced to leave the building in 1949. After another year, during which its productions were put together in various garages and warehouses around the city, it purchased an old house in the suburb of Newtown.

The People's Voice, reviewing Of Mice and Men in March 1944, welcomed Unity as

the only working class theatre movement that has become established in Wellington in recent years. The objects of the group, in addition to presenting realistic drama to its own members and the public, are to produce plays for organisation within the labour movement.135

Unity Theatre did not establish any formal association with the trade union movement. But, like the Auckland People's Theatre, it was inspired by the purpose of taking the theatre and its political message to the people. Several attempts were made to pursue this goal. 'According to Plan' was performed before a trade union audience in October 1942. In 1944 performances were put on for the Army, Navy and Airforce Social Club and the national conference of the Communist Party. In June 1945 'All Aboard', an American anti-racist play, page 211 was taken out to the public works camp at Naenae. The theatre advertised that it had 'available a number of one-act plays for presentation to organisations which may require them.'136

That these were the only such attempts was due in part to practical considerations. Simply, 'it was found to be much more difficult than we had thought.'137 It was wartime, and money, time and energy were all in short supply. Henry Martin recalled after readings having to 'lock the door and not let anyone out till they put more in the plate.'138 Nor did the group's performances meet with a particularly encouraging response. One member recalls of'All Aboard': 'They had closed the bar and all [the audience] were waiting for was for the play to be over so they could get to the bar again. . . . They weren't exactly shouting for joy to have culture brought from the big city.'139 At the ANA Club there were fewer people in the audience than there were on the stage. It was the combination of lack of funds and the less than enthusiastic response that almost led to the theatre's collapse at the end of 1945, when a motion was put to a special general meeting that:

In view of the lack of interest in the Theatre and the consequent deplorable financial situation in which the Theatre finds itself, the Committee recommends that the meeting should consider a dissolution of the Theatre.140

But it was revived, largely through the efforts of the Communist Party and in particular the full-time involvement of Ray Nunes, the Party's Wellington branch secretary and later Modern Books' manager, as president. John McCreary also assisted full-time with reorganising the theatre and Ron Meek assisted with programme planning for the first half of the year. The membership subscription was raised to £1.

When Henry Martin had discussed with Ron Meek his plans to form a people's theatre in Wellington Meek had replied:

The first question you have to do is decide how far it is going to be a people's theatre. It is a stark and unfortunate fact that the working class as a whole, speaking generally, is not interested in drama, at least it has been our experience here.141

Evidently this was also Unity's experience in Wellington. Despite its close connection with the Communist Party in these years, and about a third of its active membership at this time being in working class occupations, it did not attract significant working class support. Unity was essentially a product of the intellectual wing of the Communist Party, and would more accurately be described as a small group of radical intellectuals than a working class theatre. Its membership in 1943 probably numbered about 30, and by 1945, 100. The active core of members was much smaller. Martin later reflected on Unity's first two years:

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At this stage of the theatre's development it was a pretty heart-breaking affair for those who were trying to create it, it being up-hill all the way with nobody caring or wanting to know about our aims and our ideals: we were wiped off as being half-nutty left-wing intellectuals.142

Much of the informal discussion in and around Unity Theatre took place in the French Maid Coffee Bar, run by Dick Singleton, near the corner of Willis Street and Lambton Quay. The French Maid was an important venue for discussion of art and politics among Wellington's intellectual left in these years, 'a kind of mecca for the left and the arty', and is remembered as being more 'arty' than political.143 It made its mark on the cultural scene by exhibiting work by New Zealand artists, introducing the novel concept of a restaurant as exhibition space. Its exhibitions included works by Colin McCahon in 1944, and a display of propaganda posters from the American War Propaganda Department (courtesy of the Military Attache), It attracted 'a real circle of left, arts people, painters and such like drifting in and out'.144

Who comprised Unity's audience at this stage is more difficult to say. They were not public works employees, at least. In the recollection of members 'we were mainly catering to the intellectuals'. Casts for fortnightly readings were
French Maid Coffee Bar, Lambton Quay (Wellington) 1940-52 (A.D. Singleton Collection, Alexander Turnbull Collection)

French Maid Coffee Bar, Lambton Quay (Wellington) 1940-52 (A.D. Singleton Collection, Alexander Turnbull Collection)

page 213 rounded up from 'the circle of left-wing contacts'; audiences for its studio productions probably drew from the same social group, with 'a nucleus of first-nighters ready to applaud and approve of anything, no matter how badly it was performed.'145

It is notable that, although it was conceived as an agitprop theatre and hoped to attract 'people who can write short, topical satires',146 the early Unity did not produce any original material. The group produced one play in 1944 which was specially written for them: 'Sur le Pont', a one-act play by Oriel Gray. A member of the Sydney New Theatre League, Oriel Gray, with her husband John Gray, toured New Zealand that year with the J. C. Williamson entertainment company, and assisted Unity with two productions. 'Sur le Pont' was 'an anti-Fascist piece' set 'in the wardrobe room of a provincial theatre near Paris' and concerned 'the clash of collaborationists with underground workers in a vaudeville troupe'. A member of the cast later commented, 'it was so corny I think the whole propaganda point was lost'.147 However, the production was successful enough to be revived for the BDL festival the following year. Ron Meek for one was not optimistic about the prospect of fostering New Zealand drama, however. He wrote to Henry Martin:

The type of drama you put on would depend, of course, on the nature of your organisation. O'Casey and Odets are good for any audience and would be good starting points. There are numerous plays put out by the Left Book Club which are of a more obvious nature and devoid of any merit, but which might be effective. You could also try to foster N.Z. drama, though most of it is poor stuff; and some of your members might have play-writing tendencies which could also be fostered.148

Perhaps Unity simply lacked a writer of the capability and commitment of R.A.K. Mason. And Mason's own material for the People's Theatre was inappropriate now; its subjects—Spain, China, social security, the anti-war message of 'Skull on Silence'—were hardly relevant to the changed political circumstances. As a review in Mason's In Print of the two anti-fascist plays 'Erna Kremer' and 'According to Plan' observed:

Even in peace-time it was a job for a people's theatre. To-day it's even harder. Many of the classics of these theatres—'Bury the Dead' or 'Where's That Bomb?' are now utterly unsuitable; their theme puts them right out of court now that the main interest of the people is to press forward the war and war-production.149

Nor was this a time which encouraged a focus on New Zealand issues (the recently-celebrated centennial notwithstanding). Like Mason's 'Refugee', Martin's 'Pageant', in so far as it dealt with New Zealand history, placed it page 214 within an international class context and the overriding theme of the immediate anti-fascist struggle.

Over the second half of the 1940s Unity underwent a change in its membership, repertoire and public image similar in kind to that experienced by the Hamilton People's Theatre, if not so dramatic. The constitutional statement 'real and sincere in its presentation of life' was described by Meek in a 1946 programme as 'the red thread which runs through Unity productions'.'150 But as the Hamilton People's Theatre had acknowledged, 'Within the scope of this definition much can be contained from Euripides to Odets.'151 By the end of the 1940s it had taken a somewhat lighter hue. The criterion of political commitment had become 'social sig', a phrase

sufficiently precise to exclude a large number of pot-boiling successes, and vague enough to admit plays of established worth which might, on technical grounds, elude the Marxist canon.152

This development meant not an abandonment of the strongly left-wing plays of the early years, as occurred in Hamilton, but a broadening of the Unity corpus. O'Casey, Odets and Soviet drama still figured but so did T. S. Eliot, Terrence Rattigan and Thornton Wilder. The major production for 1946 was O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock, produced by Ron Meek, which was followed the next year by The Plough and the Stars and O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings. In 1948 there was KingLear and The Male Animal by Thurber and Nugent, Unity's first comedy. In 1949 the major productions were Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a depiction of small-town life in America, The Moon in the Yellow River by Denis Johnston, and Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. Readings and studio productions in these years included Sweeney Toddthe Demon Barber of Fleet Street (a melodrama), Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, T.S. Eliot's The Family Reunion, several Shaw and Chekhov works, Julius Caesar and Richard II, along with Odets' Awake and Sing!, The Russians (Simonov) and Distant Point. It was developing a repertoire which Bruce Mason would later characterise as 'in the minor Ibsen mode'.153

At the annual general meeting in 1948 there was a discussion of policy which made explicit the reordering of priorities which underlay this broadening of Unity's repertoire:

It was pointed out that our society, like Unity Theatre, London, originally presented propaganda plays; but as there were not enough of these with dramatic merit, the policy was widened to include plays which were intrinsically good and not sufficiently seen. It was pointed out that really good plays usually have social content, and that it was hoped to extend our audiences by good performances of good plays.154

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The shift in priorities was accompanied by a concern to dissociate the theatre from its Communist Party origins and to establish a reputation as 'a drama group (rather than a political outgrowth of any description)'.155 From the outset Unity had encountered difficulties with advertising and in persuading the press to review its productions. The unwillingness of shopkeepers to display Unity playbills prompted more inventive means of publicity: Bruce Mason recalled 'tottering into a crammed Royal Oak bar, in full Irish rebel uniform, carrying a banner inciting the citizenry to revolt against the oppressive Britain of 1922.'156 Wellington's daily papers reviewed Unity productions only sporadically. This was hardly surprising, for, as Mason commented, 'what could they say of the characters in say, Gorki's Lower Depths? O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock . . . "As Juno Boyle, Miss. . . wore a seedy black skirt with a grubby white blouse. A dirty knitted shawl completed her costume.'"157 As had occurred in other centres Unity's plays also aroused the moral as well as aesthetic sensitivities of its reviewers. Of New Life, produced in 1946, the Evening Post observed:

the author has overlooked the primary aim of the theatre which should be to entertain the playgoer through his sense of the aesthetic. . . . There is no doubt about the realism with which the play is presented, but when one of the scenes takes place in the delivery room of a maternity hospital, the realism is overdone.158

The Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand concurred: 'the scene in the delivery theatre was so grimly realistic as to be positively discouraging to the young women in the audience.'159 Perhaps the audience agreed, for the last two nights were abandoned 'as the production was not doing well'.160 In 1952 both the Evening Post and Dominion refused to accept advertisements for Jean-Paul Sartre's The Respectable Prostitute—even in the original French.

The press's neglect of Unity prompted Meek to complain to the Evening Post in 1946 that

It is not right that a dramatic society such as Unity Theatre, which since its inception has staged several of the greatest plays of our epoch, . . . should receive such treatment from a responsible daily newspaper.

This letter was not printed, and the Post's editor, in a private reply, while assuring Meek that Unity would be 'given consideration equal with that of cultural and entertainment societies of similar status' offered the opinion that the production in question (Juno and the Paycock) 'cannot accurately be termed an "important event in the cultural life of Wellington".'161 Sensitivity of a different kind, however, was aroused when in 1947 it was found that shopkeepers were still refusing to display advertisements, and when a letter from the Prime Minister, refusing Unity a part in forthcoming discussions on proposals for a page 216 National Theatre, was addressed to the Communist Party's Unity Centre. Another letter was received asking 'if one had to be a communist to join'.'162 In the programme for Our Town (March 1949) it was observed that while many of the theatre's early problems—small membership, lack of resources and mistaken public perceptions—had largely been overcome, still 'the political bogey is hard to lay'.163 At a special general meeting in August that year a motion proposing that the theatre's name be changed was defeated. The outcome of the discussion was the following disclaimer published (this time) in the Evening Post, a statement which succinctly demonstrates the theatre's evolution over this period:

Unity Theatre has been aware for some time of a prejudice in the minds of many of the public who mistakenly connect it with a political organisation. As this misunderstanding hampers our development as a dramatic group we would be most grateful if you would help us to dispel the prejudice by publishing the following facts. Unity Theatre is not a political body, nor has it any political affiliations. It is simply an amateur dramatic group. It is our aim to be a progressive theatre; to produce plays that are real and sincere in their presentation of life, plays that may often be provocative but that all have real dramatic value . . .At a meeting held on August 31 to discuss a change of name, our members showed a natural dislike to taking any rash steps to abandon a name which . . . it has taken us some seven years to establish in dramatic circles in Wellington.164

The evolution of Unity from a political agitprop theatre into one interested in all kinds of good, contemporary, 'socially significant' drama was in a number of respects a product of the changing political climate of the post-war years. From the mid 1940s it became increasingly difficult to find good, appropriate political plays. And in the developing Cold War atmosphere of the later 1940s audiences were becoming less receptive to left-wing material.

There was a corresponding change in the membership of the theatre, which was itself now less interested in political theatre. Having been partly responsible for averting its imminent collapse at the end of 1945, the Communist Party retained its interest in Unity through the following year. Towards the end of 1946, however,

the Party decided that there were too many of its people working in Unity Theatre and that other work was being neglected, and so a number of us were withdrawn, told that we shouldn't work there any more.165

Ray Nunes had resigned as president in August 1946 (having been appointed manager of Modern Books) and was replaced until March 1947 by Nola Millar. The remainder of the committee for that year were Robert Stead, John page 217 McCreary, Ian Nairn, an airforce trainee and 'fellow traveller', Kathleen Ross, social worker and playwright, Geraldine Kean, a librarian, and Catherine Crosse, a university student. The latter three were to remain involved into the 1950s. In 1947 Stead was elected president, with Nola Millar re-elected the following year. Millar went on to form her own theatre group and school in Wellington in the 1950s, was first manager of the New Zealand Players and a member of the New Zealand Drama Council. Committee members of Unity Theatre in the years 1947-50 were: Stead; McCreary; Ross; Don McClymont, a founding member who was later involved in repertory theatre in Canada; Nat Beatus, later co-founder of Stagecraft Theatre in Wellington; Richard Campion, who co-founded the New Zealand Players in 1952; Michael Turnbull; June Delahunty, a librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library, and Jim Delahunty, a public servant and trade unionist; Beatrice Ashton, actor and producer; and Bruce Mason, Unity's president in 1949 and 1950. These were predominantly people whose interest was theatre, not politics.

In addition to the Communist Party's official withdrawal the departure overseas after the war of a number of its founding members depleted the ranks of Unity's more politically-oriented membership: Henry Martin left New Zealand at the beginning of 1946; Rona and Ron Meek in 1947; Bob Stead, as touring manager with Ngaio Marsh's Canterbury University College Shakespeare production which toured Australia in 1949. (Stead was to return to New Zealand briefly in 1951 as touring manager with Marsh's Commonwealth Theatre Company, and in 1953 with the Stratford Theatre Company. Ron Meek subsequently became a Professor of Economics at Leicester University. Henry Martin became the owner of an engineering works in England.)

The composition of the committee reflected a parallel change in the overall membership of the theatre. From about 1945 there was 'an influx of Training College and university members, plus what is thought to be almost the entire staff of the Turnbull Library'.166 An analysis of available membership lists shows a significantly greater proportion of professionals, civil servants, teachers and students joining the theatre from about 1944 than amongst the original, albeit smaller, group of members, and a correspondingly smaller percentage of blue collar workers. To some extent this was a reflection of the expansion of the student and graduate population in the post-war years. It also reflected a continuing interest in serious drama. A large number of Extrav participants and university and teachers' college drama club members went on to become members of Unity Theatre in the mid to late 1940s. It was the drama rather than the politics that was the sustaining interest. The political commitment and idealism of the late 1930s and the war years, which had found expression in plays such as Waiting for Lefty and The Ascent of F6, had waned; the interest in drama found an oudet in Unity.

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In one significant respect the membership of Unity remained constant: the prominent involvement of European immigrants, a number of whom were also shareholders in the Wellington Co-operative Book Society. A member of the theatre later reflected on its cosmopolitan character:

A symbiosis between the comparatively wealthy but culturally-starved immigrants and the impecunious yet Vitally alive and questioning' Unity members developed; in the generally bourgeois attitude ofWellington towards newcomers during and after the war, 'to be accepted without having to conform' as one new arrival put it was indeed a life-line.'167

In the 1930s some 1000 European political refugees came to New Zealand in search of a haven from fascism and anti-Semitism.168 Comparatively, this number did not signify great generosity on the part of the New Zealand government (nor did the treatment of refugees of German nationality as 'enemy aliens' during the war enhance New Zealand's reputation for tolerance). But though their number was relatively small, they were to have a lasting influence on New Zealand society and cultural life. Many were from comparatively wealthy, professional or middle class backgrounds, and among the many aspects of New Zealand life to which they found it difficult to adjust was the country's cultural isolation. Consequendy, the involvement of European immigrants was a prominent feature of what cultural life of this kind there was in the capital, as it also was in Auckland. Greville Texidor, who was herself an exile, having been forced to leave England with her German husband after the war broke out, wrote of the attraction between the New Zealand liberal-left intelligentsia and the European immigrant community in her unfinished novel, 'Goodbye Forever', which described the experience of an Austrian Jewish refugee in Auckland in the 1940s. Texidor wrote from her own experience—her narrator is clearly based on Frank Sargeson—and evoked with sardonic humour the slightly Bohemian life-style of the North Shore-based intellectual community. Its members included Sargeson, A.R.D. Fairburn, Ian Hamilton, fellow expatriate Anna Kavan, the German refugee and poet Karl Wolfskehl, artist Eric Lee-Johnson and R.A.K. Mason. Arthur Sewell, Willis Airey and Dick Anschutz, Auckland's left-wing academics, were regular visitors to the Shore. Some of these people are identifiable in the following passage:

On Saturday everyone was at Ursula's. When I say everyone I mean of course the intelligentsia. . . . Professor Salmonson with half a dozen bottles of beer, John Priest, who had written some very good poetry once and was reckoned a brilliant conversationalist, the refugee doctor Lowenthal with his case of classical records, the painter Peake with his beard, and Fred, and sometimes a reporter from the Star, and varying numbers of Varsity students who give one to understand that they write poetry. . . . On a night like this, black and the page 219 wind raging, you could forget Mrs Jeffries, on the left, who once in a while brought you a home-baked cake, and Mrs Salter, who reported you to the Council for not cutting the hedge, only a stone's throw away on the right. On these nights of hurricane, the little set of friends seemed very small, in the snug little suburb which might blow away into the sea, and no one would ever miss it. No one would ever miss the intellectuals.169

In Wellington Unity Theatre was a focus for this mutual attraction based on a shared experience of social alienation and cultural deprivation.

In the second half of the 1940s Unity thus came to attract an audience for good, contemporary, progressive drama. It drew an educated, politically aware membership and audience for whom Wellington in the 1940s was a cultural desert, as deprived of good theatre as it had been of good books in the 1930s. It developed beyond its agitprop, anti-fascist origins in response to this barren cultural climate, and in particular as a reaction against the culture of Wellington Repertory. Unity retained its insistence on the primacy of the dramatic text rather than on the opulence of the stage set and finery of the costumes, and on the play's significance rather than potential box-office return. It retained its emphasis on realism in theme and production, on the quality of staging and performance and on the training of its members in theatre skills. These from the outset had been its fundamental principles. But the shift from political to cultural emphasis entailed a greater concern with finished production standards, and a different conception of the function and legitimate form of theatre. George Eiby, Unity's chief stage manager from the late 1940s, was later to comment:

The founders of Unity had an urge to take Theatre to the Masses. Plays had been done in temples and in barns, in innyards, and on waggons on street corners. Why not do them in factories? For the simple reason that it doesn't work. . . . The only plays written to be performed in iron foundries or hash foundries aren't worth doing anywhere. The proper place to act plays is in a playhouse.170

Corresponding changes occurred in the working of the theatre. Post-production discussions and general meetings focused on political questions less often. A member recalls of the 1950s:

People might get up at odd times and put forward a motion condemning something or praising something else but it was never passed. . . . People felt that this was a purely political issue and we're a theatre group, the attitude of Russia to Poland or whether it invades Hungary is nothing to do with us.171

From 1946 major productions were put on in the Town Hall Concert Chamber and readings and studio productions at the theatre's own premises. It no longer page 220 performed at Unity Centre, the SCR rooms or Trades Hall. Like the Auckland People's Theatre, Unity had initially adopted the democratic principle of cast anonymity practised by the London Unity Theatre, but this was abandoned by both groups after only a few years. Of course, the practical constraints of a small membership and budget had some influence on theatre policy. As early as May 1946 the selection committee decided that the next major production 'should be preferably modern, with box-office appeal, reasonable simplicity of setting, and a relatively small cast', a policy which violated one of the first principles of the left theatre—independence from the box-office.172 Nor was raising the subscription to £1 in 1945 a populist move, but a pragmatic one.

Along with the 'suffocatingly narrow' political commitment (the phrase is Bruce Mason's),173 Unity Theatre's original populist ideal also receded. Unity succeeded in rescuing theatre from the fur coat brigade but not in creating a 'people's theatre'. It was both a middle class theatre, catering to the liberal-minded, university educated, professional middle class, and also a comparatively small one. At the end of the 1940s it was still a 'fringe group' within the Wellington theatre world numerically as well as philosophically. A survey of amateur theatre groups in New Zealand carried out by the New Zealand Listener in 1949 gave the active membership of Wellington Repertory as 450, its annual expenditure £8000 and number of performances in the last year 90 (including 6 full-length plays); Thespians' total membership as 600, annual outgoings £2800 and performances 46. Unity had a membership of 105, an annual expenditure of £350-400 and had performed for 15 nights.174 Its total membership for the period 1944-9 numbered just over 200. In 1950 the constitution was amended to limit membership to 200 and a membership list in order of seniority compiled. Bruce Mason was later to describe Unity's audience in the later 1940s as

a coterie audience [which] slowly assembled ... for one reason only: chat they wanted to be there, witnesses to the need for a dramatic nourishment which neither radio nor cinema could offer them.175

But small though it was, Unity was to have an influence on New Zealand theatre disproportionate to its size. Bruce Mason was perhaps a partisan judge, but his assessment of Unity's seminal position in the history of New Zealand theatre is borne out by its record. Unity provided an apprenticeship in theatre skills for many of New Zealand's foremost actors, playwrights and directors of the following decades. Among its members in the late 1940s and the 1950s were Bruce Mason, Nola Millar, Richard and Edith Campion, George Webby, Grant Tilly, Sunny Amey and Ann Flannery. It introduced to Wellington plays which would not otherwise have been seen, with a repertoire covering 'almost the entire corpus of modern drama: British, Irish, American, French, German, Spanish and Russian'—'the Becketts, the Pinters, the Genets and Osbornes.'176

page 221

It was also the first theatre in New Zealand to produce Brecht (The Caucasian Chalk Circle in 1952).

Unity's development over these years was similar in a number of ways to the experience of the Sydney New Theatre League. Although that theatre retained a stronger political character than Unity, it too broadened its range in the postwar years, beyond the standard repertoire dominated by Odets and O'Casey to one which included a considerable amount of classical drama, particularly Moliere: 'a broadening out from the propaganda play to get a more middle-class audience who were crying out for "good theatre".'177 This proved to be a cause of some conflict within the theatre's ranks. The Sydney New Theatre, like Unity, had also been frustrated by the reluctance of newspapers to accept advertising or give reviews, and had faced on-going problems with rent and tenure before being able to purchase its own premises.

One notable difference, however, was the Sydney theatre's stronger, or at least more active, interest in original material. From the mid 30s the New Theatre had produced a significant amount of Australian drama, mostly satirical plays. But it was not until the 1960s that Unity Theatre began to take an active interest in New Zealand drama and established 'a record of performing New Zealand plays . . . second to none'.178

As commented earlier, the time when Unity was established was not conducive to a New Zealand orientation. That there was no New Zealand material produced by Unity in this period despite its stated intention 'to present work which is truly related to life and its environment'179 may also have been due pardy to the prominent involvement of British and European immigrants. But nor did Unity turn to New Zealand in the immediate post-war years, a time more opportune for some national soul-searching. This was a time of social reconstruction, and a rapidly changing sense of national identity which had been fostered by the war, by the centennial to a lesser extent, and in intellectual circles by the influence of a decade of developing literary nationalism. That Unity did not do so also has something to do with its changed conception of the role of the theatre. The 'maturer' Unity of the post-war years was interested not in an agitprop or revue-style theatre, such as R.A.K. Mason's plays, or the political pantomime or Living Newspaper performances of the original Unity Theatre in the 1930s, but in significant, contemporary drama emanating from Europe, Britain and, particularly, from America—Odets, Steinbeck, Wilder, O'Neill, Saroyan, Green, Williams, Hellman. When they did advertise for New Zealand scripts in 1954 they too, like Ron Meek, found that 'most of them were dreadful'.180

The emergence of a vigorous, independent New Zealand drama was a considerably later development than the 'renaissance' which occurred in the media of poetry and fiction in the 1930s and 1940s-1950s respectively. New page 222 Zealand drama is not seen to have taken off in the same way until the late 1950s. The flurry of writing in the depression years soon faded; the few experimental plays of J.A.S. Coppard were the most interesting product of this decade. The 1940s saw, other than RAK. Mason's few works, only a handful of published New Zealand plays, notably Allen Curnow's verse play The Axe (1949), and Unity member Kathleen Ross's 'The Trap', a one-act, social realist play based on her experience as a social worker in Wellington, which Unity produced in 1951. Many factors undoubtedly contributed to the delayed development of New Zealand drama, and at least one is relevant here. It is arguable that the creation of a written drama depended firstly on the existence of a vigorous, good, practising theatre; in other words, that to be able to write effectively for the theatre one needs experience in the theatre, and this requires in turn the existence of a cultural infrastructure. The performing arts require a more extensive professional base than does written literature. Bruce Mason argued as much in 1972:

Before a playwright can work, a long chain must be assembled: theatre, actors, producer, technicians, audiences. Only then can the writer move in and offer his dramatic vision. This is where New Zealand theatre stands now: the chain has been assembled, and the playwrights are ready.181

For almost three decades, until it finally folded in the 1970s, Unity Theatre was to play an important role in the development of that cultural infrastructure.

By the 1960s Unity seemed at last to have outgrown its 'Communist front' image. In 1962 it was described by Wellington's newspapers as 'the city's leading serious drama group'.182 The Dominion, which 10 years earlier had refused to accept Unity advertisements, now wrote:

Many people believe it to be the finest theatrical group in the country; others have occasionally complained of its morbid sensitivity. Whatever the truth of this, it is certain that since the early 1940s Unity has presented plays that have stimulated, provoked and moved Wellington audiences.183

But by the end of the decade Unity Theatre, like the cooperative bookshops, was finding that its purpose had been to some extent absorbed by the emergence of competing theatre groups. Downstage, a professional theatre, was established in 1964 and soon became the dominant presence in Wellington theatre. Several other amateur groups had emerged since the late 1950s, such as Stagecraft (formed in 1957) and the New Theatre Company (formed in the early 60s), and presented a repertoire hardly distinguishable from Unity's. The group had also lost some of the political enthusiasm of the 1940s, as its 'social purpose [became] muddied by the confusion of the times'.184 After a brief experiment as a professional theatre, it gave its final production in 1976.

123 Martin to I. McClymont, 22 Aug. 1964. I. McClymont. Private collection; 'Pageant' script, 1940. Ibid.

124 In Print, 22 Apr. 1942, p.6

125 Unity Theatre constitution. Unity Theatre Records: series 4

126 Mason, 'Founder-producer of Unity Theatre Dies in London', Dominion, 18 Nov. 1975, p.4

127 Unity Theatre. Minute books, 1945-49. Unity Theatre Records: box 1

128 'Wanted—People Keen on Stage Craft', In Print, 26 May 1943, p.2

129 Ibid., 4 Nov. 1942, p.3

130 Unity Theatre Group. Programme, Oct. 1942. Unity Theatre Records: box 2

131 Programme for 'Three Playettes', Dec. 1942. Unity Theatre Records: box 2

132 Programme, They Came to a City, [Nov. 1944]. Alexander Turnbull Library Ephemera

133 Ibid.

134 Unity Theatre. 'By-Laws or Rules', Feb. 1943.  Unity Theatre Records: series 4

135 'Unity Theatre Advances', People's Voice, 15 Mar. 1944, p.8

136 'Unity Theatre—A Progressive Force', ibid., 6 Sept. 1944, p.2

137 Bailey interview

138 Martin to McClymont, 22 Aug. 1964

139 McClymont. Interview with author, 8 May 1984

140 Unity Theatre minutes, 3 Dec. 1945.

141 Meek to H. Martin, [nd], quoted in Martin to McClymont, 22 Aug. 1964

142 Martin to McClymont, ibid.

143 Bailey interview

144 Ibid.

145 A. Bagley. Interview with author, 25 Apr. 1984

146 'Wanted—People Keen on Stage Craft'

147 '"They Came to a City"', People s Voice, 29 Nov. 1944, p.3; programme [nd]. Unity Theatre Records: box 2; Bagley interview. See also O. Gray. Exit Left. Memoirs of a Scarlet Woman. Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin, 1985, pp.123-9

148 Meek to Martin, quoted in Martin to McClymont, 22 Aug. 1964

149 'Plays for To-Day', In Print, 4 Nov. 1942, p.3

150 Programme, Juno and the Paycock, Apr. [1946]. Alexander Turnbull Library Ephemera

151 Hamilton People's Theatre. Programme, The Plough and the Stars, Sept. 1942.

152 Mason, 'Founder-producer of Unity Theatre Dies'; 'Wellington's Unity Theatre', p.155

153 Ibid., p. 158

154 Unity Theatre minutes, 4 Apr. 1948

155 J. M. Mason and M. J. Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents. Wellington: Unity Theatre (Inc.), 1966, p.12

156 Mason, 'Founder-producer of Unity Theatre Dies'

157 Mason, 'Wellington's Unity Theatre', p.156

158 Evening Post, 16 Aug. 1946, p.11

159 Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand, v.2, 1946, p.106

160 Unity Theatre minutes of special general meeting, 14 Sept. 1946

161 Meek, correspondence, 21 May 1946; editor, EveningPost to Meek, 16 May 1946. Unity Theatre Records: box 3

162 Unity Theatre minutes, 1 Nov. 1947

163 Programme, Our Town, Mar. 1949. Alexander Turnbull Library Ephemera

164 Evening Post, 5 Sept. 1949, p.6

165 Bailey interview

166 Mason and Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents, p.11

167 Ibid.

168 A. Beaglehole, A Small Price to Pay. Refugees from Hitler in New Zealand 1936-46, Wellington: Allen & Unwin/Histori-cal Branch, Department oflnternal Affairs, 1988, p.1

169 G. Texidor, In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot. Selected Fiction. Ed. and with an introduction by K. Smithyman. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1987, pp.208-9

170 Quoted in Mason and Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents, p.29

171 McClymont interview

172 Unity Theatre minutes, 1 May 1946

173 Mason, 'Founder-producer of Unity Theatre Dies'

174 'Theatre in New Zealand', New Zealand Listener, 2 Sept. 1949 (v.21, n.532), p.9

175 Mason, 'The Cultural Environment in New Zealand: Theatre', 14 July 1970. Bruce Mason Papers: box 5. Victoria University of Wellington Library

176 Mason, 'New Stages in Theatre', p.2645; Mason, quoted in Mason and Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents, p.1

177 Herlinger, 'A new direction for "the New"?', p.105

178 Atkinson, 'Wellington and Unity Theatre', p.8

179 Programme, They Came to a City, Nov.-Dec. [1944]

180 Mason and Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents, p.19

181 Mason, 'New Stages in Theatre', p.2651

182 Quoted in Mason and Staffan, Unity Theatre Presents, p.38

183 Ibid., p.17

184 B. Mason and J. Pocock, Theatre in Danger. A Correspondence. Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade Ltd, 1957, p.26