Hyde, Dylan. Art Was Their Weapon. Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2019. RRP $34.99, 368pp, ISBN: 9781925815740.
Had She been advocating voodoo, I’d have helped her with the same enthusiasm. (71)
As fascism rises and internationalist revolutionaries face defining challenges in the battle for Spain and in the dictates of Stalinism, an Australian novelist—the ’Red Witch of Greenmount’—builds a movement. She becomes the patron of a burgeoning radical art and theatre scene where actors embody humanity ‘standing, and climbing out of its grave’ (93), shocking audiences with agitprop plays defiant of the capitalist war machine and class exploitation. This is Perth, Western Australia in the 1930’s and 40’s, as portrayed in the riveting history by Dylan Hyde, Art Was Their Weapon.
If this description doesn’t meet with your expectations of Perth between the wars, you can perhaps be forgiven. The struggle to overcome the sanitised, redacted and/or mutilated histories of Australia is a constant one. Perth, like many other parts of the modern-day colony, is a place where much vibrancy is hidden beneath a membrane of material and cultural conservatism. Isolation is built into the city’s cultural narrative and it is easy to fall into the trap of considering it parochial and without dynamic or radical histories. However, as Hyde’s book attests, this perspective is both ahistorical and the product of meticulous political labour.
Art Was Their Weapon orbits the life of literary figure and co-founder of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Katharine Susannah Prichard—the afore-mentioned ‘Red Witch’. Prichard is a complex and fabulously deserving subject. Far exceeding the personal tragedies that marked her life, Prichard’s story enthrals as she navigates the complexities of writing novels and plays with autonomy and that prioritise artistic values, while also building Australia’s Communist Party, championing agitprop interventions, and navigating the directives of the Soviet Communist International (Comintern, or the International).
As Hyde details the development of various iterations of Perth’s Art Workers’ Guild, we see Prichard, her comrades and her non-socialist associates perform a complex dance of agreement and dissonance. This is the portrait of a radical culture. It is a literary history that also functions as an ensemble narrative, its key figures invested to different degrees in solidarity, direct action, art and performance.
The propaganda glows with such a fierce fervour and the play has such a tremendous energy that… one is exhilarated by it [and] non-partisans… can surely be forgiven the thrill and elation they felt at seeing the precision of that strong, swinging blow. (68)
There are many fractious arguments and anxieties about the production of plays by the Art Workers’ Guild. The portrait of Keith George—the self-confessed ‘dictator’ and ‘monarch’ (89) of the theatre—and his relationship to Prichard is variously instructive, appalling and wonderfully entertaining.
Though George is not a socialist or genuinely Left figure, he is supported by Prichard because of his talents as a producer-director. He is a man who plays to the myth that great theatre is dependent upon the director-as-tyrant—a myth that is still functioning, if not as prevalent, today. Hyde’s interview subjects convey much imagery of the works that George brought together; including a vivid description of a suprematist set that was ‘an amalgam of theatrical and cinematic techniques—with the ability to cut rapidly between scenes’ (90), and that was created before the comrades of Perth learned that constructivism was no longer supported by the Soviet-dominated International. The chapters focusing on the theatre provide a great vantage point to reflect upon the production of contemporary performance. And the power dynamics are fascinating: despite the obvious political contradictions, Prichard has no problem supporting George as the ‘marionette master’ of the Art Workers’ Guild.
He told Oldham and McClintock that he was the Guild’s indispensable ‘dictator’. The couple was furious at George’s use of what was then an abhorrent term ‘because of its connotation with what was happening in Europe’, and a heated argument ensued. (111)
As a work of scholarship, the book holds its own across a range of disciplines. It is a particularly crucial history of the Australian Left, helping counter those promulgated by the Australian Labor Party. For those of us organising collectively as artists within social, environmental and decolonial movements, this book transmits part of our cultural heritage. We come into contact with artistic agitators who would have surely railed against the assumptions of an art scene raised on post-structuralism and postmodernity. Though a champion of artistic autonomy, there are a number of passages where Prichard clearly considers liberal, individualistic art to be politically myopic and ‘bohemian’—in the comrades’ deeply negative usage of the word.
Hyde shows Prichard walking a difficult path to find her balance as an artist and a socialist. She defends her autonomy from Communist Party of Australia (CPA) censuring: she ‘objects strongly to attempts from any quarter to censor or manipulate the political line in her writing’ (60). And we also see her defending the rights of authors against conservative critics who deride their radical expressions.
Although it is easy to find Prichard heroic in her capacity to master these complex forces, and to forget the dogma of the era, Hyde’s book is rigorous. Many of Prichard’s comrades find the internecine atmosphere spread by Stalinism extremely troubling,
The passionately turgid discussions of the CPA cultural committees trying to determine whether this or that line of verse, or note of music or blob of paint was essentially working class, or fascist, bourgeois or decadent, were as hilariously absurd in their way as any medieval convocation of cardinals trying to settle the vexed question of how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. (77)
The later chapters unfold as fascism is rising in Europe, Stalinism is ‘devouring its own’, the Communist Party is outlawed in Australia, and the tragedy of World War II is approaching. Hyde portrays the Perth Art Workers’ Guild as a febrile body amidst a global network of workers’ theatres, all of which are contending with totalising conflicts that would undermine their revolutionary purposes.
This book is an essential history prompting many reflections upon our current artistic and political values. It invokes myriad possibilities about what might have been had not the world been sucked into another devastating war. And it poses questions of what might still be, should artists and agitators pick up the banners of these ancestral comrades and consolidate their knowledge with what we’ve learned about decentralised and intersectional movements.
Sam Fox is a writer, director and choreographer based in Boorloo / Perth, Western Australia and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia. Sam has been involved in many collaborations between artists and activists and is currently an organiser with Arts & Cultural Workers for Climate Action (ACWCA).