Mona Brand (1915 – 2007) wrote almost exclusively for the New Theatre, a radical amateur theatre company which began in 1935 and was associated with the ‘old left’ and the use of theatre ‘as a weapon’ in the struggle against capitalism. Brand was one of New Theatre’s most prolific playwrights, producing plays from 1948 until the 1990s. Her ‘total theatre’ play, On Stage Vietnam (1967), written in conjunction with Pat Barnett, was one of the earliest international theatre works to critique the Vietnam War and reflected not only her political views but her time spent in Vietnam. The artistically prominent new left who became identified with the New Wave movement, were dismissive of the work of the ‘old left’, primarily because of its amateur associations. The place of the ‘old left’ has been overshadowed by the New Wave in our theatre history. This paper will introduce the works of Mona Brand with a focus on On Stage Vietnam her ‘Theatre of Fact’, written and performed in 1967 just two years after Australia committed troops to Vietnam. I will argue that Brand’s play was as innovative as the New Wave plays written in 1967 in term of both content and form. While the New Wave performed the protest, Mona Brand performed Vietnam. Sadly, Mona Brand died in 2007 on the 31st of July; this paper is intended as a tribute to Mona as well as a contextual analysis of one of her key works.
Earlier this year, I visited Vietnam with my husband and we were struck by evidence of how the Viet Cong had so ingeniously managed the war against the South Vietnamese. We went down the tunnels in which they hid and marvelled at the way in which they had created lethal weapons out of scrap, primarily the military detritus of the American troops and their allies. During this time my thoughts turned to Mona Brand who I have known for more than twenty years. I remembered things she had told me about the two years she and her husband Len Fox spent in Vietnam (1956-1958), and her meeting with Ho Chi Min (Brand, 1995). It seemed to me that it was important that I talk about Mona’s 1967 play, On Stage Vietnam, as part of this issue on the New Wave as the play is such an iconic theatrical representation of one of the key obsessions of the period between1967 and 1970.
In 1965 the Liberal government in Australia decided to ‘go all the way with LBJ’, and deploy troops in Vietnam. The troops were drawn primarily from conscripted recruits, selected by the accident of birth date as fates turned on whether or not your number came up in a kind of ironic lottery draw. Two of my brothers, both of eligible age, missed out. A third brother, in air force officer training at the time was not sent over. Many other young men were not so lucky.
Soon after conscriptions began, Australia’s emerging young new left, primarily university students, joined their international colleagues in moratorium marches against Vietnam, the war and conscription. While the new wave performed the protest, Mona, her co-writer Pat Barnett and her New Theatre Colleagues performed Vietnam. Shortly after I returned to Melbourne at the end of July 2007, and before I had a chance to talk to her again I heard the news that Mona had passed away at the age of 90. This presentation is dedicated to Mona and also to Don Munro who played LBJ in On Stage Vietnam in the Melbourne production. Don also died at the end of July.
In her autobiography Enough Blue Sky (1995), Mona Brand describes herself as an ‘unknown well-known playwright’. Despite the fact that she was a prolific writer, producing more than twenty plays for adults, three for children, three books for poetry and various film and television scripts, she remained unknown in Australia. Her plays were more widely performed and published in Eastern Europe where she was well known. There are a number of reasons for the lack of recognition afforded to her in Australia – her gender and generation, her political affiliations and her lifetime association with the amateur left-wing New Theatre.
The New Theatre movement emerged in the thirties, as a political response to the depression and the movement against war and fascism. Inspired by leftist theatre groups in America and Europe, New Theatre’s manifesto saw theatre as a weapon in the struggle against capitalism. New Theatre rejected modernist notions of art for art’s sake and maintained its role theatre as ‘theatre with a purpose’. New Theatre Sydney is still operating and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007. Sadly New Theatre Melbourne closed its doors in 2000.
New Theatre, which had led the way in encouraging new Australian writing, experimental theatre and theatrical training through the cold war period, struggled to maintain its role and place in the 1960s with the emergence of a new avant-garde and the collapse of the traditional left-wing and union affiliations. For the New Wave generation, theatre emerged in the mid-sixties. With the ascendancy of the new generation of writers associated with the New Wave, the works of the old left writers were dismissed, often irrespective of their quality, but primarily because they were associated with amateur theatre. John Allen, the editor of Masque magazine, was to write of the amateur movement in 1968: ‘In an age of increasing leisure it will probably continue to have a place as a refined torture for indulgent friends in the same bracket as baby pictures and slides of Pacific Cruises.’ He quotes Hayes Gordon postulating in an even more vitriolic vein:
The amateur theatre in this country is a curse. A curse. An absolute bugbear. It is not an innocent indulgence in this country. It has usurped the functions in many cases of the professional theatre movement in dictating the audience’s tastes and therefore the only criterion that the public has in evaluating production is what it has learnt from amateur yardsticks (1968).
While Allen’s article excludes New Theatre from the terminal illness of the amateur stage (and exemplifying Peter Brook’s deadly theatre), as a group which has sustained itself through a commitment to an idea, his views reflect a growing theatrical chauvinism which was to effect the writers who remained loyal to New Theatre.
It is likely that Mona’s political affiliations also compromised her chances of her plays being objectively evaluated. Mona Brand was born in 1915, the daughter of a marine engineer. Around 1946 she joined the Melbourne Realist Writers Group (MRWG), which provided a forum for reading and discussion of members’ works. The MRWG maintained a socialist and working class stance; its membership included Frank Hardy, Walter Kaufmann, Max Brown and other leftist writers. In 1947 she joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and in 1955 she married Len Fox, at the time a journalist for the Tribune, the official newspaper for the CPA. White Mona maintains that she was never a pure communist, she remained a member of the party until around 1970 when she merely drifted out. During the cold war period, like many other members of the CPA and New Theatre she was under surveillance by ASIO and there was little chance her plays would have received production other than in New Theatre (Brand, 1995).
Unlike her contemporary, Dorothy Hewitt, different political circumstances conspired against Brand’s achieving any recognition. In the 1960s Sino-Soviet political differences caused a schism in the Communist Party in Australia. By the mid sixties there was a more disparate and essentially socialist group emerging, mainly composed of young radicals, students, peaceniks and flower people who were dedicated to making ‘love not war’. The old guard communist treated this new group with suspicion. A declaration published in September 1970 and signed by 300 CPA members criticised the CPA Central Committees ‘vacillating opportunist position … the direct result of the substitution of a mixture of right opportunists and so called New Left or petty bourgeois radical trends in place of its formerly sound scientific socialist position’ (Brown, 1986).
The New Left, while united in its objection to the war in Vietnam, was not tied to party disciplines in the way the old left had been. The New Left didn’t bolster the ailing traditional left wing – rather it eschewed it. John Sendy argues that the success of the Australian anti-war movement further splintered the ailing left (Sendy, 1978:181). Opposition within the Communist Party argued that the leaders of the New Left had deserted the working class in favour of intellectuals and students, had turned its back on internationalism and had jettisoned united front attitudes towards the ALP and its supporters in favour of anarchists, drug takers, libertarians and Maoists (Sendy, 1978:185). The New Left increasingly dominated the Melbourne theatre scene from the mid 1960s. The New Theatre, along with its writers, seemed increasingly out dated and marginalised.
It is my contention that Mona’s plays were never recognised or considered because of her affiliations, but also that the plays she produced in the New Wave period were as thematically subversive and as theatrically radical as the works of the New Wave proponents.
We will turn to her plays. Mona Brand established her playwriting credentials with Here Under Heaven, a realist play set on a sheep station in Western Queensland, which deals with racial bigotry against Asians, the changing roles of women in the war and the marginalisation of Indigenous Australians. Mona was a member of the Melbourne Realist Writers’ Group when she wrote this work, which is naturalistic in style and social realism in form. Here Under Heaven was performed by Melbourne New Theatre in 1948 to generous reviews and subsequently had a brief run at the Union theatre at the University of Melbourne. The Farrago critic described it as ‘outstanding for its fine dramatic construction and creation of several memorable characters’ (cited in O’Brien, 1989:168), and the Herald saw it as a ‘creditable achievement which deals effectively with an urgent contemporary issue’ (cited in O’Brien, 1995:168). While Here Under Heaven was not produced again in Australia until 1961 and then by Sydney New Theatre, it ran continuously in East Germany for ten years. Mona left Australia shortly after the Melbourne production of Here Under Heaven and spent five years in London where she tried to write for a more international audience. Strangers in the Land, a realist anti-Colonial play set in Malaysia, was performed by London’s Unity theatre club in 1952. Though the play was favourably reviewed in London as ‘an adult and moving human document’ (cited in O’Brien, 1989:198), efforts to stage a public performance in another theatre were quashed when the Lord Chamberlain refused to give it a licence.Strangers in the Land was produced by both Melbourne and Sydney New Theatres in 1953 after Mona Brand returned to Australia.
An extremely modest and hardworking playwright, Mona was always ready to learn from others and to adapt her style to suit the times and it is what she describes as her ‘total theatre’ plays, produced in the 1960s, that are of more relevance in our analysis of theatre between 1967 and 1970.
I want to focus now on On Stage Vietnam, first produced in 1967. In 1955, shortly after their marriage Mona Brand and Len Fox travelled to Hanoi in Vietnam with author of Reedy River (1953) and secretary of Melbourne Actors Equity, Dick Diamond. Here they were they were given the role of assisting government employees of the newly formed Democratic Republic of Vietnam with their English. Journalist Wilfred Burchett organised their trip. Mona and Len returned to Sydney in 1958 (Brand, 1995:203ff).
In 1966 Mona began to think about writing a play about Vietnam. She notes in her autobiography:
In 1966 although the war that the United States had imposed on Vietnam had led to some big war protests in Australia, there was still plenty of public acceptance of our Government’s support for the war. Having lived in Vietnam I felt that if I could share some of my knowledge there might be a wider understanding of why this was a war Australia should not be involved in (1995:238).
At first she saw this material being communicated through film, but subsequently decided it could be presented as a stage play ‘imitating the flexibility of television by using film, slides, revue sketches, folk singing, dancing and other aspects of the performing arts we could think of’ (1995:238). New Theatre had a history of working with anti-realist form, including agit -prop, political revue and living newspaper. Before the cultural imposition of social realism after 1935, agit-prop was the recommended aesthetic form by the Communist International (Comintern). Brecht was first produced by the New Theatre in Australia as early as 1939 and Mona suggests Sydney New Theatre’s 1965 celebration history of the Australia’s Miners’ Federation was probably the first example in Australia of what came to be known as total theatre or epic theatre (1995:239).
New Theatre Sydney accepted her proposal for the play about Vietnam and Pat Barnett was brought in as a co-writer with Roger Milliss as Director. While Mona describes the format as ‘total theatre’ in her autobiography, the play is described as ‘theatre of fact’ in the posters for both Sydney and Melbourne productions, providing a link with the Living Newspaper form devised by the Federal Theatre project in the 1930s, and employed by New Theatre from 1936 onwards. Thirteen Dead, a play by the Melbourne Writers’ Group about the death of thirteen miners in Wonthaggi in 1937, was arguably the first Australian Living Newspaper (O’Brien, 1993). The play also drew from the New Theatre tradition of political revue, which featured an annual thematically based collection of topical songs and sketches including: I’d Rather Be Left (1941);Giggle Suits and Overalls (1942); Let’s be Offensive (1943); The Ayes Have it (1944); Fission Chips(1959); and Noncents (1966). The New Theatre writers created new lyrics to well known popular songs, which were cannibalised and updated year after year. The New Theatre ‘Australian working class musicals’ beginning with Reedy River in 1953 also used traditional music, building a narrative around them. On Stage Vietnam followed these traditions with Brand and Barnett writing politically infused lyrics for an eclectic collection of well-known songs.
On Stage Vietnam employs an on-stage narrator to tell the history of Vietnam, backed by documentary media material and interspersed with songs, dances and short dramatic scenes. Mona rejected the notion that On Stage Vietnam was Brechtian or epic and she argued that she wanted to engage the emotions of the audience not just appeal to reason, although the Melbourne poster presents this intellectual challenge:
We urge you, as patriotic Australians, to see this work and judge the facts for yourself as posterity will judge us.
Despite being embedded in New Theatre theatrical traditions, On Stage Vietnamparalleled work done by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop group in the mid sixties – particularly Oh What a Lovely War produced in 1963. There is no evidence that Brand and Barnett were influenced by avant-garde international theatre forms, although a considerable proportion of New Theatre members included intellectuals and an engagement with theatrical theory was always a feature of New Theatre training. On Stage Vietnam certainly predated the fairly widespread use of popular vaudevillian theatre forms, which were to emerge through Nimrod and the Australian Performing Group (APG) during the seventies, exemplified by the APG’s Marvellous Melbourne and Nimrod’s King O’Malley. Mona re-employed this form in Going, Going Gone produced by Sydney New Theatre in 1968 and Here Comes Kisch first performed in Melbourne and Sydney in 1984.
On Stage Vietnam was first produced at Sydney New Theatre on 10th June, 1967 at St Peter’s Lane Theatre, a few months before the landmark first production of White With Wire Wheels. On Stage Vietnam attracted some notoriety when one MP in the New South Wales parliament suggested it included subversive material, but generally the reviews were favourable. The Herald in Sydney described it as a ‘new drama form’, praising Margaret Barr’s movement sequences and a number of the actors’ performances. The Melbourne production was performed by New Theatre on 22ndNovember at Emerald Hill theatre in South Melbourne, directed by Terry Ward and including a cast of 33. While the left-wingTribune praised the show as a wonderful way to learn history the regular press was less enthusiastic. Len Radic, writing for The Age, said:
Last year was something of a vintage for Australian playwrights. Six new plays, a musical and a revue were given professional productions in Melbourne. This year there have been none. The professional management have pulled in their horns and it has been left to amateurs to take up the slack. La Mama the theatre-coffee house in Faraday Street in Carlton has been producing new one act plays by local writers with the help of some professional actors. Melbourne University added a new play by Jack Hibberd to the list with a production at the Architecture theatre. Two further enterprising ventures can be added to the list On Stage Vietnam and Arkallya tragic but laugh-a-line expose of local life and affairs, which is being staged at the Alexander theatre at Monash University. On Stage Vietnam is described as theatre of fact. What the facts on Vietnam are, of course, is largely a matter of opinion or prejudice. It is hardly being unfair to the present production to say that the facts, as presented, are decidedly Anti-American and pro Hanoi.
Sadly there are few photographic images or On Stage Vietnam and no film that I know of, and the script remains only in manuscript form in the New Theatre Archives. I would like to give you some sense of this innovative if decidedly polemic play.
The play is divided into two acts Act 1 opens with a short section from the Joris Ivens film The Threatening Sky with actors frozen in position as defenders of their country. As the film ends, a Brechtian style Commentator steps forward and introduces his material, referring to a big partially elevated map of Vietnam:
The war in Vietnam, most of us know what it looks like. We’ve seen plenty of it on our TV screens….What many of us don’t know is How and Why did it all start? Why are we involved. …. Here is a map of Vietnam. The Vietnamese live here All over. Up her we have China. Full of Chinese. Australia is down here 2000 miles away America is over here 6000 miles to the West US and Australian troops have travelled all those thousands of miles to make sure Vietnam is not invaded – by the Vietnamese (Brand and Barnett, 1967: Act 1:1).
The Commentator then proceeds to offer the audience a history of Vietnam beginning with the arrival of the French. The map is cut up. Pieces are replaced and areas are renamed throughout the series of independent scenes. In the first of these, three agit-prop style characters, a French General, a Businessman and Mme Du Bon join in a song to the tune of Road to Mandalay:
On ze road to make ze francs
We will fill ze Paris banks.
We will pacify ze natives
And we’ll quickly earn zeir zanks.
With ze bullets and ze bombs
From our sailors wiz pom-poms,
Ad we’ll make ze Indo-Chinese pay
Like ze Burmese across the bay (1:2).
The following scene juxtaposes the lives of Mme Du Bon and a Vietnamese girl. Brand and Barnett satirically expose the colonial and patronising control of the French in Vietnam:
We get on so well with our servants. That’s because we treat them so well of course. It’s the Government policy. One admires their long history of struggle against the Chinese warlords, which our historians have uncovered. But we find them very friendly. Some of the better types work for us as administrators … (1:4).
The Vietnamese girl provides the socialist ideal, a politically motivated working girl with a commitment to her country and people:
My father joined an independence movement and was arrested in 1930 by the provincial administrator, Ngo dinh Diem… My father was guillotined (1:4).
The Commentator continues the history of Vietnam and traces:
- The resistance movement by the Vietnamese League for Independence (or Viet Minh);
- The formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under leader Ho Chi Minh; and
- Intervention by England and the United States after World War II.
The resistance movement is depicted through a dance drama of the Vietnamese killing the Japanese ‘tiger’ with background slides of Ho Chi Minh and phrases from the Viet Minh’s Declaration for Independence.
In the ‘power vacuum’ of the war’s end the communist Vietminh move rapidly to enhance their position while the British army (led by General Gracey) enters Vietnam to receive the surrender of the Japanese. The chorus sing about the euphemisms of power and peacemaking (to the tune of Funicili, Funicula:
Listen, listen, euphemisms fly.
Listen, listen, while we pacify.
And escalate, proliferate, defoliate, intensify,
Our antics with semantics, watch the euphemisms fly (1:8).
Gracey is welcomed by the French as their liberator as he attempts to return the status quo. The chorus sing Vive le General (to the tune of Vive L’Amour). The series of historical scenes concludes with America’s decision to become involved in Vietnam and the subsequent installation of Ngo dinh Diem as the puppet Prime Minister. The scene ends with the American President and his advisors singing There’s a hole in my budget. The recommendation is that the budget is best mended with military aid to a small nation:
Then what will I send them to make their lives richer?
What will I send them to lighten their loads?
Send them my bombers
Send them my land mines!
My G.I.s (1:11).
Act 1, Scene 2 outlines changes in the 1950s and focuses on the installation of Ngo dinh Diem as Prime Minister. Diem receives a request from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to hold a nation-wide general election:
This is the Voice of Vietnam calling from Hanoi. Calling the south…asking the south to negotiate on nation-wide elections…this is Hanoi calling Saigon…1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958…calling Saigon…calling, calling, calling…
That’s the trouble with Hanoi. They won’t negotiate (1:16).
The Act concludes with stories illustrating the separation of North and South Vietnam: a young boy and girl who live on adjoining farms but cannot speak; the story of resistance fighter Nguyen Tho who becomes the leader of the Vietcong. A satiric counterpoint is provided through a scene between two Aussies who find themselves in a divided state:
‘Ow yer goin’ mate, orright?
No bloody good. When they demilitarised the Great Western Highway I was on holidays at Woy Woy and now I can’t get back home to Sutherland (1:17).
Act 2 opens in a pub in Australia where barmaids Mavis and Glad discuss the Vietnam situation with Bill, a regular. Brand and Barnett alternate scenes about the escalation of the war in Vietnam with a commentary from these conservative working class Australians who initially have little idea of where Vietnam is. These relatively naturalistic scenes continue New Theatre’s 30-year commitment to working class theatre and prefigure the depiction of the working classes in subsequent plays at the APG. Mavis, Glad and their customer Bill are treated sympathetically but Bill particularly is shown to be ill informed, unreflective and intolerant of the ‘kids with placards and saying Ban the Bomb’. By the end of the play, Mavis has become (appropriately) politicised, Glad has bailed out her daughter for protesting against the war, and Bill, whose son has volunteered, sees it as the next big young men’s adventure.
The rest of the episodic scenes in Act 2 are generally stylised but disparate in style and content, ranging from political satire to the lyrical and the songs exemplify a range of musical styles: a CIA agent croons about the power of the CIA to the tune of Who Can I Turn To; Conscripts in death masks sing about their war torn bodies (Johnny Comes Marching Home Again) and a chorus of Vietnamese children happily rehearse a macabre Teddy Bears Picnic:
If you go down to the fields today
You’re sure of a big surprise,
If you go down to the fields today
You’d better look up the skies,
For every plane that ever there was
Will come again for certain because
Today’s the day the Yankees are dropping their candy (2:10).
This is juxtaposed by the following poignant scene, poetic in the style of Lorca, where a young military ‘liberator’ brings the gift of a doll to a South Vietnamese mother singing to her child. When he looks at the child it is dead and horribly burnt. In the final scenes Menzies announces Australia’s decision to provide infantry support in South Vietnam and LBJ’s visit to Australia is marked by a evangelistic exchange between President and chorus, Ya Got Trouble Here is Sydney City. The show ends with a collage of media images of Vietnam, including a dead child, as Bill reads the telegram advising him of his son’s death.
On Stage Vietnam is an extraordinary piece of Australian theatre, given that it was first performed four months before White With Wire Wheels and a few years before The Legend of King O’Malley and Marvellous Melbourne, both produced in 1970. It was the first Australian play to focus on Vietnam. The eclectic use of theatrical sources and style was certainly avant-garde in 1967, but nonetheless the production reflected the evolving political and aesthetic interests of the New Theatre movement: political satire, agit-prop, living newspaper, the episodic character of cabaret and revue (and Brecht) and a commitment to real life issues and working class people. It is not surprising that Don Munro, LBJ in this production, and a New Theatre actor since 1951, was enlisted to perform in Frank Bren’s Sonic Boom at La Mama in 1968.
Much has been written and said about the capacity of the New Wave to mediate between naturalism and symbolic representation. For New Theatre writers, with their dual allegiance to both Brecht and Stanislavski, this interface was their bread and butter. In the 1937 play, Thirteen Dead, by Catherine Duncan et al, described as ‘Reportage Drama on Wonthaggi Mine’, ‘agit-prop’ scenes with workers and ‘bosses’ bookend six social realist scenes about the lives of workers killed in the mine explosion and the final moments of two of them. Thirty years later, On Stage Vietnam, albeit in contemporary form, employs similar devices. One cannot help but question why On Stage Vietnam has faded into oblivion, and was never performed except by New Theatre, while we celebrate the early output of the New Wave. Of course, a similar question might be asked about the success of Summer of the Seventeeth Doll and the obscurity into which The Torrents, an equal prize winner, has been relegated. There are multiple reasons. In On Stage Vietnam Brand does not shy from her left-wing allegiances and the play is certainly polemical. Even theatre critics like Leonard Radic were unnerved by its institutionalised radicalism. Brand was also of a different generation from the New Wave; she and the New Theatre were ‘old hat’ and amateur – homemade old hat – not cool at all. By then the New Theatre was in decline, reeling from the split in the communist party and without political champions in the brave new world of a young risky emerging and professional theatre scene. For all its faults, however, On Stage Vietnam is fast-paced and witty and, ironically, political attitudes subsequently caught up with its thesis. Although the play is decidedly topical, like much politically motivated theatre, it deserves a celebratory return performance.
 All page references are to the manuscript copy of On Stage Vietnam held in the New Theatre Collection in the Victorian Performing Arts Museum.
Allen, John (1968). ‘Changing Theatre, Changing World’. Masque, August: 31.
Brand, Mona (1995). Enough Blue Sky (Sydney, Australia: Tawny Pipit Press)
Brand, Mona and Barnett, Pat (1967). On Stage Vietnam (Sydney: Unpublished Manuscript. Located in New Theatre Collection in Victorian Performing Arts Museum)
Brown, W.J. (1986). The Communist Movement and Australia: An Historical Outine 1890s to 1980s (Haymarket: Australian Labour Movement History Publications)
O’Brien, Angela (ed) (1993). Thirteen Dead (Melbourne: New Theatre Publications)
O’Brien, Angela (1989). The Road not Taken: Political and Performance Ideologies at Melbourne New Theatre 1935-1960, Unpublished PhD thesis (Melbourne: Monash University)
Sendy, John (1978). Comrades Come Rally (Australia: Thomas Nelson)