Art Was Their Weapon: The History of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild by Dylan Hyde (Fremantle Press 2019)

What a labour of love Dylan Hyde’s Art Was Their Weapon is.  The interviews for this history of the Perth Workers’ Art Guild in the 1930s go right back to 1993. Many of the key players from the guild were still alive then, and lucid. None of them are still with us today, and so in his extensive interviews, Hyde has preserved the voices of a generation of radicals and a fascinating milieu.

The key activity of the guild was the Workers’ Theatre, and the book attempts to recapture its performances of many decades ago when it shook up and inspired pre-war Perth. What an ephemeral thing theatre is, leaving behind just a skeleton, the script. Keith George, the driving force behind the theatre’s success, didn’t even believe in following scripts closely; Hyde depicts a man who practiced the dictatorship of the director. The portrait of George is one of the pleasures of this book:

He possessed a sparkling intellect and a flamboyant personality, and a lively and intelligent university coterie developed around him, attending open-house parties at his scenic, ramshackle farmhouse in Kenwick, some fourteen kilometres from the city, where he lived with several siblings, pigs and chickens. George’s parties were lively affairs where guests discussed drama and hotly debated ‘ways of changing the world’.
‘George was a gourmand and what stood out most about him was his girth. Portly, short and balding, he resembled a cheerful Buddha. ‘Everything about him was round,’ remembered Ric Throssell. Actress Patricia Thompson described him in her memoir as ‘a provincial Orson Welles with an authoritative manner, a sonorous voice, and a vivid creative imagination’, adding, ‘He would have looked at his best in a Roman toga; everyday twentieth-century garb rather diminished him’.’ (Location 408)

Another central character is Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was instrumental in beginning the guild as one of her many frenzied Popular Front activities in the 1930s. Hyde’s opening chapter, ‘The Red Witch of Greenmount’ focuses on her. It’s perhaps inevitable that there are a number of details or interpretations of her with which I would demur, but I was also left with a deep respect for the extensiveness of Hyde’s research. One of the unlikely things I learned was of Katharine’s friendship with Contessa Filippina, an opera singer based in Perth in the 1930s; she was a devout Roman Catholic and the grandmother of the singer-songerwriter, Paul Kelly. Paul Kelly is not a connection I expected to make to Katharine Susannah Prichard. (Nor, while on the theme, is Rolf Harris, the one exception to all of the guild members being dead; as a child and a teenager, he starred in a number of guild productions.)

The book could be described as a group biography, with the third main character being the fascinating actor Phyllis Harnett, whom Hyde interviewed in 1995. There is a huge supporting cast of minor characters with colourful lives, and the mosaic narrative tells all of their stories, as well as providing an appendix detailing their post-guild lives. It’s hard to segregate the guild and its activities from the Communist Party – which many of its key people belonged to – and net is cast wide, giving the story of radical Perth at large over the period.

I commend Fremantle Press for publishing this important piece of history and congratulate Dylan Hyde on persevering over decades to bring this story to print.