Australian Wartime Entertainment in a Century of Wars

Banner of the title of the exhibition on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition.The arts were important to many Australian soldiers during the World War I. This is evident from reading the diaries of Australian soldiers. Soldiers wrote about the books they read, the songs they sang together, quoted extracts from poems and many diaries have sketches and accounts of the beautiful churches they visited. I am planning to do some further research on the singing of Australian soldiers so I was pleased when I accidentally found an exhibition at the Victorian Arts Centre about the entertainment of Australian soldiers.

The exhibition, ‘Theatres of War: Wartime entertainment & the Australian experience‘ tells the stories of the professional entertainers who put on concerts for Australian troops in war zones over the last one hundred years. The exhibition looks at the entertainment provided during wars to boost morale on the home front, military personnel who entertained troops and those entertainers who were not part of the military but who travelled to war zones to entertain the soldiers. 

This exhibition is not simply about celebrating wars. The section about the Home Front also covers the work of entertainers who did not support armed conflict not only during the Vietnam War but during World War II as well. This is done through the display of memorabilia from plays presented by Melbourne’s New Theatre during World War II. The protest during the Vietnam War era is represented by displays about playwrights Alan Hopgood and Mona Brandt as well as musicians Margret RoadKnight and those who performed at the Vietnam Moratorium march in Melbourne in 1970. The refusal of some musicians to perform to troops during wars is also noted.

The exhibition is divided by themes, rather than tracing wartime entertainment in chronological order. This encourages visitors to think about the issues raised which are common in all conflicts rather than understanding the issues as being peculiar to a particular war. The exhibition consists of displays of photos, posters, covers of sheet music and musical instruments used by Australians during wars.

Handmade guitar on display.

Guitar made by a prisoner of war in Changi Prison, Singapore during WWII lent to the exhibition from the Australian War Memorial.

The instruments used by Australian prisoners of War in Singapore’s Changi Prison during World War II were particularly interesting. On display was a piano used in the prison. Inmates slipped through a hole in the perimeter fence and found the piano at a former British submarine base. The exhibition notes say that the prisoners dragged it over four kilometres back into the prison, but the Australian War Memorial, which lent the item for the exhibition, says that it was moved one and a half kilometres. At the end of the war the prisoners were refused permission to bring it back to Australia, but the musicians refused to leave Singapore without it so the authorities relented and the piano was transported back to Australia with them.

Another fascinating item was a guitar made by an Australian prisoner at Changi. It was made from timber but the sides were made from old petrol tins. I wondered what this sounded like. The Australian War Memorial catalogue mentions that the pianist who performed on the piano in Changi Prison played it after it was donated to the Australian War Memorial. It would have been nice to hear the televised recording at the exhibition.

Many soldiers wrote about the use of airplanes throughout World War I. A poster advertising the performance of the Australian official concert troupe, the Anzac Coves, in London in 1918, notes the possible presence of airplanes:

Patrons are informed that the roof of the auditorium of this Theatre is constructed of a considerable thickness of concrete reinforced with steel. So are the Gallery and Circle tiers. The public inside are therefore protected by two and even three such layers. Consequently there are few places that afford such safe “cover” in case of Air Raids.

Today, this does not seem like much reassurance.

While concerts for soldiers are held in what the army regards as relatively safe areas behind front lines, entertainers did not work in comfortable conditions and sometimes the situation could become dangerous. In a video the singer Little Patti recalls being whisked away after a concert as the Battle of Long Tan started in Vietnam. As she was beating away mosquitoes in her accommodation during that long night she saw bodies of soldiers being brought in from the fighting – a sombre moment for the seventeen year old.

This exhibition focuses on music, plays and other types of theatre performances – forms where sound is very important. I would have appreciated hearing some of the songs that were mentioned in the exhibition. Recordings would probably not be available for the earlier wars but the Victorian Arts Centre could organise some musicians today to record these earlier songs using the arrangements and instruments that were used then.

‘Theatres of War’ is a gentle look at the importance that the arts have played in the lives of Australians directly affected by war during the last one hundred years. It looks at a century of war, rather than one centenary which is a welcome change from the majority of historical representations created for this year’s centenary of the fighting at Gallipoli. Perhaps the centenary of World War I would have been better spent using this approach.

The centenary could have been a good opportunity to ask ourselves what has a century of wars done to us. We could have critically examined the notion that war is a natural aspect of our human condition. We could also have questioned the nationalism that has too often stepped beyond the bounds of moderation and led to the warmongering that often precedes war. Perhaps we could have looked at violent conflict as a problem shared by all peoples and nations rather than looking at this anniversary as a celebration of the virtues of particular nations.

Instead we are using the centenary to relive, rather than rethink war.

Exhibition Details

Exhibition Title: Theatres of War: Wartime entertainment and the Australian experience

Where: Foyer of the Victorian Arts Centre, St Kilda Road, Melbourne

When: 18th April to 20th September 2015

Admission: Free, no bookings required

While you are at the Victorian Arts Centre also look out for the ‘Black Diggers‘ exhibition being held 22 April – 17 May in the Smorgon Family Plaza. 

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4 thoughts on “Australian Wartime Entertainment in a Century of Wars

  1. Fascinating! I am reminded of how American cowboys carried books of poetry and real literature on the plains–and made their own music. Not a direct equivalent, of course, but a reminder that what matters to people can be surprising.

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    • That is exactly what some Australian soldiers did and yet most people hold the stereotype that Australian soldiers were just larrikins. I have read some who quote Browning, Byron and of course Australian poet, Henry Lawson. Some use their war diaries as reading journals. They read a lot of books. It is a shame that exploring this properly is outside the bounds of my current project.

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  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to review our exhibition Yvonne. It has been a labour of love for us and it’s always nice to get some considered feedback. You mentioned that you would have liked to hear some more of the songs mentioned in the exhibition. We did curate an overhead soundtrack for the exhibition which played many of those tracks so I hope it was playing durng your visit (you never know with technology!). The recordings of songs, plays, letters, memoirs and radio broadcasts on headphones have also proved to be very popular with visitors. I would love to have included the recording of Jack Boardman on the Changi piano but unfortunately it was with a commercial channel and clearance proved beyond our means.

    The Changi piano is without doubt my favourite object. Interestingly the story surrounding how it got into the camp (number of miles, people involved, nights it took etc) changes depending on who I speak to! I hope to write something more about it in the near future.

    Thanks again, Carolyn

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    • Thank you Carolyn for taking the time to comment on my review. I tend to mentally block out extraneous noise so the soundtrack could have been playing and I didn’t notice it. Not everyone is like me so hopefully people notice it playing.

      I am researching soldier war diaries for a book. Since writing this post I have noticed that soldiers recorded the programs for performances on the front in their diaries. Many of these were performances put on by soldiers themselves.

      It is a shame that so much twentieth century history is locked behind a paywall resulting in the history of the time before copyright laws kick in being a favoured resource for cultural institutions and historians in preference to later material. Over time this is going to skew our representation of twentieth century history.

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