The play Advance Australia was staged at the Princess Theatre in Bendigo on Saturday 3 July 1920. It was written by a local Catholic priest, John Joseph Kennedy. The play was strongly anti-imperialist and intensely Australian, and the performance created a national furore.
The drama follows a family’s experience during the First World War. The mother has lost her husband in the Boer War. She asks her sons “Why should you offer yourselves as cannon fodder because Imperial megalomaniacs quarrel?”[i] Her sons, though, volunteer for service and one is killed.
A lengthy and positive review, highlighting pieces of dialogue, was published in the Bendigo Advertiser on Monday 5 July 1920. This precipitated a hastily organised protest meeting at the Bendigo Beehive Exchange that evening.
A larger ‘indignation’ meeting was convened on Friday 9 July 1920 at the Bendigo Town Hall.
A motion was carried expressing “detestation and abhorrence of the disloyal sentiments uttered in the play… [and].. emphatic disapproval of the mendacious and dastardly reflections on the English soldiers…”.[ii]
One speaker, Chaplain Captain Dorman, attacked the play for depicting the English as degenerate and effeminate. Another speaker challenged the playwright’s view that the British looked upon Australians as an inferior class. A message was read from the Prime Minister Billy Hughes condemning the play as thinly disguised Sinn Fein propaganda[iii]. None of the speakers had seen the play and relied for their views on the newspaper report.
Meanwhile, outside the Town Hall, a large group of supporters of the play gathered and gave three cheers for Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, for Father Kennedy, for Home Rule and for Ireland.
The author, Father Kennedy, had himself served as a chaplain during the war and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 for conspicuous gallantry in action[iv]. He had repeatedly returned to the frontline trenches under heavy shell fire to rescue the wounded.
One of his most vocal opponents, George MacKay, had publicly described Kennedy’s DSO as the ‘Dastardly Seditious Order’[v]. Like the protagonists in the play, two of MacKay’s sons volunteered for the war and one was killed.
The war had been appalling. Many had lost loved ones and wished to see their deaths as worthwhile. Many soldiers returned disillusioned and disturbed at the horrors they had endured.
Archbishop Mannix and Prime Minister Hughes were implacable opponents in the bitter debate over conscription during the Great War. Conscription was narrowly rejected in plebiscites in 1916 and 1917.
In the aftermath of the failed Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and the subsequent battle for Irish independence, it was a particularly volatile time in relations between the British Government and Irish republicans, and this was mirrored in Australia.
There was a divide between Australians with Irish Catholic heritage and those with British Protestant heritage. The controversy over the play reflects this.
Fr Kennedy had served as a priest in country Victoria in Yarrawonga before the war and Myrtleford after the war. He had previously published a history of his regiment, and had written several novels prior to the War.
Carrigmore, or, Light and shade in West Kerry / by John J. Kennedy, 1909,
Gordon Grandfield, or, The tale of a modernist / by J.J. Kennedy, 1912,
After the controversy over “Advance Australia” his next play “The Desmond’s of Dingle” was performed at the Theatre Royal in Bendigo in November 1920, without a hint of controversy.
He suffered health issues most likely related to his war service and later emigrated to the United States where he served as a priest in Georgia until his death on 18 February, 1957.
It appears the playscript of Advance Australia has not survived.
For more on the impact of Anglo/ Irish tension on Australia see the Easter Rising Dublin 1916 Research Guide.
The controversy received extensive coverage across Australia at the time, much of the coverage can be searched on Trove Digitised Newspapers (although the Bendigo papers are not digitised for that period).
For an extensive obituary of Fr Kennedy see the Bulletin of the Catholic laymen’s association of Georgia p.1,11.
[i] Bendigo Advertiser 5 July 1920, p.3
[ii] Bendigo Advertiser 10 July 1920, p.7
[v] Bendigo Advertiser 6 July 1920, p.5