Dunera Boys theatre production recreated for 81st anniversary

Associate Professor Ian Maxwell, Chair of Theatre and Performance Studies, is researching and recreating theatre created by the original Dunera Boys while interned as enemy aliens during the Second World War, including a musical revue titled Sergeant Snow White.
a man in a blue shirt smiling at the camera

Associate Professor Ian Maxwell

In 1943, a group of “enemy aliens” – most of them “Dunera Boys” – created and performed a revue titled Sergeant Snow White at the Union Repertory Theatre at the University of Melbourne. This year, on its 81st anniversary, Associate Professor Ian Maxwell, researcher and chair of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, recreated the show with its original script and young student actors at Belvoir Downstairs Theatre.

The Sergeant Snow White research project is a performance-led exploration of theatrical work made by German/Austrian refugees in Australia during the Second World War. It is a collaboration between Associate Professor Ian Maxwell, a theatre researcher and director, Joseph Toltz, a researcher of Jewish music and theatre, and Dr Seumas Spark, co-author of the two volume Dunera Lives, published by Monash University Publishing.

“This project investigates, in and through performance practice, this extraordinary work, the circumstances in which it was created, and its complex – and overlooked – legacy,” said Associate Professor Maxwell.

Who were the Dunera Boys?

the passenger ship DUNERA sailing on water

The passenger ship DUNERA. Photo courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum Collection, ANMS0413[060]

On 10 July, 1940, the Hired Military Transport (HMT) Dunera, a British passenger ship, left Liverpool with about 2500 internees, the majority of whom were mostly German and Austrian Jews. The ship docked at Jones St Wharf in Sydney, and the internees were transferred to trains bound for Hay, where they were held in an internment camps.

The Dunera Boys included many artists, musicians, and writers. “They were the kinds of people who had fled Hitler’s regime in the years leading up to the war,” Associate Professor Maxwell said.

Almost immediately upon arrival in Hay, the men formed a “university”: art classes, reading groups, orchestras and theatre groups, a cultural project that continued when many were relocated in May 1941 to camps in Tatura, Victoria, where the weather was milder for the men.

The Dunera Boys story was famously captured by the 1985 Australian TV mini-series starring Bob Hoskins, Warren Mitchell and John Meillon.

Dunera Boys and theatre

group of refugee men in 1942

Dunera Boys, including Bern Brent on the right, in the 8th Employment Company. Photo: Brent Family

While interned, the young men rehearsed and presented several plays, such as R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 smash hit West End war drama Journey’s End, and revues, including a Christmas show titled Sergeant Snow White, directed by Kurt ‘Doc’ Sternberg in Hay in December 1940, subsequently reworked in Tatura as Snow White Joins Up for the 1941/42 New Year Revue.

In early 1942, several hundred men were released from internment to contribute to the Army Labour Corps, initially put to work picking fruit in the Goulburn Valley.

8th Employment Company men working in Melbourne and throughout regional Victoria.

By April 1942, the 8th Employment Company was raised, consisting of men from the Dunera and the Queen Mary, and was one of 39 such companies, 11 of which were comprised of “enemy aliens” (a status they retained until reclassified as “refugee aliens” in 1944).

The 8th was originally stationed at Caufield racecourse and later at Camp Pell, an American military base in Royal Park, Parkville, adjacent to the University of Melbourne. On 17 April, 1943, the men of the 8th, under the direction of ‘Doc’ Sternberg, presented the revue Sergeant Snow White in the Union Theatre in Carlton. The show ran over three evenings, to full houses, and enthusiastic reviews, and was reprised in May for three further performances.

Dunera Boys stage Sargeant Snow White

a poster for a 1943 theatre show

The 1943 poster

Associate Professor Ian Maxwell has been studying the original script for Sergeant Snow White, a musical play created by the Dunera Boys over several years. “It consists of three acts, and, as the title suggests, is a spin on Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he said.

The first act is set in the court of Queen Columbia, who is jealous of Snow White, and preparing for a grand banquet. Meanwhile, deep in the forest, an evil witch has conjured up a wolf, tasking him with disrupting the banquet, and securing the Queen’s alliance for his evil Axis. “At the banquet, all hell breaks loose as the Wolf seizes the court, including all the ‘good fairies’, and casts them into imprisonment,” said Associate Professor Maxwell.

The second act, ‘Sounds of Europe’, involves a radio tuning into the cities of a Europe devastated by war. In a series of sketches, musical pieces, dances, and dramatic scenes, it presents “a Goya-esque – with shades of Dada – vision of a civilisation in tatters,” Associate Professor Maxwell said.

The final act sees the men of the 8th – now the Seven Dwarfs – hard at work on the wharves of Melbourne, culminating in a riotous party to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the Company. The show culminates with a song titled ‘Calling all Cobbers’, in which the men celebrate Australia, and the opportunity they have been afforded for the future.

The progressive playwright, critic and broadcaster Catherine Duncan reviewed Sergeant Snow White for Listener in May 1943. She observed that:

“The chief significance of the show lies, indeed, in that future time when Sergeant Snow White make his permanent home in Australia. Under the uniform disguise of khaki, the 8th Employment Company includes many talented artists from overseas in its ranks.

“Doctor Sternberg, the writer and producer, was once a film director for Gaumont British, and adapted many interesting film devices to the stage in this production. Peter Schmitz, choreographer and solo dancer, was formerly a member of the Russian ballet in London. There is the municipal organist from Singapore, and leading jazz band players from Europe and Malaya. Eric Liffmann – Snow White’s Prince Charming – has a magnificent tenor voice known already to Melbourne radio audiences as well as to listeners in Holland and England.

“Here is the nucleus of a cast that can put on something new in entertainment -something which can make a real contribution to the Australian theatre.

“If we can welcome these young artists in the “good new times” as warmly as we applauded them in uniform, Sergeant Snow White is not merely a soldiers’ show. It is a pointer to the future. It may be the forerunner to other shows which are more truly expressive of our own Australian personality.”

Bringing the script to life

The script from the original presentation is held in the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. It has barely been seen since 1943; a single scholarly article by an eminent German scholar the only sustained attention it has been given.

On 17 April, 2024, exactly 81 years to the day since its first performance in 1943, the graduating acting students of the JMC Academy presented Sergeant Snow White in the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir St, directed by Associate Professor Maxwell, with musical direction by Joseph Toltz.

“The production uses the original script and adds three new texts to extend the reflections on exile, war, and the experiences not only of men like the Dunera Boys, but women,” said Associate Professor Maxwell.

“Taking up the evident delight in the script at opportunities to cross-dress (and indeed, the overall libidinal atmospherics of the work), our production takes liberties with gender and casting,” he said.

“The performance is riotous, swinging from absurdist pantomime to earnest drama, from proto-Pythonesque absurdity to slapstick,” he said. “It includes a spread of musical genres from romantic song to swing quartets to country blues to rapping and Brechtian choruses.”

“Most importantly, the work takes us deep into the experience of displaced young men, transported, brutalised and interned, and who immediately set about making culture: song, theatre, art, music.

Associate Professor Maxwell said audiences are taken to 1943, a moment when the outcome of the war was still in doubt, and brings us to understand the optimism and joy with which these men responded to the warmth they encountered from the moment of their disembarkation in Ultimo.

As one Australian army officer observed of the men of the 8th:

“To these men their Australian uniform is a symbol of tolerance, decency. Australia and Australians have revived their flagging faith in mankind. We can be proud of that.”

“More, this work brings to light a forgotten moment of Australian theatre history: possibilities and expertise grounded in European traditions that have, perhaps, in our collective enthusiasm for a uniquely Australian theatre, been overlooked,” said Associate Professor Maxwell.

Prominent Dunera Boys

A small number of Dunera Boys who remained in Australia made contributions to the cultural, academic and economic life of the country, notes National Museum of Australia.

Among them were men who went on to become nationally and internationally recognised, including: artists Ludwig Hirshfield Mack, athletic coach Franz Stampfl, economist Fred Gruen, engineer Paul Eisenklam, furniture designers Fred Lowen and Ernst Rodeck, and photographers Hans Axel and Henry Talbot.

Credit: All photos of the Dunera Boys in Tatura courtesy of the Brent Family. Hero image at the top includes Bern Brent, second from the right. This photo is believed to be taken by renowned photographer Helmut Newton (then Helmut Neustadter).

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