The Limits of Authorship: The Radio Broadcasts of Irene Greenwood, 1936-1954

John Richardson


Greenwood's vision of utopia evolved in relation to the changing political pressures and institutional constraints of the period. Her prototype may have been a response to the theosophical teachings which were so influential among the Perth branches of the early women's movement. According to Jill Roe, Madam Helana Petrovna Blavatsky, one of the Society's co-founders, claimed that living masters "located in the recesses of Thibet" [sic] helped her to write her seminal Theosophical text, Isis Unveiled1 (there could have been no more appropriate figure than Isis as the patron of Greenwood's scheme. She was the Goddess of "childbirth, of fertility, of sailors, life and magic"2). In 1936 Greenwood publicised the egalitarian nature of the Tibetan religious order.3 The Himalayan imagery of this script resurfaced throughout the 1930s. It was eventually integrated into a mise-en-scene of fantastic splendour:

The royal household was decked with rich embroideries and brocades of beautiful workmanship, drinking vessels, carvings and other things which told her of an old culture. There were pictures of a strange land of snow-topped mountains and hot springs, of waterfalls and lakes, and this called her to go and see for herself.4

In the margin of the text quoted above Greenwood has jotted, "Changrila [sic] Lost Horizon". This can be little other than a reference to, either, James Hilton's book,5or Frank Cappra's film of the book6Lost Horizon. If Greenwood's text is not an indirect quotation from one or the other of these (both works of utopian fiction) she was at least aware of the coincidence between their imagery and that which she attributes to the vision of her heroine, Madam Alexandra David-Neel.

For Greenwood, the supposed distinction between fact and fiction was unimportant. Was it a fact that Miss Ursula Grayham-Bower alone held the North Cacher hills against the Japanese Army, 7 or that Katia Delavic, after receiving mortal wounds to the breast and leg, knocked out a Nazi blockhouse? 8 In the end it didn't matter. All that mattered for Greenwood was that her imagery could be legitimately represented and read as a matter of fact within the terms of her formula. She selected her material from wherever she could find it. Only after 1939 did these selections become more systematic. In the meantime "Shangri-La" was superimposed on a variety of locations. These, like Hilton's original, were surrounded by high mountains and extremely difficult to penetrate. Turkestan, the object of Ella Maillart's quest, "is surrounded on three sides by walls of mountains 20,000 feet high". 9 Similarly, Greenwood cited Linda Littlejohn as saying,

I am flying both ways. I am looking forward immensely to seeing Dubrovnik - it is an ancient walled maritime city on the Dalmatian sea with the mountains rising sheer behind it, and I am told that the women there are very tall and handsome.10

The walls and mountains were barriers to be overcome by the explorer, but they also protected the inhabitants from the ravages of the dystopian society without. Mountains, or similar lines of defence, were the borderline between civilisation and chaos:

This small kingdom is very wealthy, its products are rubber, gold, silver, tobacco, rice and other typical tropical products and it exports much oil. Chinese and Javanese merchants sell and barter their wares in the town, but in the interior the natives are but a step removed from their head-hunting ancestors who were adept at blowing deadly poison darts.11

Utopia existed in reality - it could be named. Greenwood's models were represented as belonging to the plane of fact, they were held to be either already in existence, or currently under construction, in some exotic and remote elsewhere. Utopian conditions had been achieved in some far off country which could be anywhere else but Australia. The exception to this rule was the series of short wave scripts produced for the Department of Information in the early 1940s. In October 1940 Greenwood (the political activist) told Hartley Grattan that "[Australian] rural conditions, with a few exceptions, are deplorable and primitive".12Three months later Greenwood (of the radio institution) told her short wave listeners:

Life is happy, serene and secure for the women whose lot it is to be the wife of a timber worker in the small mill town of Pemberton. There are all the ingredients to make it as near perfection as anything can be in this imperfect world - a healthy climate, rich soil, abundance of fresh food, surroundings of unsurpassed beauty, and well planned conditions of labour and leisure.13

These broadcasts, however, were aimed at audiences in America and the Pacific region. Utopia was always other than the listener's home. If the otherness of the product (or anticipated product) allowed it to reflect back on the here and now in criticism, its apparent tangibility made the criticism all the more relevant. Its culture was something to strive for, to appropriate, to bring home. A geographical and cultural remoteness was one criterion which determined utopia's location, the other was its confirmation of the objectives of the women's movement; wherever utopia was, it was in a place where some, if not all, of these objectives had been realised. Realisation automatically led to an order of plenitude, or "sanity". With the ingenuity of science "sanity" could be exported:

"Forty glad years...of peace and plenty . . . . sanity". What a ring those words have for us today when the great ideas which lie behind them are, or seem to be, so remote from the other countries of Europe as to be quite utopian - something visionary, to be desired but seemingly, so seldom attained. Yet Holland's Queen can claim them on the occasion of her Jubilee. It prompts the thought that it is a pity some Dutch scientist doesn't alienate this germ of "sanity" and go out and inoculate some of the statesmen of other nations so that they might bring peace and plenty to their lands too [Greenwood's ellipses].14

Utopia's physical characteristics were those of order and symmetry. It was constructed by its citizens to be. They would use techniques such as those of Mrs Mary Long Whitmore, who built a scale model of her home town, "Long Acres". The result was "a perfectly planned town, not one that just grew haphazardly".15

During the 1940s the quest, in its thematic guise of a journey of discovery, became less frequent. "Women of the Soviet Arctic" is perhaps the last, script of the period in which the journey appeared. The journey was completed, a definitive utopia had been discovered. It was that of the USSR:

On that day 26 years ago, the people took power into their own hands and began to rule their own destinies. Then came the birth of a new society...visualised, planned, organised to serve the needs of mankind . . . . This young society grew, painfully at first, then by five year spurts, to be the vigorous, valiant nation that is today our ally [the first ellipse is Greenwood's].16

The Soviet utopia incorporated all of the traits which had previously been scattered across a range of different locations. It was guarded, not by mountains, but by "a fog of obscurity" blown in from the dystopian hinterland. It was characterised as much by process as by results. Greenwood's Soviet model, like The Modern Utopia of H.G. Wells,17 as in a stage of transformation to a greater state of order (in five year spurts). Order was achieved by organisation, planning and a huge social effort. It was neat, tidy and symmetrical. It was futuristic, employing the most modern of scientific inventions. Science had been taken from the lab and was at work in the cities and pastures:

This collective farm has its own hydro-electric power plant, and a machine tractor station. Everything possible will be installed to lighten labour and increase productivity. The new village will not be like the old (an inconvenient single row of houses) but will be well planned, radiating from the civic centre set around a green park with trees, with curving paths following the contours of the country side.18

Finally, and most importantly, the Soviet model was egalitarian. Here, the constitution (Article 122) safeguarded sexual equality:

The Soviet woman is self reliant and strong and efficient, both comrade and companion to her man . . . . Yet, engrossed though she has been in her study, and winning her way in her job, she also has time to be a good wife and mother . . . . The constitution guarantees her the right to work, at equal rates of pay to men . . . and provides her with a wide range of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.19

But if the ideal society had at last been discovered its legitimacy was relatively short lived. After 1946, as the Cold War gathered momentum, Soviet imagery progressively disappeared from Greenwood's scripts. The theme of the journey correspondingly re-surfaced as she and her heroines took up the search for alternative models. The net was cast wide. New examples were drawn from fact and fiction. Old heroines were re-employed, old imagery re-surfaced, the listeners were consulted. The "Mailbag to Microphone" topic for the 7th of September 1950 was, "Are There Other Worlds Than This?"

The exploits of anthropologist Margaret Mead, first cited in 1938,20 were taken up again in the 1950s. Mead was certainly no advocate of communism but her quest ran parallel to that of Greenwood's in other ways. Mead's prodigious output was not confined to scholastic publications, her writings also appeared in a wide range of popular magazines. Like Greenwood, she was intent on demonstrating that an alternative "natural" role was possible for Western women. Her quest involved the re-discovery of "primitive" societies in which these alternative gender roles already existed. In 1957, Mead argued the case for a more vivid view of utopia as an inspiration for future social orders.21 Her book, Male and Female, had theorised male envy (conscious or otherwise) of women's child bearing biology to be the basis for the subjection of women by men. Male and Female was, according to Greenwood, "likely to become the bible of the new post-jubilee period of the women's movement".22 Greenwood's "Meadian" utopias included the Cook Islands, whose chieftain, Makea Arika, was a woman.23

In 1950 Israel was cited as "the re-creation of an old land by new settlers, who in the remaking of a country have also re-made themselves as a people".24 This was perhaps the most convincing of Greenwood's late utopias but the Israeli example was not pursued to the extent of her 1940s Soviet model. Only there was Greenwood able to draw together the disparate strands of the figure and convincingly locate them in a single "material" entity. At times the material utopia faded to leave little more than its abstract themes. Novelist Frank Yerby's heroine, "Fancy", for instance, made,

a journey by foot that took her by a long trail, out of Carolina and into Georgia, out of one life and into another, out of the past and into a new world centuries advanced from the circumscribed existence of the hills people.25

By 1953 Greenwood's utopia had come full circle. Eleanor Bor trod the well beaten trail "from India's burning plains to the high plateaux of Tibet that lie beyond the Himalays in the West far away to the Chinese borders beyond the high mountains of Assam".26 The moment of realisation had past. All that remained was the eternal quest.


1 Jill Roe, Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939 (Kensington: New South Wales University Press, 1986) p. 7.

2 Raoul Mortley, Womanhood. The Feminine in Ancient Hellenism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam (Sydney: Delacoix, 1981 p. 24, as quoted by Roe, p. 170.

3 Untitled script, Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 11 Sept 1936.

4 "Adventurers Madam Alexandra David-Neel and Miss Kathleen Glover", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 8 April 1938.

5 James Hilton, Lost Horizon (London: Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1933 rpt. 1956).

6 Frank Capra, dir, Lost Horizon, Columbia Pictures, 1937.

7 Untitled script 15 June 1945, Greenwood.

8 "Women of Liberated Yugoslavia", Greenwood.

9 Untitled script, 8 Jan 1937, Greenwood

10 Untitled script, Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 25 Sept, (Probably 1937).

11 Untitled script, Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 18 Feb 1938.

12 Irene A. Greenwood, Copy of letter to Charles Hartley Grattan, 21 Oct 1940, The Irene Greenwood Collection, Murdoch University.

13 "A Day in the Life of a Woman in a Timber Town", Overseas Broadcasts, VLQ, [no serial no.], writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Department of Information (Broadcasting Division), 25 Jan 1941.

14 "Items of Interest from Holland, Egypt, and Iran", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 21 Oct 1938.

15 "Mrs Laurene Diehl - Artist in Silhouettes, "Eulalie" - Mural Artist, Mrs Mary Long Whitmore - Landscape Artist", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1 July 1938.

16 Untitled script, Anti Fascist League Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 10 Nov 1943.

17 Herbert G, Wells A Modern Utopia, extract Glen Negley & Max Patrick, The Quest for Utopia (Maryland: McGrath Publishing Company, 1971), pp. 228-259

18 "Re-Building Russia: Women's Part", Greenwood.

19 "Women of Russia", Greenwood.

20 "Women and Adventure", Women in the International News, The Women's Session, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 25 March 1938.

21 Margaret Mead, "Towards More Vivid Utopias", in Science, 126, No 3280 (November 8, 1957), pp. 957-961. rpt in George Kateb (ed) Utopia (New York: Atherton Press, 1971) pp. 41-55.

22 "Male and Female", Book of the Week, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 24 Oct 1950.

23 "Makea Ariki, Chieftain of the Cook Islands", Women in the News, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 17 Oct 1950.

24 "Trial and Error", Book of the Week, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 30 Aug.,1950.

25 "A Woman Called Fancy", Book of the Week, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 5 Nov 1952.

26 "Adventures of a Botanists Wife", Book of the Week, Woman to Woman, writ. and prod., Irene A. Greenwood, 6PM-AM, 1 April 1953.

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