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On The Whipping Side by Errol O'Neill



THEMES: Australian History, 1891 Shearers’ Strike, Early Unionism
LENGTH: 150 Minutes

Based on the events of the 1891 Queensland Shearer’s Strike.


Errol O’Neill‘s On the Whipping Side is based on the events of the 1891 Queensland Shearer’s Strike and challenges audiences to consider issues of worker’s rights, fair representation, and the employee-employer relationship. Squatters, shearers, unionists, journalists, business owners, politicians, their families – all are represented in Errol O’Neill’s sweeping epic.

On the Whipping Side is one of the many plays that Errol wrote about the history of the Queensland labour movement. The other plays include Playlab Theatre’s New Vintage publication Popular Front and Faces in the Street.


When landowner Frederick Fairbairn asks the shearer’s – including old hand Mick Keegan and the more youthful Frank Connolly – to pay for their own equipment and take a pay cut, the ripples begin to spread…

On the Whipping Side is a drama which contextualises and dissects our political landscape by anchoring itself within historical fact, gaining two big thumbs up from the former PM. It offers audiences insight into the impacts and a legacy of Australia’s early labour movement and, in so doing, gives context to Australia’s contemporary industrial landscape.


Errol O’Neill was a jack of all arts; an actor, director, dramaturg, playwright, and producer, his prolific work ethic and dedication to local theatre is matched only by our sorrow at his recent passing. Errol’s constant engagement with Australian stories and the socio-political discourses within our national identity has enriched not only Queensland’s theatre community, but also Australia’s theatrical landscape.

On The Whipping Side completes his trilogy dealing with the history of Queensland’s Labour movement, focussing specifically on the 1891 Shearer’s Strike. Though O’Neill himself was pro-union, in the play he presents a balanced critique of each argument and portrays a range of opinions. Gough Whitlam (the first Labour PM in 23 years in 1972) was present for it’s debut, and the former Labour prime minister regarded it as a valuable resource for young people to learn about the path our country took and how it was shaped by it. This occurred mere months after the death of the John Kerr, who had released him of his commission as PM, a month Paul Keating officially challenged Bob Hawke for the leadership, in a year when thousands of people demanded the government’s resignation, the outrage over the legislation regarding Aboriginal Land Rights, and a national wage decision. The timing could not have been more apt for a conversation about worker’s rights, and discussion of representation and the employee/employer relationship. All the New Vintage plays give insight in to where we have come from in relation to where we are now, and prompts discussion around the future. But this play and its context- both surrounding the first production and within the script- hold a nebulous significance within Australia’s theatrical history.

“I can personally attest that the subsequent performances on tour to the very towns featured in the story were amongst the most electric and meaningful I have ever witnessed. The descendants of the main players in this history saw at last that good theatre is not something remote and medicinal. Errol proves that it can and should be about what has shaped our lives — about ourselves,” Aubrey Mellor.


On the Whipping Side was first directed by Aubrey Mellor and produced by the Royal Queensland Theatre Company. It premiered at the Pilbeam Theatre, Rockhampton on August 16, 1991 before touring North Queensland. It also enjoyed a four-week run at the Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane as part of the Royal Queensland Theatre Company’s mainstage season.

ISBN 0 908 156 413

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