The Shoe-Horn Sonata by John Misto has five main themes or concerns. They are; History and Memory, Power and Control, Heroism and Relationships and War and Atrocities. John Misto explores all these ideas while telling the story of Bridie and Shelia’s reunion fifty years after they last saw each other.
The play is about the histories of the women and the nurses that were captive of the Japanese during World War Two; their individual histories and joint suffering. The stories of these women were never made official and there is no government recognition of their plight and few, if any, official records. These painful memories are not part of any official’ history and this is made clear in the play. “The British didn’t want anyone to know about us. They’d have lost prestige if people found out how women of the Empire had lived in the war. So for the sake for King and Country, they burned out diaries. Every last one.” Shelia, Scene Thirteen.
Misto makes it clear in the course of the play that the memories of the women are accurate. The oral stories from these fictional characters have juxtaposed over them the factual images to confirm and extrapolate the stories of the women. The visual images of the thin, starving people are very strong and clear to an audience, for example, Scene Seven opens with a photo of some women POW’s “emaciated, haggard and impoverished”.
This is shown while Bridie explains how thin Sheila and herself got while at the Japanese camps, “The lightest I got was exactly five stone ” The visual images show exactly what the women are talking about and add to the sense of theatre around the play. They heighten the audience’s understanding of the enormity of the issue.
There is use of background sounds throughout the play, for example in Scene Five when Bridie explains what happened on Radji Beach on Banka Island there is “sounds of machine gun fire and cries of women on the soundtrack”. The dues ex machine effect of these amplified sounds further highlights the theme of memories and history, linking both the action and the memories of the two women on stage.
The Shoe-Horn Sonata explores power relationships at a number of levels. The most obvious power play on stage occurs between the interviewer and the women he is interviewing. This power play has an ambiguous moment in which the women are uncertain as whether Rick has overheard a private’ conversation in Scene Ten. This is also explained in the stage directions: “Bridie and Shelia look up, startled. Then they both realise they are wearing small microphones. They both wonder whether every word has been overheard ” Rick also has the power to choose what questions to ask, and what to edit out of his documentary film.
On another level we can see the role of power between the prison guards and prisoners. The guards abuse their power physically, sexually and emotionally and many seemed to enjoy the pain they inflicted. Lipstick Larry’s comment in Scene Eight, “Plenty of room in the graveyard for her ” is typical of the cruelty the guard’s exhibit. The prisoners had little choice but to cooperate and be humiliated and abused, this in turn had a large physiological effect on both women.
This is shown when Shelia explains that she still has nightmares about Lipstick Larry in Scene Ten “[haunted] Every night when I fall asleep, Lipstick Larry’s waiting. He calls to me and I go to him and no one can change that. Not even you.”
The Japanese dominated the women in every aspect; they even made them bow to the Japanese flag every morning. In Scene Nine, the two characters are reminded of this power by the presence of the Japanese flag that is being projected on the back screen. It doesn’t move and dominates the stage; a continuing reminder of how the women lived their lives in the camp and the power and control that continues to affect them. This emphasises to the audience just how horrible the camps really were for the women and how they continue to affect them today, fifty years on.
Misto’s play revolves around the heroic deeds and relationships that are up held by the women during the war. The heroic deeds were acts of physical courage of the highest order. For Sheila, the supreme sacrifice of selling her body to the Japanese in order to obtain the necessary drugs for her friend’s survival is all the more poignant as we understand the cultural and
social background that she had come from.
Misto focuses on the unsung’ hero’s of the war, for example the Australia nurse that washed the bed pans of the women on the way to Belalau. “It was the bravest act I have ever seen. She didn’t get a medal for it but all of us loved for of that ” (Sheila) The stories of the two women are expanding the conventional view of heroism to include acts of sacrifice beyond simple physical courage.
The Shoe-Horn Sonata shows clearly that relationships are able to survive the toughest of times. The relationship of Bridie and Shelia survives not only the horror of the prisoner of war camps but also the pain of their reunion decades after the war. Misto uses a variety of theatrical techniques to convey this relationship to the audience and show that survival and growth are features of the relationship.
Misto gives evidence of how tough times were in the camps with a combination of dialogue and screen images being used to illustrate what had happened to these people, for example, the slides of the women POW’s at the open of Scene Seven. These slides portray the starving bodies, rough conditions and brutality yet through all this the relationship gets stronger.
The music played throughout the play symbolises the stage at which Bridie and Sheila’s relationship is. For example, Scene Ten closes with Anne Shelton’s “I’ll walk alone” displaying to the audience that at this point in the play Bridie and Sheila’s relationship is at its most fragile point because the truth about Sheila’s sacrifice has just been revealed.
The play highlights the horrors of war particularly for women and civilians. The atrocious way in which human beings treat fellow human beings in a wartime situation is not restricted to the Japanese, but seen to be central to war itself. The atrocities are seen to have affected both women’s lives ever after. For example Bridie’s fear of the Japanese people in David Jones.
What is particularly significant for these women is the requirement to keep smiling’ (Scene Nine) and to repress the memories. For these women the memories of the atrocities are tinged with guilt and shame. In some respects this amount to an even worse atrocity to plague the lives of these women after the war.
The humour used by Misto in the play, derives not only from the way in which the women used the power of the human spirit to laugh at adversity, but also from the way in which the playwright has juxtaposed those moments of recounting of comic events with the horrors of the memories of the reality. The light and dark in this play allows us to be both horrified and entertained. As in any great tragedy, the comic allows not simply relief from the pain, but help us to question the reasons for the horror.
John Misto believes that the women victims of this defeat of the British deserve to have their stories told and their sufferings recognised by a wide audience. Having talked to real survivors’ he wrote the play in the hope that more people would be exposed to their suffering and above all to their courage.
The dialogue, music, the sound effects and the projected images work together to shape the audiences response and to tell the powerful story of the women’s memories, raw vulnerability, strong relationships and heroism.