Black Diggers

Black Diggers

Black Diggers Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tom Wright's Black Diggers. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tom Wright

Acclaimed Australian playwright Tom Wright was raised in Melbourne, the capital of Australia’s southeastern state of Victoria, where he studied Fine Art and English at university before becoming a full-time actor in the 1990s. Over the next ten years, he gradually shifted from acting to writing, finding his first major success in This Is a True Story, a one-man show about an American man on death row that he wrote and performed around the world. Ever since, he has come to be known primarily for his translations and adaptations of older plays, including the works of German playwright Bertolt Brecht (such as The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Baal, and The Good Person of Szechuan), Shakespeare’s histories, and numerous works of ancient Greek drama (e.g. Medea, The Trojan Women, and The Oresteia). From 2003 to 2012, he worked as an Artistic Associate and then the Associate Director at the Sydney Theatre Company, and since 2016 he has been an Artistic Associate at Belvoir, another theater company in Sydney.
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Historical Context of Black Diggers

  Black Diggers focuses on the unlikely and largely forgotten intersection of two essential stories in Australian history: Australian forces’ participation in World War One and the genocide and legally-sanctioned discrimination against Indigenous Australians by white settlers. World War One started after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and retaliation efforts by Austria-Hungary drew virtually all the major European powers into a conflict of unprecedented scale. Still a dominion of the United Kingdom, Australia immediately backed Britain when it declared war on Germany in early August of 1914. Of Australia’s population of five million, more than 400,000 Australian men, including at least 1,000 Indigenous Australians, fought in the war; roughly half of them died or were wounded. However, for Australia’s Indigenous population, which has lived on the continent for at least 60,000 years, life was something like a state of war for many generations before World War One. When the British began colonizing Australia in 1788, they almost immediately began massacring Indigenous people and appropriating their land, and also brought a number of diseases (including smallpox, influenza, and measles) and drugs like opium and alcohol. Together, these factors decimated Indigenous communities, reducing their population from as many as a million to roughly 50,000 by 1930 and displacing them onto arid, desolate regions of the island. The government pursued its openly genocidal policy toward Aboriginal Australians by depriving them of citizenship and political representation, removing Indigenous children from their parents, and forcing large numbers of Indigenous Australians into institutions (where they were routinely abused) and farm work (where they were often underpaid and unable to leave). Indigenous Australians were not given the right to vote until the 1960s, although that right awarded to Indigenous servicepeople in certain states after World War Two, and Indigenous children were forcibly taken from their families as late as the 1970s. In 2008, the Australian Prime Minister delivered a formal apology to the nation’s Indigenous peoples, although the government refused an amendment that would have required compensating Indigenous peoples for the theft of their land and slaughter of their ancestors. In the 21st century, Indigenous Australians continue to suffer from disproportionately high poverty rates, poor living conditions, employment discrimination, and low-quality healthcare when compared with the rest of the nation’s population.

Other Books Related to Black Diggers

Indigenous works play an important and growing role in Australian literary culture, starting with Wiradjuri activist and writer Kevin Gilbert’s 1968 classic The Cherry Pickers. The first English-language play by an Aboriginal writer and the first major Australian play performed by an all-Aboriginal cast, The Cherry Pickers dramatized Gilbert’s own teenage years picking fruit and working other itinerant jobs around New South Wales. Other prominent early plays of the genre include Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man (1975) and Bob Maza’s Mereki (1986) and The Keepers (1988). Eva Johnson, a Malak Malak woman from Australia’s Northern Territory, has written a number of acclaimed plays, of which her best-known is Tjindarella (1984). Plays like Andrea James’ Yanagai! Yanagai! (2003), about the Yorta Yorta people’s attempt to claim their ancestral land in the Australian legal system, and Jane Harrison’s Stolen (1997), about five Indigenous children forcibly removed from their parents, are now frequently performed and taught in Australian high schools. Wesley Enoch, the Indigenous director of Black Diggers, is widely considered one of the contemporary leading voices in Aboriginal theater. He has written award-winning plays including Black Medea (2005), an Aboriginal adaptation of the famous Greek tragedy, and The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (2005), a story about an Indigenous woman in the 19th century who builds her life as a domestic worker serving white men at a kitchen table made of the tree under which she was born. Author Tom Wright’s other works are largely adaptations and translations of older plays, though he is also well-known for two plays dealing with the experiences of death row inmates: This Is a True Story (2002) and Lorilei: A Meditation on Loss (2003).
Key Facts about Black Diggers
  • Full Title: Black Diggers
  • When Written: 2014
  • Where Written: Sydney, Australia
  • When Published: First performed in 2014
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Theater
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: Australia, Europe (France, Belgium, and Germany), the Middle East
  • Climax: Towards the end of the second act, letters fall from the ceiling and are read aloud by the cast; they are excerpts from Indigenous soldiers’ correspondence that recount the government’s neglect of their welfare.
  • Antagonist: Institutionalized racism in Australia, the Australian government, the Central Powers during World War One, shell shock/PTSD
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for Black Diggers

Personal Connections. Many of the actors in the first productions of Black Diggers had personal connections to the history of Indigenous service. One actor realized that significant archival information came from his great-grandfather, and another had five generations of Indigenous servicemen in his family.

Group Effort. The play’s creation was a group effort, initiated by the Belgian director of the Sydney Festival (a major yearly arts festival) when he discovered that an Australian Aboriginal soldier was buried in his hometown during World War One. He enlisted a researcher, David Williams, and a director, Wesley Enoch. Writer Tom Wright only joined the team later, which is why Enoch and Williams’ writings are included alongside Wright’s in the text of the play.