In the Sydney suburb of Glebe, after World War Two in 1949, a “bloke with a glass of wine” gives a speech he admits he was not expecting to give to a large assembly. He sees “some justice in the world” but also the “weariness” of the young people who “talk about imperialism and foreign wars and about being lied to.” He considers them “ingrates” and wishes he could teach them “what it was like [...] in a living hell” during the war. The man, who is Aboriginal, “thank[s] God for the Army.” He was “just another woebegone failure” when he joined, but the army gave him “dignity,” allowed him to make sense of his past and find a feeling of belonging in and loyalty to Australia. While the war was “the worst thing on earth,” it also “made me, and it made us, for better or worse.” He offers a toast.
As Act Two opens thirty years after of Act One. World War Two is not the only important historical event that has changed Aboriginal Australians’ fates: in this same year, Indigenous veterans (but not other Indigenous people) were given the right to vote. The “bloke with a glass of wine” seems to be parroting a cliched and conventional patriotic narrative about gaining recognition through service—his experience is precisely what World War One’s black diggers were hoping for (but, as the audience soon learns, never managed to accomplish).
Soldiers sing a song about paying to see a “fair tattooed lady.” The song describes her tattoos, which are national symbols of Australia ranging from “the words ‘Great ANZAC corps’” to “an emu and a fucking kangaroo.” The song’s lyrics end with, “but what we liked best was across her chest, my home in Woollomooloo.”
Again, Australian identity becomes articulated through the valorization of national symbols, which are mostly natural, but now include ANZAC, the corps of Australian World War One fighters who are now part of a nationalist canon. Of course, this is combined with the image of the nation as a woman, drawing a parallel from the male perspective between love for land and love for women.
In 1919, getting off their ship back home in Australia, Mick jokes that “they really rolled out the red carpet” but Archie tells him to take it easy. They shake hands and decide to agree “this wasn’t for nothing,” then promise to “make sure things don’t go back to the way they were.”
Upon their return, Archie and Mick are no longer confident in the war’s capacity to change their place in Australian society. Their personal agreement is a means of treating one another with dignity when they have no guarantee that their nation will do so.
Laurie leaves camp, having been decommissioned. Laurie’s friend is surprised to see that he is “back from the dead.” As he begins to tell his story, Bertie’s mom rushes into the scene and embraces Bertie, telling him how happy she is to see him and chastising him for falling out of touch. She explains her long journey and the family’s troubles at home—but Bertie says nothing and follows her away “stiffly, almost marching.”
Although Bertie’s mother has traveled halfway across the world to see him and is delighted that he is simply alive, he remains completely incapable of a normal emotional response, as though he has been paralyzed by the war. His marching away suggests that he has gotten stuck in the war, unable to give up military ways of doing things even on his way out of the military.
In a pub on Anzac Day in 1932, a pub worker kicks Archie and another digger out, even though they are dressed formally and even wearing their war medals, which the worker thinks might be fake. Archie explains that they want to honor their “mates who didn’t come back” and insists that they fought side by side “blokes like you” in Europe—but the worker, who also fought in the war, says he “never saw any men like you over there.” An RSL secretary tells the worker to let them in, “and anyone else with medals and rosemary,” because “we don’t see the skin, we see the service.” The bar’s manager agrees, and the secretary decides to buy Archie a drink.
This episode recalls Ern’s meeting with the son of his town’s barman, in which the white soldier promised Ern that he would always be invited into the bar. Unsurprisingly, this scene suggests that that was a false and unlikely promise, with not even the proof of Archie’s service initially sufficing to win him access to the bar. While the secretary luckily intervenes, the message is still clear: only military people, if anyone, will see the Indigenous veterans as equals—and even then, military people are likely simply making exceptions to their usual racism, rather than using their experience fighting aside Aboriginal men to question their racism altogether.
At a public meeting in the Western District of Victoria in 1922, a worker from the Soldier Settlement Commission explains to three farmers that the government is appropriating some of their land to give to soldiers. The farmers protest that, beyond being unjust, the land is barely productive. Still, the bureaucrat says that the soldiers will have “new techniques, fertilisers and so on…” The farmers ask if they will get to use “these new techniques,” but the public servant refers them to “a different department.” They have no right to appeal the decision, he explains.
This meeting shows both how the colonial expropriation of Indigenous land—including, here, land granted to Indigenous people after the theft of their original land—continued after (and was even justified by) World War One. The absurdity of the white settlers’ government bureaucracy is on full display here, with the man in charge of delivering land reduced to a single function and therefore charged with enforcing racist policy, regardless of his personal beliefs.
Mick Dempsey asks if he has a right to some of this land, which his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather farmed. The public servant tells him he has to apply for land, and the farmers announce that Mick is “a serious war hero.” Mick asks if other aboriginal servicemen have been awarded land settlements, but the public servant claims it is “not [his] department.” The farmers note that the land being given away is “rocky outcrops” and “swamps,” where nothing can grow.
Beyond simply taking Indigenous land for white soldiers, the government even takes what is rightfully Indigenous soldiers’ land—because they are excluded from the legal regime of land ownership to begin with (and therefore their de facto possession of land is never recognized as legal). Even though the land is useless and the farmers foreground Mick’s time fighting for Australia, the bureaucrat has no power to do anything but follow orders; there is no question that official channels will eventually ignore Mick.
Mick gives a speech, recalling his four years in the war, watching his friends die, and thinking, “you’re finally fighting to protect what’s yours.” They are in an Indigenous town, one created when whites forced Aboriginal people to migrate. And now that he has returned from the war to his land, the government is taking his land away with “a stroke of the pen.” Whereas for white Australians “the war’s over,” Mick insists, for Indigenous people “it’s never going to end.”
Mick realizes that conflating the two Australias—his traditional relationship to the land and the nation built upon it—was a mistake because the latter is permanently dedicated to eradicating the former. If joining the war effort was an attempt at achieving rights by appeasing the state, it is now clear that the only way to truly do so is to confront the state.
In 1920, at a cattle ranch called Bertha Downs, Archie wears a coat in the rain while the farm overseer takes shelter on the verandah. Archie points out that men who can no longer work there end up homeless, and that the women do not get compensated. The overseer says he does not care about Archie’s time in the war and complains that he has been “the worst kind of black, an uppity one,” since returning home. The manager insists Archie work and shut up, then threatens Archie’s family and blames him for “[getting] me angry.”
While the war built up Archie’s confidence to speak out against injustice, it did nothing to make the system more responsive to him; his strength and sense of responsibility toward the other workers become seen as liabilities. In a sense, whites are invested in turning Indigenous people into the morally and culturally underdeveloped people they already believe them to be, in order to justify exploiting their labor as their “protector.”
After the overseer leaves, Archie complains to his friend, who wants to stay out of the argument and tells Archie he has changed. Another worker, an “old hand,” claims Archie thinks he’s “better than [the rest of] us” and suggests he leave. Archie laments that he “thought things would change after the War,” and the “old hand” says that Archie is “the only thing that’s changed round here.”
Just as the Trinidadians insulted Mick for the skin color they share, Archie’s coworkers put him down because they see him as both in competition with them and likely to provoke the overseer’s irrational wrath at them all. Accordingly, they defend the overseer from whom they stand to gain more in the short term, instead of pursuing their long-term interests in finding more just work opportunities.
In 1939, at the Queensland reservation called Cherbourg where they grew up (back when it was called Barambah), Ern and Norm sit by a fire. Ern complains that his remaining arm has started to shake. Yelling into Norm’s one good ear, he speaks of his nightmares and the way everyday events in Australia remind him of the war, like when watching a raven kill a lamb reminds him of a man named Pat Daffy dying. Ern leaves, and Norm listens to an old hymn about looking to Canaan from the Jordan River, before pontificating about how nobody cared about color in the war, “and when they called me mate they meant it.” When he got back to Australia, he foolishly thought relations between whites and Indigenous people would be better. But “they painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat,” and he no longer understands what he was fighting for—he “won something over there” but “lost it back here.”
Ern and Norm end up precisely where they started—the only thing that has changed is their injuries, both physical and psychological, because of the War. It has become impossible for them to understand their lives except through the lens of the war, although it means opposite things to both of them (demonstrating the variety of Indigenous war experiences): Ern remains fixated on the war’s pain and violence, Norm on its momentary promise of racial equality. Norm, however, also sees that these two temporary conditions are related: whites treated Indigenous soldiers as equal only because all faced the same threat of a sudden, violent death.
Each with a different disability, the cast members sing the hymn Norm was listening to, “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.” Looking across to Canaan, “where my possessions lie,” they sing, “I am bound for the promised land.”
The soldiers’ purported faith in the “promised land” appears either stubborn or so improbable as to be ironic; they could be seen as talking about heaven or parodying their earlier faith that the war would improve their fates in Australia.
In 1935, a minister stands before the grave of a pauper, completely alone. He delivers a eulogy to the man, “Tank Stand Tommy,” whose real name nobody knows. People only knew the homeless Tommy for sleeping under his tank, drinking and swearing, smelling horrible and crying loudly in public. People did not know about his war service—after his death, three medals were discovered among his few possessions, and it turned out he spent three days buried alive in Pozieres. “Acquainted with death,” it made sense that he could not “sleep within walls” after returning to Australia. The minister throws dirt on the coffin and leaves.
As this scene progresses, the audience gradually learns that “Tank Stand Tommy” is the same Tommy who, alongside Bertie, was buried alive and traumatized upon his rescue. By only gradually revealing this information, the play makes the audience members complicit in Tommy’s anonymity, forcing them to imagine the progression of a life scarcely remembered or knowable from the outside—like all the stories from which this book’s characters are drawn. Of course, Tommy’s ultimate fate reflects the perfect storm of severe trauma combined with the Australian government’s utter indifference toward Indigenous soldiers.
In the town of Murgon in 1939, Ern walks into a pharmacy and gives the chemist his war medals, because his family is “not interested” and “they’ll only get lost.”
Unlike his friends Norm and Bob, during the war Ern was confident that his sacrifices would be recognized. Unfortunately, he, too, was mistaken—and the indifference to his service comes not only from Australian society at large, but also those close to him.
In a new scene, short excerpts from soldiers’ letters fall from the ceiling and the cast reads them. In the first, a soldier thought his service would “make [him] a naturalised British subject and a man with freedom.” Instead, he ended up stuck on a farm settlement “like a dog” in Australia. In the second letter, someone named Higgins laments that his family did not get to claim the same privileges as white Australians, even though five of them served in the war. In the third, a veteran reveals that he has decided to pass as Maori and leave the farm where he has been working, since he is being treated even worse than in the past, as he waits for his back pay. In the fourth, Ernest Hopkins explains that he enlisted under a different name, but does not understand “why I have to prove what my former comrades do not…”
The format of this scene—anonymous letters—is extraordinarily significant because it directly points to the play’s own archival foundation. All the letters and stories from which the play’s playwright, director, and research team drew were at least partially anonymous (much remained unknown about even the most readily identifiable soldiers) and largely fragmented. All the stories that fall from the ceiling testify to the Australian government’s discrimination against Indigenous veterans after World War One, a position unfortunately perfectly commensurate with its earlier (and many present-day) policies.
In the fifth letter, a schoolmaster vouches for “Mr. Prudden,” whose shell shock has gone untreated and unacknowledged. The sixth letter concerns “the gross injustice intended to us [Indigenous veterans] by depriving us of our food.” And the seventh implores the RSL to appeal to the State Government and help “grant full citizen privileges to every one of us coloured soldiers,” instead of leaving them “servile to the Aborigines’ Protection Board.”
The letters subtly transition from complaint to advocacy, bearing witness to calling for change, which points to a parallel process underway in the play itself as it turns from the effects of war in Act One to specific condemnations of policy failures in Act Two. As petitions to the government, these letters adopt the necessary medium and tone for making change, but it remains to be seen whether any of them will be taken seriously.
In the woods near the Murrumbidgee river in 1927, Bertie’s Grandad laments that the formerly beautiful land has grown covered with trenches because of irrigation. Bertie, now 25, simply stares into space and holds the lock of Frank’s hair, as his mum says he is “not coming back from the world of the grown-ups.” Before the land was irrigated, when it used to burn, Grandad remembers, “little green shoots came up everywhere.”
The irreversible destruction of the land parallels and predicts Bertie’s irreversible psychological decline as a result of the war; both, of course, are results of the same settler colonial process. By clutching the lock of Frank’s hair, Bertie represents his continued fixation on the violence he witnessed during the war, his dedication to preserving the memory of a fallen compatriot, and the impossible hope to return Frank to his ancestral land and restore Australia to its traditional form—and owners.
On Castlereagh Street in 1949, Harry is begging for money and Stan, in a suit, passes by, before they recognize one another and try to catch up. Harry admits he cannot find work, and Stan admits he is now working at the Department of Lands. They momentarily recall the war and Stan gives Harry some cash. Harry “shuffles off” and Stan laments, “we that are left, grow old.”
More than three decades after they met in the war, Harry and Stan’s promise to remain friends (and go for a drink) never comes to fruition. Instead, their opposite fates seem to have resulted purely from how the government apportioned out opportunities based on race—in fact, Stan works for the agency that has been appropriating Indigenous land. Their chance encounter emphasizes that the fundamental problem is not individual discrimination or goodwill, but rather a structural commitment to fostering unequal outcomes based on racial background.
In 1937, Laurie collects congregants’ hymn books at a church in the city of Mount Gambier. Someone stops and asks if he was in the Light Horse, fighting in Palestine. The man recognizes him, since “you’d hardly forget a face like yours,” but Laurie denies this and insists it must be someone else. He claims to be “just an usher on the Sabbath, doing my duty,” but the man insists. Laurie breaks and tells the man, Mr. Burchett, that the war is “of this world. This broken, weak, sad world.” But Laurie prefers to “think of another world.” Mr. Burchett leaves and Laurie turns off the lights before remembering that he “walked in the Holy Land,” which is “enough for [him].”
Laurie’s encounter with the soldier from the Light Horse perfectly parallels Harry’s encounter with Stan; just as he prayed furiously when he first landed at Dardanelles, Laurie continues to turn to religion for the promise of a better future that the world refuses to give him. His optimism is belied by a deep despair, for the war seems to have broken his faith in the world and even his desire to continue existing in it.
In Forest Lodge, Sydney, in 1929, Nigel writes a letter condemning the previous year’s Coniston massacre and insisting that Australia’s “brutality and savage butchery” continues. He charges the public with “a strange silence, a lack of curiosity, and a peculiar lack of outrage” about the massacre, which is contrary to the values he fought for in the War. On the other side of the stage, there is a newspaper office, and its workers come over and take Nigel’s letter, which they find difficult to believe could be the work of a “darkie.” An assistant suggests printing a copy of the letter to show Nigel’s “beautiful handwriting” and prove “that aborigines are educated enough to write like this,” and the editors agree to make Nigel’s handwriting the story as they insist that nobody will bother to read the content of his letter or care about the massacre.
Just as in the book’s opening scenes and his time in the Zössen Camp, white people entirely reduce Nigel’s humanity to an appearance that they find intriguing—here, they ignore the meaning of his message because they are impressed by his handwriting (which, signifying his education, should ordinarily be a reason for them to take him seriously). Again, he is treated as a spectacle rather than a human being, and indeed spreading the notion “that aborigines are educated enough to write like this” is likely to achieve the opposite effect that Nigel wants and make whites think their Aboriginal countrymen are doing just fine. Of course, it is also historically significant that Indigenous Australians were still being massacred by the government more than a decade after World War One.
On George Street in downtown Sydney, Nigel wears a costume reading “TARZAN THE APE MAN” and hands out flyers for the show. He drinks and says, “Sorry Dad.”
Given that his brilliant letter presumably failed to win him a writing career, Nigel’s eventual job is an unfortunate echo of his earliest days, when the Taxidermist responsible for stuffing apes saved his life. The sign around his neck implies that he was hired to advertise the Tarzan show because others, as always, see him as an “ape man”—as not fully human because of his race.
An old soldier, who turns out to be Ern, gives a long monologue in 1956. He remembers entering the war so naïve, too young to understand “the way the world worked.” When he returned to Australia and showed people his scars, “they whistled and said poor bugger you and we all got on with things.” Sometimes he wondered if the war really happened, but for the most part he was happy to have gotten on with his life.
Ern’s final words to the audience initially suggest that he has fared better than the other Indigenous soldiers—that, despite his physical wounds, he managed to recover from his trauma psychologically and focus on “[getting] on with things.”
During World War Two, Ern says, one day his scar began “oozing that lovely rich black blood.” He got fixed up, but when he removed the bandages, the smell reminded him of the war, and then he dug his fingers into his wound and pulled a piece of bullet shell casing out. In the following three years, he found seventeen other pieces. This is what happens after war: metal “inches its way up,” a little bit every year. He gave the pieces to his grandchildren, and the next Anzac Day he went into town in the rain, feeling “about as lonely as a black bastard can feel,” and cried on the street before going to the pub, where “our mob” shouted “Coony! Coony! We thought you was dead!” Ern finds this “funny. Because for a long time, I was.”
Ern’s scar and bullet casings represent the way that trauma can remain latent, sitting under the surface for years and sinisterly grating at people until they are forced to confront it. It is no coincidence that Ern’s wounds start bleeding during World War Two, when a new generation of men faces the same challenges, disappointments, and injuries that he and his friends had 30 years earlier. In giving the pieces to his grandchildren, he comments on the importance of passing down memories about and evidence of his experience—including through cultural means like this play. Although his friends still call him by a racial slur, he is simply glad to fully and genuinely feel again.
A recessional hymn uses war metaphors to implore God not to let people forget their pain and celebrate God’s “ancient sacrifice.”
This hymn is at once a literal plea for salvation in the context of Ern’s monologue and a call for people to remember the Indigenous soldiers’ sacrifice.
In 1993, the Prime Minister speaks at the opening of Australia’s “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” The Prime Minister explains that everything about “this Australian” is unknown, from his home and rank in the military to his occupation, religion, and family.
This speech from a real historical moment shows how the Australian government, like the team that produced Black Diggers, has sought to foreground the invisibility of many of the most important contributors to the war effort. And yet this play has put faces on numerous otherwise unknown Indigenous soldiers in order to show how their stories must be remembered and transmitted alongside whites’—in many ways, Aboriginal soldiers are so forgotten that they are not even imagined as possible candidates for the “Unknown Solider.”
At the Callan Park psychiatric hospital in 1951, a nurse wheels a sleeping man past Nigel and asks if he is “enjoying the sun,” but tells him not to “stay out too long.” He claims to be “the British Forces Representative in this camp” and promises to “intervene on your behalf with the Red Cross.” The nurse asks Nigel if he can see people “rowing on Iron Cove,” and he replies that he can see “the big world” beyond. The nurse reminds Nigel to join the following morning’s service (presumably for Anzac Day). Nigel says, “I don’t want to join in. I don’t belong.” The light fades and the play ends.
The play ends as it starts, with Nigel’s fate. Despite his talent as a writer, he was unable to achieve anything after the war because he was never taken seriously. This final, distressing scene shows how the war both comes to define Nigel’s identity (it figures centrally in his thoughts and interactions with the nurse) and quite literally drives him to madness when it proves, although painful, the most fruitful and accomplished period of his life. At the same time, this is the only example of any soldier getting psychiatric care (although it is clearly far too late to make a significant difference). With Nigel’s last words, he condemns a system that has failed him and his fellow black diggers.