One motivation behind the initial production of Black Diggers was the necessity of publicly honoring a previously forgotten group of men who played a central role in both Indigenous Australian history and the Australian military effort in World War I. But, of necessity, the play was borne of an anonymous and fragmented archive full of salient vignettes but few complete stories. While the play’s fragmented format honors this source—it offers dozens of short scenes in less than two hours—playwright Tom Wright’s decision to turn fragments into full characters represents the same kind of transformation he hopes to effect in the public eye: the development of a coherent narrative about the forgotten soldiers he portrays, as well as a recognition of the very importance of bearing witness. Accordingly, through its form and its use of the same kind of documents it is based on as narrative tropes, Black Diggers continually comments on its origin and project, portraying the process of forgetting that the play itself is designed to undo.
The play seeks to correct and rewrite Australian history by centering Indigenous experiences and honoring the black diggers in a way the Australian government never did. In his introduction to the text, director Wesley Enoch argues that the play is a means of translating oral history—alive but limited to immediate family settings—and forgotten stories embedded in archives into public history that can bear on Australia as a whole. In turning his research into stories, Tom Wright combined various fragments of stories he encountered into a handful of characters that Enoch describes as “archetypal character journeys.” Because Indigenous soldiers’ experiences were mediated through the anonymity and unreliability of an archive, Wright decides to get at the deep truth of personal experience by foregoing the surface-level truth of individuals’ identities. At the end of the play, the playwright includes a letter from an Indigenous Colonel whose ancestors also served in the Australian Army and who sees the work as “a powerful medium toward recognition and reconciliation” and deems it a much-needed corrective to the erasure of Indigenous soldiers’ efforts. When the Retired Schoolmaster asks if they are planning to fight in the war, Harry and his friends’ response is lukewarm and confused: in a scene just thereafter, Harry insists that “no-one knows what it’s all about.” One of his friends gives a meticulous, historically accurate description of the war’s origins, but Harry repeats his claim that nobody can explain the war. This refusal to acknowledge the obvious truth points to how truths are forgotten and eroded throughout history, which ends up repeating them, and subtly points to the play’s purpose. During a burial scene, the soldiers sing a song, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which is precisely about this issue: the way history’s lessons are forgotten as “the flood” of time and experience makes “the busy tribes” lose track of their roots.
The text also uses anonymity and documentary evidence as tropes, commenting on its own process of creation and pointing to the Indigenous invisibility it hopes to remedy both in and beyond the context of the First World War. One of the play’s longest scenes is an undated monologue narrated by a ghost who watched his bunkmate get shot in the face by a German soldier. The anonymous nature of the scene shows both how soldiers shared the experience of confronting horrific violence and how they were rendered invisible by that violence; in particular, it points to the way so many Indigenous soldiers both remained anonymous and were buried on the spot in Europe when killed, without the proper recognition and ceremonies at home.
Another scene shows the Australian Prime Minister inaugurating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which points to both the anonymity of the people turned into characters in the play and the way Indigenous military histories have remained unknown and been lost through assimilation into national myths about the Australian military. Similarly, many of the play’s central characters—like Nigel and Tommy—end up anonymous and forgotten by their country, which foreshadows Indigenous soldiers’ treatment in the century to follow. And yet another scene has the actors read disjointed excerpts from a series of anonymous letters, directly mirroring the archival material out of which this play was written. The named characters are also known to their families only through letters—Archie repeatedly writes letters to his Auntie May, and when Bertie wants his family to get him discharged, he has to put his request obliquely in writing by referring his mother to the circus show she talked about to represent his youth and hope to earn the same opportunities as whites.
While Black Diggers does not purport to tell any true stories, its fragments are expressly designed to get at a deep collective truth, not only about the Indigenous Australian experience of World War I, but also about the consequences of losing track of history and necessity of bearing witness for a nation that continues, to various extents, to forget its Indigenous people in the same way as it did in the war’s aftermath.
History, Memory, and the Archive ThemeTracker
History, Memory, and the Archive Quotes in Black Diggers
One purpose of Indigenous theatre is to write onto the public record neglected or forgotten stories.
In post apartheid South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission there was a four-part definition of truth:
- Personal truth — the thing you believe to be true
- Social truth — what a group believe to be true through discussion and debate
- Forensic truth — the truth that can be proven through science and records
- Public truth — the value of telling the truth for the greater good
And the worst of it is that Ollie is still alive, he’s in the hospital and he hasn’t got a face but he’s alive Aunty May. But he hasn’t got a face Aunty May, he hasn’t got a face.
REPORTER: Surely the letter’s point is about the massacre up in the Territory?
EDITOR: No-one’s interested in payback in the back of Bourke. An Aborigine who can write like this is a much better story. He must be doing all right for himself, mustn’t he?
I reached round and felt just here under that scar and yep it was oozing that lovely rich black blood you know not the fairy light stuff close to the surface skin blood no this was that dark dark blood that comes from deep and has been there for ages, you know? […] You see, when there’s been a war there’s metal everywhere, just tons of it and it gets buried in the mud and the dirt and it gets forgotten.