Bridie’s voice sounds out in total darkness as she explains how Japanese guards in World War II used to make their female prisoners bow to them. Saying that she had to stay bowed “for hours” at a time, she adds that she was never to look a guard in the eye. As such, she would “stare at the dirt” and wonder why she “ever left Chatswood in the first place.” At this point, a spotlight shines on her, and an “On-Air” sign becomes visible behind her. “And why did you?” asks Rick (the television interviewer), wanting to know why Bridie ever left home to go to war. In response, Bridie admits that she wanted to be like her father, a soldier who fought in Egypt. “He didn’t want me to enlist but I could tell that he was proud,” she says.
In the very first moments of this initial scene, it is clear that The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play that examines the ways in which people talk about traumatic experiences. As Bridie sits down for what seems to be an interview about her experience as a prisoner of war, she tries to accurately convey what it was like to be forced into a position of inferiority and deference. As she does so, Misto subtly hints at the fact that talking about painful memories is an important part of the healing process—otherwise, why else would Bridie agree to rehash her traumatic experiences? On another note, the fact that Bridie goes out of her way to say that her father “was proud” of her is worth keeping in mind as the play progresses, as it suggests that people are often motivated by pride and patriotism to do dangerous things.
Bridie tells Rick, the interviewer, that her father gave her a shoe-horn on the day she left Australia. “There are three things every young soldier should know,” her father told her. “Always use a shoe-horn—it’ll make your boots last longer. Don’t sit on a toilet till you’ve lined the seat with paper. And never kiss a Pommie on the lips.” Happily remembering this advice, Bridie adds that she had never left Australia before that day, though she wasn’t “homesick” because she was immediately busy in Johore Bahru, a city near Singapore (in British Malaya) where the Australian military set up an army hospital. In those initial days of the war, she and her fellow nurses would often go dancing, and Bridie admits that it was “hard to believe [they] were on the brink of war.”
When Bridie’s father tells her to “never kiss a Pommie on the lips,” Misto introduces the friendly but sometimes tense rivalry between Australians and Brits (“Pommie” is a term for a British person). In this way, the playwright alerts the audience members to the extent to which patriotism will factor into the play. Of course, as an Australian army nurse, Bridie will work alongside Brits, since Australia and England were allies during World War II. As such, her father’s rather humorous jab at the Brits is harmless, though it underlines the fact that, even though Bridie will no doubt encounter fellow soldiers from England, there might still exist a certain amount of friction between her and her supposed allies.
Bridie’s surroundings slowly become apparent to the audience, and it becomes clear that she’s in a “television studio where she is being interviewed for a documentary.” Continuing her recollection of the early days of World War II in Johore Bahru, Bridie says that nobody quite grasped the danger of the situation, ultimately underestimating the Japanese. In fact, the British even neglected to “fortify the shore-lines” because they didn’t want to “spoil their beaches.” When the Japanese planes finally started flying overhead, Bridie turned to a soldier she was taking care of in the hospital and said that she was certain the British and Australian planes would be “waiting to greet them,” but the soldier only gave her a sad smile, saying, “But sister, don’t’ you know? We don’t have a proper air-force.” It was only then that Bridie understood that the Japanese could easily overtake them.
In this moment, the audience sees Bridie’s unexamined faith in her country and the British Empire. Having a ignored the gradual escalation of wartime events, she fails to grasp that she’s in danger. This is because she has invested herself in a prideful kind of patriotism, one that has blinded her to reality. As such, it comes as a horrifying shock when she realizes that the Japanese are perfectly capable of decimating the British and Australian forces.
When Rick asks how the British reacted to the Japanese bombing of Malaya, Bridie tells him that they saw it as a “personal insult.” Before long, British and Australian troops alike retreated to Singapore, though this didn’t help them escape Japanese bombs. Still, Bridie continued to work hard as a nurse, treating soldiers in the Singapore hospitals even though there were too many wounded people to help. As the situation became more and more dangerous, the nurses and soldiers in the hospitals wore helmets, and “if a soldier didn’t’ have one, [the nurses] made him wear a bedpan.” Eventually, Bridie says, the British officers considered whether or not to shoot the army nurses. “They promised we’d be buried with full military honours,” Bridie says, explaining that this might be better than getting raped by Japanese soldiers. “They’re very considerate like that—the British,” she says.
Once the British and Australian militaries realize they’re in grave danger, their first consideration is how they might retain their pride. Indeed, the British officers who consider killing Bridie and her fellow nurses are fixated on the importance of being “buried with military honours,” thinking that this formal token of respect is more important than a person’s life. Of course, Bridie disagrees, going out of her way to snidely disparage the British—yet another indication of her low-level antipathy toward her own allies.
Telling Rick what it was like to finally flee from Singapore, Bridie says that she and the other military nurses boarded a ferry meant to hold 12 people, though in that moment there were 300 passengers. Even though she knew she had to leave for her safety, she was hesitant to leave behind her patients. “But we had no choice,” she says. “I said goodbye to every one of them.” As she looked back on Singapore and watched it “burn,” she couldn’t believe her eyes. “Singapore, Fortress of the Empire…” she says.
Despite her fear, Bridie doesn’t want to leave her patients. This is a demonstration of her kindness, empathy, and willingness to put herself in dangerous situations for other people. However, she also knows that she’ll die if she stays in Singapore, so she leaves. In turn, Misto suggests that, although Bridie is a compassionate person who’s willing to sacrifice herself for others, there is a limit to what she’ll do for someone else.
In total, 44 boats—each carrying 300 people—left Singapore that night. Bridie explains that the British “had refused to evacuate civilians” because they couldn’t fathom the idea that their Empire in the “Far East” would be defeated. At the last minute, though, they piled everyone—women, children, soldiers—onto boats and sent them off, not knowing that they were headed straight for Japanese “destroyers.” As Bridie narrates this tale, photographs are displayed on a screen behind her, showing pictures of Singapore in 1942, when it was “at the height of its prosperity—and on the brink of a terrible catastrophe.” Then, just as the song “Rule Britannia” (a patriotic song about the strength of Britain) comes to an end, a photograph appears on the screen of a sign that says, “Don’t listen to Rumour.” “If only they had…” Misto writes in his stage note.
Once again, Misto shows the audience that an unyielding sense of patriotism can blind people to danger. Indeed, the British are so committed to the idea of their own infallibility that they fail to see that the Japanese are capable of destroying them in Malaya. Because of this excessive pride, they eventually find themselves at a severe disadvantage when they’re forced to flee at the last minute.