The Shoe-Horn Sonata


John Misto

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The Shoe-Horn Sonata: Act Two, Scene Nine Summary & Analysis

In the studio once again, Sheila tells Rick that half of their choir died by April, 1945. This was when they moved to Belalau, and though they didn’t know it, “all over Asia thousands of prisoners were on the move” because “an order had been issued” saying that “every prisoner of war” should “die by October 1945.” This is why they were moved to Belalau, where the Japanese thought the prisoners would “never be found.” Sheila then tells Rick an abbreviated version of the story about how Bridie contracted malaria and almost died. Indeed, she tells him that she went to Lipstick Larry and offered to swap the shoe-horn for antimalarial tablets, saying that he “took pity” on her and decided to accept the deal. “So that shoe-horn ended up saving you both. You in the sea—and Bridie in camp,” Rick says.
Even though Sheila has finally told the truth about her rape to Bridie, she isn’t ready to reveal this to Rick, especially since doing so would mean broadcasting her story on television. Of course, her decision to keep these details to herself are completely understandable—after all, she doesn’t necessarily need to tell thousands of people that she was raped in order to properly process her trauma. At the same time, though, hiding the actual details of this tale must hurt her on some level, since she has already held onto this toxic secret for so long.
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Rick asks if Sheila heard from the British government during her internment. “Not the English,” she says, though the Australian prisoners heard from theirs. One day, Captain Siki announced that the Australian Prime Minister had instructed the prisoners to “keep smiling.” “At first there was… absolute silence,” Sheila says. However, she soon realized the Australians were laughing. When Rick admits he doesn’t understand the joke, Sheila says, “They were skin and bone and covered in boils—and they’d just been told to ‘keep smiling’! Well they smiled all right.” For the rest of the day and night, the Australian prisoners broke out into bursts of laughter, unable to control themselves even when Siki forced them to stand in the sun “for hours” and commanded them “never to smile again.” As the stage lights go out, Judy Garland’s “When You’re Smiling” plays while photographs of emaciated prisoners appear on the screen.
Once again, Misto underlines the importance of laughter—and, thus, catharsis—in times of intense hardship. What’s most inspiring about this particular story is that the prisoners’ laughter triumphs even under Captain Siki’s harsh orders. Indeed, he commands them “never to smile again,” but this is a ridiculous commandment, one that would be impossible to enforce. In turn, humor and laughter become forms of resilience and dissent, buoying the prisoners’ spirits and empowering them even as the guards try to cut them down.
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