John Misto’s The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play about what it takes for a person to endure extreme emotional hardship. Survivors of Japanese prison camps during World War II, Bridie and Sheila try to articulate what it was like to live as prisoners of war and how, exactly, they sustained themselves during their internment. Rehashing their experiences for a television documentary about the many military nurses who were captured by the Japanese government, they tell a tale that centers around the concept of emotional resilience. As prisoners, Bridie and Sheila buoy their spirits with moments of brief but meaningful catharsis, ultimately seeking refuge in small worldly pleasures such as music and humor. These fleeting but significant pleasures sometimes get them into trouble, inviting fury from the Japanese guards, but this doesn’t stop them from seeking them out. After all, these brief instances of happiness are the only things left that make Bridie and Sheila’s lives worth living. By highlighting this dynamic, then, Misto suggests that finding various forms of joyful indulgence—however small—is the only way to withstand intense hardship, especially when the alternative is to succumb to hopelessness and despair.
In 1942, the Japanese—Hitler’s allies—drove the British Empire out of Singapore, forcing English and Australian Army nurses like Bridie and Sheila to retreat. Unfortunately, though, Bridie and Sheila don’t escape successfully, eventually winding up in a prison camp, where guards rape many of the women and deprive them of proper sustenance. Given these dismal circumstances, Bridie and Sheila find it difficult to remain hopeful, so they invest themselves in whatever kind of happiness they can find. This often manifests itself in small ways, as the two women covet even the most fleeting shred of joy. Decades later, when discussing the importance of such minute but meaningful pleasures, they tell the television interviewer not to underestimate how much a simple piece of caramel meant to them. “Don’t laugh,” Bridie says. “It was important. Caramel was our only luxury. Sheila sold her brooch to buy some […]. Every week—on Sunday night—we’d pop that caramel into our mouths—for one minute each—one minute of bliss—then we’d store it away till the next week.” In most contexts, a mere sixty seconds of pleasure doesn’t buoy a person’s spirits, but in the prison camps, Bridie and Sheila discover that “one minute of bliss” is capable of emotionally sustaining them for an entire week. Indeed, they’re able to resist their temptation to eat the entire piece of candy because they want to have something to look forward to, something they know they’ll enjoy. This makes sense, considering that there’s almost nothing else in their lives during this period that gives them true satisfaction. As such, the caramel becomes a source of immense gratification, one that helps them maintain good spirits as they survive the abysmal conditions of the camps.
Although Bridie and Sheila worship the caramel, it doesn’t give them long-lasting relief. After all, in order to enjoy it, they have to consume it, which means they eventually finish it. Thankfully, though, this candy isn’t their only form of joy, as they’re cognizant that the best kind of emotional sustenance is immaterial. To that end, they use humor to cut the tension hanging around them, making dark jokes and finding levity even in the most humorless moments. Their fellow prisoners also adopt this method, finding ways to laugh at the twisted absurdity of their situation. For instance, a Japanese military captain tells them one day that the Australian Prime Minister has sent a message that the prisoners should “keep smiling.” Remembering the effect of this message, Sheila says, “At first there was…absolute silence. And then the nurses—well I thought they must be crying—because they started to wipe their eyes. But it was from laugher. They were laughing.” Going on, 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. Then they laughed so much they couldn’t control it.” She also adds that the prisoners laughed throughout the day and into the night. Strangely enough, the Prime Minister’s callous message actually had the intended effect, though not in the way he imagined it would. Still, though, Sheila explains that “instead of the usual sobbing and quarrels” that night, the prisoners chuckled to themselves, thereby managing to seize a rare sense of cheerfulness. This, in turn, is a cathartic moment, one in which the women were able to release the tension and grief that had no doubt accumulated throughout their stay in the prison camps.
Humor is an effective coping mechanism because it’s hard to fully deprive a person of laughter. After they hear the Prime Minister’s message, for instance, the prisoners laugh so much that the Japanese captain commands them to “never to smile again”—a harsh demand that is ultimately difficult to enforce, since humor is a small form of joy that is hard to kill. Unlike the piece of caramel, it’s always available to Bridie and Sheila, even in the worst moments. Similarly, the prisoners also cling to music, forming a choir and thus distracting themselves from the travesties playing out around them. Toward the end of their stay in the prison camp, Bridie and Sheila are the only surviving members of the choir, but instead of succumbing to hopelessness, they continue to find solace in music, as Sheila arranges sonatas for them to sing. “A lot of times we barely got through it—we were so weak from hunger. But we sang our sonata whenever we could—so the camp would know there was still music left,” Sheila says, underlining the importance of proving to others that even the worst enemy can never fully rob someone of her capacity for joy. “It probably sounded bloody awful,” Bridie adds. “But not to us. To us we still had harmony…and the Japs could never ever take that away.” In this way, Misto suggests that cathartic experiences like laughing and singing are extremely resilient, giving people the strength they need to emotionally withstand otherwise hopeless, tragic situations.
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis ThemeTracker
Survival, Resilience, and Catharsis Quotes in The Shoe-Horn Sonata
Towards the end—as the Japs got closer—some British officers held a meeting—to discuss the merits of shooting us. They promised we'd be buried with full military honours.
They’d heard that the Japs had been raping army nurses and they thought they’d be doing us a favour. They’re very considerate like that—the British. But since bullets were scarce, they decided to evacuate us.
SHEILA: I’ll always remember that voice of hers. [Mimics] ‘They can starve me till my bones poke out—’
BRIDIE: [joining in] ‘But I’ll die without a fag, love.’ Now that’s a good story for Rick. Ivy and her smokes—those dried banana leaves she puffed on—God they had a terrible stink.
SHEILA: She pulled pages of her Bible out for cigarette papers. When it was over I heard her telling a minister that she’d survived the war because of the Good Book.
SHEILA instinctively reaches out to take BRIDIE’s hand. They hold hands. And once again they both look very vulnerable. We hear Japanese voices on the soundtrack.
SHEILA: I wanted to cry. [With resolution] But I reminded myself I was a Woman of the Empire. And it just wasn't done to show fear to the natives. [Wistful smile] I could almost hear my mother saying: ‘Chin up, gel! And where are your gloves?’
SHEILA: You can snicker all you like— [Struggling to explain] but at the very worst times in the camp—I’d remind myself I was part of an Empire— and if others could endure it, so could I.
SHEILA: [defensively] It got me through the war.
BRIDIE: I got you through the war. Your Empire didn't give a damn. They left you to the Japs.
SHEILA: [very upset] If you say that tomorrow, I’ll go. I mean it.
SHEILA: They got the idea from a prisoner—an Australian—he set it up.
BRIDIE: [annoyed] We don’t know for sure he did.
SHEILA: [to camera] People blame the British for Singapore. There were Aussies too who were hardly saints.
BRIDIE: [annoyed with SHEILA] Have you forgotten how many of the British collaborated? [To the camera] The Japs wanted us because they knew they couldn’t have us. But they could pick and choose from amongst the Poms. Those women who’d lorded it over everyone at Raffles were selling themselves for a hard-boiled egg.
SHEILA: They had no choice. They had children to feed. We didn’t judge. We accepted it.
BRIDIE: [disgusted] I didn’t! To go with a Jap—to give him pleasure—how could you ever live with yourself?
SHEILA: They were people I grew up with. A lot of them were friends of mine.
BRIDIE: And the Japs were the enemy. Every woman who gave in made it harder for the rest.
SHEILA: It was the only way they could feed their kids.
BRIDIE: [with disgust] Sleeping with a Jap? I’d never have done that—not for anyone. How could you go on living with yourself—or look your family in the eye?
This is a shattering remark for SHEILA, but she does her best to conceal any reaction.
BRIDIE: Don’t laugh. It was important. Caramel was our only luxury. Sheila sold her brooch to buy some—from a native who used to smuggle it. Every week—on Sunday night—we’d pop that caramel into our mouths—for one minute each—one minute of bliss—then we’d store it away till the next week.
M. VOICE: You were never tempted to eat it all?
BRIDIE: No. We were very strict about that. It had to last till the end of the war.
SHEILA: […] Just after Bridie got back on her feet, Captain Siki called a line up. He said: ‘I have good news for Australian womens. Your Emperor, Mr Curtin, sends his greetings. And orders you all to keep smiling.’ At first there was... absolute silence. And then the nurses—[Slightly puzzled]—well I thought they must be crying—because they started to wipe their eyes. But it was from laughter. They were laughing.
M. VOICE: Why? What was so funny?
SHEILA: They were skin and bone and covered in boils—and they’d just been told to ‘keep smiling’! Well they smiled all right. Then they laughed so much they couldn’t control it.
Siki slapped a few faces and they managed to stop. But all that day you could hear these giggles as the joke went right round the camp. There was even laughter after bed time—instead of the usual sobbing and quarrels. The guards would bark and shine their torches—and all would be quiet till some wit muttered ‘Keep smiling, girls!’—and we’d all crack up. We paid dearly for our fun though. The next day Siki lined us up. He made us stand in the sun for hours—and ordered us never to smile again...
SHEILA: A lot of times we barely got through it—we were so weak from hunger. But we sang our sonata whenever we could—so the camp would know there was still music left.
BRIDIE: It probably sounded bloody awful. But not to us. To us we still had harmony... and the Japs could never ever take that away.
SHEILA: [nervously] My knees were shaking— I was— terribly frightened. I said ‘What if the Japs come after us, Bridie?’ [Smiling sadly] I remember her words so clearly. ‘And what if they do?’ she said. ‘Since when have we ever been scared of the Japs?’
BRIDIE reaches out and takes SHEILA’s hand.
BRIDIE: So Sheila and I walked out of that camp. [Gently, fondly, perhaps smiling sadly] And on four wobbly legs we went down to the village. Sometimes I dragged Sheila. Sometimes Sheila dragged me. The main thing is we got there. And we could never have done that alone.