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The Shoe-Horn Sonata
John Misto, play, Published by Currency Press in 1996, it deals with events that occurred during World War 2 in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.
A broad audience, particularly an Australian audience.
Quote ‘I do not have the power to build a memorial so I wrote a play instead.’ (John Misto)

The shoe horn sonata by John Misto is a play that deals with the brutality of World War 2 by locking at the stories of two financial characters, Bridie and Sheila. When he wrote the play, Misto was concerned that the pain and suffering that many women endured at the hands of their Japanese captors after the fall of Singapore had been forgotten. Both army nurses and civilians were the victims of terrible mistreatment and cruelty during the war, yet their stories were not widely known, nor had successive Australian governments acknowledged them. The play serves as a tribute to those victims of the atrocities of war, and looks at the effects such horrendous experiences can have on those who experience them.

Structurally, act 1 contains scenes 1 to 8, with act 2 comprising scenes 9 – 14. The action of the play takes place in two locales – the first a television studio. The second a motel room where the central characters are staying.

Act 1 the play is set in the present day and begins a army nurse, is being interviewed for a documentary program about her experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese. Misto cleverly uses interviews and discussions between Bridie and Sheila throughout the play to develop the plot by revealing to the audience the events in the women’s past.
As the first scene progresses we learn a little of Bridie’s character- she is self assured and forthright, and displays a sardonic sense of humour as she reveals her own situation and that of the women who were evacuated during the fall of Singapore. We are introduced to the shoehorn, given to her by her father as she was about to be posted overseas, and we gain an insight into the arrogance and ill prepareness of the British colonial powers in the face of the approaching Japanese.

Scene 2 takes place in the motel room where both women are to stay during the interviewing for the documentary. We are introduced to Sheila, a british woman who was a civilian prisoner of war. We see her as a reserved character, somewhat prim and proper, who despite her obvious connection and affection for Bride, appears to be somewhat guarded in re-establishing her friendship with her after all these years. We find that two women have had no contact since the end of war. Sheila appears tense and somewhat aloof, and as the play progresses the tragic reasons for this are made clear.

Scene 3 takes place in the television studio. We learn about Bridie and Sheila’s meeting in the sea after their ships had been sunk by the Japanese. The shoe-horn plays a major part in this reminiscence as we learn how Bridie used to keep Sheila wake

In scene 4, back in the motel room, the horror and privation the women were forced to endure as prisoners is developed further, and through their reminiscences we are introduces to Lipstick Larry, a particularly Larry, a particularly brutal Japanese guard who beat Birdie when, in an act of defiance she sewed a pin into one of the loincloths the women were forced to make for their Japanese captors.

Scene 5 continues in the studio, and the subject turns to those female prisoners who, in desperation, granted sexual favours to the Japanese. Bridies’s reaction is almost one of disgust, while Sheila’s seems to reveal a depth of understanding that Bridie refuses to even consider. It is this intransigence on Brides’s part that later leads to a climactic moment in the play. In this scene. However, we are also told of the way in which the women in the camp had formed a choir and performed songs in order to try to transcend, albeit briefly, the horrors of camp life.

In scene 6 more tales of camp life are revealed and Bridie again reveals her disdain for women who ‘gave’ themselves to the Japanese. Sheila is obviously ill-at-ease, and the scene, finishing as it does with a flashback of a voice over of the young Sheila pleading with the Japanese, creates a great deal of tension and suspense in the minds of the audience.

Scene 7 serves to reinforce for the audience the wartime bonds of friendship between the two women, a reoccuring theme within the play, and their shared caramel provides a powerful image in our minds of the deprivation they endured, but also of the tenacity, hope and friendship they clung to.

The action finally reaches a climax in a scene 8. In the motel room the women begin speaking of Bridie’s illness. Bridie has been under the impression that Sheila had traded the shoehorn for quinine tablets to save her, after she had contracted a life-threatening cerebral malaria. In a dramatic moment we learn that in fact Sheila gave herself to the Japanese in order to save her friend’s life. Bridie is horrified and appalled by the admission.
The scene (and act 1) concludes with Sheila asking Bridie the confronting question: ‘would you have gone to the japs for me?’
Bridie remains silent, and it would seem that Sheila has her answer.

Act 2
Scene 9 takes us back to the studio. Rick , the interviewer, listens to stories of the trials the women endured, and hears of Bridie’s illness. We wonder whether Sheila will reveal her secret to the audience in an act of catharsis yet when asked if the shoehorn saved the two women she is evasive.
Scene 10 reveals the turmoil that Sheila’s revelation has created for both the women. Sheila tells of her quick departure after the war, and we sense a feeling of shame that has been with her ever since. Bridie still appears unable to reconcile the enormity of the sacrifice her friend made for her with her own unbending attitude.
Scene 11 revisits life in the camp, and we are told more of the bond between the women and their determination at the time to resist and rise above their adversity. Sheila reveals in telling of her later visit to the site of the camp, of the ongoing psychological trauma it has created in her life, telling us that she’s ‘never really left’.
In scene 12 Sheila learns of Bridie’s shoplifting due to her anxiety over some Japanese tourists in David Jones, and says that a public revelation of wartime events may serve to assuage her feelings of guilt. Biride is horrified at the prospect of admitting in public the details of what she feels are shameful secrets. Yet we get the impression that this reaction one born of long –held ideas propriety rather than concern for her friend.
The reminiscences of the scene 13, as the two women discuss the end of their captivity, serve as an emotional spur for them both. This is the moment of the catharsis for the women. Bridie is driven to reveal publicly the truth of what Sheila did for her- a revelation that shows both acceptance, appreciation and a reaffirmation of the bond of the friendship between the two women. Similarly, in reciprocation, Sheila reveals her willingness to defend Bridie in the face of any threat.
In scene 14 we find the completion of the women’s reconciliation. As they discuss the future there is an acknowledgement of their reunification, and a realisation that the war is finally over for them both, spiritually and emotionally – as Bridie remarks ‘ you and I are free’. This is symbolically represented by their dance.

Literary and dramatic techniques
Misto had been used a number of techniques to help convey his thematic concerns and to drive the play forward.

Structurally the play is set in only two locations: a television studio where a documentary is being filmed, and a motel rooms that the women are sharing, after not having seen each other since the end of the war. As a location the studio is harsh and somewhat sterile: while the motel room is a setting of forced proximity. We find that the most intimate revelations, the unfolding of the women’s personal stories, tend to take place within the setting of the motel room.
The wartime scenario and more public aspects of the women’s story are filled in through the studio interviews. We can readily observe the clever way in which Misto has used the interplay between these two locales to provide us with a historical documentation of wartime suffering, through a very personal story of two people caught up I something beyond their control.

The function of the unseen narrator
The character of Rick, the unseen narrator, serves the purpose of driving the dramatic flow of the play. Through the questions he asks the action is furthered, the details of the women’s story are filled in and interestingly, the investigative nature of his questioning itself forces the women to confront some of the memories and issues they have been left with since their wartime experiences. Some people suggest that the forceful nature of Rick’s questioning is representative of the male domination that was part of the women’s treatment within the prison camps during the war.

Stage directions
Stage directions are used deliberately in the shoehorn sonata , more so than in many other plays. These directions tend to be very detailed, and the instructions to the actors are precise. Misto has invested within these directions much by way of the intended moods and feelings he has in mind for the characters and their revelations. Even the tone and delivery of the lines are specified, and we are given a clear indication of the emotions the composer wishes us to respond to. Directions such as ‘fondly’, slightly surprised’, ‘disapprovingly’, ‘very calm’, ‘ironic smile’ and ‘casually, trying to make light of it’ help to focus our attention on the characters’ emotions, but also aid in building up dramatic tension and suspense for the audience.
In addition, Misto takes the rather unusual step of using his script to comment and give his opinion as the horrors of the war are revealed. At the conclusion of act 1 scene 1 for eg. As the refugees are sailing towards a Japanese fleet, his directions tell us of a 1941 sign in Singapore that read ‘don’t listen to rumour’. Misto feels compelled to add, ‘if only they had….’.
It becomes obvious through these kinds of interpretive comments that the playwright feels strongly about the story he is conveying, and wished to convey this intensity to the actors in the first instance, and through them to us.

Visuals are used throughout the shoehorn sonata to reinforce the ideas being presented, and to convey to the audience a sense of reality. The extensive use of photographs helps to reinforce the idea that while the play is fiction, it is based on real historical events, and describes the actual experiences of many people. As we see slides of ships burning in Singapore harbour, the Japanese invasion and the emaciation of the prisoners of war, we cannot help but be struck by the reality of these situations and the horror of those who endured them. Certainly, for a younger audience perhaps not well versed in the history of the time , many of the images provide valuable and sometimes moving reference points.

Music and sound effects
Music and sound effects are used to enhance the play’s impact. Songs are used in a similar way to the visuals, to help convey the flavour of the time, the emotions of the characters and the situations and they find themselvesIi. Many of the songs are used ironically within the play, which also helps to create tension and to reveal the full extent of the horrors of the unfolding drama,
At the conclusion of act 1 scene 4 for e.g. as the rousingly patrotic English song Jerusalem reaches a crescendo, scenes of the Japanese invasion are juxtaposed on the screens behind Sheila and Bridie. The ironic effect of the patriotic, triumphal song, juxtaposed with scenes of the utter defeat, creates an extra sense of poignancy in the minds of audience members, and helps to communicate the danger and helplessness of the women’s wartime predicament.
Music is both a pivotal technique and a motif within the play. Not for nothing is the play entitled the shoe-horn sonata. The title takes on thematic relevance as we learn of the women using music to lift their spirits and bolster their courage and unity during the dark days of their imprisonment. As we are told in act 1 , scene 5:

SHEILA: fifty voices set us free
BRIDIE: fifty voices and a shoe horn …

At this point the sound of ravels’ bolero is heard. an uplifting, dynamic musical piece as the scene reaches its conclusion and now becomes ‘stirring, majestic and ultimately triumphant’.
The used of sound effects and recorded dialogue depicting the past also enhance the story, as the women reveal more and more about what happened. These uses of sound are atmospheric and evocative.
In act 1 scene 3, as the women are interviewed about their meeting at sea, we hear ‘the distant sound of lapping waves’. Certainly the effect adds atmosphere to the tale, but more than this, it is used to almost take us into the minds and memories of the central characters.
An e.g. of this occurs at the end of act1 scene 4, when the women tell us, with what appears to be a certain amount of vengeful mirth, of Bridie sewing the pin into Lipstick Larry’s loincloth. Despite their laughter, we hear ‘the ugly thumps of the young Bridie being punched and hit’ and a voice-over of their younger selves in dialogue:

Y.SHEILA: [v/o] Bridie Bridie!
Y.BRIDIE: [v/o, very calmly] it’s all right, dear. Get back in line.

These lines also help to convey the relationship between the two women, and reveal much about their characters during the war- Bridie at that stage acting very much in the role of carer, and showing strength and courage in the face of brutality to the young, frightened Sheila.
As the play progresses, the voice-overs help to heighten the tension as Sheila’s story is revealed. The sounds of young Sheila singing tomorrow is a lovely day create a sense of unease in the audience. They also help the play’s dramatic flow as it inexorably leads to the climatic moment at thew end of act 1 when Sheila reveals to Bridie the terrible sacrifice she made in order to save her life. The poignancy of the voice-over of young Sheila singing after the ball is Bridie seeming denial of the reality of Sheila’s deed.
Interestingly enough, the vice-overs of dialogue between the young Bridie and Sheila cease at the end of act 1. it is as if, after this climatic scene, the actions and events of the past have finally caught up with the women – there is a connection between the past and the present, and they most now confront these issues.

Dramatic irony
Misto certainly uses dramatic irony. He place the audience in an omniscient position in which they are aware of the situations before the characters are. When the audience meet Sheila and Bridie they immediately become aware of a tension between them. At first they don’t understand the reason for this tension, but are given slues, and the pieces of the puzzle are slowly revealed. Sheila’s guardedness, her defence of women who ‘went with a jap’, her reluctance to discuss the saving of Bridies’s life in detail, all help to build a picture of truth in the minds of the audience. The audience knows that Sheila has the shoehorn ands hides I from Bridie, claiming she had traded it for quinine tablets Bridie had so desperately needed when she had been ill with malaria in the prison camp. Indeed, the audience become aware of the awful truth before the confrontation and revelation at the end of act 1. the knowledge this technique provides serves to heighten the audience’s involvement with the play, and drives interest in its resolution.

Light the text of the shoehorn sonata shows the importance of lightning as a device for creating atmosphere. The beginning of the play is a perfect example of this. The stage directions read : ‘darkness. Out of the silence comes the voice of Bridie’.
And after the first line of dialogue, a spotlight suddenly illuminates Bridie. This use of light and dark creates atmosphere and focuses the audience’s attention on both the character and what is being said in a compelling manner. As the lighting on stage gradually rises we become aware of an ‘on air ‘ sign – thus, the setting for much of the play, a television studio, is also firmly established in its first few moments.
Spotlighting, blackouts and fade outs are all used for effect throughout the play. A counterpoint to the starkness of the opening scene can be found, interestingly enough, in the last scene of the play. As Bridie and Sheila dance, symbolising their ultimate reconciliation and reaffirmation of friendship after all these years , the lights fade on them, yet a ‘very bright spotlight’ that highlights the shoehorn remains- at the last representing the women’s triumph over the pain of the past.

The shoe horn
The dominant motif throughout the play is that of the shoe-horn itself. It is occasionally physically present on stage, but it is what it symbolises that gives it its importance. We first hear of it at the beginning of the play, when Bridie speaks fondly of it as a gift from her father before she went overseas as an army nurse. Her it represents for her the joys of home and family, a reminiscence of happiness- of life before the horrors of war.
As the play progress its symbolism changes. When Bridie and Sheila find themselves adrift in the sea after their ships have been sunk, Bridie uses it to keep Sheila wake to prevent her from drowning.

BRIDIE : [mimics hitting] Tap-tap-tap
SHEILA: [HARSHER] Whack-whack-whack

Although this is ostensibly a comical moment within the play, the shoe-horn here is nonetheless a symbol of salvation, and of the friendship that the two women are about to forge during their capitivity, born out of concern and care for each other.
When we are told of the choir the women formed in the amp, the shoe-horn takes on an almost pivotal symbolism, as the metronome that drives the music that enables them to sing-spiritually and emotionally allowing them to rise above the deprivation and horror they witness around them.
Most poignantly, we find it becomes a symbol for the pain, shame and torment Sheila feels, and has felt for fifty years since the war. Bridie has always believed, perhaps naively, that the shoehorn was something that’s Sheila traded with the Japanese guards in exchange for quinine to cure her cerebral malaria. The climactic scene at the end of act 1 relies on the shoe-horn, and the full story of Sheila’s sacrifice for her friend.
As the play draws to a close, the shoe-horn once again becomes a positive symbol. It represents a reaffirmation of the friendship between the two women, and a wiping out of the pain and suffering they have both felt since the war ended. In the end it comes to symbolise, perhaps as much as the dance the two women do, a resolution and a genuine end to the psychological trauma the war created.

The chop bone
In act 1, scene 5 Sheila reveals that she still carries with her an old chop bone that she and Bridie used to share during their capitivity. As an audience we are struck by the irony of the fact that something as insignificant as a bone could mean so much to the women-yet it symbolises not just the harshness of their situation at the time, but also the tenacity of spirit that allowed such a simple object to substain them in their times of trial.

The tobacco tin
Similarly, we are told of a tobacco tin in which the women kept a single caramel, which they would take out and fleetingly look at together, before replacing it. For them it was a luxury, and again we are struck by the fact that something so insignificant could mean so much to people in such a situation. This certainly brings home to us the deprivation of the prison camp and the life the women were forced to lead. They both also point, however, to the amazing bonds of unity and friendship that existed between the women and helped them survive their ordeal.

Potential for production
The shoehorn sonata provides a great challenge to the actors playing Bridie and Sheila, as they are on stage for most of its action. Both are rich and complex roles. The character of rick is also a significant one, as his questions and reactions are important to the progress of the women’s story. The props listed in the stage directions are very specific, although not overwhelming in number. In addition, owing to the two locales in which the action takes place, it would be possible to perform the work on a comparatively small stage area. The play has recently been presented, for e.g. on a stage that was being used for another production. A clever used of space and lighting on the front of the stage resulted in a very successful production. There are a number of ways a stage could be used to present the play, for e.g. splitting the action between stage right and left, up or down stage, or different levels.
As we have seen, lighting is an important aspect of the play, but the effects required are not beyond the scope of most modest lighting set-ups.
Crucial to the action of the pay are the slides to be shown in the background, and the recordings of sound effects, songs and the voice-overs of the young Sheila and Bridie.

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