Rusty Bugles is a comedy-drama by Sumner Locke Elliot, one of the many talented writers to abandon Australia in the 1940s and 1950s in search of an artistic living overseas.
First produced by Sydney’s Independent Theatre in 1948 it was (up until the appearance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll six years later) the best known and most successful Australian play of its day, extensively touring the state capitals, the regions, and New Zealand.
The play is set in the Northern Territory, in an army supply depot in middle-of-nowhere Mataranka, where a bunch of khaki cast-offs are doing what soldiers do best: moaning, flaking, dodging and rorting. Most of the year the weather is hot and unbearable. In the rainy season – “The Wet” – the land turns to swamp and pushes conditions to another dimension of hellish awfulness.
The action takes place in the autumn of 1944, with no end of the war yet in sight. The first sounds we hear are the distant shouts of a game of two-up. The first character we meet is Rod Carson, a new recruit. His green eyes become our green eyes for a journey into military mateship and its dysfunctional, colourful ways.
GIG: How’s this? Me brother’s home from New Guinea on twenty-four days’ leave.
ANDY: How long’s he been up there?
GIG: Not much more’n a year.
ANDY: There you are, see. I tell you those cunts are better off than we are. We’re the bloody forgotten army here.
OT: How’s that? ‘I kiss your photo every night and pray that you will soon be back at our place…’ Ohhhh, the little Rosebud. ‘Mum says tea of a Sunday night isn’t the same without you’re there making us all have a good old laugh’.
GIG: Aw, shut up. How can I read my letter with you maggin’.
OT: ‘P.S. if you’re not using your cigarette ration how’s about sending me yours.’ How is she?
[Silence for a second]
MAC: Jesus Christ, I’m going to have another baby!
ANDY: That’ll be your ninth, won’t it?
This sliver of dialogue hints at the revolutionary features of the play. First, there is little plot in it. Instead, over the course of ten scenes we get what looks like slice-of-life realism, with days spent engaged in ordinary, repetitive tasks – drinking, swearing, washing and lounging around.
Actually, Locke Elliot, the son of a novelist and a novelist of distinction himself (he was the author of the Miles Franklin Award winner Careful, He Might Hear You) has a sure sense of how to build mood and atmosphere out of carefully chosen details.
So it is the characters who are the story: Mac, a slothful, resentful giant and Andy, his short, chirpy side-kick; OT doing sentry duty for extra pay so he can buy his fiancé a ring (she eventually runs off with someone else); Darky, who has been at the depot the longest and whose determined truculence looks like keeping him there forever; and Vic, a working class man with nothing to look forward to (as he sees it) who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the educated Rod, though not without some initial sparks.
The second feature of the play is, of course, the language, or what the Sun newspaper called its “unladylike, but beautifully lusty, and one hundred per cent Orstyrlian”. This immediately got it into trouble with the Chief Secretary, who sent the Vice Squad along to opening night to take notes.
Thereafter began a protracted wrangle about which words could or could not be said on stage; some blue-pencilling by the director Dorothy Fitton; some concessions by the censor; and, over the course of a long run, the gradual restoration of many original terms, to the delight of Australian audiences (Newcastle’s were especially appreciative) and the appalled shock of New Zealand ones.
The language of Rusty Bugles is not only remarkable; it is remarkably assured. While British dramatists were stuck in the tar pit of what critic Ken Tynan scathingly called “the Loamshire play”, Locke Elliot was idiomatically portraying the realities of class and region. In so doing, he advanced Australian drama by more than an addition of one good play.
For non-Indigenous Australians do not speak a separate language to Britain and America. Our theatre is not bound up with linguistic revival, like the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, or the Finnish National Theatre in Helsinki. Yet the acoustic space our plays occupy – not just colloquially, but in accent, tone, pitch and rhythm; the whole lexical understanding that accompanies words when spoken aloud – is key to our social identity.
Australian drama is a fugue drama, at once part of the larger body of Anglophone playwriting and radically distinct from it. Rusty Bugles is an important link between the plot-based realism of the 1920s and 1930s, exemplified by companies like The Pioneer Players, and the radical explorations of the Australian voice that characterise 1970s writers like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson, Alma de Groen and Dorothy Hewett.
It introduced a new tone, and thus a new horizon of creative possibility. As Fitton wrote in the introduction to the 1980 republication of the play text (which restored all the original language):
I consider Rusty Bugles to be the war play, at least for this country. Rusty Bugles was based in reality, in people that Sumner knew; and based on the little things, however trifling, that happened from day to day in this isolated ordnance camp.
He had written the play, he told me, as a protest against bureaucracy: in memory of hundreds of men up there rotting in an ordnance depot who had wanted to be on active service to their country. Of course, it is a long time ago that we first presented Rusty Bugles; but I still believe it to be the best Australian play ever written.
The AusStage database lists only a handful of productions of Rusty Bugles, the last notable one in 1979, for the New Theatre, directed by the late John Tasker. A cast of eighteen makes it hard for cash-strapped contemporary companies to revive it, even assuming they are inclined to works from this period of the Australian repertoire, which not all of them are.
But this is not the only reason. The view of war in Rusty Bugles is practical, weary, sardonic, disrespectful. It is too much to call it an anti-war play. But it certainly rejects any heroic posturing. When the war is mentioned, it is in terms of its cost: its disruption to life, love and happiness; the people it puts in harm’s way. Have we forgotten this about the war I wonder, in our eagerness to “honour the sacrifice” of those caught up in horrific conflicts?
Rusty Bugles is a drama of undercurrents and shadowy themes, and there are indications that the soldiers are anti-Semitic, racist and paranoid. It has a “warts and all” quality which is also part of its unheroic worldview. But this is not all that the soldiers are, and their resilience, good humour and solidarity also shine through.
An example is the leave-taking between Rod and Vic at the end of the play, as Rod stays on at the depot while Vic, now in full uniform, goes off to the Pacific:
ROD: The Wet…. she come.
VIC: The Wet…. I go.
ROD: Well… I reckon you’d better go and pick up the others… Almost time for you to be over at the R.T.D.
VIC: Yes – well…. So long, Sammy [He shakes hands.]
SAMMY: Hooray, Vic.
OT: So long. Make sure you don’t come back.
VIC: Don’t worry. It’ll be the islands for me next time. The real dinkum war. No more sitting on my pratt among the forgotten legions.
It is great thing to write a play about human affection that has little affectionate dialogue in it; a play about war that has no fighting in it; a play about Australia with no self-consciousness, stridency or nationalist bathos.
In the first three articles of the series The Great Australian Plays, Julian will look at Australian plays from the years after War War II. Next will be The Torrents by Oriel Gray, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler and A Cheery Soul by Patrick White.
Image: Tony Barry as Keghead in Rusty Bugles – courtesy of ABC/National Film and Sound Archive