It’s Anzac Day 1930 and a harmonica is playing in the background. Frank, a returned soldier, has caught the train to Soldiers Hill in Ballarat, where his mate “Bluey” grew up.
More than a decade has passed since the guns fell silent at 11 am on 11 November 1918. But for Frank, the war is never far away.
He makes his way to the goldfields town to visit Bluey’s mother, Maggie, as they struggle to comprehend the nature and scale of deaths that occurred during the First World War.
Her son never made it home. Her grief and loss is heightened by the difficult task of writing an epitaph to be inscribed on a headstone in a foreign land which she would never be able to visit.
This is a story that was repeated around the country after the war, and which is now the subject of a museum theatre piece at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Written by award-winning playwright Ross Mueller, Epitaph is a collaborative piece commissioned by the Australian War Memorial and The Street Theatre with support from Lockheed Martin Australia.
Kristian Jenkins plays Frank in the 14-minute monologue which captures the emotional struggle faced by families trying to write epitaphs for their lost loved ones, using less than 66 characters.
For Mueller, it was important to tell these stories.
“The opportunity to work with Street and the Australian War Memorial seemed like a gift to me,” Mueller said.
“It wasn’t just another job, it was ‘wow’, and I was excited at the prospect as soon as I heard about it.
“The War Memorial means so much to so many people in this country, and it’s not every day that you get the opportunity to work on a project about events that have such historical significance, and at this time in the nation’s history, it’s a terrific opportunity to be able to have a small part to play in that contribution …
“The stories of the First World War are part of our DNA and you become a conduit rather than an author.”
Mueller was particularly moved by the thought of grief-stricken families struggling to write an epitaph for their loved ones after the war.
“The idea of an epitaph is a magnificent starting point for a monologue,” he said.
“It’s a really fascinating part of Australian history that a lot of people are unaware of, so it’s a really exciting project to be involved in … The basic question is, how do you sum up the life of a loved one in 66 characters, and that brevity and that economy is the thing that was really driving my view of what could be.
“The thing that really struck me about these epitaphs is that they were written by the families. They’re all personal, but they’ve all been written by probably 90 per cent of people who knew they would never actually see them. They knew that they were writing them for public exhibition, and it is one thing to write something about somebody that you love, that you can share with your family, but then to think that this is going to be set in stone, literally, in public, it’s a huge statement. It’s not ephemeral, and that is the interesting juxtaposition, because life is, but what was left behind for these boys is permanent …
“Some of the families even approached the war office to say, can you send us a photograph of the land that they died on? Today, we’re so aware of what other countries look like, and what other continents’ climates are like, or anything like that. Just imagine that you can’t even imagine what the land looks like where they are, and that distance and time is a real factor.”
As part of the research process, Mueller worked closely with the Memorial’s Education team and Research Centre, studying epitaphs as well as personal diaries and letters in the National Collection.
“Reading of those personal experiences and their contact with family at home is very moving,” Mueller said.
“So many of the guys that were over there had come from regional Australia – and that’s where I come from – and there really was a notion of getting to see the world and seeing the empire.
“The poeticism of their language is undeniable, and a lot of those records that were written in the trenches are pretty amazing and Shakespearean.
“It reminds you that while they were over there, they were still worried about whether Elsie had gotten over her cold yet. That kind of compassion for how the people at home were, despite what was happening, and what they were seeing is very evident, and I find that quite moving too: the idea that they were protecting their families from the truth of what was actually happening.
“And that idea of, how do you find truth in a place where humans aren’t supposed to be, is pretty interesting for me … It’s important to tell these stories.”
Epitaph will be presented regularly in Anzac Hall until the end of June 2019. For more information, visit here.