Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2021

Beyond the Stage (2020), edited by Anna Goldsworthy and Mark Carroll

I must admit that my heart sank when this book turned up in the mail—not another one about the war, I thought—but it’s not at all what I was expecting.  It’s primarily concerned with how the arts, and drama in particular, can articulate things about the tragedy of war in ways that can’t otherwise be expressed.

Beyond the Stage, Creative Australian Stories from the Great War is a fully illustrated book of essays to accompany the 2018 exhibition ‘Beyond the Stage: aspects of performing arts in South Australia, 1914–1936’, which was held at the State Library of South Australia. You can see some of the images here.

This is the blurb:

In the beautifully illustrated Beyond the Stage, essays by leading Australian artists and academics examine the impact of the Great War and its aftermath on creativity and performance in South Australia.

There are historical studies of key individuals, such as Adelaide’s Telsie Hague, and the role of women performers as fundraisers and active agents of wartime patriotism. The contribution of artistic companies, such as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, State Opera of South Australia and State Theatre Company, is examined. Steve Vizard dissects the preposterously unlikely – and highly entertaining – encounter between Sir Lawrence Olivier and Mo (aka Roy Rene), helping the reader explore Australian national identity after the Great War.

And completing this remarkable book are thought-provoking personal reflections on the nature of memory and commemoration.

The introduction to the book reproduces things I knew anyway, though others may not.  From packing up the estate of my piano teacher Valda Johnstone, and from writing her memoir, I knew a lot about how Australia’s creatives were active in supporting the war with songs and marching music, poetry, concerts, and fundraising for the troops.  Valda’s parents, Frank and Myra Johnstone, were musicians who were very active during WW1, and amongst Valda’s effects there were numerous musical scores and programs from their fundraising and entertainment concerts for the troops, as well as Valda’s own contributions during WW2.

These boxes of memorabilia BTW have all been deposited at the State Library of Victoria, where, for example, you can find the scores for music that they played at concerts during and after the war when fundraising for the wounded. There’s an Allied Forces March by Felix Godin from 1914; The Flying Ace March from 1919; Day, (a marching song) by Guy D’Hardelot from 1915, and Heroes of the Empire, a march by Craigie Ross, orchestrated by Percy E. Fletcher.  There’s also (since Valda was born in NZ and always considered herself a Kiwi though she came to Australia as a very little girl) the very patriotic New Zealand the land, ‘neath the Southern Cross, words by G.A. Troup with music by D.A. Kenny from 1915.  Just type Valda Johnstone into the search box at the SLV if you are interested.  Her papers also include some poems; a large collection of photographs, autograph portraits of the Great Composers; her AMEB exam certificates, and hand made posters.  One day, when I finish the last chapter of the memoir, I’ll deposit that too.

For those who know little about this entertainment and fundraising aspect of Australia’s wars, or who are researching this period of our history, the Introduction in Beyond the Stage will be a revelation.  The full colour reproductions of handbills, musical scores and photos of performances are fascinating, and the focus on the role of women is refreshing.

State Library of South Australia Item b1188175

There are profiles of notable women such as Gertie Campbell and Adelaide Primrose who were active in art, performance, composition and fundraising at a time when war made space for them to do so. Gertie, an enterprising businesswoman, had her own music business, where she performed her own compositions such as When our boys come home and Come on Australians and published the scores for sale in the shop.

It should not, however, be overlooked, the authors say, that these women also had an influence on the successful prosecution of the war especially in terms of maintaining morale.  [So women weren’t just handing out white feathers, they were rousing patriotism in other ways as well.]

Those of you who saw my fruitless Twitter appeal for information about Australian women jazz musicians for a special broadcast I was doing on 3CR, will understand my feeling of frustration when I learned from this book about someone who deserved to have her story told.  Gertie Campbell turned to jazz in the postwar period, had her own jazz band which she conducted, and enabled other women jazz musicians by publishing their music.  I have had this book since it arrived last December, and if I’d only had time to read it I could have included Gertie’s story in my program!

For me, however, the most interesting essay is by historian Bruce Scates who is unequivocal in his distaste for the lavish spectacles of the Anzac Centenary and the grotesque installation at Villers-Bretonneux in particular. He begins his essay with an excerpt from the diary of Nurse Elizabeth Tranter, too busy with the wounded to celebrate the armistice on 11th November, but recording instead the cruel death of a boy she calls ‘Sunny Jim’.  He goes on to write about the cost of war to the casualties who came home with terrible injuries:

Splinters of shrapnel worked their way through bodies, gassed soldiers coughed out their lungs, cot cases confined to iron beds slowly wasted away. ‘Nervy’ men took their own lives, haunted by the things they had seen and done. One man—a war hero awarded the Military Medal at Passchendaele—battered his wife and four-year-old daughter to death with a hammer.  Then, with equally terrible resolution, slit his own throat.  Others succumbed to the syndrome of what was called ‘the burnt out digger’.  They survived the war, but not the peace.  They died prematurely aged.

How many lives did the Great War really claim?  At the Australian War Memorial 60,000 names gleam in gold midst a forest of scarlet poppies. But filed away in the archives are the names of men and women who died in repatriation hospitals decades after the fighting ended. For a time the Memorial debated if these should be included in the list of official casualties.  It proved too difficult and too confronting to measure the real cost of war.  (p.129)

What angers Scater is the lost opportunity of the centenary.  It could have been a time for sober and thoughtful reflection.  Instead it was a carnival.

Perhaps the greatest monument to our mismanagement of the Anzac Centenary is the interpretive centre the Australian government built close to where Tranter served.  Many other such war museums adopt a transnational perspective.  A hundred years since the carnage that tore Europe apart, they speak across national borders and reveal the common tragedy shared by combatant and civilian alike.  But the Sir John Monash Centre, an interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux, labours with myth rather than history—bragging of how one nation helped secure ‘victory’ in 1918.

The museum purports to ‘relive’ the Great War, offering visitors ‘an immersive multimedia experience’.  Around a hundred million dollars was spent creating a kind of digital battlefield: gas rises up from the floor, planes strafe the trenches and tanks rumble by.  German soldiers in these simulations are dehumanised, their faces concealed by gas masks.  And vicariously we are invited to take part in the killing.  Fighting on the Somme has become a kind of computer game—you stalk the enemy through fields and villages—and you shoot him.

Elsie Tranter held high hopes for the armistice.  She believed a lasting peace could make sense of all the terrible sacrifice.  But today at Villers-Bretonneux the Great War grinds wearily on, macabre entertainment in the guise of commemoration. (p.133)

I saw TV footage of this centre when it was opened, and I share Scater’s distaste. He goes on to write about the Aftermath project by the Australian Art Orchestra in Melbourne’s Domain, a sound scape of remembrance that allowed many voices to speak of war because remembrance is the property of the whole community.

Reading this chapter reminded me of holidays in Inverloch.  We stayed in a house that had belonged to my nephew’s great aunt, widowed by WW1.  With photos and trinkets in nearly every room, the house breathed the presence of this man who had died so many years before.  It spoke of a life arrested by a love that was cherished by this woman until she died when she was a very old lady. The stories from the Aftermath project were homage to people like her:

‘These are not the stories of heroism in the face of impossible odds’, the Australian Art Orchestra’s Artistic Notes explain, ‘[they are not about] mateship and noble causes that drive the nation building myths that perpetuate war.  These stories are the reality’.  (p.139)

The book is worth reading for this essay alone, but there’s much more to engage your interest as well.

Editors: Anna Goldsworthy and Mark Carroll
Title: Beyond the Stage, Creative Australian Stories from the Great War
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781743056653, hbk., 176 pp, colour photographs throughout
Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.

Available direct from Wakefield Press or Fishpond: Beyond the Stage: Creative Australian stories from the Great War


  1. Too often countries claim to commemorate those who died or suffered in war, or to celebrate their lives, when in reality they are fabricating a revised version of that ‘reality’ you quote. Then there are the euphemisms for ‘died’: ‘fallen’, ‘lost’ and so on. Btw, we’re hearing those expressions again now during the present pandemic – especially ‘passed (away)’.


    • What makes me especially cross is that the soldiers who return damaged aren’t looked after properly. If we’re going to send them away on mostly unnecessary wars (WW2 being the exception) they should have the very best of care, and financial security as well. But they don’t, and then they spend all this money on turning memorials into tourist attractions.


      • Sad but true. My dad came back from four years in German POW camps after WWII and had no support for what was clearly, in hindsight, ptsd. He was never a contented man in all the years I knew him.


        • That support should have been extended to his family too, I’m guessing…


          • Definitely for my mum in those first years – they married in 1946


            • Here in Australia, where it was not widely known #understatement how badly POWs were treated by the Japanese for some years, there were instances of POWS being told they had ‘sat out the war’. On top of everything else, to have people not understand what it was like, must have made things worse.
              My mother, when she was in the ATS, used to drive German POWS up to the camp in Scotland, and she always used to say how young they were, just boys really…like everyone else she had reason to hate them, but she didn’t.


  2. I agree Lisa re the lack of support for current veterans. Then millions is splashed out on upgrading the war memorial in Canberra at the expense of national libraries and galleries. I grew up in a very American patriotic military family and I can see both sides. I remember Richard Flanagan’s speech about ANZAC day and how he was crucified for it. There is a good artic,e in the new Monthly about the upgrading and miney being spent on the war memorial you’d probably find interesting if you haven’t read it already. I think the continuing hoopla around WWI is just too much when Vietnam veterans and veterans who are living now get so little nor do the families of those who did not come back. I have become very jaded I must admit. The book sounds interesting from another point of view. Let’s hope the libraries have the continued space and funding to store this history. Key word being ‘stored’ as a resource, not a lifestyle.


    • Amen to that, Pam. I’d like to see a moratorium on using the word lifestyle, I catch myself using it sometimes and I cringe!


  3. Agree with you on that word. I remember Veronica Brady in a lecture long time ago taken umbrage on that very word.The hypocrisy of the war analogy does my head in for if there’s one thing I did know growing up in Glasgow was the devastation of the aftermath of wars. Alcoholism and the devastation it inflicts along with chronic poor health was part of my daily life. This book should be in the library system so will request it.


    • Veronica Brady, she was wonderful, I used to really enjoy her programs on the ABC…


  4. I’ve not heard of the Villers-Bretonneux museum but I’m with Scater in his distaste for the way war is used as a form of entertainment. We are raising generations of people who will be unable to use their imagination, instead they feel all they need to do is to press a button.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: