Seeing Through the Bars and Not at Them

On the night before WW2 ended in May 1945, Australian, British and New Zealand prisoners of war at Stalag 18A presented a performance of a play. They had been devising, writing and presenting plays since 1942. One of the play directors over these years was a New Zealand man known as the Padre. He was also the chair of the “Escape Committee”. He wrote an amazing, as yet unpublished book, while a prisoner of war. One description of the philosophy behind the making of theatre and its relationship with life and the existence from inside the barbed wire boundaries of the prison camp was simply “seeing through the bars and not at them”. It was an extreme take on the glass is half full idea; a kind of don’t let your binds define who and what you are …  I learned this from having the privilege of a distant relative of the Padre show some of the text to me this morning over breakfast in Wolfsberg … not far from where the infamous prison camp once existed …

But if we think that these prisoners had it easy and that all they did was make up plays and play music, we need to step back and look at what was really happening. Men were shot, bombed and even beheaded over the years of incarceration. And if we consider what was happening with Russian prisoners in the same camp, we can attest to extreme horror equal to anything witnessed during that very dark period of history. So as we look into the faces of the men in the photos from the prison camps, we need to look beyond the smiling faces and the seemingly well-fed bodies.

My father was one of those men. He also played the violin and wrote some plays and music with very talented collaborators. But he also saw heads returned in sugar bags of two prisoners who used his knife to cut through the wood of a cattle truck to escape. The horror of war and extreme fear became normalized. Yet, we see these smiling faces and men performing ludicrous characters in plays on make-shift stages.

Here were men as fools finding a license to vent their absurd humanity on an even more absurd universe that seemed to trap them and bleed their psyche of dignity and humanity. Their art, their music, their theatre … their very frame of mind out-gunned the enemy and turned incarceration into an ironically liberating experience. The Padre knew this; as did many of the participants in the theatre that was carved out during this time. But today I learned that some of the men who escaped, along with many who were later released at the end of the war, suffered such stress and depression that they ended their own lives by their own hands.

Outside the prison camp a larger prison existed; one that provided no safety within the playing, acting and composing that the Padre’s prison camp activities provided. As men escaped and were later captured and shot; as most were then released at the war’s end; as life seemed to return to some appearance of normality, the real inner wars continued. The bars were no longer clear to see through; the enemy mostly was without guns; but the fear remained …

I am here in Wolfsberg in Austria trying to hear as many stories as I can and to meet as many people with diverse reasons for gathering here in July to honor memories and seek some kind of understanding that is illusory and evasive. I know that nothing is ever certain and that events easily upturn all certainties … in coming to understand some of the momentous events that occurred to people within the confines of Stalag 18A, perhaps there might be some sign posts that point in strange directions like those arrows on the footpaths painted by Hash House Harriers …

To ever assume there are no bars that confine us is to believe in fairy-lands. Theatre can help identify the confines that are only shadowed around the periphery while also offering hope that there is a means to defeat the power that the confines of psyche seem to hold.

The prisoners who survived the war took with them many lessons; valuable lessons that stayed with them for their life-time. What was neglected was the ability to identify the new bars that surrounded them in seemingly normal society. It wasn’t only the war experience that was so crippling; it was the illusion of no-war beyond the confines of a prison camp. This no-war with its invisible bars and strait-jacketing binds expounded a sense of being NOT-normal; of being somehow estranged from the normal society that others who did not experience such confinement could not understand nor contemplate. People were made to feel they had to get-over-it and move on … as if IT was past!

So where was the Padre in this post war existence? The Padre with his theatre and all the equivalent padres who organized and created outlets for people under prison conditions; conditions that were both physical and invisible …

It is the theatre? The place where people can step into alternative realities and see the boundaries of the stage; the place where all kinds of imprisonment and entrapment are identified and vicariously experienced while also providing the boundaries for safe exits. It is in the theatre that all art can be brought together for moments of connection between performers and audiences; where no matter what circumstances exist in the very real universe, there is room to explore human potential where the binds and bars of life are identified … yet where we are allowed to see beyond and so be provided with a kind of hope.

When people ask “why theatre”, I can bypass the usual answers with a reference to the experience of Stalag 18A and the Padre’s very simple articulation that it is a place where we see beyond the bars of our current existence …

Eddie Donovan (UK) and Jack Woodward performing in the prisoner-of-war camp at Stalag 18A (Gradnitz work camp) in 1943

Joe Woodward (shadowhousepits artistic director) is presenting a reading of the play “Violine” at Wolfsberg on 21 July very near the location of the old prison camp.












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