BREATHLESS

Finalist in Silver Gull Award 2019

Through four different wars,  and four different veterans, BREATHLESS explores the unchanging , cyclic horror of war, the unnatural stress it place on the soldier at the front line and how that bleeds into his civilian life, traumatically affecting not only the foot soldier, but all those who love them.

Harry is gay but he is also a soldier who volunteers to fight in WW1. His passion for automobiles leads to a meeting with a gay French soldier Milo who is also enamoured with this new form of transport. Tom is a lad from the country who has to endure and live with his experiences on Kokoda and whose tragedy plays out on those at home. Dave is conscripted into the military and sent to Vietnam, where he finds a political conscience and Alan comes from a family of military men who give unquestioning loyalty to the army.  Each finds a brotherhood in the army but each has to struggle with the demons of PTSD, as do their partners. Mother, Donna, Louisa, and Joyce are women reflective of their times and attitudes. Donna has the anti-war fervour of the late 1960s; Joyce is a stoic, hard-working land-army woman of WW2 whilst Louise reflects the more questioning, challenging attitudes of her times. Rowan challenges the commitment to war but his motives are selfish.

The play moves through time and space, so it is not intended that the performance space be site specific. All soldiers, in the uniform of their time, are part of the “same unit” - representing  the brotherhood that men find in the army.

This play attempts to explore what motivates the foot soldier even in the knowledge of the horror and futility of war and by looking at participation in four different wars, how the nature of that experience never actually changes.

 

Excerpt

     PART 3: FIRST GLANCE
    DAVE home on leave
DAVE    I get a week in Sydney, R&R. I could go home, but Sydney is … well, Sydney. I need a break. I don’t want to have to deal with Mum. (Lights on Mum forlornly reading a letter). It is one of those clear, sparkly days on the harbour. We were told to wear our civvies here because there is a lot of anti-war feeling. But I don’t. I am not going to pretend. Although feeling a bit anti-war myself. I knew there were going to be dead bodies there. I knew that there were going to be some pretty shithouse periods of time. I’ve seen dead animals, but I’ve never seen people like that.  They looked to me like dead ¬animals. Like leaves fallen off trees.
    
    (A moratorium rally passes by chanting “Hell no we won’t go”. DONNA is waving a placard. On seeing DAVE she leaves the group and approaches him, quite fired up).
    
DONNA    You know you’re wearing the uniform of a killer, don’t you?

DAVE    What?

DONNA    You bring misery and devastation, you destroy innocent lives. And this war is costing a fortune. Money that could be used to help people, not kill them. Aren’t you ashamed? You should be.

DAVE    Woah! What’s brought this on?

DONNA    You are one of them.

DAVE    One of what?

DONNA    A soldier.

DAVE    Ok. Well, um. Does not make me a child killer.

DONNA    It turns you into a killer. Why did you go?

DAVE    You need to back off. Who the bloody hell are you to have a go at me?

DONNA    I am a citizen and I have a right –

DAVE    - the right to shut up. What the hell do you know about it?

DONNA    I watch it every night in my loungeroom!

DAVE    And that makes you an expert?

DONNA    I – I know what is right.

DAVE    One up on the rest of us then.

DONNA    Can’t you see what you are doing is wrong?

DAVE    Hey! I didn’t have a choice. I was conscripted. What did you expect me to do?

DONNA    Burn your card.

DAVE    Go to jail.

DONNA    If you had to. Better than being a puppet of the government and picking up a gun. You need to decide for yourself.

DAVE    Is this how you usually spend your Saturdays? Attacking soldiers with politics?

DONNA    We have to fight for change. Make the government pay attention.

DAVE    Raise your voice, eh?

DONNA    Look, the government is deciding that we aren’t able to decide; that we can’t as twenty-year-olds look at the situation, the Vietnam situation, and they’re saying that we’re not good enough or we don’t know enough.

DAVE    Maybe we don’t know everything at twenty. Maybe there is a bigger picture.

DONNA    And maybe not. But they are making the decisions for us and it’s a matter of personal responsibility really. We didn’t vote for them and yet they are making all the decisions for us.

DAVE    Are you a communist?

DONNA     (laughs) I’m a pacifist. That does not make be a communist.

DAVE    Cos you sound a lot like a communist.

DONNA    I just think – no, believe – people ought to be respected enough to be able to determine whether or not a certain course of action is proper or not. I think any particular situation … we ought to be respected as to knowing what we should do, you know? And I think that we should stand up against, or stand out against, any law or a government which tries to treat us in this manner.

    The crowd try to drag her with them. She resists and indicates she will catch up later.

DAVE    Bloody hell. Recite it all, can’t you? Got it down pat. Ciggie?

DONNA     (Pauses). No.

DAVE    What about your mates? (he lights up a cigarette)

DONNA    They’re marching to Parliament House.

    (there is a pause)

DAVE    Look, you seem really sure of yourself.

DONNA    Well – yes. I am. There’s a lot at stake here.

DAVE    Oh yeah. You’d know.

DONNA    Forcing young men to pick up guns and kill civilians so that some country can keep a grip on its colonies - well, it just seems wrong.

DAVE    Wow. What about the domino principle?

DONNA    Really? That’s an old bit of rhetoric, isn’t it?  I believe that it is up to us to destroy false rhetoric. American imperialism has been justified in the eyes of the Australian people by lies, half-truths, distortions, and occasionally truths.

DAVE    Yeah? (pauses) So what do yer do when you’re not waving placards around and spouting cliches?

DONNA    I’m doing psych. At uni.

DAVE    (laughs) Of course you are.

DONNA    What’s that supposed to mean?

DAVE    Typical intellectual stuff while the rest of us get on with it.

DONNA    It’s not just Uni. Or maybe it is. People discuss things there, you know?  

DAVE    Hey well, you know what? My mates in my unit discuss things too.

DONNA    And after all the discussion I have worked out that I am opposed to War. Wars exist because Man wants them to. They exist because mankind in general has made no serious attempt to study the causes of War and the reasons why people are willing to kill each other. I believe that the glorification of war, the worship of things military as is apparent in Society, is obscene.

DAVE    Wow. Hey. That’s a mouthful. And you say you want to get rid of the rhetoric.

DONNA     (realising and laughing disarmingly) Fight fire with fire.

DAVE    And she’s funny as well.

DONNA    As well as what?

DAVE    (pause) I’m Dave.

DONNA    Dave. There’s a meeting at the Town Hall on Saturday afternoon. Why don’t you come?

DAVE    You’ll be there?

DONNA    Yes. Even though I’ve got an essay due Monday. And there’s people I’d like you to meet. And people who would want to meet you.

DAVE    If you promise you’ll be there - ?

DONNA    Donna.

DAVE    Donna.
    
    (She puts out her hand. He takes it and they smile at each other.
    (Cross to HARRY in France)

HARRY     (to audience) The damn  Vauxhall’s stuck in the mud again. Yeah I can fix engines but getting this thing through the mud with its skinny wheels  - well, she’ll go on anyway. She’ll be bumped, swamped, bogged, and probably shelled but we gotta get the VIPs around somehow.  

MILO    (faint French accent) Do you need any help? Je sais beaucoup de choses sur les motors.

HARRY     (to audience) And I turned around and looked into those eyes and – I could hardly breathe.

    (MILO looks at HARRY steadfastly, they are both a bit breathless)
    
HARRY    (To audience) Me mum used to say it can happen like that. At first sight. Never believed her.  (to MILO) Know anything about the D-type do you?

MILO    She is fast when you are not trying to drive her through the mud. I like the feeling that even when you are slow in her she has this power underneath. Like a … like a big cat.

HARRY    And if you could just get her on an open road she would flatten out the hills.

MILO    Ensuite, vous pourriez continuer pour toujours. (Harry looks puzzled) Er . Then you could drive forever.

HARRY    I don’t know how to parley the lingo here.

MILO    D’accord. I am good with the English. It is a reason I am the driver for my colonel.

HARRY    You like cars too?

MILO    Oui. Very much. Everyone I know thinks they are ridiculous things but me, I think they are the future.

HARRY    Yeah. One day I reckon everyone will have one, just like everyone has a horse now.

MILO    I do not have the horse. But I have the automobile. I want to make her – er fast but … strong on the road. No, that is wrong.  Um like silk.

HARRY    Smooth. And stable. So she doesn’t wander over the road when you get the speed up.

MILO    Yes. Smooth and stable. Me, I am Milo. I am with the 6th Battalion Chasseurs. When I am not the chauffeur.

HARRY    Harry. 37th Battalion.

    (they shake hands, lingering an unnecessary moment over the touch)

MILO    You have your own automobile? In Australia?

HARRY    I’ve got an old Tarrant at home I’ve been working on. Love to get me hands on a Model T though. Ford brought them out in Australia last year.

MILO    I have a Bugatti. Very good car. You know what I think?

HARRY    What?

MILO    I think this war will be very good for automobiles.

HARRY    Howzat?

MILO    When the war is finished - and it will finish - all wars finish one day. Then there will be a lot of cars left here. By the armies. All of them. And you will be able to come and take the cars and no-one will care.

HARRY    Oh they’ll care all right mate.

MILO    I think not. War is a lot of waste and this war will waste more than any other war. Look at the fields. And when it is over everyone will be too tired to care about the waste.

HARRY    It isn’t just cars that will be wasted.

MILO    This is true. There will be lives wasted. There are already lives wasted. And time will be wasted too.

HARRY    Yeh.
Don’t know how much time we’ve got, do we? We should – you know – (searching for the phrase unsuccessfully) grab on.

    (pause)

MILO    Vivre l'instant present. We think very much the same , ‘arry.  Delightful.

HARRY    Delightful?

MILO    The car.

HARRY    Oh. The car.

MILO    Good body. Smooth and strong.

HARRY    Yep.  Want a ciggie?

MILO    Ciggie?

HARRY    Cigarette. We can take a smoko.

MILO    Try my cigarette. They are French. Is very different. You will like.

    (MILO lights up for the two of them. Hands a cigarette to HARRY. They smile at each other.

HARRY    So how come you speak English?

MILO    I tell you the secret. Many French understand English. A few can speak. Some much better than others. But we don’t let the English know. It is more amusing that way.

    (They laugh. Cross to TOM in Papua New Guinea. He is reading a letter from his mother.)

TOM     (either TOM reads aloud then MOTHER takes over. As she is writing the letter, JOYCE brings in a cup of tea and gives it to her) “ … Last night I had a terrible dream about you I thought I had received a telegram saying that you were dangerously wounded -.

MOTHER    - I woke myself screaming at the top of my voice and could not go back to sleep again for hours. I go into the vegetable garden and dig and dig and dig. You are in my last thoughts at night and first in the morning. Joyce, the Land Army girl, makes it a little more bearable. She gets up and makes a cup of tea when she hears me screaming in the night.  She is a lovely girl. Very special and unusual in many ways. Honest to the point of rudeness sometimes. She knew nothing when she arrived but I must say, she picks up things very quickly. Smart as a whippet, and tough as nails, this one. Not like the others. Couldn’t stick it so I sent them back.  (TOM sighs and shakes his head)  Sometimes she seems to be the daughter I always wanted. I have put a picture of her in this letter. It is one of her on the farm tractor –

TOM    -The newspaper came out and wanted to do stories on Land Army girls and Joyce was one of them. They gave me a copy of the picture. I think she has lovely eyes.”

    (TOM pauses, and looks for a long moment at the picture. He nods. Crossfade to ALAN in Townsville at Lang’s hotel. Disco lights. People dancing.)

ALAN    This Friday night I take Jen for drinks and a bit of a dance at Lang’s. It’s where we all ago. All of us from the base.  Very few non-unit guys go. It isn’t pricey and there’s no door fee. Not like other places along Flinders Street where the bouncers are a bit over the top at times and it you can lose a week’s wages in one night. The bouncer here is my karate instructor so we’re good. Music’s thumping. It’s a DJ spinning.  All of us, we’re dancing to something on a very small floor. And then, I can hear the lines “Don't you know it's true, girl, there's no one else but you? Would I lie to you, baby,” and I am singing it to Jen.  ( the music plays, they dance, ALAN is singing as he dances.) Then the music changes and Jen goes to the bathroom and I look over and bam! There she is. We have that bloody moment you hear about. The sort of moment they make films about.  The sort of moment you never believed in and I can’t help myself.
    
(ALAN sidles over to LOUISA who is sipping on a drink and moving to the music. Their conversation is mostly yelling over the music).