Playwright's theatre of war

How would a typewriter ribbon salesman from the West End in Brisbane cope with trench fever?

A compelling question, especially if you were not only a playwright but also the salesman’s daughter.

Elaine Acworth, one of State Library’s QANZAC fellows, is on a very personal journey through World War I and II.

But how her father, Bill Acworth, recovered from the fever (which is transmitted by lice) is only a small part of his story.

Elaine hopes to reclaim and illuminate fragments of her father’s wartime experiences and transform them into a theatre piece.

Elaine is used to exploring memory, love and loss on stage. Her latest piece, Gloria, was performed last year at the Queensland Theatre Company to critical acclaim and examined the evaporating memories of a chanteuse and onetime romantic rebel.

Despite locating her father’s military records in the National Archives of Australia and trawling through the National War Memorial’s mesmerising website; Elaine still felt unsatisfied. The facts proved too rudimentary, too hazy.

With the help of State Library’s $15,000 fellowship she is now on a quest to understand the man who spoke very little of his wartime scars.

Part of his story involves the 26th Battalion and its role at Gallipoli.

Elaine’s research has also revealed her father, a lieutenant with the battalion, was mentioned in dispatches from the Battle of Polygon Wood.

“He was noted for his coolness and presence of mind in evacuating casualties under heavy shellfire,” she said.

For Elaine, who lost her father when she was just 14, the fellowship provides a chance to reconnect with him and understand some of the choices he made, including a secret desire to be buried at the War Memorial in Mt Gravatt, where he lies to this day.

“His journey in life echoed our journey as a nation to adulthood. From a boy who went off to fight for King and country to the old tough guy who had a good understanding of the world.”

Elaine is still a little unsure about the exact shape the performance piece will take, but images float around her head.

Shoelaces, carcasses, uniforms, bibles, all floating against the backdrop of wartime; a No man’s land.

These are only formative thoughts, but Elaine is confident that with the rich resources of the John Oxley Library she will be able to answer deeply personal questions that will resonate with a wider audience.

Elaine's fellowship project is called My Father's Wars, which tracks Bill Ackworth's life through World War I and II.

Dianne McKean – QANZAC100 Team

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