September 09, 2008

Introduction to Beautiful Words by Sean Riley

Filed under: Archive,Commentary

Currency Press

Beautiful Words, Harsh Realities and Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Murray Bramwell

In December 2001 a story was published in The Age newspaper about a young Afghan girl named Zaynab. Her photo shows a very typical looking twelve year old wearing a boldly patterned headscarf – but her expression is solemn, her eyes downcast. The report notes that although she is in the care of her uncle, a government spokesman says her future in Australia is uncertain.

Zaynab was one of only four children who survived the sinking of the infamous SIEV-X, a boat containing more than 400 refugees from Afghanistan via Jakarta, which capsized in international waters causing 65 men , 142 women and 146 children to drown. From Zaynab’s immediate family her mother, father and four siblings all lost their lives. Her six year old brother Mahmoud died beside her, as the report says, “choking on a deadly cocktail of fuel and seawater.”(1)

This article, says Sean Riley, was one of the triggers for his play for young people, Beautiful Words, written and developed over four years from late 2001. In that time a number of maritime emergencies occurred in addition to SIEV-X. There was also the Tampa crisis in August 2001 and the infamous “children overboard” incident just days prior to the December 2001 Federal Election.

“There was a whole lot of turmoil and press about children overboard, “Riley recalls, ”and it seriously took my breath away, this clinical, detached approach to children. How could the government provide so little certainty for a child ? And as I worked on the play I was able to observe how the world was changing, how borders were changing and how politics and public opinion were altering.”(2)

Much has been written (3) documenting the politicization of asylum seekers – the hardline policies against illegal immigrants, the use of the navy to turn boats away, the expansion of detention centres on the Australian mainland and the establishment (known as the Pacific Solution) of new detention centres on outlying islands such as Nauru. The slow processes of refugee verification, the arduous internment, including that of families and children, and the issuing of temporary visas created a climate of anxiety, uncertainty and despair. Some asylum seekers in custody resorted to violence and self-harm, sewing their lips together in silent protest and refusing food and medication.

These events formed a continuing narrative in the first years of the 21th century, amplified by the fear and mistrust of the Middle East and the Muslim religion after the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. Australian society was divided about these questions. It became a major feature of political campaigns. In the lead-up to the election in November 2001 a defiant Prime Minister John Howard announced – ”We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Many Australians strongly supported punitive government action and policies, while others wrote letters of protest and formed support groups to assist refugees who were forbidden to work, yet expected to manage without support from the authorities.

These turbulent events form the background to Beautiful Words but they are not the subject of Sean Riley’s play. When the Afghan boy, Ari is miraculously washed up at Herring Bay in North Western Australia, it conjures up these recent occurrences – leaky boats, illegal entry, misery and death on the high sea – but the play is preoccupied with more personal imaginings and a larger timeframe also.

The contemporary events in the play are part of a larger wheel of history which goes back to 1945. In the first of its three sections, entitled Zugang, meaning “access”” in German, Riley begins his story in the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp in Poland in 1945, during the last weeks of the Second World War and prior to Germany’s surrender to the Allies.

Here the young gypsy boy, Roman Kansler, forms an unlikely, but very natural friendship with a German boy, Jan Klein-Rogge. They are in a terrible place, one interned, the other a child of the jailers. But they are also just boys who love to hang out together and go skating, doing normal things in a cruelly insane environment. Jan learns how myths are devised to justify fears – slanderous stories about Jews and Gypsies, providing reasons to exclude and dominate. But his own experience also contradicts that. When he meets a gypsy close up, and becomes friends with him, the stereotypes explode, the prejudice fades.

Something very similar happens in Section 2- “Pantheon”, named for the magical movie house run by the zany Pearl and Lurline up at Herring Bay. When Ari arrives he is a strange and frightened figure. The impulse of those who find him is to offer kindness and sanctuary. But there is also apprehension and suspicion as exhibited by Sheree, who not only runs the post office but is the self-appointed border protection monitor. For her, issues are black and white and the power of exclusion is an important part of her sense of her own belonging. We learn that she was not always Sheree, but was once called Ottla Pavlukovic. She carries painful memories as a recently arrived migrant herself, of being ridiculed for eating salami and called racist names. Her situation reminds us that, apart from the first inhabitants, everyone is a boat person, that our Australian history is a succession of arrivals from somewhere else.

In Beautiful Words, Sean Riley is telling us that, generally, people don’t like other people. We love our own kind with clannish loyalty, but often fear and despise those who are strange or different. Until, of course, we get to know them – then preconceptions and abstract hatreds fall away.

Not only is this Riley’s theme, it also his strategy. As his audience we are encouraged to recognize familiar bonds with the young Ari as he hides out at the Pantheon watching old movies. As he learns English from the beautiful words of the cinema, we share the pizzazz of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, the romance of Casablanca, the dark intensity of Cagney and Garbo, and those powerful stories of home and the separation from it – Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz (with her song of yearning : “Somewhere over the rainbow/skies are blue” ) and the forlorn ET, pining to phone home. As Ari soaks up this popular culture, his emotions and aspirations are no different from ours, and just as familiar as Zaynab, the young SIEV-X survivor in the newspaper article, whose one wish was to learn English and study to be a doctor.

The migration stories in Beautiful Words cross several generations and deal with both simple and complex truths. As Riley observes of those citizens close to the terrible events in the camps –“ I don’t think everyone who was there believed in what they were doing.” If atrocities occur when good people do nothing, then small positive actions have large meanings. When Jan takes on the identity of his friend Roman, he is also doing penance and redeeming his shame for his family. When, later, in Part 3, Saul Greenberg appears, he is the international voice for refugees and he is also speaking out in a way that few did when his own mother was interned and narrowly escaped death in the camp.

Sean Riley is careful not to draw comparisons between current events and the Holocaust. In fact, quite the reverse – “In some ways I wanted to put things into rational comparison, to make clear that the Holocaust and asylum seeker issues are quite different. I wanted to debunk that myth – but also to show what happens when people stand aside and do nothing.” (5)

Beautiful Words takes us in large sweeps from Europe to the United States to various parts of Australia. But the connections are always precise and poignantly human ones. Sean Riley has said he wanted to find a way to express big questions with a young voice, one that will speak directly – and not down – to school age audiences. And so he does with young Jan and Roman, Ari and Trent, and later, Ari and Toby. In the familiarity of their larking about, in the natural alliances they form – all other divisions, German and Gypsy, Afghan and backblocks Australian, dissolve.

Similarly for the older generations – Stella, the bitter widow of a Vietnam veteran is suspicious of her Muslim neighbour until a hospital emergency brings them together and barriers are broken down. Fittingly, Riley has named the young refugee mother Zaynab and the bond she forms with her fellow Australian is both credible and hopeful.

Beautiful Words is a play of symmetries and magical coincidences, tribulations and strongly affirmative resolution. In vibrant, strongly theatrical ways – with music in Part 1, with the giddy comedy of Pearl and Lurl and their tinsel Pantheon in Part 2, and in the vivid scenes of connection in the final section, Riley has created the credible conditions for reconciliation and understanding. In the memorable scene between Old Roman and Mrs Greenberg, rolling lemons under their toes to relieve their tired feet, a simple but powerful visual metaphor is established which typifies the play’s instinctive humanity. The title refers to the enticing, but deceptive words, of dictators, but it also refers to the hopeful lyrics of cinema musicals and the new words of a new language, experienced for the first time.

Sean Riley has said that he wanted Beautiful Words to be an epic play for young people – “ that challenged them about the world we live in. It came from speaking to my young friends about the concerns they have about migration, the Eastern world, the battle between Christian and Muslim. And it is asking -sympathetically and without fear – the question : if you had to leave your own country, would you want, would you expect, to be accepted somewhere else ? ”


1. Kelly Burke, “Orphaned survivor faces uncertain future”, The Age, Dec 21, 2001.

2. Personal interview with Sean Riley, Adelaide, 26 March, 2008. All subsequent quotes from this conversation.

3. Some relevant further reading includes : Marr, David and Marian Wilkinson, Dark Victory, Allen and Unwin, 2004. Peter Mares, Borderline: Australia’s Treatment of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the Wake of the Tampa, New South Wales University Press, 2003. Robert Manne with David Corlett, Sending Them Home: Refugees and the New Politics of Indifference, Quarterly Essay Issue 13, 2004.

Murray Bramwell is Associate Professor in Drama at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. He is also a theatre reviewer for The Australian and The Adelaide Review.

Published by Currency Press, Sydney, 2008.

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