Anzac to Understanding
By Radomir Luza
If you want an easy path through the turmoil and bloodshed of war, Mary Anneeta Mann’s book and epic play on war and peace in the 20th century, Anzac to Understanding is not for you.
If, however, a book about peace, liberty, and love of country is what inspires you, this 800-plus page tome will make you sing and dance.
The story revolves around the First World War, characters and real people who, willingly or not, are part of its scope, and it is only through the work of a playwright with the sensitivity, clarity, and rhythm of Mann that an audience member can be touched as profoundly and often tearfully as in this play.
A Shakespearean tragedy this could be. Whether by an intense love of uniform, land, or family, there is little Mann leaves untouched. The main character Pal is a serious and meditative young man filled with wonderment of the land. He is unique in an indefinable and idealistic way that aids him in getting through personal deprivation alone.
The remaining characters all have a humanity and reality to them. Mann makes it clear in the first few pages of the book that Anzac leaps from the integration of religion, spirituality, and science. Indeed, the genius of this play lies not in the play itself, but in its sources, which though imperfect, are enough to make it a rare and wondrous work of art.
Mann describes the Anzacs as “The Australians and New Zealanders who fought on Gallipoli” on the coast of Turkey. But she goes much further. The heroism of these members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was “so extraordinary,” according to Mann, “that even the Turks whose land they were ordered to take, considered them their own and passed on the message to their loved ones in Australia that they were not buried on foreign soil but were considered native sons of Turkey and were buried on native soil. What the Anzacs did was to bring the great continent of Australia as a nation, with its tiny population, on to the world stage as a player in contemporary affairs with morals and standards that were very close to the core of humanity at its deepest level…. The gut feeling of personal freedom embodied by the Anzacs was a phenomenon that was yet to be understood.”
At its core Anzac is poetry turned into drama. It touches on the human and universal bonds felt by us all, but is expressed through the heightened emotion and language of a few gifted artists, one of whom is Mann. Though the content of the play may be too idealistic for some, there is no denying that full-bodied emanations of Liberty and Eternal Justice and the concept of Dreamtime are so poetic that they touch some meadow of love, gold, or paradise that many may not be able to understand.
Despite her sometimes overly poetic political views, Mann manages the impossible by brilliantly capturing a time and place no one before or after has even attempted. An epic play inspired, it seems, by her staunch and incredibly resilient Anzac father, and written in the 1960s, “Anzac” the play, is a work of such unutterable beauty, bite, and human dignity that this critic will never be the same.
“The poetry in this play,” writes Mann, “is dedicated to that eternal peace where all human beings are native to the earth itself and all human beings belong to one single human family.”
Ultimately Anzac the book is a reference for future scholars and anyone who wants to know more about the First World War. Others will not have to search because Mann has done the searching for them. To Mann WWI was the war to end all wars, a significant point in history.
She wants to know why it didn’t work.
This book, then, is that aching, page-turning, intense journey towards that comprehension.
On page 296 in Section 3, “A Quest for Understanding,” the reader begins to learn about Mann’s father, Willie Augustus Mann, in a series of often handwritten letters from Gallipoli and the Western Front which dig deeper into the soul and sub-conscience than anything else in the book.
The elder Mann was declared dead in 1916 with a severe stomach injury only to rejoin his battalion. Wounded again in November of 1916 he once more rejoined his battalion in August of 1917. His letters are brutally frank, funny, and authentic. They are filled with the kind of imagery reserved for famous writers and poets and the sort of decency one does not forget.
Mann points out that in her father’s 25th battalion out of Queensland more than 6,000 of 7,000 soldiers were killed or injured. If it is Mann’s aim to show the utter brutality, carnage, and futility of war, these letters seem to do it for her. Mann’s father writes with a confident yet vulnerable style that belies his lack of education or fortune. He was the last surviving member of the 25th battalion’s B company who was still in the army at the end of the war. A man who was a standard bearer for all the soldiers who fought in the war, the elder Mann was a personification of the human spirit. It seems Mann is saying here that her father survived for a reason.
On page 499 we are transported to “The Parallel Life of the Returned Soldier” where the chapters about Mann’s life begin. The writing is of such high quality and caliber that it pierces the walls we put up to protect ourselves and embraces the heart, soul, and universe. The sensitivity and wisdom are of such a deep and profound nature that they cannot help but make you stop and ponder the meaning and the language. Ponder as if nothing else matters.
Section 5 consists of the six understandings and “Spirituality – The Ancient Covenants of Belongingness.” The Third Understanding “The Relationship between Belongingness and Ethics” is a brilliant study of not only the definition of the “Life Force” and conscience, but that of the meaning of belongingness from the male and female point of view. It is a powerful call to serve one’s own conscience and spirituality before choices and actions fall out of harmony with nature.
All in all, Anzac to Understanding is a social and philosophical commentary on civilization, good or bad. It denounces war while celebrating human dignity and integrity in such a profoundly poetic manner that to avoid it is to deny yourself a substance and style almost unequaled. Before there is action, Mann is saying, there must be understanding. Why Mann has not received the kudos and credit that she deserves as a brilliant thinker, writer, and trailblazer begs the same answer as “Why war?”