The soldier’s tale
A new play tells the remarkable story of a blinded Anzac who became an art teacher, writes
IN the final months of World War I, James and Lucretia Ferguson received a telegram dated May 1, 1918, saying that their 27- year- old son Nelson had been involved in action. ‘‘ Dear sir, I regret to advise you that Private N. H. Ferguson has been reported gassed, classed as wounded,’’ it read.
The telegram provided a field ambulance mailing address so relatives could write to Nelson, with a reminder at the end: ‘‘ In the absence of further reports it is to be assumed that satisfactory progress is being maintained, but anything later received will be promptly transmitted.’’
The gas attack occurred during the liberation of the French town of Villers- Bretonneux. Ferguson, a stretcher- bearer in the medical corps, was almost completely blinded in both eyes. For the rest of his life his vision was impaired. He also suffered from damaged lungs and a hacking cough: the physical fallout of his 19 months on the Western Front.
Ferguson was an ordinary Australian in extraordinary and traumatic circumstances. In the years after the war, however, he proved himself to be anything but ordinary. Despite his visual impairment, Ferguson worked as an art teacher in Ballarat until he moved to Melbourne in the 1920s to teach at what became the RMIT.
When he was compulsorily retired in the 1950s because of further deterioration of his sight, he worked beside his son, John, and son- in- law Nick Papas in their stained- glass window business. Through his own quiet determination, good humour and a talent for inspiring others, Ferguson became extraordinary.
And then a miracle: in 1968 he had a corneal transplant and his sight returned. For the first time in 50 years, he could see. It was a bittersweet moment, though: his beloved wife Madeleine, whom he met before the war and married in 1922, died just weeks before the operation.
Ferguson died in 1976. For years his story was kept within the family, which is now scattered through suburban Melbourne. But its magnitude nagged at his grandson Don Farrands, who felt the story should be shared, possibly through a film or play.
‘‘ Most of the other family members thought I was seeking an impossibility,’’ says Farrands, a barrister. ‘‘ I told them I needed to believe this is an extraordinary enough story, that it would liberate itself. And to my astonishment, it has.’’
Next month the Melbourne Theatre Company will present The Glass Soldier , a play by Hannie Rayson. It is Nelson Ferguson’s story, with Jay Bowen playing the younger Nelson and Robert Menzies the older one. The cast includes Asher Keddie and Kerry Armstrong as the younger and older Madeleine, Steve Bisley, Julie Nihill, Sara Gleeson and Ben Geurens.
Rayson met Farrands in 2004 and was captivated by Ferguson’s story. Her original brief from a new production company, Hot Road Productions ( financed by Farrands and other partners), was to write a film script, which she is still completing. But during the research phase, Rayson realised Ferguson’s story had potential as a piece of theatre and pitched the idea to the MTC’s artistic director, Simon Phillips.
Composer Nigel Westlake has also made a contribution. The Soldier’s Suite has been recorded by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and will be part of the stage production, as well as a stand- alone work of beauty and elegance.
None of this would have happened had Farrands, 48, not discovered his grandfather’s war ephemera hidden in an old Scotch Finger biscuit tin 10 years ago.
‘‘ My mother ( Jessica, one of Ferguson’s three children) said, ‘ Have a look at this and see if there’s anything. One of the relatives is thinking of putting them on the tip,’’’ he recalls. ‘‘ When I saw what was inside I said, ‘ Hold on, I think there might be something of value in here.’ ’’
Inside were sketches, watercolour paintings and diary notes that captured the horror of the battlefields of northern France in 1917 and 1918.
On September 28, 1917, Ferguson notes: ‘‘ Rain comes in shell holes filled with water, reddened with blood. A large area strewn with the dead as they fell, some horribly mutilated. The chap face down. The arm. The body. The leg. The soldier rigid across a shell hole.’’
April 17, 1918: ‘‘ Fritz ( the Germans) opens with a heavy gas bombardment at four going on ’ til nine. Chaps gassed everywhere in the village. We begin to feel it and all begin vomiting badly. I went for relief but was unable to get back. Very weak and retching all the time . . .
‘‘ Now about 1 o’clock. A couple of hundred are gassed and lying in a sunken road awaiting transport. A motor takes us to Aubigny where Jack fixed up my belongings. Blaikie washed and bound up my eyes.’’
The war is just one chapter of Ferguson’s remarkable tale. His success as an art teacher and his ability to nurture young artists despite his blindness had a profound impact on RMIT students.
After retirement, Ferguson continued his mentoring role. He helped his son and son- in- law with the glass business, making windows for churches and homes. The studio was originally in Ferguson’s back yard, in suburban Carnegie.
Rayson’s play includes battle scenes but focuses on what happens after the war. Partly fictionalised, it’s about the relationships between Ferguson, his wife Madeleine and his mate Wolfie, a shell- shock victim.
The playwright discovered a compelling fivedecade connection through the beauty of stained glass. ‘‘ One of Nelson’s last images before he was gassed was in a church in France with a stainedglass window,’’ she says. ‘‘ The church was bombed and the window was shattered. I use it as a metaphor: over the century there have been moments of peace shattered by war. This is kind of about the quest to pick up the pieces of fractured, fragmented lives to let in the light.’’
Rayson, who lives in Melbourne, says the Ferguson family are ‘‘ lovely, lovely people, but they’re very modest . . . They were very keen that Nelson’s story be told as an everyman’s story. This is not, for example, the story of a great artist who lost his sight; that’s something they would be embarrassed about. He was a teacher, and that’s what he did best. They wanted this to be a story that stood for an experience that spanned the 20th century.’’
Farrands, a former senior financial officer with Rio Tinto who calls himself a ‘‘ lowly worm barrister’’, is the family spokesman, ‘‘ the custodian of the context and reputation’’. All three of Nelson and Madeleine’s children, Farrands says, are pleased and humbled by the projects dedicated to their father. Sharing the tale with Rayson, he adds, was a privilege.
‘‘ I told her my grandfather’s story in about two minutes and she was wonderful,’’ says Farrands, recalling their first meeting. ‘‘ She said, ‘ I have hairs standing on the back of my neck and I’m going to write the story.’ ’’
Although the film and music score are Hot Road Productions commissions, the MTC has invested heavily in The Glass Soldier stage production. Unusually in these cash- strapped times for the arts, the company is using 12 actors
( most performing more than one role) to bring the epic script to life.
Phillips, who is directing the play, recalls his first conversation about it with Rayson last year: ‘‘ I was sold, just as everyone who ever hears the story is kind of sold on it, and said, ‘ Let’s go for it.’ ’’ The social history of a generation that went through two world wars and the Depression gives the play backbone, he says. ‘‘ You often feel if you just scratch the surface of any family and then cover that family over 40 years, you’re going to find a remarkable tale.’’
As part of her research, Rayson and her historian husband, Michael Cathcart, were sent to France by Hot Road so they could walk through the former battlefields. Rayson visited war museums in France and Britain and read ‘‘ everything I could get my hands on for two years’’. One of the most powerful moments, she reflects, was standing in the fields near VillersBretonneux. There she let her imagination converge with the view in front of her. As she scanned the site she was struck by the enormous sacrifice of 1200 young Australians to save one village. A British general later described the attack on German forces as ‘‘ perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war’’.
‘‘ It was such a savage, gruesome business,’’ Rayson says. ‘‘ I think there was a sensibility which is so different now. I tried to imagine what it would be like, psyching myself into a mindset where it would be fine to die for the empire.
‘‘ The duty thing that was going on . . . it’s very hard to get your head around it in 2007. What is astonishing, of course, is the mateship. It shines through the more you learn.’’
The playwright says her version of Ferguson’s story ‘‘ is like a family saga. It just rolls down. It’s not a history lesson, it’s the story of one man and his best friend, and what happens to marriage when mateship is a dominant part of your life. We all know about mateship and its impact on your marriage, when there’s this kind of third party.
‘‘ I also felt I could bring an understanding of how post- traumatic stress rolls on through the generations.’’
Farrands describes the past few months as ‘‘ a wonderful family experience for all of us’’.
His cousin Andrew, who runs the family business making and restoring stained glass and leadlight windows with his brother Peter, agrees.
‘‘ My family is a bit shell- shocked by this. Don has been working on this for 10 years, and while we are all really proud of Grampy, we didn’t want him to be portrayed as a war hero, or to glorify war. I’m pleased Hannie took that approach.
‘‘ We prefer to think of Grampy as symbolic of all the soldiers: the fact that these were just a lot of normal guys thrown into a horrible situation. I think the realities of war are pretty bloody horrible.’’
Says Farrands: ‘‘ The virtue of my grandfather was he didn’t come back from the war broken and permanently discouraged. He came back, he married, he returned to his art and created a whole generation of artists.
‘‘ Whatever we can do to put fuel under the fire of this story, we’ll try it. I think that’s what the story deserves: a ventilation of this man’s life.’’ Melbourne Theatre Company presents The Glass Soldier at the Arts Centre Playhouse from August 8 to September 8.
Colourful life: Nelson Ferguson, left, suffered impaired vision in a gas attack in northern France during World War I; the soldier, who would later become an art teacher, made many sketches and watercolours while serving on the Western Front; writer Hannie Rayson, far left, is taking Ferguson’s story to the Melbourne stage, where The Glass Soldier will premiere next month