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Rusty Bugles: Australian War Comedy

Updated on December 10, 2018
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Cecelia grew up in South Australia. During her work in Kindergartens, Cecelia also became interested in speech development as literacy.

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War-time comedy before M*A*S*H

Rusty Bugles is an Australian drama written by Samuel Locke Eliot. It played in the theatre in 1948 and was televised in a shortened form on 23 July 1965 (Elliot 1980:Xvi, xxix.)

Rusty Bugles explored the camaraderie of men sharing close quarters, demonstrated a comic fascination with minatuae, and portrayed a refreshing resentment of bureaucracy. The play also incorporated the frustrations of fruitless longing, thwarted romance and heartbreak.

The popular potential of essentially plot-less drama based upon the ennui of being stuck in an endless, non-combat military posting has been established by the series M*A*S*H, but is interesting to note that Rusty Bugles was created before M*A*S*H (which ran from 1972 to 1983 according to IMDB).

Rusty Bugles, like M*A*S*H was a character driven, situation bound drama.

Book cover and Original theatrical flyer from National Gallery of Australia
Book cover and Original theatrical flyer from National Gallery of Australia


Interest is created by the way Elliot quickly establishes the characters in the minds of the audience using caricature. The coarse language used contributes an “accent”, and as it has a function, is far less offensive than I expected given bans placed upon early performances (Elliot 1980:xv-xx, Banham ?:60).

Act I Scene I reveals Ot, who exercises to express pent-up energy, Des Nolan who goes by the name “gig ape” (p.9) and is “troppo” already; and Vic who expresses a preference for the former occupants of the tent over any newcomers. Andy Edwards who is “hut corporal” (p.7) may be expected to take a moderating line between outside bureaucracy and the internal affairs of the group.

In subsequent scenes, other characters are established as having their recurrent motifs. Ken Falcon is legendary for never speaking (p.30), Ollie and Chris always appear together (eg. p.36), Darky Mclure has a talent for attracting charge sheets while avoiding their consequences (p.19), and Mac practices scams involving dermatitis in order to get sent to hospital (p.30).

Character development

While the characters are made endearing as caricatures, they are also allowed to reveal more of themselves and develop in interesting fashion.

Rod progresses from ignorant recruit, to HQ typist ( p.18), and finally expresses a sense that the camp has become home-like (p.88). Vic progresses from quietly breaking Rod's mug (p.14), to expressing the underlying reasons for his resentment (pp.48-50) and finally presenting Rod with a new mug (p.71).

Ot who is eagerly preparing to propose to “Rosebud” (p.69), is jilted but works through the setback and begins his exercise program again (pp.88-89).

Interestingly, Andy Edwards, the more benign face of authority, is shown to have a mistress as well as a wife writing to him (p.54, cf. Hotlips romance with an officer who also has a wife at home in M*A*S*H).


The men are constantly clowning around in the camp in a manner which would amuse most audiences. Ot stands on his head in the classic pose of a clown, while the other men insult and struggle with each other in more-or-less good natured fashion. (p.15)

This clowning creates a sense of stand-up comedy and and the impression of Australian male camraderie shining through under bleak conditions. Like clowns, the men are predominantly known by their nicknames, and while the scenery is limited, the stage is actually kept quite busy, with frequent entrances and exits, voices from off-stage gambling or chorusing their longing for “the replacements”, whistles and bells (pp.27,65,84). This means that the drama is tight enough for the audience to focus upon, but has sufficient ambiance and context.

Historical display war memorabilia ST. Peters Town Hall - Photo by Allan
Historical display war memorabilia ST. Peters Town Hall - Photo by Allan


Elliot, S. L. 1980 “Rusty Bugles” in Rusty Bugles / Sumner Locke Elliot, Rev Ed. Currency Press, Sydney,

Banham, M. ? The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, Cambridge University Press, p. 60, previewed from google booksearch at accessed online 2-3-2009

IMDB 1990-2012 M*A*S*H (TV Series 1972-1983), from

Kiernander, A. 2009 THEA 317 Week 5: 19th The City goes Bush, containing notes by Mcue, A. & Farrell, R., University of New England, Armidale, N.S.W

© 2012 Cecelia


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