Waldheim's ghost walks in the Hotel Hibiscus

June 21, 1995

By Max Watts

What do Kurt Waldheim, Macbeth, Hamlet's uncle the king of Denmark, and "Australian Foreign Minister" Senator Owens in Robert Cockburn's play Hotel Hibiscus have in common?

All have had trouble with a ghost. The ghost of their crimes. There they went, successful, powerful. Unsuspected. Murderers. Condoning, commissioning, committing crimes.

But their victims — the Balkan Jews, Bosnians and Greeks, who Kurt Waldheim had hung and gassed during his Nazi army days; Banquo and the bairns Macbeth has killed; Hamlet's father, poisoned by his brothers the wicked uncle; the Bougainvillean (sorry: Hibiscan) dead overflowing the Arawa morgue — they are, after all, all dead. Gone.

They cannot — or can they? — harm their killers. Only their ghosts still stalk. At night. On Shakespeare's stage. In the Hotel Hibiscus. In history.

Of course neither Nazi Lieutenant Kurt Waldheim in the Balkans nor Australian Senator Owens in Canberra killed anyone personally. They had this done for them: Lt Waldheim during the war by his Wehrmacht soldiers, Senator Owens, in Cockburn's play, by Colonel Baulkham, an Australian diplomat with a past. Baulkham mostly relies on his PNG counterpart, Major Leon Ramara. In fact, even the colonel and the major usually have their killing done for them by ordinary PNG soldiers.

In Shakespeare's days, Macbeth and his wife, or Hamlet's uncle, still did much of their own killing. Today officers, gentlemen and senators try to keep their hands and their reputations clean.

And even back then Lady Macbeth, wandering, washing, washing, her hands, crying "Out, out, bloody spot!", went mad. Talking, as I, a schoolboy, once thought, to an imaginary dog.

Robert Cockburn's Hotel Hibiscus deals with a scarcely disguised Bougainville during the early months of 1990 — the final days of the first year of the now six-year-old Bougainville war. After a year's combat, repression, murder, the frustrated PNG "Defence Forces" are about to withdraw, defeated by the BRA, the ill-armed but rapidly growing Bougainville Revolutionary Army.

The PNG commander, Major Ramara, doesn't quite understand why. How can the Australians abandon their oh-so-profitable mine in the mountains so easily? And the major doesn't yet understand why his troops must first smash up all the pharmacies, the hospitals.

Colonel Baulkham, the Australian diplomat with a spooky past, must enforce the "peace plan" devised by his boss, foreign affairs minister Senator Owens, a peace plan with a secret component. The colonel must also keep the love of Patty Carmichael, the owner of the Hibiscus Hotel.

Both the peace plan and the colonel's love call for clean hands. But the dead are, already, too many. To keep them quiet, to stop journalist Sally Ann McBride and her reluctant photographer Lenny from blowing the gaff, more killing must be done. More bodies must away, be gotten rid of. Quietly.

But the ghosts of the murdered, as in Macbeth, Hamlet and Kurt Waldheim's past, come back. Stalk. Walk. And, worst of all, talk!

On stage they spoil the lives of their killers. In reality life is more complicated. Kurt Waldheim's crimes remained long unknown. Waldheim even became secretary-general of the United Nations, and president of Australia — no, no, sorry: of Austria.

Senator Owens, as the play ends, also is headed for the United Nations, for New York. The ghost of Samson, the bus driver killed "trying to escape", has haunted and caught up with Colonel Baulkham in Hibiscus, but few have yet blamed the senator in far-off Canberra for the death of thousands of Bougainvilleans — I mean: Hibiscans.

The Senator's "peace plan" to reconquer Hibiscus' golden mine for Australian capital, is under way. It calls for secrecy. Quietness. It will use silent death, disease, hunger, the blockade. No noise, no fuss, no news.

Senator Owens may yet succeed Kurt Waldheim as head of the UN, become Australia's president. But he too must stop the dead from walking. Talking.

Robert Cockburn covered Bougainville for the London Times during this period. He knows whereof he writes. His play is a powerful and realistic indictment of Australia's war against the Bougainvilleans.

Hotel Hibiscus is also an excellent, well-crafted, tense and entertaining drama. Workshopped at the NIDA recently, it deserves a full production, the more so as the Australian participation in the Bougainville war remains almost totally unknown to our establishment media.

Will we get a chance to see Hotel Hibiscus in the theatre? Or are the ghosts of the Bougainvilleans too dangerous to walk even on a stage?

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