When a Polish-Jewish immigrant slashed his throat because his workmates could not understand him and tormented him and himself being a victim of racial hatred, Melbourne-born Richard Beynon expressed his feelings, drawn from these experiences, in his prize-winning play - The Shifting Heart. An Italian family, the Bianchis, consisting of Maria, her Momma and Poppa and younger brother - Gino, tries to adapt in Collingwood, Australia, during the 1950s. They live with Maria’s Australian husband, Clarry Fowler who too undergoes racial prejudice until Gino dies because of it. The main theme is clear and simple. Beynon wants the reader to realize that xenophobia (the fear of strangers and foreigners) exists and the various family relationships as stated by Leslie Rees in The Making of Australian Drama:
The Shifting Heart relies not on the shocking fact of race-hatred for its major interest, but on its virtually human domestic problem - how to maintain cohesion and solidarity in a family plagued by tensions, whether outside or inside.
Whether the hatred bubbled because of the war that killed many ANZACs or because there was an influx of immigrants, racial hatred and xenophobia are expressed subtly and blatantly. Subtle are Leila’s (friendly neighbour on the right), Mr Wilson (shop owner) and Clarry’s jokes, but such acts differentiate the Bianchis from the society, just like the names “Momma Macaroni” and “Poppa Spaghetti” do e. g. when Clarry joked to Poppa:
If they’re all like you, Pop, no wonder the Roman Empire packed up.
As the play progresses, there is evidence of more hostile attacks like Donny, Leila’s husband, calling Poppa a “rotten dago” and from anonymous members of the society which indicates that injustice is generally amongst everyone. The neighbours on the right who never reveal themselves, throw garbage over the fence, children pelt pebbles at the house and Clarry’s mother’s refusal to meet them. Gino wants to be Australian, but with all this discrimination going on, it prevents him from being accepted. If the prejudice could be measured using a thermometer, it would’ve burst when Gino is bashed at the dance and when detective Sergent Lukie makes his racist remarks e. g.:
I was under the impression that all da… Italians carried knives. Thought it was a national trait.
Unbelievable isn’t it? Would one ever think that a policeman, a civil servant upholding justice and supposedly unbiased, could say such comment?
However, Lukie’s comments further highlight Clarry’s own prejudice. Clarry is trying to love the family whilst being ashamed of them. Consequently this causes conflict especially with Maria. Also being the typical, carefree Australian bloke, he displays his emotions only through aggressiveness and tries to steer away from problems and responsibilities such as introducing Gino as his wife’s brother rather than brother-in-law and not accepting him as a full partner in his business like he promised to because he then has to rename his business to “Fowler and Bianchi”:
That’s not good for business, is it? Foreigners, Momma, Out! Gotta keep it local.
His stubbornness in not recognizing his prejudice just makes an already overemotional Maria more frustrated. Becoming even more hysterical after Gino’s death, she blames Clarry for not protecting him. We sense that the only thing that keeps their marriage together is the fact that Maria is pregnant for the third time, after two miscarriages - another instance of not wanting her child to grow up in a prejudiced community:
But something inside me just wouldn’t let me hold onto them.
Apart from Clarry and Maria, the play also reveals the marriages of Poppa and Momma, and Leila and Donny. Momma and Poppa have expressed their love subconsciously. Their characters lighten this serious play by adding comical events e. g. when Poppa plays with Momma by trying to lift her up:
Clarry bets so momma and me, we have a little wrestle. But she win… oh… she make my heart go… bump… bump… bump…
On the other hand, Leila and Donny’s relationship is the opposite of Momma and Poppa’s. Leila constantly complains about him because he ill-treats her:
Nice smack on the jaw I’ll get, if I don’t watch out.
Just the sound of that phrase doesn’t indicate a happy marriage. The scene where Donny hits Leila signifies that their marriage is on the verge of a divorce and if the play had have been given a few more scenes, this would most likely have happened.
Although Italians are stereotyped to express their emotions openly, there is a great sense of closeness among the Bianchis. Each member loves each other; sometimes overdoing it e. g. Clarry arguing with Maria about overprotecting Gino:
Don’t you think it’s about time you left Gino to look after himself? Jeez, I mean man his age, it’s enough to have one mother, let alone two.
No matter what outsiders do, the family always have each other for support. In the end, it is this love which changes Clarry hence the play being called - The Shifting Heart. When he touches Gino’s blood, he realizes that his thinking of “people are just people” is clouded, for the blood he is touching belongs to his family. Thid change is symbolised after the soft yet hurtful words of Poppa and when Clarry names his newborn baby, Gino:
You’re the same as us; bad makes the mistakes, who pays? It’s the good, same as us.
The Shifting Heart has successfully portrayed the theme of xenophobia and racial hatred as well as family relationships. Although racial prejudice will be in Australia’s history forever, we have come a long way in tolerance to form a multicultural country. It is the change in people like Clarry who has given immigrants a chance to be treated equally as he states: “JUST THE SAME AS US”. However, one lingering thought remains in my mind: everyone is born in the same planet and if it’s that hard to accept people just because they’re born from another country, what will happen when we find life on Mars?