Alan Seymour, playwright: 1927-2015

When I was 17 or 18 I had not seen all that much live theatre of any kind, let alone Australian theatre. Then I went to what was at the time a highly controversial play at the old Palace Theatre in Sydney: Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year. Ron Haddrick’s opening speech shocked and thrilled me, and made me laugh. I had never seen anything like it on stage before. The character of Alf reminded me instantly of a childhood neighbour in Sutherland. This was so real. And yet of course it wasn’t: it was theatre, really good theatre, filling the space with sound and the stage with conflict. If there was a weakness it was that the North Shore girlfriend, Jan, was just a bit too caricatured. I still think that. But what a memorable night that was back in 1961.

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The 1961 Melbourne production had a different cast: from left, Wynn Roberts (Alf), Dennis Miller (Hughie), Elaine Cusick (Jan), and Bunney Brooke (Dot).

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From today’s Guardian.

The obituary on News Limited is rather inadequate:

First staged in 1960 and performed many times since — a new production is set to open at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre this week — the play re-examined the myth of the ANZACs from several angles and was so controversial the playwright received death threats.

Rather than portraying diggers as heroic figures, characters in the play deride the ex-soldiers for using the day as an excuse to disgrace themselves with alcohol and by fighting and vomiting in city streets.

One of the characters in the play asserts that the veterans should be ashamed of themselves: “War’s such a dirty thing I’d have thought as soon as it’s over you’d want to forget it, be ashamed, as human beings, ashamed you ever had to take part in it.”

The play was selected for the Adelaide Festival but banned by the board of governors, who were worried about the offence it could cause.

In interviews, Seymour revealed that he was inspired to write the play after witnessing the behaviour of veterans on ANZAC Day in Sydney in 1955.

Born in Perth, Seymour lived in the UK and Turkey for many years before returning to Sydney in the 1990s.

Admirers of his work have expressed their thoughts on Twitter.

Yes, the play was controversial, but I would suggest it no longer is particularly. Indeed one of the most moving moments in the play is when the actual Gallipoli veteran, Alf, describes the landing at Anzac Cove. That, along with the views the mother, Dot, voices are the true centre of the play.

See also Van Badham’s Alan Seymour unravelled not just Anzac day but Australia’s ‘knotty roots’.

it’s not the exploration of Anzacery that has ensured the play’s popularity and productions of The One Day of the Year across the world, in translation, with the cultural imprimatur of a Penguin edition and numerous revivals. Critic and academic Katherine Brisbane identifies its appeal even at the time of the first production as a “movement away from British gentility towards examination of the knotty working-class roots of Australian life”.

The most important consideration the play offers is of a postwar phenomenon in which social policies such as Australia’s commonwealth scholarships and America’s GI Bill allowed working-class children access to middle-class university education, creating divergent class experiences and values even within a nuclear family unit.

The One Day of the Year’s most touching revelation is not of Anzac Day fallacies, but of parents with a son whose education, as Brisbane explains, “is no longer compensation for their own upbringing but a cause of estrangement and social embarrassment”.

It’s Seymour’s tender appreciation of how the epic social transformations of postwar western society trembled with unique vibrations even among those ancient tensions between parents and children that ensures the play’s legacy within the canon of Australian drama, and its writer as one of our most important. Vale, Alan Seymour.

There is an excellent obituary in today’s Sydney Morning Herald too.

He was surprised that The One Day of the Year came to define him: “In some ways it has been a bit of an albatross. I’ve written 10 other plays, but none has received the recognition or made the impact of this one.”

I should have known, but I was unaware that Alan Seymour was gay. Not only gay, but an icon for those supporting equal marriage rights – by example at least, as I don’t know what Alan Seymour’s views were on this. The Herald again:

From the 1950s Seymour lived with his partner, Ron Baddeley, whom he had met in Perth in 1949. An RAAF war veteran, Baddeley, who was a few years older, became a psychologist and teacher. Seymour said that Baddeley was unlike him, more withdrawn and introverted: “We just balance each other out, I guess. We had some stormy times in the first few years, because we weren’t mirror images of each other.”…

In 1966, Baddeley was offered a job as an English teacher in Turkey, so for five years the couple lived in Izmir, where Seymour wrote the novel The Coming Self-destruction of the United States of America and a novel adaptation of The One Day of the Year. When they returned to London, Seymour found it hard to get back into the swing of things but eventually found work as an editor and producer with BBC TV until the early 1980s, after which he returned to freelance writing. Then in 1995, after 34 years living abroad, they returned to Australia.

Seymour and Baddeley lived together in Darlinghurst until Baddeley’s death in 2003 at age 80. They had been together for 54 years and eight months. Soon after, Seymour, known as a “generous and delightful” man with a wonderful sense of humour, began developing Alzheimer’s and spent his final years in an aged care facility in Elizabeth Bay….

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