March 26, 2015

Writer Captured Nation’s Rift

Alan Seymour:
Born Perth, June 6, 1927
Died Sydney, March 23, 2105.

Australian playwright Alan Seymour has died in Sydney aged 88. It is inevitable that tributes to him will circle around The One Day of the Year, the play written in 1959, which was at first notorious and then became a national classic. It made his name but, perhaps to his regret, overshadowed his other dramatic and literary achievements.

The “one day of the year” in Seymour’s play is Anzac Day, the one chance in 365 when Alf Cook, a returned soldier working in a dreary labouring job, has a sense of personal value and significance. His son, Hughie represents a different time, level of education and life experience and in, an article in a university newspaper, he lambasts the swaggering, often drunken, out-dated nationalism that Anzac Day had come to represent for younger Australians.

With his long suffering Mum attempting to mediate the feud between father and son, and a wiser perspective from Wacka, a veteran of both wars, the play vividly and poignantly captured the “generation gap” which was to characterise much of the 1960s and, with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the decade which followed as well.

The play caused consternation from the beginning. In 1960 the Arts Board of the Adelaide Festival rejected its inclusion in their program, out of concern it may give offence to the RSL and other service groups. Instead, it was staged by the Adelaide Theatre Group in that year and, in 1961, the play received its first professional production in Sydney with support from the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Performed in London also in 1961, the play was widely staged throughout Australia and became a familiar school and university text.

Seymour was alerted to his subject by an actual article written in Honi Soit , the Sydney University newspaper, but The One Day of the Year is larger in its scope and implication than Anzac Day itself. It is an enduring feature of Alan Seymour’s distinctively vernacular family portrait that it captures, in recognisably human terms, the tensions between Australia’s links to past history and aspirations to new horizons. It is a word much bandied about, but The One Day of the Year, like The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, is an iconic Australian drama.

Born in Perth in 1927, the son of parents he described as “working class Cockneys”, Alan Seymour was a working writer all his life. After leaving school he worked in journalism and radio in Perth and then in Sydney. With the success of The One Day of the Year he set his sights on opportunities abroad. In 1961 he went to London with his lifelong partner Ron Baddeley whom he met in 1949. They remained together and devoted for 54 years until Baddeley’s death in 2003.

In London, Seymour forged a successful career as a television writer, producer and editor with the BBC. He was also theatre critic for the highly influential London Magazine from 1963-65. Then in 1966 until 1971, he moved to Turkey, where Ron Baddeley was teaching, and continued to write novels, plays and journalism.

None of his other plays made the same impact as The One Day of the Year. Swamp Creatures from 1957 is described as a Gothic thriller, later plays include A Break in the Music, The Pope and the Pill, The Shattering and The Float. Donny Johnson, won the Sydney Journalists Award and was an Australian rock version of the Don Juan legend. The Gaiety of Nations (1965) dealt with the Vietnam War. He also published a novel about race relations, The Coming Self-Destruction of the United States of America (1969) and a novel adaptation of The One Day of the Year.

Alan Seymour returned to live in Australia in 1995. His funeral will take place today in Bondi Junction.

Murray Bramwell

Published in abridged form as “Writer captured nation’s rift” The Australian, March 26, 2015, p.14.

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