Essay by Jonathan Bollen

In 1960, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, may have been, as the critic Max Harris called it, ‘the one play of the year,’ a landmark in the nation’s chronicle. More than half a century later, however, the play is no longer as singular as its title. There have been multiple publications, revisions, translations and adaptations, as well as Seymour’s novelisation, along with numerable productions for theatre, television and radio over the years, and a growing accumulation of criticism, reflection and response. This essay’s contribution is to revisit the play by focusing on photographs and film recordings from early productions. In doing so, it finds inspiration to question the criticism of the young characters in the play and imagines how a fresh approach to production could break with tradition.

At its world premiere on 20 July 1960, the play had already become a cause célèbre, after the Adelaide Festival of Arts judged its attitude towards Anzac Day to be ‘too controversial’ for inclusion in the festival program (Harris). Instead, the play was first staged in an amateur production, directed by Jean Marshall for the Adelaide Theatre Group at Willard Hall. The first professional production, directed by Robin Lovejoy for the Australian Elizabethan Trust at the Palace Theatre in Sydney, opened (despite a bomb hoax) on 26 April 1961. The script was published in the May/June issue of Theatregoer, a short-lived periodical covering the Australian stage, and a second professional production, directed by John Sumner for the Union Theatre Repertory Company, opened at the Russell Street Theatre on 26 June 1961. The Melbourne production toured widely in regional Victoria and Tasmania that year, and a performance was videotaped at the GTV-9 studios in Melbourne for broadcast on television with swear words deleted (‘Ten Times’). Meanwhile, the Arts Council of Australia engaged Seymour to direct a touring production which embarked on a sixteen-week tour giving ninety-six performances throughout regional New South Wales and Queensland, playing to a cumulative audience of over sixteen thousand (Macdonnell).

Seymour revised the play for the London production, performed by an Australian cast at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in October and November 1961. ‘The violent row near the end of Act I,’ which had played in the Australian productions, ‘was rewritten for the London theatre,’ ending the first act on a ‘milder note’ with Alf cleaning Hughie’s shoes (‘Conflict’). It was in this version, published in 1962 by Angus and Robertson, that the play was widely read, re-printed in anthologies and produced, although Seymour continued to work on the play.

When the Independent Theatre in Sydney revived the play on its tenth anniversary in 1970, the action at the end of the play was revised: the director Robert Levis ‘preferred the more sentimental of Mr Seymour’s two endings’ in which Hughie does not slam the door (Kippax). In 1980, when Kevin Palmer directed the twentieth anniversary production for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Seymour supplied a freshly revised version of the play. The revision included new material for the young characters, Hughie and Jan, and, in particular, a new speech for Jan who had been the focus of much criticism over the years. This production toured to Broken Hill and eleven regional towns in South Australia before transferring to the Playhouse in Adelaide on 18 April 1980. After seeing his revised play on stage in Adelaide, Seymour worked with the director and cast on still further revisions before the production toured on to Tasmania for seasons at Launceston, Burnie and Hobart (Sykes and Richards). The revised version was published in the 1985 edition of the Penguin anthology, Three Australian Plays, edited by Alrene Sykes.

It is not at all uncommon for Australian plays to exist in multiple versions. Playwrights frequently revise scripts, both in the course of the early runs of production, and in anticipating a new generation of spectators at subsequent revivals. A prompt copy from the touring production of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a palimpsest of rewritten speeches and revised stage directions, especially the ending (Thompson); and Lawler substantially revised his 1959 follow-up play, The Piccadilly Bushman, for its 1998 revival (Lawler). Even today, when play scripts are published for sale in the foyer on the opening night of premiere productions, the published version may not include crucial changes made during rehearsal and performed on the stage. Whether any of these rehearsal-room changes find their way into subsequent productions of the play or publications of the script is not guaranteed.

All of this is a reminder that, firstly, the work of a play is never a singular text – there is no ‘one play’ that is The One Day of the Year; and, secondly, the evidence from production – photographs, film recordings, prompt copies, director’s notes, and so on – are as much part of the work as the play script in its various versions. The point is not new but it bears on the question of what a play from the past can become for an audience today. In his now-classic study of Drama in Performance, Raymond Williams found that ‘there is no constant relation between text and performance in drama’ (175). Yet the way a play was initially performed in the theatre can inform a contemporary production, while fresh approaches to contemporary production can transform the relation of performance to text.

Nine photographs from the premiere production of The One Day of the Year are held in the Performing Arts Collection of South Australia at the Adelaide Festival Centre. The photographs were taken by Colin Ballantyne, a professional photographer who, by 1960, was also a major figure on the Adelaide theatre scene (Ward). He was the producer for the play that took the place of The One Day of the Year in the Adelaide Festival: Moon on a Rainbow Shaw by Errol John, the Trinidadian playwright, whose play had premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1958. At the same time, Ballantyne was assistant producer to the festival production of T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, directed by Hugh Hunt, the founding director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Ballantyne’s photographs of The One Day of the Year convey his interest in the play, notwithstanding the controversy that had surrounded its premiere production.

The photographs are black-and-white, taken with a large format camera on the 4-by-5 inch sheet-film format that was widely used at the time. The film technology was such that the photographs were not taken, as they are today, during the course of a dress rehearsal, with the performers acting out the scenes. Rather, the photographs record static compositions, moments selected from the performance and posed as tableaux for the camera with its relatively slow film and shutter-speed. With the collaboration of cast and director, Ballantyne selected moments to photograph, producing a visual analysis of the play’s scenarios, its dramatic clusters of character and action. The moments are ‘gestic’ in the Brechtian sense: the social relations of the story are condensed by the actors into dynamic attitudes, including facial expressions, bodily gestures and physical interactions (Brecht, 198).

The compact of the older generation in their commemoration of Anzac Day is depicted in two scenarios of Francis Flannagan as Wacka, Terry Stapleton as Alf and Patsy Flannagan as Mum. In the first scenario, they are seated at the kitchen table; their beer glasses are empty; conversation has taken over. Wacka, the Anzac digger, sits in the chair, a beer glass in his hand, and leans forward, looking up to Mum. Alf stands between them, grasping Wacka’s shoulder in a gesture of solace and support. In a second scenario, they are seated in the lounge: Alf is at the centre, most prominently lit; Wacka gestures towards Alf with his glass, while Alf tilts his face towards Mum, who may be aware that, across the stage, their son has arrived home with his girlfriend. A third scenario captures the generational conflict between father and son at the dramatic climax of the play. Alf leans forward, right arm outstretched, his hand just about to hit Hughie across the face; Hughie leans backwards in the direction of his room, stabilising himself for the camera, while Mum holds back, standing beside Wacka. The photograph of this moment first animated my interest in the play (Bollen, Kiernander and Parr, 148–50). Looking back, I find the photographs of the young couple more significant now.

Tony Ogier as Hughie and Georgina Mackie as Jan are photographed four times in Hughie’s room, described in the plays as ‘a glassed-in sleep out at the side of the house’ (Seymour 1961, 4). The bedside lamp is on; the scene is set at night. University pennants are displayed on the wall. Hughie either stands at the bedhead, with Jan seated on the bed, or the two of them are seated side-by-side on the bed. In the most dynamic photograph of the four, Hughie leans to his left, legs outstretched to his right, while Jan leans back across his lap. His right arm reaches around her back to grasp her right shoulder, while her arms lie across her body, hands tucked out of sight. Hughie’s head is turned towards Jan, but Jan’s eyes are closed and her head turned away. If Jan would turn her head back towards Hughie, the two of them could kiss (Figure 1).

That Ballantyne was willing to expend four exposures on the scenario of Hughie and Jan is an indication of its significance to the play at that time. It perhaps also conveys the complexity of performing the relationship on the stage, and the challenge of capturing their interactions on film. As photographed by Ballantyne, Hughie’s sleep-out is a multi-purpose space for a young man, designed for sleeping, studying, communicating and entertaining friends. The bedroom decor suggests an effort at contemporary style. A chequered cover is spread over the blanket on the bed, a fashionable coffee table stands on splayed metal legs: on the coffee table, a cigarette pack and ashtray, newspapers and magazines, and Hughie’s camera and case; behind the bed, a radio receiver, an anodised lamp, a picture frame, and a chequered tie. This is a charged space, alive with libidinal energies and the vectors of mediation – for reading and writing, for taking photographs, for tuning into broadcasts, and for making out. In fact, the prospect of sexual activity amid media technologies not only energises their collaboration as student photo-journalists on the Anzac Day story that so enrages Alf. It continues to resonate with contemporary anxieties about young people, sexual energies and media production.

The controversy of staging The One Day of the Year is rehearsed in a short film promoting the Arts Council of Australia released in 1963. ‘On Tour with the Arts Council’ was produced by the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit for the series Australia Today. It is now held in the collection at the National Film and Sound Archive. The Arts Council of Australia (New South Wales Division) was a philanthropic cultural organisation, founded by Dorothy Helmrich, as the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts in 1943. With a focus on arts education, touring and outreach beyond the capital city, the Arts Council developed the network of regional arts councils still active today. Inspired by the British example, Helmrich enlisted a group of distinguished individuals, and took up the post-war rhetoric of decentralisation. From an office in Sydney, Helmrich directed the work of encouraging country people to participate in the arts with a missionary zeal that was ‘not without an element of condescension from the city to the bush’ (Macdonnell 8).

The Arts Council’s decision to tour The One Day of the Year provides an estimation of the high-minded regard with which Helmrich dispensed art to the regions; the lacklustre alternative was a production of The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie. One factor enhancing The One Day of Year’s prospects for success was the Arts Council’s decision to engage Seymour as the producer for the tour. At the time, the function of producer corresponded with what is now called the director. The difference would be that a producer adhered closely to the playwright’s intentions, whereas a director was entitled to stage a fresh vision. In this case, with the playwright as producer, the distinction is moot.

‘On Tour with the Arts Council’ shows Seymour working with the cast in rehearsal, directing the actors with regard to vocal expression, physical action and blocking (determining the actors’ positions on stage). They are rehearsing an interaction towards the end of Act 2. Alf returns home drunk and ‘dishevelled’ from celebrating Anzac Day, and regales Mum, Wacka and Hughie with lurid tales from the pub. It is the moment when Alf’s behaviour, both as enacted on the stage and as self-reported in speech, provides the evidence to justify Hughie and Jan in their critique. During the rehearsal, Bruce Myles, the actor playing Hughie, has the producer’s attention. Seymour directs Myles to ‘Hit the “rotten” harder’ in addressing Alf: ‘Does everyone have to be as rotten as you are before you can enjoy Anzac Day?’ As they continue rehearsing, Terry Stapleton, playing Alf, breaks off addressing Hughie with the line, ‘Don’t you insult my mate [Wacka], don’t you insult him,’ to seek Seymour’s direction: ‘Alan, where do you really want me? Do you want me to get right up on the dais [where Hughie is standing]? Or stay down here and do it [towards Wacka]?’ Seymour refuses both suggestions, directing Stapleton to ‘Do it from the bottom of the steps,’ where he was originally standing. And when Myles asks, ‘Should I come in closer to tighten it up?’ Seymour refuses that too: ‘I don’t want you close. I don’t want it tight. What we need is exactly the right distance that you have now. So stay where you are, if you would.’

The significance of Seymour’s direction in rehearsing this scene can only be appreciated in relation to the design of the set. Earlier in the film, Seymour is seen discussing a model of the set, which has been modified for touring, but is based on Anne Fraser’s design for the Palace Theatre production. Fraser rearranged the layout of the original production in Adelaide, with Hughie’s room set upstage to the right (from the audience’s perspective), the kitchen for the older generation to the left, and the lounge area downstage of both. She also defined the spaces at three different levels – the lounge is at stage level, the kitchen is raised one step higher, while Hughie’s room is raised two steps higher. The spaces are divided upstage by the main entrance to the house, the ‘dais’ which projects into the kitchen and lounge room.

In the rehearsal, this entrance-dais is where Hughie is standing to deliver his lines. It is two steps higher than the lounge room, where Alf is standing. The design of the set gives Hughie a platform from which he speaks down to his father, who staggers drunkenly, two steps below. Upstage centre and elevated above his elders, Seymour sustains Hughie’s dominance in the scene, refusing the actors’ suggestions for alternative blocking, and enabling the spatial relations to elevate Hughie’s argument and diminish Alf’s response. The film culminates with the same scene as it played, with Seymour’s direction intact, for an audience at the Anglican church hall in Scone.

Photographs and film from early productions of The One Day of the Year point to the significance of the young characters, drawing attention to their attitudes, interactions and arguments, and the provocation of giving the young people a platform to speak. Yet an ongoing challenge in producing the play has been the casting of relatively inexperienced actors in the roles of Hughie and Jan. It is almost inevitable that the actors playing Alf, Mum and Wacka are the more experienced actors in the cast. This pattern was established at the outset with the premiere production and has continued to this day.

The actors who first played Wacka and Mum were veterans of Adelaide’s theatre scene. Francis Flannagan and Patsy Flannagan had each appeared regularly in amateur productions since 1946. Terry Stapleton, who played Alf in both the Adelaide premiere and the Arts Council’s touring production, was younger but he had demonstrated his talent acting in the 1959 Adelaide production of Look Back in Anger by the British playwright John Osborne, one of the so-called ‘angry young men’ with whom Seymour was compared. Stapleton’s career as an actor extended into the 1990s, including seasons at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney’s Ensemble; he also became a scriptwriter of television drama for Crawford Productions. In comparison, Tony Ogier and Georgina Mackie, who first played Hughie and Jan, were newcomers whose short theatrical careers were (it seems) confined to Adelaide’s amateur scene. Likewise, the actors playing the younger characters in the early productions – Lew Luton and Judith Arthy in Sydney, Dennis Miller and Elaine Cusick in Melbourne, and Lewis Fiander and Patricia Conolly in London – were all within a few years of their professional debuts.

What distinguishes the young actors playing Hughie and Jan at the outset of their careers is that most did not return to perform in the play in later years (the exception is Lew Luton). This marks a contrast with the more experienced actors, some of whom played the older characters through a series of productions. The most notable of these is Ron Haddrick, the actor who played Alf in the 1961 Sydney production and transferred with the production to London. Haddrick’s ‘larger-than-life’ creation, with its ‘suppressed savagery, potential tyranny and resilience,’ was recalled at length by H. G. Kippax in reviewing Don Crosby’s ‘smaller, sadder Alf’ in the play’s first revival at Sydney’s Independent Theatre in 1970. The 1970 revival secured its place in tradition by casting Bunny Brooke to play Mum in a reprisal of her role in the first Melbourne production and its 1962 television adaptation. Three decades later, too old to play the father, Haddrick returned to the play in the role of Wacka at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003.

Looking at casting across the production history of the play, it is as if the actors of the younger generation are forever young and interchangeable, while the actors of the older generation sustain the play’s tradition. The playwright himself grew fonder of the older generation in the play. In a note to the student edition, Seymour writes: ‘Originally these had been, at least at a philosophical level, the villains of the piece,’ but ‘I found myself liking, almost loving, the older generation, represented in the play’ (Seymour, ‘Author’s Note’). Later, he reflects: ‘the older people in the play just grew out of my bones,’ whereas ‘the youngsters were a concept’: they ‘have to carry the burden of the message’ and Seymour admits, despite all the rewriting, ‘I never quite got them right’ (Palmer interview 64).

The critical consensus is that the young characters are weak. Critics complain, in particular, that Jan is unlikeable, undeveloped as a character or too difficult to perform, or that the actor cast to play her was inadequate for the role: ‘she has been described as “insensitive,” “offensive,” “brash and conventionally cynical” with “callow impoliteness” and “a bitchy character” that has been “crudely drawn”‘ (Sykes and Richards 68). Some critics accuse the playwright of giving ‘a difficult job’ to the actor playing Jan (McCuaig), such that ‘any unnaturalness about her performance stemmed mainly from the author’s lines’ (N. K.). Others blame the acting despite the disadvantage of inexperience. At the 1970 revival, Katharine Brisbane observed that ‘Jeannie Drynan, as the little snob who goes intellectually slumming, does not have the technical skill to work through the lines to any kind of truth – as Bunney Brooks (as Mrs Cook) does from time to time with brilliant effect.’ Likewise, Rex Cramphorn complained that ‘its youthful protagonists were always insufferable – especially Jan – and sadly prone to duologues of the most stilted artificiality,’ although he conceded that, ‘Light me, darling’ (Jan’s request for Hughie to light her cigarette) was his ‘favourite sample of university sophistication.’

Sykes and Richards diagnose that, as a ‘pseudo-sophisticate,’ the role of Jan is ‘an extremely difficult task for any actress to portray…without being accused of bad acting.’ Their reasoning is that ‘[t]o play on stage a sophisticate is to act out a non-genuine character’; therefore ‘to play a pseudo-sophisticate is doubling up on non-genuineness’ (69). When I read the play with Adrian Kiernander and Bruce Parr in 2003, we found Jan’s character to be very ‘camp’ – referring to the ‘sensibility’ that Susan Sontag described as ‘unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it’ (275). In that discussion, we speculated on a production that would swap the gender of Jan’s character and re-arrange the play’s geography: ‘Hughie living at home in the western suburbs’ with Jan cross-cast as an ‘inner-city, high-camp gay boy traipsing out’ to visit. Part of the appeal of imagining this production was how it might ‘rework the “cultural intrusion” that Jan represents’ and reinvigorate the sexual charge of the scenes in Hughie’s room. (We also considered whether Hughie is, in some respects, an autobiographical character, and whether Jan’s sophistication was a projection of Seymour’s homosexual milieu.)

Looking back at the visual evidence from the early productions, we see performances crackling with youthful energies, with Hughie’s desire to act out with Jan, to take the pictures and tell their story, to speak back to his parents and the power of tradition. How then could such an ‘angry young’ play turn into the ‘old war-horse’ it has become? It is as if the now-routine criticism of the young people as the ‘weaknesses of the play’ has sapped the energy from their critique (Galloway). Yet what if the so-called problems of performing Jan and Hughie, the criticism of their characters and dialogue, and the rewrites in which Seymour tried to address the problems, could be resolved by cross-casting a male actor to play Jan and queering her relationship with Hughie?

Cross-casting Jan would certainly refocus the audience’s attention on the young couple, arresting the inevitable drift of sentiment towards the older generation. Maybe the audience would come to share Hughie’s interest in Jan’s sophistication and maybe the tension that their relationship generates in the family would start to make new sense. It would certainly provide a way to re-engage with the complexity and provocation of playing the young characters so evident in the early productions: Would Jan, the character, remain female within the world of the play? Could she become a male character so that Hughie becomes gay? Or a male character transitioning in gender to become Jan? Whichever way cross-casting plays out in the story, it could provide the motivation for a company in Australia to stage a fresh production.

It is worth recalling that the play is a comedy: it was laughter that propelled the play into professional production, and Seymour had no particular affinity for its three-act form of realism; he originally envisaged a more adventurous form with flashbacks, jump-cuts and role-doubling (Palmer interview). Yet the last professional production in Australia, directed by David Berthold for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003, was conceived during the Howard government’s reclamation of Anzac and irretrievably sympathetic to tradition. Diana Simmonds reports that Wayne Harrison’s 2015 production at London’s Finborough Theatre with Mark Little playing Alf, engaged contemporary concerns with ‘bitter-sweet irony,’ yet still the young actors did not escape equivocation: ‘As the smart young things of the new age of opportunity, Adele Querol and James Wright resist the easy route of caricature and are able to invest these two with pathos and proper likeability, even as they’re being obnoxiously clever and entitled.’

It is time to break with tradition and hand the play on to a new generation. What would Sisters Grimm, the queer theatre duo from Melbourne, do with the play? If Declan Greene would rewrite and direct it? If Ash Flanders could play Jan? How would he perform the scenes with Hughie in his bedroom, knowing that Alf will later accuse Jan of ‘buggerin’ up’ his son? Or would Please Like Me provide the social model: the suburban world, created for television by Josh Thomas, with the young ones at the centre, energised and connected, acting out their desire for honesty on impulse, yet burdened in the background by a parental mantle which is intrusive, occasionally supportive, grudgingly dependent and ultimately displaced. In that case, the family is cast: Josh as Hughie, Debra Lawrence as Mum, David Roberts as Alf. And how about Hannah Gadsby, laconic in a three-piece suit, cross-cast as Wacka?


Works Cited

Bollen, Jonathan, Adrian Kiernander and Bruce Parr. Men at Play: Masculinities in Australian Theatre since the 1950s. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008.

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Ed. and trans. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964.

Brisbane, Katharine. “After 10 Years, The One Day Still Stands Up.” Australian, 18 April 1970: 21.

“Conflict of Generations about The Day.” Canberra Times, 22 September 1962: 19.

Cramphorn, Rex. “Fathers and Sons.” Bulletin, 25 April 1970: 51.

Galloway, Paul. “From the Reading Room: Re-reading The One Day of the Year by Alan Seymour.” Melbourne Theatre Company, 23 April 2015, Accessed 23 February 2017

Harris, Max. “The One Day of the Year is the One Play of the Year.” Theatregoer 2 (1960): 10–11.

Kippax, H. G. “Seymour’s Anzac Day pay revived.” Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 1970: 12.

Lawler, Ray. The Piccadilly Bushman (Revised edition). Sydney: Currency Press, 1998.

Macdonnell, Justin. 50 Years in the Bush: The Arts Council Movement in New South Wales. Sydney: Currency Press, 1997.

McCuaig, Ronald. “A Comic Tragedy,” Bulletin, 3 May 1961: 39–40.

N.K. “Exciting drama: One Day of the Year.” Sun, 27 April 1961: 40.

“On Tour with the Arts Council.” Australia Today, episode 15. Australian Commonwealth Film Unit, 1963.

Seymour, Alan. Interview by Jennifer Palmer. Contemporary Australian Playwrights. Adelaide: Adelaide University Union Press, 1979: 55–68.

—. “The One Day of the Year.” Theatregoer 1.4 (1961): 25–44.

—. “Seymour from Spain on those Expletives.” Theatregoer. 2.6/7 (April/May 1962): 8–9.

—. Author’s Note. The One Day of the Year. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962: 3–6.

Simmonds, Diana. “The One Day of the Year.” Stage Noise 3 June 2015, Accessed 23 February 2017

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” (1964) Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin, 2009: 275–92.

Sykes, Alrene and Keith Richards. “Another look at the old war-horse: Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year.” Australasian Drama Studies 2.2 (1984): 65–89.

“Ten Times as Many Likely to See TV Version of Play.” Age TV-Radio Guide. 6 July 1962: 7.

Thompson, William. Prompt copy playscript of Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and associated material. State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 6707.

Ward, Peter. “Ballantyne, Colin Sandergrove (1980–1988).” Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. published first in hardcopy 2007. Accessed 30 January 2017.

Williams, Raymond Williams. Drama in Performance. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.


© Copyright Jonathan Bollen 2017