Essay by Anne Pender
The One Day of the Year is one of the most provocative plays ever staged in Australia, and was banned for fear of offending members of the Returned Services League. A panel of judges had chosen the play to be performed at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960. But before rehearsals commenced the board of governors of the festival banned it, believing the content to be insensitive to returned servicemen. The decision to ban the play aroused considerable controversy and an amateur group defiantly staged it in a suburban hall in Adelaide several months after the festival, with some funding from the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. It was a success and a Sydney production followed. The first professional production of The One Day of the Year opened on 26 April 1961 at the Palace Theatre in Sydney after bomb threats kept the cast out of the theatre for 24 hours.
Alan Seymour’s three-act comedy-drama is one of the most resonant Australian plays of the 20th century. The play questions the excessive sentimentality of Anzac Day and the valourisation of war, as well as exploring the effects of war on returned soldiers. The fact that the play was banned in 1960 revealed that to criticise Anzac Day traditions and the mythology surrounding the fate of the Anzacs, was at the time considered taboo by some members of Australian society. Yet the play went on to tour Australia just one year after the banning, and soon afterwards followed successful productions in London, Tokyo, adaptations for television in Australia, Britain and Germany, and numerous revivals on stage over the ensuing years.
Although very much of its time in content and style, The One Day of the Year is not a museum piece. Some critics consider the real subject of the play to be the Australian psyche (Morton-Evans p. 13), and believe that its qualities of ‘human and social interest are unimpaired by time and change … Here character in action is on display: the great generalized motions of history are present, distilled as specifics of pain, anger, loss and love’ (Kippax p. 18). A production of the play by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003 drew this comment:
This play, once thought to be an outrageous attack on the Anzac legend, has little to say about war. It has something to say about our attitudes to old soldiers and more to say about the clash of generations. It is an old-fashioned family drama in which the cause of the conflict is less important than the way in which it is played out. (McCallum p. 14)
Anzacs and us
Consider the play today as we find ourselves in a period of intense commemoration of the Great War. We live in a period when thousands of young Australians flock to Gallipoli every year to participate in commemoration ceremonies and to see for themselves the place where many soldiers fought and died in 1915. The resurgence of patriotic fervor and heightened interest in the disastrous campaigns of the Dardanelles reinforces the significance of the play, and offers potential for new interpretations of its themes.
Australia is currently spending $325 million on commemorating the centenary of the First World War, 200 per cent more than the United Kingdom is putting towards its commemorative events, and a great deal more than what we spend on the mental health of returned service personnel (Brown pp. 20, 5; ABC interview). With this in mind, the meaning of the play takes on a new significance more than 50 years after it was first staged.
The central question about why we romanticise war, and why Anzac Day is so precious to Australians is salient. Historians have expressed concern about what they call ‘the relentless militarisation of our history’, arguing that ‘the commemoration of war and understandings of our national history have been confused and conflated’ (Lake and Reynolds p. vii).
As you study the play, keep your director’s hat on and think about the way that you might present it to a contemporary audience. What are the difficulties in the play for an audience now? What are the most important scenes and speeches? Are we living with a dangerous ‘Anzac industry’ in ‘hyperdrive’? (Brown p. 17) Think about the specifics of a production. Who would you cast as Hughie? Who would you cast as Jan Castle? How would you direct Wacka, who Kippax refers to as ‘that little marvel of playwrighting’ (p. 18). What would you like to emphasise in your production?
Any play should be considered in relation to its historical period. The context for the original performance, especially its banning, is vital to understanding the play. Equally important is to understand how the context for performance has changed and developed over time. For example, in 1970 the national theatre critic on The Australian, Katharine Brisbane, reviewed a production of The One Day of the Year, observing that the emphasis of the drama had changed. Brisbane welcomed the way this particular production at the Independent Theatre in Sydney interpreted the family drama. She argued that ‘[I]nstead of being a two-generation search for a national identity, the play has become a much more personal study of a family and its problems for which Anzac Day is the catalyst’ (p. 21).
Brisbane states that with the passing of ten years ‘no one would find Alan Seymour’s allegations as shocking as they were thought by some in 1960’ (p. 21). It is difficult to dispute these comments, but Brisbane’s other statements reflect her own views and her own time. She declares confidently that ‘We are less convinced about the importance of Anzac than we used to be and this is part of the growing up process’ (p. 21). In 1970 Brisbane could say this given the massive social upheavals of the time, the student protests against the Vietnam War and the demure and uncertain bicentenary celebrations that year commemorating Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia in 1770. This does not diminish the validity of Brisbane’s observations in 1970 but invites us to think about the way Australians have changed since that time, and perhaps become more conservative.
How then do we reconcile the view Brisbane expresses with the fact that Anzac Day has become our national day? Historian Mark McKenna puts the question strongly, asking why after the mass slaughter of the wars of the 20th century we ‘cling to a nineteenth century concept of nationhood: the belief that a nation can only be born through the spilling of the sacrificial blood of its young?’ (p. 34). Why are we fixated on constructing what was an horrific military disaster at Gallipoli as a marker of nationhood? How should we remember the soldiers who fought for Australia, and how do you think a play such as The One Day of the Year in performance should invite an audience to remember them? These are important questions and relate to an even bigger question: what does theatre offer democracy?
The life of the playwright and the play
Alan Seymour was born in Perth in 1927. Both his parents died when he was a child and he was brought up by his sisters. Seymour grew up in Fremantle, attended the Perth Modern School and later moved to Sydney and worked as a freelance writer for radio, television and documentary films. He left Australia for London in 1961, where he worked as a successful television writer and producer for many years, returning to live in Sydney in 1997. During this period abroad Seymour spent five years living in Izmir, Turkey.
Seymour recalls walking through the back streets of the Sydney suburb of Summer Hill on the afternoon of Anzac Day in 1955. In the alleys and lanes he observed men lying in the gutter drunk and comatose after the celebrations that followed the dawn service and the morning march. It wasn’t the drinking itself that disturbed him. In his introduction to the published play script Seymour is at pains to explain that he is no wowser, and offered his rationale for writing the play:
As long as men fuzzily exchanged rich, romantic memories with wartime colleagues, so long, it seemed to me, would any sensible analysis of the individual engagements of those wars, and indeed of war itself, be delayed. Why not a play about the essential hollowness of the Anzac Day maunderings? (p. 3)
Having set out to query the feverish and undignified celebrations of Anzac Day and their dangerous implications, Seymour found himself facing something unexpected:
I found myself liking, almost loving, the older generation, represented in the play…The sheer persistence of their long and scruffy … battle to cope with the overwhelming facts of the life of this century (war – depression – war) forced me to respect them. (p.4)
This is the central problem and the central drama of the play. Seymour presents Alf Cook, an angry working-class man and veteran of the Second World War, who is disappointed with his lot and bitter about the way he is treated as a lift driver. He is ashamed that he has not achieved more in his working life, that he lives in a small, modest house in the inner city and that he has never realised his ambition of becoming an engineer. Just once a year, on Anzac Day, Alf is a different man who regains a sense of purpose.
Alf, who has been drinking, opens the play with these memorable lines:
I’m a bloody Australian and I’ll always stand up for bloody Australia. That’s what I felt like sayin’ to him, bloody Pommy, you can’t say anything to em, they still think they own the bloody earth, well, they don’t own the bloody earth. The place is full of em. Isn’t it? Wacka! Isn’t it? (p. 8)
Alf’s mate Wacka, the real Anzac, simply says, ‘Yes, Alf’.
Alf’s son Hughie and his girlfriend Jan plan to document Anzac Day for the university newspaper, focusing on the boozy aftermath of the celebrations. For the first time in his life Hughie refuses to attend the dawn service with Alf. When he watches the march on television at home with his mother and Wacka he is torn between outrage at the display and love for his father:
Hughie: Look at them. Serious as anything. They’re sort of proud but not –
Jan: Not what?
Hughie: I don’t know. Not military. Not aggressive. You know? (p. 63)
When Alf comes home in the evening drunk and raving about his day of celebrations with all his old mates, Hughie’s ambivalence about the men turns to disgust. Hughie condemns his father for celebrating the waste of war year after year, calling Anzac Day ‘a mug’s day’ (p. 84):
Why remember it? Why go on and on remembering it? Oh yeah, ‘that’s war, that’s war’ … Well, 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.
Alf: Ashamed? Ashamed? To fight for your country? (p. 85)
The vitriolic exchange between father and son builds up the argument of the play, with Hughie expressing the scepticism and revulsion for war of the younger generation and Alf defending the significance of remembering and honouring the day and the sacrifices of the soldiers. Wacka too resists the mythology around Anzac Day and, encouraged by Mum, describes the frightening battles in the dark at Gallipoli, the noise, the flies, the dysentery and the corpses all around. He concludes:
When we went in there we was nobody. When we come out we was famous. [Smiles.] Anzacs. [Shakes his head.] Ballyhoo. Photos in the papers. Famous. Not worth a crumpet. (p. 73)
Hughie’s emotions are complicated and the play presents conflict on many levels. The One Day of the Year dramatises a family crisis, class differences and social inequality, anxieties around masculinity and the effects of education on family relationships. In one of the most poignant moments of the play Mum articulates her fears that Hughie’s education has changed him and that he is beginning to despise her.
Alf: We spent our whole life practically ever since he was born, makin’ sure he’d have an education. … It’s his education that’s making Hughie what he is.
Mum: That’s just what I mean . . .
Mum: He’s my kid. And all I know is he looks at me sometimes as though I’m nothing, as though I’m just nothing. He’s not the same. (pp. 42–43)
Criticism and the play in theatre history
Although the play has been widely praised, criticism of it over the years has focused on the view that it is overwritten and lacks subtlety. Specifically the characters Hughie and Jan are regarded as artificial and unsympathetic. In 1980 Seymour revised the play with a focus on deepening the character of Jan and a new version was published in 1985.
The One Day of the Year marks the end of naturalism as a mainstay of Australian drama. Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, with which the play is often grouped, signalled a new direction for contemporary drama, but as Susan McKernan points out, Richard Beynon in The Shifting Heart and Seymour’s play ‘stuck firmly to the naturalist “kitchen sink” drama and failed to take Lawler’s hint that this drama belonged to the past’ (p. 192). Patrick White’s plays, also staged in the early 1960s, The Ham Funeral, A Cheery Soul and The Season at Sarsaparilla, brought radical modernism to the Australian stage, and the distinctive non-naturalistic elements of his plays transformed Australian drama.
It is useful to consider Seymour’s play alongside Sumner Locke Elliott’s ingenious anti-war comedy-drama Rusty Bugles (1948), a play that caused as much controversy as that of The One Day of the Year, anticipated Beckett and offers a landmark in Australian theatre history. Similarly John Romeril’s The Floating World (1974) presents another damaged veteran who was a prisoner of war. Les Harding disintegrates on a visit to Japan later in his life, when he is haunted by his wartime memories. Alan Hopgood’s Private Yuk Objects (1966) presents the Vietnam War from multiple perspectives. Stephen Sewell’s Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America (2003), The Art of War (2007) by Stephen Jeffreys, Good People (2007) by Carolyn Burns and Swamplands (2010) by Vanessa Badham all focus on recent wars in which Australians are engaged, including ‘the war on terror’. Peter Rees’ biography of four nurses who served in the Middle East and France during the Great War, ANZAC Girls (2008), was made into a popular television drama.
The One Day of the Year is an important Australian play that hit a raw nerve in 1960 and has continued to stimulate emotional debate for more than half a century. In the current climate of commemoration fever the play is particularly relevant all over again.
All page references for The One Day of the Year are taken from the original version of the text published in 1962.
Brisbane, K. “After 10 Years The One Day Still Stands Up.” The Australian 18 Apr. 1970: 21.
Brown, J. Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession. Ringwood: Penguin, 2014.
—. Interview with Matt Peacock. Sydney: ABC Television, 13 Feb. 2014. Transcript. Online.
Kippax, H. G. “The Pain and Anger of Families at War.” The Sydney Morning Herald 20 May 1987: 18.
Lake, M., Reynolds, H. What’s Wrong with Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History.Sydney: New South, 2010.
McCallum, J. “Homefront Battlefield.” The Australian 11 Apr. 2003: 14.
McKenna, M. “Anzac Day: How did it Become Australia’s National Day?” What’s Wrong with Anzac?: The Militarisation of Australian History. Ed. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. Sydney: New South, 2010. 110–34.
McKernan, S. A Question of Commitment: Australian Literature in the Twenty Years After the War. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989.
Morton-Evans, M. “A Dig into the Australian Psyche.” The Australian 20 May 1987: 13.
Seymour, A. The One Day of the Year. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962.
Recommended reading and other sources
Curran, J., Ward, S. The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2010.
Fitzpatrick, P. After the Doll: Australian Drama Since 1955. Melbourne: Edward Arnold, 1979.
Parsons, P. Companion to Theatre in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press, 1988.
Seymour, A. Interview with Wilfrid Thomas. BBC. 1974.
White, R. Inventing Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981.
The author is grateful for the opportunity to listen to the radio interview with Alan Seymour at the National Film and Sound Archive and to view television footage of the first Australian tour of The One Day of the Year.
© Copyright Anne Pender 2014