A stage play that wouldn’t make it into an Australian theatre today caused a helluva stink back in 1962 and said some wise and courageous (aka shocking) things about the ‘most sacred day’ in our national calendar. The reasons it wouldn’t make it today say something tragic about us as a society of people.
While doing some research for a novel, I read Alan Seymour’s 1962 stage play ‘The One Day Of The Year’. It promised to tell me why it caused such a furore amongst a population that treats Anzac Day as the most sacred day of the year. Seymour cleverly intertwines various themes that seem to be no less problematical today: the generation gap, the mindlessness of participation in war, the devaluing of education, class conflict, national pride, the human capacity for self-delusion and avoidance of spiritual growth. All that in such a relatively short play? Well, yes, and there’s even more if you’re paying attention to what Seymour is putting between the lines.
Near the end of the third and final Act of the play, he has young Hughie—the radical university student from a working-class family say in disgust–“the only time we won our name was the time we lost.” It got me to questioning and thinking, as any good play, film or novel ought to do. When he says ‘lost’, which loss is he referring to: the Dardanelles Campaign via the insane butchery at Gallipoli? The loss of our collective self-respect in accepting being treated with contempt as cannon fodder by our “Mother Country”? Or the loss of our nationhood? All three occurred at roughly around the same time and we didn’t realise it. We still don’t. And the band played on.
The annual Anzac Day ritual is mainly about celebrating the loss at Gallipoli as the symbol of our arrival at nationhood. ‘We forged a nation in bloody sacrifice,’ were the words the Prime Minister Billy Hughes used on the occasion. We made the sacrifice, yes, but no nation emerged from it other than temporarily—for two years, then it was gone. And Hughes knew this better than anybody, when his Bill for a new Constitution was smothered by anglophiles here at home. Because the yearly Anzac ritual glosses over the second and far more important loss, very few Australians know of the tragedy that Australia has lived through ever since the Great War. In fact, the cult that has grown up around the catastrophe that was Gallipoli has effectively turned a vice into a virtue. If getting swindled by an oppressive Mother Country can be and is celebrated as some sort of positive achievement, then we’re talking psychological pathology, not national pride. We’re talking collective mental illness—what Ronald Conway called the Great Australian Stupor—not something positive that’s worthy of pride. The fraud has been executed so expertly and convincingly that most Australians born since the Great War have no idea whatsoever of the real loss—the real tragedy—that the Anzac myth and our shallow patriotism, or jingoism, help obscure.
The reaction to Seymour’s play when it was first produced caused much anger and many recriminations. Unlike most local playwrights, Seymour stuck his neck out to do what performed plays are supposed to do. Most Australian playwrights write only “neo-realist” plays because they’re safe for commercial exploitation and don’t risk putting any cats amongst the pigeons. Plays that badly need to be performed don’t get a look in now, so the illusion of Australian nationhood goes on with all the encouragement all illusions need to be revered by the masses. In my novel, I had no wish to muck with Anzac Day. In the end, I was obliged to, lest I overlook one of the giant wounds in our society that will never heal until it’s confronted honestly. The hope Seymour held out at the end of the play in having it said that the oldies are the present world but the future will be to the young seems gratuitous, given that the Anzacs never received their due and are not likely to now. That’s why I’m using it in the novel: to shock a nation into awareness that it’s not a nation. It’s a Claytons nation: the nation you have when you don’t have a bona fide nation.
Even worse news is that, because we’ve worn blinders for more than a century, the chances of us ever becoming a genuine nation now lie somewhere between Buckley’s Choice and Hobson’s. We can have a pseudo-nation—like John Howard’s 1999 republic option—providing it’s the one we least want; the one that perpetually divides us as a people, the one that preserves the scam run by the Monarchists that keeps us as a colony of an artificial Crown. It matters little who owns us, we all agree, as long as we don’t have to own ourselves, and grow up so we can march on Anzac Day with pride instead of the abject shame that is our due.
Greg Hamilton is a former architect and academic, now a novelist, social critic and advocate for a new Australian Constitution.