Tuesday, May 21

ANZAC: The One Day of the Year

Interviewed in connection with the recent commemoration of Anzac Day, New Zealand’s RSA boss, Marty Donoghue – perhaps unexpectedly – related contemporary celebrations to ‘Disneyland’:

‘There’s light shows, there’s all sorts of things being brought into it – which might make it attractive, but actually take away from the core purpose of why it’s there.’

What particularly concerns Donoghue is the lack of support for veterans:

“It’s really easy to talk about the dead. They can’t do much. It’s a lot harder when you’re confronted with veterans with mental health issues, with homelessness, with hardship..’

The problems are then aggravated because, since 1974, the many who served locally in demanding operations, such as at Whakaari / White Island, don’t even count as veterans.

As an Australian, I was intrigued by the very different approach to Anzac Day taken in a recent Australian publication. But it’s an approach that led me back to war veterans in a way I didn’t expect.

Writing in the conservative Australian monthly Quadrant Magazine for April this year, Mervyn Bendle lamented the current status of Anzac Day in his country. For Bendle, Anzac and its values have been under continuous attack from left-wing forces, almost from the end of World War I. The Anzac ideal, he says, ‘was based on a specifically Australian vision of a future society: nationalist, independent and harmonious, built on values like mateship and a fair go, for which it was believed the Anzacs had fought and died’. But this vision has been constantly undermined by influence of identitarian politics of all kinds, plus anti-colonialist influences.

What struck me most, however, was Bendle’s targeting of Australian Alan Seymour’s play from 1960, The One Day of the Year. He thinks that ‘Anzac and its ideals were relentlessly denigrated by this play’, as it seems to back the young university student character Hughie, who calls the Gallipoli campaign ‘an expensive shambles. …the biggest fiasco of the war’, while Anzac Day is for him celebrated by a ‘screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken no- hopers!”  What is worse, the play was for years put on the high school syllabus, as if in a campaign by elites to further a leftist agenda through the education system.

Playwright Alan Seymour in 2001

The reality as regards Seymour’s play is actually much more interesting. It was slated for production at the inaugural Adelaide Festival in 1960, but was deleted from the programme for fear of arousing the ire of the Australian equivalent of the RSA, the Returned Services League (RSL). It was taken up by an amateur company in Adelaide, and then attracted productions in Sydney and Melbourne: the Adelaide performers received death threats, and in connection with the Sydney production, so did the playwright.  Although not responsible for death threats, the RSL was vocal in its opposition to the play’s performances, and its inclusion on high-school courses. I know this because my late (non-Leftie) father was for many years on the committees that dealt with the English syllabus for NSW.

Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year was one of an emerging group of plays that put Australian experience and Australian idiom at their centre. The most famous is probably still Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955), a staple of Australian theatre repertoire. Both Lawler’s play and Seymour’s also concentrate on working-class figures. Those in The Doll are cane-cutters and barmaids; the family at the centre of The One Day of the Year is the Cooks, from the working poor – Dot, Alf and son Hughie – who live in the then-working-class inner Sydney suburb of Redfern. They have an older family friend, Wacka Dawson, who is a veteran of Gallipoli, while Hughie has taken up with a new girlfriend Jan, who hails from the Sydney equivalent of Remuera and whom he has met at university.

The catalyst for the play’s action is Anzac Day, which Alf, as a World War II veteran, avidly attends every year. Hughie usually accompanies him, but now refuses. He has long been disgusted with the widespread drunkenness on the veterans’ part which succeeds the marches and official commemorations and now is going to photograph it for a spread in the university students magazine, with the text provided by Jan. (This motif is based on a real-life incident concerning Sydney University’s student magazine Honi Soit.)

What is at the heart of the play is the conflict between Alf and Hughie. And like most good plays, The One Day of the Year is not doctrinaire. It doesn’t advocate for Hughie’s take on Anzac Day, or that of any other character, but brings out why Hugh and his father have come to be at odds. They play out a dispute that is fierce despite – or rather because of – the strong underlying bond between the pair. Like many families where a child is the first to go to university, the Cooks undergo tension as the student enters a world different from that of the parents, and in their case it is aggravated by the child getting involved with a partner from another class. One reason that the play has survived is that it explores experiences that will resonate with audiences not especially interested in Anzac Day. Hughie comes to understand his father better, and Alf remains adamant that his son continue with his university education.

One thing that the Anzac Day focus brings out, however, is what a country does or doesn’t do for its war veterans. For Alf, Anzac Day is ‘the one day of the year’ when he feels proud of his life, and lives it to the full, including the extreme drinking. The son of a World War I soldier who lost his life, Alf had to take what jobs he could: then the Depression and the following war prevented him from training as an engineer. After that, a war wound stopped him from undertaking any physical labour that might have been a source of pride. He works a lift all day and feels scorned by the largely middle-class passengers he has to deal with. As a veteran, he’s never been helped by the state, or anyone else.

The actual Gallipoli experience is expressed in the play by Wacka Dawson, who’s a veteran of both world wars (he put his age up to enter the first one, and down to join the second). While Alf is voluble whether drunk or not, Wacka takes refuge in silence. But the long-suffering Dot does bring him out of his shell. Wacka spells out what it felt like landing at Gallipoli, and encountering something very different from what he’d been led to expect:

‘We stayed there in the stinkin’ heat with the stinkin’ flies ‘n’ the bully beef ‘n’ dysentery and sometimes the Turk trenches not ten yards away – we stayed there nine months. Then we pulled out, whole bang lot of us. [He pauses. Laughs softly.] 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.’

Apart from his friends the Cooks, no-one did anything for Wacka either. He rents a room in a boarding-house.

Many veterans of the world wars were still alive in both Australia and New Zealand when The One Day of the Year was written, but the play suggests that gratitude was then expressed more in rhetoric than in practical action. Now those generations have gone, but to judge from Marty Donoghue’s comments about this country, the treatment of living veterans still leaves much to be desired.