14 April 2009

The Alex Buzo Company

In the mid-1960s young Alex Buzo took a courageous decision. He would become a full time playwright. To understand how courageous a decision this was it is necessary to reflect on the state of Australian society at the time.

First, there were no full-time playwrights.

Second, while there was an audience for live theatre, and active dramatic societies in the suburbs and country towns, there was overwhelming reliance on imported material – the theatre was a window on how other people lived. The cinema was the same – there was no Australian film industry to speak of, and when occasionally someone did make a film about Australia it was about drovers or shearers or eccentric artists living on Dunk Island – in this most urbanised of societies it was about places most of us had never been, and lifestyles that were as alien to us as they would have been to any non-Australian viewer. No-one was holding a mirror up to us, to enable us to see ourselves a little better, and no-one seemed to care very much. Those of us who did care did not have any very effective means of expressing our feelings about this state of affairs.

Finally, this was an age of rapid economic growth, full employment, and for most of the white collar workforce jobs were effectively jobs for life, with a superannuation package at the end. For our generation, whose parents had grown up in the Depression and spent the early part of their working lives in some sort of war service, there was a deep seated attitude that the thing to do was to get a steady job, and a serious opportunity cost in not doing so.

I was privileged to know Alex and his family well in his Armidale days. In fact the day in 1954 that the 10-year-old Alex moved to Armidale was a better day for my mother than it was for Alex. Alex was leaving behind his beloved Sydney, with everything that he had known to date, for an isolated country town of about 8,000 people. My mother, a Sydney girl far from home, was gaining a friend because she and Elaine Buzo neé Johnson had been together at Sydney University before the war. The two families entertained each other to dinner from time to time, and Alex’s father Zihni, who had come to Armidale to supervise construction of the Oaky River hydroelectric power station, would occasionally drive Alex, his brother Adrian and me out to the construction site to see how things were going and to examine the marine fossils that were to be found in the rocks laid bare by the excavations. To me this was exciting stuff.

From 1956 to 1960 we were classmates at The Armidale School and shared all those school age experiences such as the English classes under the stern, fatherly guidance of Brian Mattingley DFC, who was such a stimulus to Alex’s love of the English language and the works of its master writers through the ages, the under-13s cricket and rugby practice with John Traas, one of nature’s gentlemen, whose other role in life was to teach us all to speak French with a Dutch accent, the Friday afternoon cadet parades under the tutelage of the formidable Des Harrison and the even more formidable Jock McDiarmid, lately of the wartime Special Air Service Regiment, the 14-hour trips in the night-train to cadet camps in Holsworthy, the military style inspections on Front Field every morning before Chapel, during which Jock marched around after the gowned and suited Headmaster and gave a friendly remonstrative poke in the ribs with his swagger stick to anyone whose shoes were insufficiently polished or had one of the many buttons missing from his Norfolk jacket, the rare, stiff and awkward dances at NEGS and PLC, in which we were all dressed in the aforesaid Norfolk jackets, and many more.

We went our separate ways on leaving school, and in due course, after a stint at the International School, Geneva, where Zihni had taken a UN post, Alex completed an undergraduate degree at the University of NSW and made his momentous choice. He would contribute to Australian society in his own special way. No-one would owe him a living; he would stand or fall on his own success.

And hold a mirror up to us he did, right from the jump. With Norm and Ahmed he dealt with those streaks of racism and xenophobia that in more modern times gave us One Nation, the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and Children Overboard. And by inadvertently provoking an obscenity trial in Queensland with the use of a single word right at the end of the play, he exposed the public hypocrisy of the time; the word in question was not unfamiliar to any of the Queenslanders I ever met, and is now in regular use on prime-time television, but in those days it brought the Queensland wallopers running and the issue was taken all the way to the High Court.

In 1972 Alex was awarded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal for his play Macquarie. Other plays included Rooted (1969), The Front Room Boys (1969), Coralie Lansdowne says No (1974), Martello Towers (1976), Makassar Reef (1978), Big River (1980), The Marginal Farm (1983), Shellcove Road (1989) and Pacific Union (1995). His work has been produced around the world including the USA, the UK and South East Asia. He was also writer-in-residence at many theatre companies, schools and universities.

As well as plays he wrote novels, film scripts, reviews, radio plays, travel writing and several books on sport, language and theatre, including Tautology (1981), Meet the New Class (1981), Glancing Blows (1987), The Young Persons Guide to the Theatre (1988), Kiwese (1994) and A Dictionary of the Almost Obvious (1998). His obituaries of two of our masters at The Armidale School, George Crosslé and Brian Mattingley, were first class pieces of writing as well as being affectionate and perceptive accounts of two of the men who helped to shape us.

He was an elegant and stylish writer, a witty and astute observer of Australian life and language, and as Graeme Blundell, the producer of the first run of Norm and Ahmed, said looking back on Alex’s life, “He was the most droll of playwrights and the driest of men”. He was ever thus.

Droll and dry was very much in evidence when in 2005 Alex’s alma mater, the University of New South Wales, recognised the outstanding literary achievements of this gentle and thoughtful man with the conferral of an Honorary Doctor of Letters, the University’s highest honour. The opening lines of his occasional address:

When I started at UNSW during the floods of 1963 we had to walk the plank to get to class. The Village Green was, as the poet says, “vividly verdant”, and there were large puddles all over the lower campus. The administration took swift action and provided planks which bent in the middle and ensured that we arrived in class with wet feet. This was my introduction to Sydney’s little Holland, Kensington, with its flat, almost concave streets, two hills and two convents, and what had been previously known as “Kenso Tech”.

Unfortunately Alex’s luck ran out, as he himself put it, less than a year later when he succumbed to a five-year battle with cancer on 16 August 2006. With typical quiet determination, in the course of that battle he brought out in 2004 his masterpiece Legends of the Baggy Green: Dubious behaviour and achievements from cricket’s chequered history.

And there the story might have ended except that just over a year after his death Alex’s daughter Emma launched the Alex Buzo Company to produce, promote and perpetuate the work of this outstanding Australian writer. The company has an influential Advisory Board consisting of Linda Bathur, Bob Carr, Deborah Franco, Wayne Harrison, David Hill, Roy Masters, Aarne Neeme, George Newhouse, Alana Valentine, John Ward, Barbara Warren and David Williamson.

Of Emma herself and her innovative venture in establishing the Alex Buzo Company it is hard to go past the words of David Williamson:

Emma is one of those brave souls who refuses to forget and fights hard to get a level of recognition for Australian artists and for the vital importance of creativity to the Australian psyche....She’s on the frontline of a fight that’s vital to all of us.

For those who knew Alex at school, a wheel will turn full circle when Emma brings the company to Armidale in September to perform Norm and Ahmed in The Armidale School’s new Creative Arts Centre, just one year shy of half a century since the Class of 1960, of which Alex was a member, departed.

And for those who want to help to keep the memory of Alex’s contribution alive, you need do no more than go to the home page of the Alex Buzo Company and click the link to the Australian Business Arts Foundation to make a tax deductible donation.

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