Alexander Buzo

Playwright and humorist
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The Independent Online

Alexander John Buzo, playwright: born Sydney, New South Wales 23 July 1944; married 1968 Merelyn Johnson (three daughters); died Sydney 16 August 2006.

Alexander Buzo, the Australian playwright and humorist, had Albanian parents and spent a student year in Geneva; so that, although he left the University of New South Wales in 1966 determined to speak with the voice of a new, post-colonial Australian, it was one tempered by irony and a sense of cultural differences.

Sydney had little professional and virtually no indigenous theatre when Buzo became an actor at the New Theatre, a relic of the pre-war left, but while he was there he wrote his first play, Norm and Ahmed. Its subject was local racial prejudice. In 1968 it was directed by Jim Sharman at the Old Tote, a bastion of British-derived culture, and became an instant sensation.

Virtually overnight, Buzo was a standard bearer for a generation of artists and intellectuals whose assumption of the right to speak in their own voice promised so much. The political aspect of that promise was the fervour that made Gough Whitlam's Labor Party electable.

Norm and Ahmed was duly prosecuted for obscenity, but triumphantly vindicated in the Supreme Courts of Victoria, Queensland and the Commonwealth, and within a few years Buzo became Writer in Residence at the Melbourne Theatre Company, then rewrite man on Tony Richardson's film Ned Kelly (1970, starring Mick Jagger), and saw his plays performed at the Royal Court in London and in America.

These early plays, like many by his friends and contemporaries, were energetic and surreal, and revelled in the comic vernacular. Macquarie (1972), a historical piece about the visionary early Governor of New South Wales, heralded a change, to well-made, realistic pieces that beneath witty surfaces were very serious. Big River (1980) was pastoral-historical, a story of values handed down through a privileged family. Coralie Lansdowne Says No (1974), quirky and pro-feminist, and Martello Towers (1976), about the marital troubles of a real-estate developer, were ostensibly comedies of modern Sydney manners. Makassar Reef (1978) was set in Indonesia, and The Marginal Farm (1984) in Fiji: uneasy hinterlands both, and the plays had a sub-text of the effects of exploitation both cultural and economic.

By 1984, the Whitlam years had dissolved into rancour, and Australia's cultural self-revaluation, and its tax-shelter film and TV boom, were about to pass their peak. So was Buzo's career. He never did work with someone who could direct as well as he could write, apart from Sharman, and his questioning of so many aspects of what he called "the inadequacy of the secular morality of the 1960s" did not please the newly prosperous.

Books and journalism filled most of the rest of his time, most hilariously his annual award in The Bulletin magazine of the Tautology Pennant for sports commentators, usually won by Rex Mossop for classics like "The referee gave him a verbal tongue-lashing".

Buzo was a sports fanatic. He followed rugby league, about which I remember his mock-heroic ode "On First Hearing that Olsen Filipaina has signed for North Sydney", and played tennis and cricket, at which he ran and captained a showbiz eleven.

His friendships, like his marriage, were long and steady. Detached, hawk-like, a-glitter with amusement, he was none the less a true Sydneysider, open and welcoming, with the obligatory jocular contempt for Melbourne (don't even mention Adelaide) and he asked in his plays questions that Australia, and, indeed, all of what we call the West, will one day soon have to answer: and when they do, he will be seen at his true and steadfast literary value.

Keith Dewhurst