Australian Playwright and Author, 1944-2006
Alex Buzo was born in Sydney. He was educated at The Armidale School, the International School in Geneva and the University of New South Wales from which he graduated with a BA in 1965. In 2005 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of New South Wales for his contribution to Australian literature.
In 1968, Buzo’s first play Norm and Ahmed was among the first to find a truly Australian voice and gained national attention primarily through a prosecution for obscenity. The exploration of alienation in this play remained a common theme in his work, often delivered with clever and stylish use of the Australian idiom and a tireless commitment to reflecting the true nature of Australian society.
In 1972, Buzo was awarded the Australian Literature Society's Gold Medal for his play Macquarie. His plays include 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.
The Buzo canon spans many literary genres and also includes novels, film scripts, reviews, radio plays, travel writing and several books on sport, language and theatre. His opinions on a wide range of subjects were much sought after by all the major Australian newspapers, magazines and radio stations. His popular books 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) reflect his unique presence in the Australian arts as the witty and astute observer of Australian life and language.
Following Buzo’s death in 2006, his daughter Emma founded The Alex Buzo Company in 2007. This is the first arts organisation in Australia to produce, promote and perpetuate the work of an Australian writer.
Alex Buzo was successful in many genres of writing including playwriting, journalism, scripts for film and television, prose, non-fiction and sports writing. Following is selection of Alex Buzo’s varied body of work. Further print articles by and about Alex Buzo can be found on the Media and links page.
Legends of the Baggy Green (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004)
A Dictionary of the Almost Obvious (The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1998)
Kiwese (Mandarin, Port Melbourne, 1994)
The Longest Game co-edited with Jamie Grant (Mandarin, Port Melbourne,1990)
The Young Persons Guide to the Theatre (Penguin, Ringwood, 1988)
Glancing Blows (Penguin, Ringwood, 1987)
Meet the New Class (Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1981)
Tautology (Penguin, Ringwood, 1981)
Prue Flies North (Mandarin, Port Melbourne, 1991)
The Search for Harry Allway (Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1985)
1998 Normie and Tuan
1995 Pacific Union
1989 Shellcove Road
1983 The Marginal Farm
1980 Big River
1978 Makassar Reef
1976 Martello Towers
1974 Coralie Landsdowne Says No
1970 The Roy Murphy Show
1969 The Front Room Boys
1968 Norm and Ahmed
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1972 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal for the play Macquarie
1998 UNSW Alumni Award for contribution to Australian Literature
2005 Honorary Doctorate of Letters from UNSW
Related article -
“Memoirs of an Unswonian” Alex Buzo’s occasional address on receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from UNSW in December 2005
BOB ELLIS published the following obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 18, 2006
Alex Buzo's father, Zihni, was Albanian and a scholarship graduate of Harvard in engineering, often building big things out of town. His mother, Elaine, nee Johnson, and her sister Ailsa, known as Auntie Bib, a movie- and theatregoer, greatly influenced his early tastes.
He read comics, listened to radio dramas and the Test cricket, read little fiction, wrote almost nothing, did not excel at Middle Harbour State Primary School and, like many of his male peers, absorbedly played and followed sport. A handy batsman and medium pacer, he was deft and swift on the wing at rugby, and brisk and competitive, always competitive, at tennis.
When he was 10 his father, accepting a post at its university, moved the family to Armidale. The culture shock was great; Alex lost his radio serials, and at Ben Venue State School met people unlike those of Cremorne. One, Peter Woolnough, later Peter Allen, "a bit of a sis", played him LP records of musicals and swore he would some day "make it" in New York. Always competitive, Alex later made it there, too.
He spent his May, August and Christmas holidays in Cremorne, in the family home he grew up in, and caught up with his radio serials - Superman, Yes, What?, Dossier on Demetrius, reread his comic collection and caught up with old school friends. This bifurcation of his young years permitted him to write, he said, "equally valid memoirs of a country childhood and a city childhood."
It also focused his cool, anthropological eye for social differences, interior surfaces, dress fashions and different things that spoken words can mean in different places. He went to the The Armidale School, a well-regarded private school where an English teacher, Brian Mattingley, opened him to the wonder of drama, the joys of Shakespeare and the majesty of the language.
To his amazement he then went to Switzerland, where his father had a new post, and at Geneva's International School organised a cricket team which, assuming Test status, played, apparently, England.
Whisked back to Australia, and into a turbulence of new perspectives, he worked for a year at the Sydney Stock Exchange, attaining shrewd financial skills, and studied successively at the Australian National University and the new, downmarket, fledgling University of NSW, which boasted Australia's first drama course.
Stirred by the nascent NIDA and the brilliant young director Aarne Neeme, he began acting at the New Theatre and, at 21, decided to be Australia's first full-time playwright, supporting himself in no other way.
Luck, and the times, were with him. After a Pakistani student friend, "Kaz" (Mohammed Kazim), was menaced by a middle-aged white Australian in a pub, he conceived Norm and Ahmed, a nocturnal bus-stop two-hander whose violent ending and bad language (resulting in the jailing of the cast in Queensland) soon made him famous. Quickly duplicated in many Australian cities, the US and Britain, it was universally praised but mistaken for naturalistic drama, when it owed more to Pinter, Beckett and the surrealists.
Kaz did Buzo a second favour by urging him at a party to approach Merelyn Johnson, known thereafter as Jock, an art teacher from Armidale with his mother's maiden name. He married and spent the next 40 years with her, loyally and happily.
Fame followed, and lashings of perhaps immoderate praise. He wrote, or "worked on" the screenplay of the Mick Jagger Ned Kelly. He adapted classic novels, including Moby Dick and Bleak House for Wal Hucker's animation company. And he wrote Rooted, Tom, The Front Room Boys, Coralie Landsdowne Says No and The Roy Murphy Show, the latter his first assault on the verbal vagaries of sports commentators.
The Front Room Boys, about bureaucrats, played in London, where he saw much rival drama, by Peter Nichols, Simon Gray, Osborne and Pinter, and sharpened up his act. A year later he was resident playwright at the Melbourne Theatre Company. He was 28.
Though this was his honeymoon decade and his new plays (Batman's Beachhead, Macquarie, Big River) enjoyed sell-out seasons and roars of hilarious, delighted acclaim, his critics found him wanting. Formless, they said, undercharacterised, too lofty, too populist. They mistook his later style, which was closer to Moliere and Sheridan, for that of his energetic rival David Williamson, and so slammed it.
Many theatre doors closed in the 1980's. The Marginal Farm (set in Fiji), Pacific Union (about H.V Evatt and the UN) and Shellcove Road (about Cremorne) were barely performed. Andrew Lloyd Webber and high-priced "smart foyer" plays took over. He wrote Tautology, about commentators' malapropisms and the many shadings of Australian slang, and Kiwese, its companion piece. His novels The Search for Harry Allway and Prue Flies North, as delicately wrathful as Jane Austen about fashion and predatory men, lacked form a little and did not do well.
He wrote many book reviews and travel pieces, exquisitely. He was resident writer at universities in Townsville and Jakarta. He played social cricket for 30 years, involving Mel Gibson, Stewart Granger, Ron Haddrick, Barry Oakley and me in his eccentric teams. He was sued by David Hill, and then re-befriended. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, wrote through mounting pain his prose masterpiece Legends of the Baggy Green, the best cricket book I know, buried his father in July, and died on Wednesday.
"I had all the luck," he said three weeks ago, "and then the luck ran out."
Jock survives him, along with three daughters Emma, Laura and Genevieve, son-in-law Rob Woodhouse, grandsons Archie, Albie and Wesley, and his brother, Adrian.
I drove through pelting rain to our last conversation on Tuesday thinking, "The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." Alex was a prince.
Requiem for Alexander Buzo
Click here to read Jamie Grant’s poem published in Quadrant in 2009