All Alexander Buzo’s plays, which have been produced in London and the United States as well as throughout Australia, may be classified as socially pertinent and controversial. He writes to shock or at least to make his audience uncomfortable, even when they are laughing uproariously. In his earlier plays, his tone is satiric, bordering sometimes on the morbid, and in his later work, it tends to be ironic. If his plays seem to lack a definite structure much of the time, this failing is balanced by his superlative dialogue.
There is a universality of character and setting that more than makes up for the Australian idioms that Buzo employs, particularly in his early plays—idioms that will frequently baffle the non-Australian playgoer (or reader). Indeed, as Buzo has matured, his characterizations have become increasingly rich and complex. His early characters, although representing recognizable types, border on caricature. Norm, in Norm and Ahmed, for example, is drawn in bold strokes but with little detail. In contrast, Coralie Lansdowne, of Coralie Lansdowne Says No, is a fine character portrait of a troubled woman, uneasy with herself, and Weeks Brown, the protagonist of Makassar Reef, has a depth of character seldom met in modern drama, Australian or European, American or English.
Norm and Ahmed
As noted above, Buzo’s recurring theme as a playwright is Australia’s national identity. Although he has many other concerns as well, it is this theme that links plays as diverse as Norm and Ahmed, Macquarie, and Makassar Reef. Norm and Ahmed, which has been called “probably the best Australian one-act play staged for many years,” is primarily a study of an uncertain Australian, one who cannot come to terms with the “invasion” of his country by immigrants who have different values and different mores. Indeed, Norm is portrayed as the archetypal Australian; the attitudes he expresses are those ascribed to the conservative middle-class, median-educated “Aussie.” Ahmed personifies everything that this class of Australian has come to dislike: the immigrant who is not only disturbingly “different” but also ambitious, hardworking, and self-possessed. Confronted by a “boong” such as Ahmed, the typical Aussie feels a need to reestablish his uneasy sense of superiority.
The historical background to the play, which needs no explanation for an Australian audience, will be less familiar to non-Australians. Traditionally, immigrants to Australia, of whom there were more than two million after World War II, were drawn from Great Britain and continental Europe, and for many years there was in effect a “White Australia” policy. This policy has changed, however, as the Australian government has come to realize that the country is situated in Southeast Asia, with many nonwhite neighbors. Although nonwhites have been permitted to immigrate to Australia, attitudes toward them have changed slowly, and many white Australians have retained racist tendencies.
Both Norm and Ahmed are types rather than fully developed characters. Norm, who mentions that his father was Irish, fits the stereotype of the Irish Australian: antigovernment but politically conservative, boozing, rebellious, and suspicious of foreigners. Ahmed is a leftist, unhappy with the government both in Australia and in Pakistan. He is formal, polite, and reserved.
Buzo’s gift for dialogue is evident in this early play. Indeed, the play depends entirely on dialogue to hold the audience’s attention. There is no plot and, with the exception of the kick to Ahmed’s stomach that provides the conclusion, no action. Norm is a natural storyteller, and he keeps Ahmed engaged with tales of himself and his exploits during the war, at the same time freely expressing his attitudes toward various facets of Australian life. Norm is not only a fine raconteur but also a born actor, and he acts out many of his tales for Ahmed. His speech is glib, and he cleverly conceals his true self from Ahmed throughout the play, until the culmination. The play made a deep impression in Australia, and much has been written about why Norm kicks Ahmed.
Why indeed? Norm has received only politeness from Ahmed, but Ahmed’s reserve implies a feeling of superiority, which Norm cannot tolerate. As Katherine Brisbane observes in her introduction to Three Plays by Alexander Buzo (1973): “His powers of reasoning may have betrayed him in the past but his prejudice he can rely on.”
Normie and Tuan
Normie and Tuan, based on the play Norm and Ahmed, could be called Norm and Ahmed Redux. In this one-act play, Normie and Tuan, a Chinese student from Malaysia, meet around midnight at a bus stop on a Sydney street. Normie is described as “an aging Australian,” and the play demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that even though thirty years have passed, Norm’s attitude toward immigrants has not changed. He is still the white Australian, and although in the beginning of the play, he appears to pay lip service to acceptance of Asian migration to Australia, he deeply resents the path his country has taken. His parents and their progenitors referred to the United Kingdom as “home.” To Normie, Tuan is the embodiment of the “Yellow Peril” that he fought against in Vietnam and his father fought against in World War II. He views the Asian immigration as a peaceful invasion of his country and an indication that Australia won the war but lost the battle.
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