Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
In the 1950s Australia was in the midst of an economic boom. Robert Menzies was Prime Minister and the post war immigration programme was slowly challenging the idea of Australia as a solely Anglo country. Questions were being raised about the nature of Australian identity. Artists such as Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd were emerging and Australian literature was flourishing. In the midst of this cultural resurgence, Victorian Ray Lawler wrote Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The play's uniquely Australian character and presentation of Australian life in a realistic manner was a revelation for theatregoers at the time.
The play is relatively simple in structure, but complex in plot. It is this contrast which was partly responsible for its success. It revolves around the lives of four major characters, Roo, Barney, Olive and Pearl. Roo and Barney are Queensland cane cutters who spend five months of each year, (the layoff) in the city. During this time they live with two bar maids, Olive and Nancy. The play is set in the seventeenth year of this arrangement. Nancy has married and been replaced by the sceptical Pearl. Roo has left the cane fields due to a dispute with a younger cutter, and makes plans to settle in the city. Olive fights against the change, desperate to maintain her ideal of ‘the layoff.'
The play deals with wide ranging themes, such as the nature of happiness, the destruction and loss of idealism, and deals with issues such as aging and the inability to accept change. It also comments on the Australian institution of mateship illustrated by the relationship between Barney and Roo.
The Australian vernacular is used throughout the text. It is peppered with words such as ‘strewth’, ‘larrikins’ ‘chockablock’ and phrases such as ‘up there Cazaly; and ‘did his block.’ Set in a Carlton terrace house, the play is firmly Australian in situation and language.
In 1954, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll won the Playwrights Advisory Board Competition for full length stage plays. It shared the two hundred pound prize money with another play, The Torrents by Oriel Gray.
One of the advantages of winning the prize was that the board undertook to have the winners produced. With this in mind the board approached the newly formed Elizabethan Theatre Trust for financial support.
The timing was fortunate. The Trust had been formed in 1954 in the wake of the Royal visit to Australia. Its stated aim was to 'to provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians.’ An appeal was made to private citizens and corporations for funds and soon donations reached 90,000 pounds. The Commonwealth Government added to this total with a 30,000 pounds grant.
In order to prove its worth and live up to its stated aims, the Trust needed to produce works that had national significance. The appearance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was an opportunity for it to do so.
Hugh Hunt, director of the Trust, advised the Playwrights Advisory Board to produce the play at one of the Little Theatres. After much lobbying it was decided to stage it at the Union Theatre in Melbourne. The Trust provided a producer, John Sumner, and after many revisions, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll opened on 28th November 1955.
A stellar audience attended the Union Theatre that night. It included the Chancellor of Melbourne University, the director of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Mr Hugh Hunt, and JC Williamson director, Frank Tait. The play was met by an enthusiastic audience reaction and favourable reviews.
The Argus stated that Lawler had
Written a play so superbly true to Australian thought
and the Australian scene, that theatrical conventions disappear
"Barney", "Roo" "Pearl" and "Emma" are real people.
We know their faces, their voices- we share their dreams,
we understand their failures.
Despite the good public and critical reaction in Melbourne, there were still doubts regarding the play’s national appeal. There were several reasons for this. Ray Lawler was a Victorian born writer. He had spent most of his early life in Footscray and worked there in a factory until JC Williamson had taken an option on a play when he was 23. Subsequently, Lawler tried acting, producing and writing until he became a director of the Union Theatre at Melbourne University. He was in his mid 30s when The Doll was first produced at the theatre.
Due to his background, Lawler set the play in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. It also contained references to specific Melbourne landmarks such as Young and Jacksons. It was possible that the plays enthusiastic reception at the Union Theatre was due primarily to these parochial factors. Success in Melbourne did not necessarily translate to success in the rest of Australia. The true test of the play’s worth would be in Sydney. The Elizabethan Theatre Trust took an option on the play and made plans to present it in the harbour city.
The Trust had a small theatre in Newtown, an inner suburb of Sydney. Newtown was not the fashionable haunt that it now is. It was an industrial suburb, located five miles west of the city. A place rarely visited by theatregoers, although it did have a long association with the industry. There was a brief three week gap in January 1956, in which the Elizabethan Theatre was available. Hopes were high, although January was traditionally a slow month for theatre activity.
Many traditional first night theatregoers refused to attend the opening night in Sydney, dismissing The Doll as ‘just an Australian play’. Many others attended the evening through curiosity, prepared to scoff. It was a potent example of the cultural cringe in action. This attitude lead to the cast and playwright being very nervous before the first night in the city.
The Melbourne cast reprised their roles in the Sydney production. June Jago played Olive, Madge Ryan played Pearl, Lloyd Berrell played Roo and Ray Lawler played Barney. John Sumner continued in the director’s chair. Madge Ryan’s Pearl spoke with a nasal Australian twang whilst Lloyd Berrell concentrated on presenting a realistic portrayal of the working class Roo.
That night, January 10th 1956 was an experience unique in the annals of Australian theatre. For decades the industry had been dominated by foreign plays and foreign actors. In Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the Australian theatre going public were presented with an Australian situation in Australian accents with Australian references. The play was not a shallow appeal to patriotism or a presentation of stereotypes. It was a solid work of art that dealt with universal concerns in the Australian context.
The Sydney Morning Herald said
Here was real and exciting Australiana with Australian spirit springing
from the deep heart of the characters and never merely pretending that Australianism
is a few well placed bonzers, too rights, strike me luckies and good-os.
For many the experience of seeing aspects of their own lives reflected on stage was thrilling after years of being force fed English comedies and dramas. On January 12th, the Sydney Morning Herald’s column eight stated that
It was a queer experience to hear Australian place names and idiom being used
in a big theatre after years of Bournemouth boarding house settings and brittle
West End chatter.
Each performance of the three week season in Sydney was booked out. After the season concluded the Trust sent the play on a tour of the regions. Sixty country towns in both New South Wales and Queensland were visited in the subsequent three months.
Before the end of 1956, the play had been offered a production in London, by none other than Laurence Olivier.
After their Australian tour in 1948, Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh had continued to take an interest in the Australian theatre. Both had contributed to the cost of refurbishment of the Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney. So it was not surprising when Olivier offered to produce The Doll in London.
There was a great deal of scepticism in Australia. Some thought that the play reflected badly on Australian morals. After all it concerned highly irregular living arrangements and Olive did not accept Roo’s offer of marriage at the end.
The Doll opened in London in March 1957. The Australian cast and producer John Sumner remained with the play and the sets were exported directly to the New Theatre in St Martins Lane.
John Sumner described the first night audience at the West End premiere.
It was a strangely mixed audience, dignified West End first nighters and a good
percentage of expatriate Australians.
The Australians in the audience had the strange sensation of hearing their own accents and idioms being presented in the heart of London. They ‘applauded colloquialisms and laughed uproariously at situations which were not considered funny either in the provinces or earlier when played before audiences in Australia’
Sumner said that ‘Some of this audience may well have spent the evening watching itself.’
The ‘dignified West End first nighters’ liked the play too.
It was greeted with cheers, stomping and several curtain calls. Finally The Doll had received the imprimatur of overseas success. The critics in Australia were silenced as English approval guaranteed that the play was acceptable.
The Doll continues to be produced in Australia, and although some of its language seems dated, its essential themes remain relevant today. Olive’s inability to accept change resonates with a 21st Century audience facing technological advance at a fast pace. Her distress at the loss of the ‘layoff' ideal echoes the cries of anybody who has lost an idealistic situation. Roo’s resentment of the younger O Dowd reflects our own fears and the relationship between he and Barney shows the highs and lows of Australian mateship. The language is Australian and the terrace house setting is still one with which many Australians identify. The Doll was the first time Australians saw themselves reflected on stage in a realistic manner. It will continue to be considered a turning point in Australian theatre history and a classic of Australian literature.