Thursday, 02 September 2021

Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

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During 2021, Theatre Heritage Australia has been celebrating the 100th birthday of Australian playwright Ray Lawler. PETER FITZPATRICK takes an in depth look at Summer of the Seventeenth Doll—a play that was acknowledged as a landmark of Australian drama sixty-six years ago and remains so today.

So here's a diverting Game for theatre aficionados to play in lockdown. Which plays can you name that might claim to express, or represent, or in some way be synonymous with, the culture and mythologies of their country of origin? Peer Gynt maybe? Or maybe not. Henry V? Possibly, but what about The Importance of Being Earnest? … Death of a Salesman? Or should that be Angels in America? We could expand it perhaps to other dramatic forms: Don Giovanni? La Boheme? The Mahabaratha? And a range of other works, no doubt, that I am too ill-informed to suggest.

But when it comes to Australian theatre, it’s a short conversation, and a one-horse race. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, sixty-six years old now, its author this year a centenarian, remains the only genuine contender. Ray Lawler’s play about two cane-cutters coming down from far north Queensland to splurge their pay-packets with a couple of Melbourne barmaids was a watershed in the fragmented history of Australian writing for the stage.

When many decades ago I set out to write a critical history of Australian plays (After ‘The Doll’: Australian Drama since 1955, in 1979) it barely occurred to me that there was anything particularly odd about singling out one play among all the others for its title—let alone assuming that it would be easily recognisable from its affectionate diminutive, ‘The Doll’. None of the reviewers at the time thought there was anything unusual about that choice, either. It seemed self-evident that the big story properly began with Ray Lawler’s play, and that nothing could ever be the same after it.

These days the choice to foreground a single play in this way would be much more worthy of remark, and probably of stern critique. Writing about Australian theatre has become much less focused on particular plays and playwrights (‘Australian Drama’ was an equally uncontentious element of the subtitle), and much more on the history of performance in Australia—the work of individual companies and theatre-makers, the theatre as industry.

The notion of playwrights attempting to define and explore the things that might be distinctive of their culture, representing some kind of construction of ‘national identity’, has been replaced by a concern with pluralities and proud marginalities, and an emphasis on work that challenges or subverts the presumed cultural mainstream.

Lawler was clearly conscious of working with a model of distinctive Australian-ness; though he recalled his ‘inspiration’ in writing the people of ‘The Doll’ in a number of ways (ranging from conversations overheard in bars to the rather disingenuous claim that he set out to write a play with a rewarding role for a short male actor like himself!1), the play is steeped in his fascination with capturing working-class behaviors and idioms, all of it firmly based in an intimate knowledge of the local vernacular.

Like most dramatisations of a particular social milieu at a particular time, I suspect, the snapshot of Australian culture in The Doll was even in 1955 one in slightly faded retrospect; indeed retrospection, in terms of the style of the play and its content, might be seen as the defining quality of ‘The Doll’. Its quintessentially naturalistic mode was one dimension of that, at a time when theatre was pushing the notions of what ‘reality’ was understood to mean. And its plot, set in the seventeenth and last year of the ‘lay-off’, continually reaches back into summers that really do seem to have consisted of ‘happy days and glamorous nights’.

The homogeneity of the culture it presents is the most striking element of this backward-looking inclination of the play; this is Carlton in 1953, a working-class inner suburb of Melbourne, where everyone has an Anglo-Irish background. The Leech household (Olive’s surname must be a mischievous acknowledgement of her inclination to cling) is at its centre. But its visitors for its seventeenth summer are Roo Webber, Barney Ibbot, the disappointing Pearl Cunningham, and the most unwelcome Johnny Dowd; doughty Anglo-Saxons, every one. And so are its immediate neighbours, the Ryans, Bubba’s family, and its New Year hosts for the last sixteen years, the Morrises—Nancy’s people, who obviously can’t be visited any more since she abandoned the summers with Barney for respectable marriage to a ‘book bloke’.

But Carlton, even in 1953, was becoming what we now call a multicultural community. The wave of Italian migration was already transforming the suburb into a very different (and much more interesting) society; it had done that already to Collingwood, a couple of kilometres away, where the collision of cultures was to prompt, in Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart (1957), a powerful treatment of the troubles of the Bianchi family in their difficult and finally tragic engagement with entrenched Australian prejudice. The Doll, perhaps even at its premiere in 1955, probably by its London triumph in 1958, and certainly in its wonderfully celebratory reincarnation as the point of no return in the staging of The Doll Trilogy (including two new ‘prequels’, Kid Stakes, the summer of the first doll, and Other Times, the summer of the ninth) in 1976, was a rich exercise in nostalgia.2 Even the pretty egregious movie adaptation of the play, Season of Passion (1959), was prompted to add an Italian, Dino, to the cane-cutting crew.3 Lawler himself acknowledged something of the new cosmopolitanism when, in Other Times, he introduced the bookish Austrian Josef Hultz as a possible (and in a wartime context, very controversial) romantic interest for Nancy.

The same might be said for the mode of the play, of course. It’s classic three-act naturalism, with a single set crammed with sociological markers that ensures that its audience is finely attuned to every alteration: when the grim reality of what is left after the dolls and the corals are gone, it’s hard not to feel the horror of what Olive, especially, has lost, and the bleakness of the future that she faces. We become aware through the play of every alteration, every sound from the floor above or the world outside; each one of them changes the on-stage action decisively. The decision to expose the stairs to the unseen floor upstairs was a master-stroke: the grand entrance is from the moment of Olive’s first appearance (‘Hang onto your hats and mittens, kids, here I come!’) a very theatrical way of focusing a powerful shift in dynamic.

All of this might seem to imply a view of Lawler’s major play that consigns it to a museum; a place for good scripts that no-one performs any more. But that’s not what the performance history of ‘The Doll’ suggests, nor what this essay aims to explore. 

Ray Lawler’s career has been very thoroughly outlined in essays previously published here by Frank Van Straten and by Simon Plant, in his wonderfully informative survey of the fate of ‘The Doll’ on the American stage. They have covered the historical territory marvellously. In the light of that, my best contribution to this centenary celebration, I think, is an analysis of Lawler’s one great play, in the context of its continuing currency—not as an exhibit in a museum, but as a viable part of a contemporary repertoire. There have certainly been a couple of seasons that have demonstrated its genuine adaptability—the all-Black production for the inaugural season of the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967, and the brilliantly avant-garde staging by the Australian Nouveau Theatre at Anthill in Melbourne in 1983, directed by Jean-Pierre Mignon; I saw the latter, and will never forget its brilliant evocation of a hot and listless New Year’s Eve in the syncopated slapping down of cards and swatting at mosquitoes. A chamber opera version in two acts, written by Richard Mills (music) and Peter Goldsworthy (libretto), was commissioned by the Victoria State Opera, and premiered on 19 October 1996 at the Playhouse in Melbourne; the commission was a mark of the status (and perhaps marketability) of the play, but also of its rich potential for creative re-imaginings.

There’s no need, for the audience of this essay, to retell the story of the play, or even to revisit the richness of its characters. These things are well enough known, and have held up remarkably well against the passing of time. Some of the dialogue is charmingly dated (sadly, few people today would know what it means to ‘poke mullock’, though in an age when everyone seems inclined to conspicuous scepticism it would be a handy term; and no one, I suspect, would know a ‘Jimmy Woodser’, though there are still plenty of them around). And ‘The Doll’ is a play that, even in the mid-fifties, doesn’t even admit a phone-call; if Bubba wants to contact Johnny Dowd at the cheap joint where he and the rest of the gang are staying, she will need to find a way to leave a note for him. So the notion of the play as time-capsule has some validity. The notion that it is bound by its time, however, is false.

Part of its continuing cultural relevance lies in the play’s questioning of the values by which you might choose to live a life. I suspect that the respectable perspectives of outsiders like Pearl, and implicitly, perhaps, of Nancy, whose critique of careless-of-tomorrow hedonism is as pervasive in her absence as her glowing vivacity, have less weight now than they carried in 1955. The cost of Olive’s perennially adolescent expectation that life should always be fun is clear enough in the bleakness of her final scene with Roo, in which she furiously rejects the conventional compensation of his marriage proposal, cradles the smashed seventeenth doll as surrogate for the child she will never have, and heads out to another meaningless shift at the pub. But even the homespun sagacity of Emma contests the misplaced sense of superiority that someone like Pearl can feel; when Emma takes on something of the mantle of a biblical prophet to spell out what Roo at the end has failed to learn, she is far from rejecting the value of the lay-offs of the past:

EMMA:  …  There’s a time for sowing and a time for reaping—and reapin’ is what you’re doing now.

It’s one of the few occasions in the show when Emma picks up her final g’s. But it’s a long way from Pearl’s complacent and comforting view that the whole thing has been a silly delusion. Emma is arguing that sixteen good summers out of seventeen ain’t bad. It’s possible that a contemporary audience, all too conscious of the costs and fragility of all commitments, might be more sympathetic to that view than those first audiences at the Union Theatre.

Bubba certainly sees the pertinence of the view that a few seasons of great happiness are preferable to a lifetime of tepid contentment. Her perspective is immediately qualified because it is that of a very young and inexperienced woman, and it’s complicated further by the possibility that she might be repeating Olive’s ‘mistake’; but there’s also a chance that Bubba might have seen enough lay-offs to live them for a while, or a long time, or maybe even for a life. Life-choices have always been complicated, but perhaps they are more so today than they seemed in 1955.

The other element of the play that has stood up remarkably well is its treatment of gendered behaviour, and of the patterns of heterosexual relationship. Both these propositions are in our time continually up for grabs, and inevitably contested at every level. The culture as I write is one in which the choice to perform Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and then every subsequent choice (interpretative, but also casting and stylistic) would be contentious. Respectful ‘museum’ revisitings might even prove too provocatively ‘conservative’ to stage.

Even in this hyper-sensitive climate, Ray Lawler’s play still looks very astute on patterns of male and female behaviour in relationships. We don’t need to assume or to argue that these patterns are universal or even normative to see these perceptions as very astute—in 1955, as they were, but also in 2021. The play explores the stereotype of male emotional reticence, especially as a source of power or limitation in the matriarchal Leech household, on every page. The seventeenth doll prompts an immediate contrast:

OLIVE. … But the dolls—they’re something you thought of by yourself. So they’re special!

[He grunts, embarrassed. She fluffs out the doll’s skirts.]

And don’t make noises at me, they are. Where’ll I put her?

ROO. [Glancing around] Gettin’ a bit crowded, maybe you should start upstairs.

OLIVE. [crossing to vase] No. I won’t, she’s staying right here with the others. [places doll in vase] Look at her now, she just dazzles yer.

ROO. [touched but gruffly] She’s all right.

OLIVE. Beautiful.

As Olive has already warned Pearl (in relation to more delicate matters than conversational style), ‘these are a coupla sugarcane-cutters fresh from the tropics—not two professors from the university’, and Lawler draws on Roo’s lack of an emotional vocabulary as a powerful source of sub-text. It’s not a failure to feel (Roo in that sequence is ‘touched’ by the kewpie doll almost as sentimentally as Olive), but an inability to articulate feeling within the constraints of the strong, silent male role. It weights his every interaction with the power of understatement. Olive immediately registers the implicit moral objection in his introduction to Pearl:

ROO.  Missus Cunningham, is it?

OLIVE. [quickly] Yes, she’s a widow.

ROO. [understandingly] Ah.

And the excruciating awkwardness of being discovered by Johnnie Dowd dozing on the couch after a hard day’s work at the paint factory renders Roo barely able to speak:

DOWD.  ‘Lo Roo.

ROO.  Lo.

DOWD.  Y’look like you been paintin’ the town.

ROO.  Yeh.

This tendency for strength of feeling to deny, and to be confirmed and measured by, the loss of the power of speech adds particular dramatic force to his final scene with Olive. We are painfully aware of how hard it is for Roo to find and say the words as he kneels to her and strikes the floor with his hand (‘This is the dust we’re in and we’re gunna walk through it like everyone else for the rest of our lives!’); when she rejects his proposal, and words have failed altogether, that strength of feeling can only be expressed in the ‘violent, insensate rage’ in which he smashes the seventeenth doll to pieces.

Barney, the smaller of the two men, is also defined in his beta-male status by his habit of ‘blabbergutsin’. His gift of the gab has been pretty handy (at least until recently) when it comes to charming the ladies. But nonetheless he is one of the ‘coupla kings’ that Olive defines against the ‘soft city blokes’ who stand aside when these heroes walk to the bar; and he, too, reverts to male stereotype in moments of genuine emotion. When Roo gives him Bubba’s ‘snaps of Nancy’s wedding’, he ‘looks at them a long moment’ them before articulating (‘unemotionally’) what he feels:

BARNEY. She must have been ravin’ mad. [He shoves photos into pocket] What’s there in the paper?

The authenticity of his kind-of love is defined precisely by his seeming indifference.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in its final act reveals itself, if we hadn’t twigged it before, as a play not just about Australian cultural shibboleths but about mortality and meaning. That’s the reason, finally, for its greatness and its longevity, just as every work of art that aspires to universality tends to be grounded in the cultural here and now.

Lawler’s acutely tuned ear for the Australian vernacular, and his mastery in rendering it, is almost as great a strength in a new century as it was that night in late November 1955 when it premiered at Melbourne’s Union Theatre, or on the London opening in 1957 that prompted the critic from the Star to declare, ‘It’s taken a long time but the kangaroos must be smiling today’.4 Looking back in the middle of a lockdown in 2021, some of its status may be a little compromised by the fact that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll became, almost overnight, a very big fish in a very small pool. Some of its significance as a landmark in our culture can seem, at this distance, a bit spuriously sentimental;  the MTC programme note for the staging of The Doll Trilogy in 1976 offered a calculation that even then seemed a little bizarre:

By 1976, Olive would be 61 years of age. Barney and Nancy would be 63, and Roo, if he were alive, would be 64.5

It’s hard to imagine, in relation to my opening whimsy about culturally definitive plays and characters, a production of Henry V that informed us that in 1976 he would have been 590, or one of Death of a Salesman that alerted us to the fact that Willy Loman (aged 63 at the play’s premiere in 1949) would that year have turned 100. It’s partly a reflection of a culture anxious to embrace a play that would now, probably, be publicised as ‘an Australian icon’, as well as of a tendency, obviously, to confuse fictional characters with actual people. But it’s also a mark of the capacity of very good writers not only to reflect, but to shape, their culture.

So on the 23rd of May this year, when (by the MTC’s calculations) Olive would have been 106, Barney and Nancy 108, and Roo (‘if he were still alive’) 109, we should all have raised a glass to Ray Lawler: those of us who care passionately about Australian theatre, and all those others who know little about it and care less, but whose cultural roots are defined by or against the world he made real.

Happy hundredth, Mr Lawler.

 

Endnotes

1. See John McCallum’s note, ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, ed. Philip Parsons with Victoria Chance, Currency Press, 1995, p.565

2. The Trilogy was in itself a kind of homage to Lawler, with the plays staged both separately and (as a ‘special occasion’) in sequence. Nancy is every bit as prominent a presence in these two ‘prequels’ as she is an absence in the summer of the seventeenth.

3. The film notoriously internationalised its major roles, with Ernest Borgnine as Roo making little effort to hide his American accent in the role of Roo, and John Mills trying hard to modify his English one as Barney. The American actress Anne Baxter and the English Angela Lansbury completed the main cast, as Olive and Pearl respectively. The wonderful Ethel Gabriel, who had played Emma in its Sydney season and in London, reprised the role in the film, as the only survivor from its stage versions.

4. Star (London), 1 May 1957, p.

5. The ages are a little at odds with those given in the original script, but it seems a bit beside the point to cavil. And as a septuagenarian, I’m inclined to resent the assumption that 64 might represent a good innings.

Read 320 times Last modified on Friday, 15 October 2021
Peter Fitzpatrick

Peter Fitzpatrick held a Personal Chair at Monash University, where he was Foundation Head of Performing Arts. During his career as an academic, he wrote three books and many articles on Australian theatre, produced a dual biography of Louis and Hilda Esson that was shortlisted for four national prizes, and directed some thirty productions of plays and musicals. He also wrote three feature film scripts, including Hotel Sorrento, for which he won an AFI Award for best adapted screenplay, and two novels, Death in the Back Pocket and Promontory.

Since leaving Monash he has written mostly for musical theatre, and several of his shows (Life’s a Circus, flowerchildren—The Mamas and Papas Story, and Crossroads) have had professional productions. But he also produced another dual biography, The Two Frank Thrings, which won the National Biography Prize in 2013.  His latest musical, Castro’s Children, will premiere (Covid permitting) in 2022.