AT the beginning of 1955, Ray Lawler, in his early 30s and with a working-class background, was the nearest thing we had to a professional Australian theatre man.
He had written a dozen or so plays, none of them particularly good; he had been a professional trouper to the limit of the opportunities which offered; and when he joined the Union Theatre Repertory Company in 1954, he brought to the often precious atmosphere of the Union Theatre a unique concept of craftsmanship. John Sumner, who was then director of both the theatre and the repertory company, had been schooled in the West End commercial theatre. Ray had not even been abroad. He was one of a tiny number of purely Australian professionals.
Ray never lived well off the theatre. Few did. The theatre in those days was an imported thing; Australian plays, in commercial terms, were virtually non-existent, and Australian actors played subordinate roles to imported stars in plays of little or no literary consequence. Even the Union Theatre, the temple of non-commercial dramatic art, had presented only two Australian plays in its 20 years of life.
There was a curious affinity from the beginning between Sumner the Englishman, and Lawler the Australian. Sumner, tall, dominant, and a ruthless business machine when it came to management of a repertory company, got along surprising well with the short, roundish, shy Australian who could look at a group of middle-aged revellers in a city bar with the eyes of a poet and hatch a play from what he saw.
During 1954, he discussed this play with Sumner and Sumner made a number of suggestions. The play grew, and towards the end of the year, Ray Lawler sent it in to an annual literary competition.
Six months later, when the results of the competition were announced, I was director of the Union Theatre; Ray Lawler was on tour, as the recently appointed director of the repertory company. The two of us had taken over Sumner’s two jobs and he had gone to Sydney to work for the newly formed Elizabethan Trust. When the news came that Ray’s play had won equal first prize, we buzzed around offering congratulations. It meant about £100 to him but we all knew, or thought we knew, that it would mean little more than that Someone banteringly suggested that the UTRC might put the play on in its coming season. Everyone thought that a great joke. Australian plays, in fact, were a great joke. There the matter might have ended.
Later in the year, Ray found himself producing a play a fortnight for the Union Rep., and this was tiring so, partly to relieve the burden, partly for the sake of the prestige, he invited John Sumner to come over from Sydney to produce one play for his old company. Sumner agreed, but could not think of a suitable play. He did not want to produce ‘any old play’. He wanted something different, something perhaps with a challenge. He thought of Ray’s prize-winning play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
He knew the play, but although an Englishman, he knew from his experience of only two years in Australia what a jinx laid upon Australian plays. He was not so intimidated by this jinx as an Australian would have been—as Ray himself was. Sumner discussed the matter of Trust sponsorship with Hugh Hunt, the newly arrived director of the Elizabethan Trust. Hunt had never really heard of the jinx on Australian plays and replied simply that he supposed the encouragement of Australian plays was part of his very job. Thus, two Englishmen, one partly, the other totally ignorant of the appalling risk they ran, agreed to underwrite the production of an Australian play by the Union Theatre Repertory Company.
Cast list for the first production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the Union Theatre in 1955
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Ray Lawler’s response to this was little short of hostile. He had never dreamt of doing The Doll. As an Australian producer, charged with an economic responsibility to the University, he could hardly dare take the risk of presenting the type of play that had failed so often. He certainly could not take this risk with his own play. Sumner and the Trust gently over-ruled the first objection; and the ethical question of a director producing one of his own plays was over-ruled by what Sumner called ‘several weeks of gentle persuasion’. Ray was surprisingly modest for a theatre man; I remember telling him one day that being director of your own company meant that you could produce all your own plays. He disagreed gloomily; but finally gave in.
I held his hand in a metaphorical way on many occasions as the day of opening drew near. He came stumbling into the office one day, muttering, ‘Those actors out there, do you know what they’re doing? They’re putting on an Australian accent!’ The play was set in Carlton, literally almost over the road from the theatre. It was very hard for everyone to realise that we were so close to home. Was it a play about shearers and wombats, muttered one critic. The title troubled many people. You could read it upside down or anagrammatically and it still did not make sense. It was surprising later, as they saw, how much sense it did make.
The booking was good and there came a time in my office when somebody looked up brightly and said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to lose money on this show.’
Some strange conversion took place in the minds of the Australian theatregoers before they even saw the play, for it was the best dressed, and most sympathetic first-night audience I had ever seen at the Union. They came rolling in, in furs and starched shirts, and I remember saying to one of the usherettes, a girl student working her way to the show, ‘I think that this play is going to be a great success.’ None of us could understand it. The jinx had just gone!
They clapped the house curtain when it went up, and they clapped the set. They clapped every actor who came on, and the roar that greeted Ray’s own entrance was tremendous. When the curtain came down at the end, the theatre almost shook. It was the first Union Theatre Repertory play ever to play to an extended season.
They took it to Sydney, then on an Australian tour, and then, wonder of wonders, they booked it into London. They sold the film rights to an American organisation. Ray stood, puzzled but pleased, in the floodtide of royalties. I met him shortly before they left for London. He was wearing a new suit. I said to him, ‘Ray, be careful lest all this goes to your head. Success is a transient thing.’
He replied with a grin: ‘I know, seventeen dolls don’t make a summer.’
We estimated, in the manner of those who probe another’s income secrets, that Ray probably grossed about £80 000 from the play he fought so hard not to stage. Tax collectors and other voracious influences have stripped him of much of it, but he has been able to live, we believe, comfortably ever since. I say, we believe, because as the play toured the world, Ray was finally cast ashore on a pleasant but unobtrusive home in England; and he has never returned to Australia.
Was it too successful? There is mounting evidence that it was too much for Ray. He has written little of consequence since then, and he faces the possibility of becoming a playwright of the past; and he is still in literary terms a young man.
The Trust had reason to be pleased with itself. Charged with the task of ‘encouraging’ Australian plays, it did more than this. It made them possible.
Postscript (Spring 2005):
Niall Brennan died on 6 July . We appreciate the co-operation of his family in allowing us to reprint this reflection from 1965.
In the four decades since it was written, of course, Ray Lawler returned to Australia. His later plays include The Man Who Shot the Albatross and the two plays that complete The Doll Trilogy, Kid Stakes and Other Times.
From 1975 until 1987 he was a director and dramaturge for the Melbourne Theatre Company. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll has been widely translated, filmed, studied in schools and revived countless times.
A few lines from George Molnar:
I made these sketches at the Elizabethan Theatre, sitting in the stalls during the first night performance.
These are not drawings really. I could not see the features of the actors very well, and my sketchbook was in darkness.
These are more like graphs of a recording instrument, registering with crude mechanical lines the enchantment that descended on the theatre that night.
To find beauty on the Acropolis is easy. And easy it is to see beauty in Juliet. But so much greater is the art that finds the same elements in our daily life and discovers the charm of rugged refinement in a terrace cottage at Carlton, and the adventure of joy and the dignity of sorrow in the life of canecutters and barmaids.
On the opening the usual first night audience sat with cheerful scepticism, all ready to be magnanimous. But as the curtain went up a miracle happened.
The theatre disappeared, there was no acting on the stage, there was no play to act in.
We were in Melbourne on a hot summer afternoon, in a stuffy terrace house, living the life of some strangers who were us. Laughing and crying, we took on the swashbuckling lostness of Roo and Barney, the bewildered lucidity of Pearl, the happy resignation of Emma, and Olive’s brave reality built of dreams.
It was a great night. All of us who were there felt that something important was happening in the history of Australian drama. We left the theatre strangely alive, and feeling grateful to Messrs Lawler, Sumner and Hunt for gathering a bunch of capricious garden flowers from a faded suburban wallpaper and for enlarging our vistas to the faraway horizon of our back verandas.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 1956