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.
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
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things that might be distinctive of their culture, representing some kind of construction of ‘national identity’, has been replaced by a concern with pluralities and proud marginalities, and an emphasis on work that challenges or subverts the presumed cultural mainstream.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’.
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
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.
State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
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.
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.
DOWD. Y’look like you been paintin’ the town.
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.
State Library Victoria, Melbourne
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.
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.
‘By the mid-1950s, Ray Lawler was writing from his own bloodstream about the people he knew,’ wrote Zoe Caldwell; she was a member of the then recently established Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne, when Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first produced. ‘His play was so extraordinary for all of us because it reflected an Australian sensibility quite apart from England. For decades Australia remained hell-bent on trying to imitate England, yet the sense of inferiority remained. Lawler was part of the change that was in the air. I felt for the first time the joy of using my own Aussie voice and speaking of places that I really knew, and at the same time knowing that the audience had the same experience. No conjuring up or imagining a world not ours. First Melbourne cheered, then Sydney, then all of Australia, and finally London. But nothing will ever be the same as that first time when a veil was lifted and communication was direct’.
Raymond Evenor Lawler was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray on 23 May 1921. At the age of 13 he left school and worked in a foundry. At the same time he studied acting at a school called Stage Door, run by an American, Sophie Graves. During the war she transformed it into the Stage Door Canteen for servicemen, while Lawler spent most of the war working 12-hour night shifts, squeezing in some writing during the day.
Towards the end of the war Lawler took a play called Hal’s Belles to Lorna Forbes and Syd Turnbull, who had established their Melbourne Repertory Theatre in a small disused cinema in Middle Park. Hal’s Belles was produced there in September 1945 with 19-year-old Frank Thring as Henry VIII; it was Lawler’s debut as a playwright, and Thring’s as an actor. Its success warranted a transfer to Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre in Eastern Hill. Lawler stayed with the National for a while. He acted in a number of their drama productions, but also had the satisfaction of seeing several more of his plays produced there, notably Storm in the Haven and Brief Return, which he wrote under the pseudonym Alan Sinclair.
Lawler’s professional career started in 1948 at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane, where Will Mahoney was presenting fortnightly-change revue. He became, he said, ‘secretary to Mr Mahoney, assistant stage manager, small-part walk on actor and general dogsbody.’ He also absorbed some of the material that he would later inform Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. After a year, Lawler retuned to Melbourne and the National. During the National’s 1949 drama season at the Princess he appeared as Feste in Twelfth Night. In 1951 he was one of six actors chosen for the National’s permanent professional drama company. Its repertoire was mainly unadventurous, but for Christmas 1951 Lawler devised, wrote and directed a pantomime version of St George and the Dragon. Lawler also played the witch’s servant. The Advocate said it was ‘as good as anything Barrie could have given us’.
In 1952 Lawler’s Cradle of Thunder won the National Theatre’s Australia-wide play competition. It was presented it at the Princess in the National’s 1952 Three Arts Festival. Lawler claimed that it was ‘only the tenth straight play by an Australian author produced on the professional stage in Australia in the past 35 years’. He directed and played the part of Cully, a Welsh seaman. George Fairfax, then 24, was the half-mad innkeeper. At the end of 1952 the National presented two more Lawler plays, Alas, Poor Ghost, a reworking of Hal’s Belles, and Ginger Meggs, a panto based on the beloved comic strip. Lawler wrote the book and lyrics and played the title role. The following year he provided the script for a spectacular Pageant of Royalty, staged at the Exhibition Building to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then set to work on The New Adventures of Ginger Meggs for Christmas. The Age credited with ‘a peculiar charm’.
In 1954 Lawler was recruited by John Sumner as an actor, writer and director for the second season of the Union Theatre Repertory Company, based at the University of Melbourne. He made his mark swiftly, most notably providing material for the Company’s first end-of-year ‘special’, a topical revue called Tram Stop 10! The season concluded with Lawler’s well received production of Twelfth Night, the UTRC’s first attempt at Shakespeare. In mid 1955 Sumner moved to Sydney to manage the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and Lawler took his place as director of the UTRC.
In 1954 Lawler had entered a new play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in a competition organised by the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. It shared the £200 first prize with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents but only reached the stage after much manoeuvring, largely because of Lawler’s reluctance to program one of his own works. Eventually, with the encouragement of the AETT, it was scheduled as part of the UTRC’s third season, and Sumner was released from his Sydney duties to direct it.
Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Elisabeth Kumm collection
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered at the University’s Union Theatre on 28 November 1955 with Roma Johnston (as Pearl), Fenella Maguire (Bubba), June Jago (Olive), Ray Lawler (Barney), Carmel Dunn (Emma), Noel Ferrier (Roo) and Malcolm Billings (Johnnie Dowd). The setting, by Anne Fraser, perfectly evoked the play’s setting, a terrace house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. Lawson’s sensitive exploration of mateship, ageing, change and the nature of happiness immediately won wide approval. Maguire, Jago and Lawler were retained for the Sydney season, which opened at the Elizabethan on 10 January 1956. The newcomers were Madge Ryan (Pearl), Ethel Gabriel (Emma), Lloyd Berrell (Roo) and John Llewellyn (Johnnie). This was followed by an extensive Trust tour in repertory with The Rivals and Twelfth Night. Lawler played Barney and Feste in Twelfth Night, and his wife, Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher, played Bubba for part of the run.
Elisabeth Kumm collection
The next stop was London, where The Doll was presented under the auspices of Sir Laurence Olivier. After ‘running in’ in Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle, The Doll opened triumphantly at the New Theatre on 30 April 1957. Maguire, Ryan, Jago, Lawler and Gabriel repeated their roles, but there was a new Roo, Kenneth Warren, and a new Johnnie, Richard Pratt (yes, that Richard Pratt). In his first night curtain speech, Lawler quoted from the prologue to The Recruiting Officer, the first play performed in Australia: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood—We left our country for our country’s good.’
The Doll ran for 8½ months in London and received the Evening Standard ‘Play of the Year’ award. After its warm reception in Britain, its disastrous 29-performance New York season, at the Coronet from 22 January 1958, was a bitter anticlimax. So was the film version. Virtually everything was wrong: John Dighton’s adaptation reset the story in the more photogenic environs of Sydney, and contrived a ‘happy’ ending, while the producers, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, employed an English director, Leslie Norman, and assembled an oddly-accented international cast: Angela Lansbury (Pearl), Anne Baxter (Olive), John Mills (Barney) and Ernest Borgnine (Roo); the principal locals were Vincent Ball (Dowd), Janette Craig (Bubba) and Ethel Gabriel (Emma). In an ultimate insult, for its American release the film was crassly retitled Season of Passion.
Lawler’s next play, The Piccadilly Bushman, revolved around an expatriate actor’s return to Australia in an attempt to save his marriage. It had the unusual distinction of a commercial production by J.C. Williamson’s—who in 1944 had optioned but not produced one of Lawler’s earlier efforts. Directed by John McCallum, The Piccadilly Bushman played for eight weeks at the Comedy in Melbourne and another eight at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1959, but it could not match the success of The Doll.
Lawler and his family moved to Britain, and later to Ireland. In 1963 June Jago and Alfred Marks played in his The Unshaven Cheek at Newcastle and at the Edinburgh Festival, but for the next two decades Lawler’s focus was primarily on writing and adapting for television. His output—all for the BBC—includes A Breach in the Wall (1967), Before the Party with Anna Massey and Sinister Street (1969), Cousin Bette with Helen Mirren (1971), The Visitors (1972), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with Celia Johnson and Two Women (1973), and The Brotherhood with Ben Kingsley (1975). A theatrical version of A Breach in the Wall, a fantasy about the rediscovery of the body of Thomas à Becket, was staged at Canterbury in 1970.
Lawler returned to Australia for the staging of The Man Who Shot the Albatross, which the Melbourne Theatre Company premiered at the Princess on 14 October 1971 with John Sumner directing. Leo McKern, like Lawler an expatriate, played the irascible Governor Bligh at the time of the Rum Rebellion. In The Herald Gerald Mayhead said: ‘Does one expect too much? Like Bligh’s albatross, the weight of past brilliance hangs heavily on Mr Lawler’s neck.’ Nevertheless, the play did well in Melbourne and Canberra. The following year it was presented in Sydney and at the Adelaide Festival, and was televised by the ABC.
In 1974 John Sumner commissioned Lawler to write Kid Stakes. Set in 1937, it depicted the start of the relationships that culminated in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Kid Stakes premiered at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne on 2 December 1975. Its success encouraged Lawler to write Other Times, set in 1945, thus completing ‘The Doll Trilogy’. Other Times premiered on 14 December 1976; the three plays were then presented in repertory, with two memorable Saturdays on which all three were played in sequence, marathons which culminated in standing ovations. At the end of 1977 the Trilogy was directed for Channel Seven by Rod Kinnear. It was not screened until January 1979.
By this time Lawler had returned to Melbourne to live. He joined the MTC as artistic advisor, director, play assessor and occasional actor. His play Godsend, a reworking of A Breach in the Wall, was presented in 1982 but it was not a success. Lawler received an OBE in 1980 and retired seven years later.
The Doll, however, has not retired. It has been produced in translation around the world—including Der Sommer de 17. Puppe on West German television in 1968. The Melbourne Theatre Company revived it in 1962, 1977 and 1995—its fortieth anniversary. There have been countless other productions in all states. Rodney Fisher directed the Trilogy for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1985. Richard Wherrett’s STC production of The Doll played at the Pepisco Summerfare Festival in New York in 1988. He had previously directed it for Nimrod in 1973 and in 1996 directed an operatic adaptation commissioned by the Victoria State Opera. With music by Richard Mills and a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy, this premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival on 19 October 1996. There have been avant garde versions, too, such as Jean-Pierre Mignon’s anti-naturalistic interpretation for Anthill in Melbourne and at the 1988 Singapore Festival, and Jacqui Carroll’s pared down Doll Seventeen for Frank Theatre at the 2002 Brisbane Festival. In 1986 a group of NIDA graduates took a 50-minute version, approved by Lawler, to the Festival of Dramatic Colleges in Bratislava—and took first prize.
In December 2003, to mark the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 50th Anniversary, Ray Lawler presented his treasured Evening Standard Award trophy to the Australian Performing Arts Centre at Arts Centre Melbourne.
Critic Leonard Radic describes Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as Australian theatre’s finest play. ‘If Lawler had written nothing else,’ he says, ‘his position in Australian theatre history would still have been secure.’
© Frank Van Straten, 2007
Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra. Text Publishing, 2001
Terence Clarke, ‘Benchmark play germinated theatre of a nation’ in Theatre Australasia, April 1955
Peter Fitzpatrick, ‘The Doll Trilogy’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995
John McCallum, ‘Ray Lawler’ and ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995
Leonard Radic, The State of Play. Penguin, 1991
John Sumner, Recollections at Play. Melbourne University Press, 1993
‘Synopsis: Two Australian field workers come to Melbourne for their 17th summer layoff in a row, planning to enjoy themselves with two barmaids, only to find one of the women is now married and must contemplate the fact that their time has passed’.
From Summer of the 17th [sic] Doll—Opening Night Playbill, January 19581
OUTSIDE, on the streets of New York City, the temperature was plunging and sending snow flurries dancing across Times Square.
Inside Broadway’s Coronet Theatre, at 230 West 49th Street, Ray Lawler was feeling the heat.
The 37-year-old Australian author and actor was standing in the wings, ready to make his entrance in an award-winning play he had written - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Theatrical legend Sir Laurence Olivier was in the audience. So was Australian-born actress Judith Anderson and US elder statesman Adlai Stevenson II. But Lawler—making his American debut—was not only feeling first night nerves on the bitterly cold evening of 22 January, 1958. A good deal of money was riding on his tragi-comic tale of two Queensland canecutters flying south to party with barmaid girl friends in Melbourne. Australian, English and American theatre producers were all invested in it. And while The Doll, as it was popularly known, had enjoyed resounding success in Australia and the UK, Lawler wondered if the very quality that had made his play appealing—its Australian-ness—might very well limit its prospects in the United States. Just days earlier, a New York journalist had noted: ‘A good Australian play is a rarity, even in Australia. In London or New York it is unheard of’.2
The Doll was especially remarkable for coming to America with an all-Australian cast: Lawler (as Barney Ibbot), Kenneth Warren (Roo Webber), June Jago (Olive Leech), Madge Ryan (Pearl Cunningham), Ethel Gabriel (Emma Leech), Fenella Maguire (Bubba Ryan) and Richard Pratt (Johnnie Dowd). This was the same cast that had enjoyed a seven month run on London’s West End, performed for Queen Elizabeth II and been praised by everyone from poet T.S. Eliot to playwright Terence Rattigan.3 London critics had been almost uniformly positive. Writing in the Observer in May, 1957, four days after their debut at the New Theatre, Kenneth Tynan hailed ‘the magnitude of Lawler’s achievement ... out of unremarkable gaieties and regrets, out of everyday challenges and defeats, he has composed a story as gripping in the theatre as it would be in life’.4
The Sunday Times went even further, describing Lawler as ‘a first rate dramatist’ and comparing The Doll favourably to John Osborne’s The Entertainer which opened a fortnight earlier.5
‘We were jubilant,’ The Doll’s English-born director John Sumner said.6 Especially after learning that Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies had ‘lost a five shilling bet’ with Commonwealth Bank Chairman Dr D.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs that Lawler’s play would be ‘a flop in Britain’.7 They had proved him wrong. All through 1957, the plaudits kept coming, most notably the Evening Standard Award for Best Play on the London stage that year. By the end of the run in early December, the cast of The Doll had given 254 performances in Britain.
Sumner, a trailblazing theatre maker who came to Australia in 1952 to manage the University of Melbourne’s Union Theatre, reckoned ‘the play could have run longer ... bookings were still very strong’.8 But America beckoned. The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT), which co-produced the English season, had joined forces with St James’s Players Ltd in London and two prestigious Broadway organisations—the Theatre Guild and the Playwrights’ Company—to present The Doll in New York. So, as a New Year dawned, the company boarded a Boeing Stratocruiser at Heathrow and lifted off in a gale, spearing across the Atlantic and down into wintry New York City. Sumner never forgot their hectic arrival:
‘Snow had been falling, cars clanked with chains and the roads were icy and slushy. We spent enormous amounts of time pulling on heavy coats, hats and gloves, dashing into overheated cars, taking everything off, before restoring it all and rushing into buildings where it all came off again. All that energy!’9
Sumner knew New York would be different from London. He had visited the city numerous times, first as a choir boy with the London Opera School; later, during the Second World War with the Merchant Navy. ‘It is one of the most exciting cities I know,’ he wrote years later. But Sumner’s affection for New York usually lasted ‘only about ten days, by which time it has exhausted me’.10
Broadway was the city’s theatrical heart. In the immediate post-war years, it had been galvanised by an influx of star-studded shows from abroad and a new wave of writers (Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, among others) whose tough but commercially successful plays (A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman) were unflinching in their frank depiction of the American Dream. By the mid-50s, the city’s bustling theatre district was bolstered by a thriving Off-Broadway scene. The 1957-58 season was especially competitive. As Sumner made his first inspection of the Coronet, a cavernous auditorium four blocks north of Times Square, he would have noticed neon marquees advertising West Side Story, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet, Nude With Violin (starring Noel Coward), the William Inge drama The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, and—about to open—Henry Fonda and Anne Baxter in Two for the Seesaw.
‘In America there is a substantial response to plays which deal with social problems,’ observed the AETT’s British-born executive director, Hugh Hunt. ‘Even American musicals tend to probe and analyse society, as if the people as a whole were examining and questioning the rightness and wrongness of their way of life.’11
The ‘serious musical plays’ of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were in a league of their own. Hugely popular post-war shows such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The King and I broke new ground by fully integrating song, story and dance. By the mid-50s, at the height of their creative power, Rodgers and Hammerstein were working on a new musical—an original made-for-TV version of Cinderella—but its gestation proved complicated. The composer was in America; the librettist was in Australia. Hammerstein travelled to Victoria in November, 1956, to attend the Melbourne Olympic Games and corresponded with his writing partner via telegrams and letters.12 Lodging at the Hotel Windsor, near the city’s entertainment district, he also found time to see a performance of The Doll at Her Majesty’s Theatre (from 3 December, 1956). Hammerstein was ‘elated by the feeling that he had witnessed an event of theatrical importance’ and relayed his enthusiasm to Lawrence Langner at New York’s Theatre Guild.13
This revered producer and author established the Guild’s reputation for presenting high quality, non-commercial American and foreign plays.14 The Playwrights’ Company, established in the late 1930s, was also committed to ‘setting a high standard of writing and production’ in American theatre. Roger L. Stevens—a real estate magnate said to have ‘unflappable air of an ambassador with the heart of a gambler willing to take risks’—was one of its guiding lights and would also play a key role in getting The Doll on Broadway.15 A third man hastened The Doll’s trajectory half way round the world. He was sitting in the stalls of the Coronet as Lawler waited in the wings, and he was an unlikely ally, an aristocratic actor-knight who so identified with King and Country he was wont to say: ‘I am England, that’s all’.16 His name was Laurence Olivier.
A Hollywood film star in the late 1930s, Olivier emerged during World War Two as ‘the finest [Shakespearean] actor in the world’, acclaimed for his towering performances as Hamlet, Lear, and Henry V. His burgeoning stage and screen career was yielding a ‘fantastic harvest, a glorious house in the country, a Rolls Royce and a knighthood’ and his marriage to the celebrated actress Vivien Leigh was, in his words, ‘more perfect than anyone could dream of’.17 Anointed Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier in 1947, they ‘accepted the mantle of nobility and wore it everywhere’.18 That included the Antipodes. In 1948, the Old Vic Company took three plays (The School for Scandal, The Skin of Our Teeth, and Richard III) to six Australian capital cities and enjoying what they called ‘the glitter of our position’, Olivier and Leigh behaved like surrogate monarchs—christening ships, addressing rallies and taking salutes. Australians, at the time, were desperately seeking international approval. But asked what the country might do to advance a ‘national theatre’, Olivier replied tartly: ‘Nothing, until you produce a playwright of your own’.19
Australian dramatists were not entirely extinct. Between the wars, Louis Esson’s Pioneer Players and Gregan McMahon’s repertory companies staged home-grown comedies and melodramas. Radio broadcasting gave voice to emerging playwrights (such as Douglas Stewart, author of the 1943 verse play Ned Kelly) while semi-professional companies (Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in Sydney and Brett Randall’s Melbourne Little Theatre, among others) encouraged ‘local writing’. ‘Worthy as such enterprises may be, they do not materially help the creation of an indigenous Drama’, critic Allan Aldous wrote in 1947.20 The tide turned a year later with the premiere of Rusty Bugles. Sumner Locke Elliott’s realist comedy drama—based on his own wartime experiences in Australia’s Top End—was a success with audiences. Ironically, the author never saw it produced professionally.21 In 1948, hoping to advance his writing career, Locke Elliott travelled to the United States. ‘Without the incentive of a theatre which is anxious to present Australian plays, and which can offer good standards of performance, there can be no incentive to write [in Australia],’ Hunt observed.22 Locke Elliott’s exit was not unusual. In the early post-war period, Australia farewelled numerous actors (Leo McKern, Peter Finch, Keith Michell), designers (Loudon Sainthill, Kenneth Rowell) and singers (Joan Hammond, Sylvia Fisher).
To stem this brain drain, the Commonwealth government proposed financial help for independent Australian theatre companies. Visiting English theatre manager Tyrone Guthrie had a better idea.23 Judging private enterprise was ‘not doing the job’ in Australia, he proposed instead a ‘National Theatre’ project to lift standards of performance and appreciation.24 The Guthrie Report of 1949 was shelved after a change of government but working in concert with other prominent Australians, Dr Coombs—a cultural powerbroker as well as a banker -secured Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ support for an Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT). Founded in 1954, as a ‘continuing memorial’ of Queen Elizabeth II’s 1954 tour of Australia, this public body dedicated itself to providing financial and administrative assistance to ‘[Australian] organisations capable of presenting drama, opera and ballet of the highest artistic standard’.25
Another agent for change was the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. In 1955, its annual national play competition named Summer of the Seventeenth Doll joint winner with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents. Lawler welcomed the 100 pounds prize. He was a struggling actor at the time—a member of the fledgling Union Theatre Repetory Company, formed by Sumner in 1953—and a budding author with nine plays under his belt. A few had been staged as amateur productions but none had been commercially successful. ‘They had highly complicated plots and were about things I knew nothing about,’ Lawler admitted.26
The Doll was different. It was about ordinary Australians, hard working men and women who struggled to make ends meet. Lawler knew these people intimately, having grown up in gritty Footscray and left school at 13 to work in a factory, and he put believable lines in their mouths. Early on in The Doll, Olive tells Pearl: ‘Listen, lovey, you better make up your mind. These are a coupla sugarcane-cutters fresh from the tropics, not two professors from the university’. If Lawler had one foot in this working-class world, he had another in the world of words. Evening acting classes introduced him to drama and literature, and it was after hours - in the Melbourne Public Library’s domed Reading Room—that he began to craft a new play. The plot was un-complicated:
‘Two Queensland cane-cutters, Roo and Barney, come down to Victoria every summer for the ‘lay-off’ season to stay with two Melbourne girls, Olive and Nancy, and Olive’s mother, Emma. This year, because Nancy has married, Olive asks fellow barmaid Pearl to take Nancy’s place; but somehow things don’t work out. Roo has a bad season and when he walks off the job after a bitter encounter with Johnnie, Barney does not back him up, and they meet again on very strained terms. Something has gone from the happiness they have all shared for seventeen years. Events work up to a dramatic climax.’27
The Doll was more than the sum of its modest parts. As one early viewer of the play observed, ‘Mr Lawler has something to say about the nature of man and the relation between man and woman which is not only true for Queensland and Carlton, but for all time and beyond the bounds of Australia.’28
Sumner thought so, too. Reading an early draft of The Doll, he was ‘swept up by some of the writing’ and liked the way Lawler treated his plain-speaking characters with sympathy and understanding.29 ‘But we knew the script needed work’, Sumner said. ‘It was too closed in. Everybody was in a tight circle with no way out’.30 Lawler returned to the drawing board and developed two characters: Bubba, the adolescent girl next door, and a young gun canecutter named Johnnie Dowd. They each signalled a road out. Months later, as Sumner headed for Sydney to take up a leading role with the AETT, Lawler gave him a brown paper parcel containing the re-written play. Sumner forwarded the script to Hunt who agreed ‘it was worth backing’.31 An opportunity presented itself in late 1955 when Lawler, now director of the UTRC, asked the Trust for help in presenting an Australian play in the company’s third season. Hunt suggested The Doll, with Sumner directing. They would have just two weeks’ rehearsal. Sumner was ‘grateful that Ray [Lawler] was in the cast for he made the language work. We were in strange territory: until then, little Australian drama had been able to catch the colloquial ear’.32
On The Doll’s opening night in Melbourne, on 28 November 1955, the curtain came down to ‘uncertain applause’. Afterwards, Sumner heard some people ‘lamenting that Australian playwrights could not maintain a three-act play’, that they ‘always ran out of steam’.33 But next day, the newspaper reviews were mostly favourable. Geoffrey Hutton, in The Age, declared it ‘a good play by any standards’34 while Biddy Allen, in the Argus, thought it ‘superbly true to Australian thought and to the Australian scene’.35
Early on, Hunt had worried The Doll ‘would ... be unsuitable for the large theatres’36 but buoyed by audience reaction in Melbourne, he took an option for a Sydney production of Lawler’s play and hailed it, publicly, as: ‘The best play ever written about Australia—purely Australian but in quality to be compared with the work of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Sean O’Casey’.37
The Doll opened at Sydney’s Elizabethan Theatre on 10 January, 1956 and the reception was ecstatic. ‘The packed first night audience ... would probably have kept applauding until dawn,’ the Bulletin reported.38Sydney Morning Herald illustrator George Molnar, who was in the stalls sketching, called it ‘a great night. All of us who were there felt that something important was happening in the history of Australian drama’.39
Glowing reviews followed. ‘It has happened at last,’ the Daily Telegraph wrote, ‘someone has written a genuine Australian play without kangaroos or stock whips ... an indigenous play about city dwellers’.40 Overseas visitors sensed it too. Dame Sybil Thorndike, a pillar of England’s acting Establishment touring Australia, saw The Doll in Sydney and declared: ‘This is a play which could only have grown from the soil of the country’.41 By the middle of 1956, a refreshed cast (still featuring Lawler) was touring nationally. But some observers were asking: is The Doll ‘exportable’?
The Council of Adult Education posed this question in the September 1956 edition of its quarterly magazine. ‘There are nervous voices to be heard full of fear that the play will let Australia down,’ Ernest Burbridge OBE wrote. He went on to report that, alarmed by the unapologetic Australian-ness of its characters, some people were wondering: ‘Will she [The Doll] discredit Australia in English and American eyes?’ Burbridge, a ‘liaison officer for the British Council in Australia’, sought to allay those fears by insisting The Doll was ‘quite respectable’:
‘Doubtless, some innocent souls [overseas] will form the impression that Australia is full of cane cutters who idle away the ‘lay off’ on Manly and Bondi beaches in amorous dalliance. This type of thinking, however, is not prevalent among English and American playgoers’.42
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
FLYING DOWN OUT OF THE SUN
Having trumpeted The Doll as the Trust’s ‘first Australian play’,43 and watched it reap commercial rewards, Hunt felt confident enough to send a copy of Lawler’s script to Laurence Olivier Productions (LOP) in London. Olivier was impressed.
‘It’s a damn good play, it’s as simple as that’; he was quoted as saying—and promptly bought the British rights.44 Furthermore, it was agreed St James’s Players Ltd (an arm of LOP) would co produce a UK season of the play with an all-Australian cast. A ‘big crowd stood and cheered’ at the Comedy Theatre [Melbourne] when it was announced, from the stage, that The Doll’s home-grown stars were bound for London’s West End.45The Sydney Morning Herald thought the news ‘may well be found to mark the coming-of-age of Australian drama’.46 But there were still some sour notes on the eve of the cast’s departure for England in April 1957. ‘We will be judged by the raucous voices and the vulgar expressions of the typical (?) [sic] Australian characters in the play,’ wrote one Women’s Weekly reader.47 It was also noted that ‘a few people’ had ‘telephoned or written to the Elizabethan Trust, saying that the play will give a very poor impression of Australia’.48
Soon after arriving in the British capital, Sumner and Lawler met with Olivier. The 50-year-old actor-manager was ‘lying on a chaise, one foot in bandages, suffering from gout, trying to memorise a big speech from The Entertainer’, with Vivien Leigh dancing attendance. Sumner had last seen them both in 1949, when he stage managed Olivier’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire (starring Leigh as Blanche DuBois).49 ‘I found him [Olivier] demanding but good to work with,’ he recalled. ‘I was again gripped by this man’s incisive voice, his dark direct look and inherent vitality’.
Sumner remembered the meeting: ‘There was talk of The Doll. He [Olivier] told Ray [Lawler] how much he had enjoyed the play and emphasised how glad he was to see me as a director’. But engaged in final rehearsals for The Entertainer, where he was playing the lead role of Archie Rice, Olivier regretted ‘that we would not see much of him’ during the Australian company’s pre-London provincial tour (to Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle).50
Olivier was nowhere to be seen at the start of their American debut either. In early January, 1958, he was in England—making plans for a Broadway season of The Entertainer—and did not arrive in Manhattan until January 21 (one day ahead of The Doll’s opening night). On arrival in New York, The Doll cast was met instead by Elsie Beyer, a diminutive theatre manager Sumner knew from his time on the West End.51 Beyer had travelled with the Olivier’s to Australia in 1948, as the tour’s general manager. Ten years on, she was managing the AETT’s theatre organisation with bad news for a jet-lagged Sumner: an out of town tryout was ‘not possible’.52 The Doll would open on Broadway, in front of America’s most discerning playgoers, after just nine previews.
Sumner’s mood darkened further when he and Lawler, having booked into their East 57th St hotel, inspected Times Square and saw a ‘huge, five storey poster’ for Summer of the 17th Doll. Not only had the producers converted the word, ‘seventeenth’, into numerals against company wishes. They were advertising the play with a misleading image: ‘a very young girl wearing a shortie nightie and carrying a doll’.53 Her ‘troubled come-hither look’, repeated on Coronet billboards, echoed another monster-sized image which had caused a stir 18 months earlier. Midtown New Yorkers well remembered the block-long poster for the Hollywood film Baby Doll showing sultry actress Carroll Baker reclining in a crib and sucking her thumb. The sensational sign made Elia Kazan’s 1956 movie—based on a Tennessee Williams play—synonymous with sex. But as the New York correspondent for Sydney’s Daily Mirror observed, ‘it is hard to imagine that the respected Theatre Guild and Playwrights’ Company, which are jointly presenting the play, feel the public must be lured to the theatre on the pretext that they will see another Baby Doll’.54
Signs of trouble were also visible inside the Coronet Theatre. Sumner was ‘worried about the shape and volume of the auditorium, very wide and high, and concerned for the intimate moments of the play. I was allowed to use only a fragment of our recorded music—some union rule—so a lot of careful atmospheric work had to be undone. To cap it off, I was not allowed to light the show’.55 These concerns were not alleviated by the company’s first read through. ‘The performance had changed’, Sumner thought since he had last seen The Doll in London. ‘It was less clearly defined, as if subdued by English understatement ... it had lost some of its wholesome Aussie brashness’.56
Upbeat preview stories in the theatre press quoted positive London reviews, reminded readers that ‘it was seen by the Queen’, and name-checked other successful Doll productions in Germany, Norway and South Africa. Best of all, Broadway reporters noted approvingly that the play had been ‘sold to Hollywood’.57 Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, to be precise. On 18 July, 1957, Australian papers announced this independent production company had bought film rights to The Doll for 134,000 pounds. HHL (founded by actor Burt Lancaster, producer Harold Hecht and writer James Hill) was associated with quality films.58 But doubters, such as Dame Sybil Thorndike, sounded a warning: ‘Watch out what those Hollywood fellows do to The Doll. They could play merry something-or-other with it’.59 Lawler went ahead and signed on the dotted line but he did so with his eyes wide open:
‘I was told in advance, I could work on the script with their script man [John Dighton] if I wanted to but they said, ‘We must tell you, we’re making this picture for world-wide distribution and we’re not interested in the Australian content’. So I said, ‘Well, that takes me out, I think’.60
Lawler knew Hollywood was a world unto itself, a vast entertainment machine which gobbled up ideas from everywhere, then re-purposed them in a quest for quick profits. He also recognised how different his country was from the US. LIFE magazine gave readers ‘down under’ a positive view of Eisenhower America and its baby-booming economy. Australian businessmen, going ‘Stateside’ on expense-account visits, confirmed these sunny reports. But Lawler—in charge of a small theatre company—was alert to local commentators who questioned the so-called ‘American way of life’. Robin Boyd was among them. This influential Melbourne architect and critic spent a year in the US surveying American architecture and thought it ‘inevitable that we should be drawn deep into the aura of American influence’.61 But in a provocative newspaper article written on his return, in late 1957, Boyd wondered if the ‘chauvinistic spirit’ which had helped local writers, artists and architects lay a ‘rough foundation for Australian art’ could survive the ‘hopeless yearning’ some Australians had for ‘the LIFE life’:
‘Culturewise (to use a means of expression which every good imitator of American fashion relishes), Australia is sinking into the Pacific and a new State is rising which we might call Austerica’.62
Boyd coined the term (an amalgam of Australia and America) to describe a growing tendency to slavishly imitate ‘all the worst aspects of many faceted U.S.A’: the garish advertising, the flashing neon, the love of plastic. Lawler, touring New South Wales and Queensland in 1956, would have seen ‘the happy state of Austerica’ for himself: not just in the carnival car yards and gaudy motels strung between Sydney and Brisbane but in the ‘matted fringes of the entertainment business’ where fake American accents were starting to invade the airwaves.63
Some observers hoped this copycatting might ‘only be a phase arising from the loosening of our ties with England’.64 John Douglas Pringle was not so sure. ‘Are Australians consciously imitating Americans?’ he asked in his 1958 book, Australian Accent. ‘The answer is clearly, yes. The wealth and power of American civilisation, as expressed in films and books and magazines, is everywhere a formidable influence’. Pringle, a Scottish-born newspaperman, added: ‘On a more profound level it is probably true that Australia sees in the United States of America an example of what she herself can hope to achieve in the future. Australia cannot hope – and does not want to be – another England’.65
Boyd and Pringle were writing at a time when Australians were, semi-consciously, making a switch in loyalty from one ‘Empire’ to another. This tension provoked, in some quarters, a desire to ‘discover and affirm what it is to be an Australian’.66 At a time of growing self assertion, The Doll seemed to answer a need ‘to define a distinctive national ethos and type’ and numerous commentators enlisted it in their own searches for the essence of ‘Australianity’.67 Independent producer-actor Peter O’Shaughnessy thought the play’s success ‘gives a boost to the conception of an indigenous theatre’68; academic Keith Macartney praised Lawler for ‘clothing a universal emotional situation in excitingly new and authentic Australian garb’69; and drama lecturer Eunice Hanger, writing in the literary journal Southerly, declared: ‘The Doll opens up the future as nothing else could have done’.70
That future included the USA. But if Lawler was able to keep Hollywood at arm’s length, he could not resist forces bent on cutting short The Doll’s London season for a New York run. Lawrence Langner was supremely well connected. Having been alerted to The Doll’s potential by Oscar Hammerstein, this Broadway grandee arranged for the play to be ‘read by the Guild’, opened negotiations with the AETT and accepted an invitation (no doubt from Olivier) to attend its London premiere. A report in the New York Times described what apparently happened next:
‘During an intermission, Mr Langner ran into the Broadway producer Roger Stevens. Mr Stevens ... suggested that they join forces and take the play [The Doll] to New York as a joint presentation of the Theatre Guild and the Playwrights’ Company, of which Mr Stevens is a member.’71
LOP encouraged the initiative. According to Sumner, ‘Olivier rang [him] enthusiastically’ after positive morning reviews of The Doll came out in London.72 So did Hunt, who was in Australia. Buoyed by box office returns, both men formed a view that The Doll might have a chance in America. The HHL movie deal, in July, surely stiffened their resolve. HHL and LOP were deeply enmeshed and it may well have been Olivier who commended The Doll to Hecht as a motion picture project.73 We cannot be certain that a film version of the play was contingent on it first appearing on Broadway but Sumner alluded to this in his book, Recollections at Play, writing: ‘A commitment had been made to present it [The Doll] in New York in early 1958, tied up with film rights’.74
Either way, the AETT, the Theatre Guild, the Playwrights’ Company and St James’s Players Ltd joined forces in the second half of 1957 to get The Doll ‘Stateside’. ‘They [the co-producers] wanted to push an American opening at the beginning of the winter season and go through’, Lawler remembered.75 And while not opposed to the idea, he was keenly aware of the risks involved. Lawler told an American journalist in early 1958: ‘Usually, a play starts on Broadway, goes to London and reaches Australia last. We have made theatrical history by reversing the procedure’.76
THE WHOLE DAMNED SEASON
‘The Time—Australian summer, the five month lay-off holiday for sugar cane workers. In Australia, where the seasons are the reverse of ours, the lay-off begins in December’
‘The Place—The home of Olive Leech and her mother, Emma, in a suburb of Melbourne, 2000 miles from the sugar cane fields’
This was how The Doll’s American Playbill program set the scene for theatregoers in January 1958. Lawler sensed that ‘fuller explanatory notes’ might clarify ‘aspects of season and distance’ in his play. So, he penned a ‘Prefatory Note from the Author’ for ‘better understanding’:
‘The summer of the title is the Australian summer, officially from December to January, including Christmas and New Year; it is an enduring season that usually lingers much later. This is the slack period for the sugar-cane cutting industry, the time when the fields are bare and the workers turn to other occupations until May. There are exceptions, of course: a minority of men look on the slack period as a lay-off time, an extended holiday of five months during which they squander the hard-earned wealth of the cane season. Roo and Barney, the cutters of the play, belong to this group.’
Lawler went on to explain: ‘Their choice of a lay-off place is Melbourne, the southern capital city of Victoria, roughly two thousand miles from their working grounds around Cairns, in Queensland. Melbourne has a much milder climate than the hot, tropical North. American audiences will appreciate the situation if they look for a parallel in their own country and think of seasonal workers, flying in an opposite direction, from Texas every year to spend the summer in Chicago’.77
These clarifications in the program did not help the Doll’s first New York preview. Sumner called it ‘a horrible experience’:
‘I stood at the back of the stalls and watched scores of people leaving very soon after the performance began. They filled me with fear: did they have early trains to catch? Had they just dropped in to see what sort of attraction it was for party-booking groups?’78
Seeking urgent answers, Sumner huddled afterwards with Lawler, Beyer, the American producers, and ‘some backers’. ‘The main problems were audibility,’ he said, ‘and then understanding what was heard through the strangeness of the Australian accent and idiom’.79
How ‘strange’ was it, really? Pringle, in Australian Accent, observed that Americans and Australians were ‘both easy, simple, democratic people, straightforward in speech’. ‘Englishmen who have been to America and Australia are almost invariably struck by the similarity between the American way of life and the Australian’, he wrote. Asking Americans what they thought of this, Pringle reported: ‘If they came from the Middle West or West they almost always said yes. If they came from the Eastern States, they generally said no’.80
Journalist John H. Valder, based in Sydney, was wise to this important nuance and in a report on The Doll—‘From Down Under’—he warned readers that ‘the play does, admittedly, contain many Australian expressions’. ‘Most of these are fairly straightforward and can be easily understood,’ he wrote, ‘but Americans might find it useful to know’ that ‘blokes are guys, no-hopers are bums, and blues are brawls’. As for ‘Up there Cazaly’, ‘Americans might not understand what it means but neither do most Sydney people’. Cazaly, he explained, ‘was a Melbourne football player and ‘up there Cazaly’ is now used by Melbourne football fans as a term of encouragement’. The New York Times also helpfully described the ‘17th Doll’: ’It’s what Australians call a kewpie doll, the sort you get on a stick at a county fair’.81
Learning from each preview performance, and keen to reduce the ‘audience retreat to a trickle’, Sumner urged Lawler to ‘put in some rewrites’. ‘The reception became warmer,’ he noted. ‘There were even smiles from the management’.82 But there was much that Lawler could not—and would not—change in his play. The Doll had succeeded wildly in Australia because it had cried out ‘so genuinely to us, ‘Here you are! See yourselves! Hear yourselves!’83 The play’s unadulterated ‘Australianity’ had not alienated European audiences either. Theatregoers in London, Oslo and Johannesburg had all identified with The Doll’s canecutters and barmaids and their ‘difficult emotional situation—the ageing of hard men and sentimental women against a background of cheap domesticity’.84
English people, especially, had cottoned onto the slang. ‘Those who found the accent horrible were too polite to say so,’ noted Age London correspondent Bruce Grant, while others, hearing ‘Australian twang as a Cockney derivative’, were ‘fascinated by yet another reminder of their imperialist enterprise’. The United States would be different, Grant warned. ‘The Americans think of Australia as an independent nation (at least we hope they do), responsible for its own accent’.85
All these voices were ringing in Lawler’s head as the Coronet’s curtain rose on act one, scene one of The Doll. It revealed a ‘double-fronted terrace cottage in Carlton, Victoria’, inhabited by three women: Olive, Pearl and Bubba. Roo’s entrance came about ten minutes in, his first line—‘Hey, wake up in there!’—called off stage. Barney’s opening salvo was yelled from the wings as well: ‘You little trimmer, Emma, you little beauty!’
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
‘Trimmer’? ‘Little beauty’? What would the Yanks make of that? Lawler had no time to wonder. Moments later, he was striding onto a Broadway stage. Busting with false gaiety, ready for a fall.
‘It was a polite audience,’ John Sumner recalled.86 Well, mostly. At the first interval of The Doll’s first night in New York, Sumner Locke Elliott—one of several expat Aussies in the stalls—overheard two American matrons making ‘bewildered and hostile remarks’ about the actors and offered to interpret ‘what the bitch was saying’.87 Two acts later, when Roo and Olive’s dreams are as broken as the smashed dolls around them and the curtain was lowered very slowly, Sumner thought ‘the applause was good’. But that was all. ‘We had no idea of our fate’.88
London’s opening night response to The Doll had been emphatic. Sumner, ‘an expert at foyer intelligence’, thought to himself, ‘It’s true, it’s a hit’, the moment he heard post show chatter on St Martin’s Lane.89 This time, at the Coronet, he was cornered backstage, fending off well wishers (such as Locke Elliott) and guiding VIP’s (Olivier, Anderson and Stevenson) into Lawler’s dressing room. ‘Then we were taken to a reception to go through the dreadful ordeal of waiting for the reviews’.90
In 1958, there were only two critics that really mattered: The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr and Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times. The ‘Butchers of Broadway’, people called them. As Grant explained: ‘If they [Kerr and Atkinson] say ‘it isn’t any good (and give their usually excellent reasons), they seem to be able to convince the play’s backers as well as the public’.91
Escaping wintry conditions outside, the Australian cast huddled in the ‘dark womb of a restaurant’ and made small talk with strangers. Lawler and Sumner were applauded on arrival. Champagne was poured. Cheers went up when it was announced that a television review of The Doll had compared it favourably with the plays of Inge. (Lawler had seen The Dark at the Top of the Stairs on Broadway between performances). Then, as night merged into morning, everyone drank more champagne—whisky as well—and ‘coughed in an atmosphere of cigars and cigarettes’. ‘I felt it was all like a B-grade Hollywood movie,’ Sumner said later. Finally, very late, Beyer took Sumner by the arm and led him into a smaller, quieter room where ‘Ray and a few others were waiting. Elsie told us the morning reviews were not good and we should wait for a short while before leaving the restaurant’.92
The response was not entirely negative. Richard Watts, in the New York Post, was moved by what he called The Doll’s fundamental virtues’ and wished it ‘the success its integrity deserves’. But Watts alluded to ‘regrettable difficulties’: ‘The vitality of its impact is less startling in the American theatre, which goes in for vigour, whatever its other defects’. Frank Aston, of the New York World-Telegram and the Sun praised The Doll for being ‘slashingly played’ but judged the play ‘harsh and cruel’, while Robert Coleman (of the New York Mirror) called the production ‘vivid but seamy’. Walter Kerr, in his otherwise appreciative review for the Tribune, found the atmosphere of the play ‘dry’: ‘The difficulty is, I think, that the party is really over—not only for them, but for us [watching in the audience]. The daydream, having begun to collapse, does nothing but collapse further’.93
‘We were not used to this reaction to our play,’ Sumner admitted.94 The New York Times ‘notice’ delivered the hammer-blow. Atkinson opened his review—titled ‘Theatre: Down Under—with the ominous line: ‘Probably the trouble is the language’:
‘Since the Australians speak English and so do we, we assume that Summer of the 17th Doll [sic] says the same things to us that it does to Australians. But at the Coronet last evening, this theatregoer felt that the real quality of Ray Lawler’s play was escaping him ... we think we know the full meaning of what the Australians are telling us. We don’t’.
Perhaps unaware of the authors’ ‘Prefatory Note’, Atkinson went on to tell readers: ‘In Australia, the sugar cane gangers and the seasonal layoff probably have significance that they do not have here. And Australians can bring to Mr Lawler’s play a point of view that is missing here ... to an outlander, unfortunately, Summer of the 17th Doll seems like a commonplace drama written around commonplace people’. Atkinson praised ‘lively and unpretentious performances in all the parts’, reserving special praise for Lawler and Jago, but their efforts were not helped by ‘busy, noisy direction. The constant rushing around and the incessant shouting is like stock company work’. Atkinson’s verdict? ‘Although it is good natured, it lacks distinction’.95 Sumner never forgot the cold chill that descended on the group: ‘We stood around, deeply disappointed. I remember smiling at Ray, perhaps I touched his arm’.96 This simple gesture echoed one that Lawler described in a stage direction for the final moment of The Doll:
[After a pause, BARNEY comes in slowly to put his hands on the big man’s shoulders]: Come on, Roo. Come on, boy’.
Seeing this acted out in Sydney, Ernest Burbridge—an Englishman—had questioned its accuracy: ‘Surely they [Roo and Barney] would not put their arms round one another’s shoulders. Is not this sentimental in a very un-Australian way?’97 Grant thought not. Following The Doll’s London opening, he predicted ‘this aspect of the play may be drawn out more on Broadway, where sentiment is not forbidden’.98 But New York first nighters struggled with the play’s ‘common place’ characters and were perplexed by the Australian vernacular. As Lawler feared, the play had been lost in translation . Sumner felt ‘embarrassed and foolish’. ‘Eventually we filed out sheepishly to face the guests, only to find that the strangers had gone’.99
Harvard Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
THE LAY OFFS IN THIS HOUSE ARE FINISHED
The Doll team had absorbed a tough lesson about American scale and Australia’s relative insignificance. Returning at dawn to his hotel room, Sumner ‘looked at the cliffs of skyscrapers dwarfing me and wondered how our unpretentious play could possibly catch the imagination of the people of this giant, driven city’.100 Hours later, dejected and tired, the author and director of The Doll regrouped and stepped back onto Manhattan pavement. ‘We could hardly breathe, the air was so cold,’ Lawler recalled.101 And as they trudged up to Central Park, a few blocks north, and watched squirrels foraging for food in the snow, both men reflected on their ‘dreadful opening’. Sumner was crushed: ‘We didn’t know them and they didn’t want to know us. They didn’t have time’.102
Lawler was more philosophical. The New York Times might have given his play the thumbs down but all the other ‘notices’ had been temperate in tone, helpful even. Besides, what a journey it had been! The glamour of The Doll’s Broadway opening was a far cry from its humble beginnings in Melbourne and in two years since then, he had gone from being a little known—and unmarried—actor-playwright to being a writer of some renown, an accomplished actor and a husband.103 Sumner was still seething a few days later when he farewelled the cast and flew back to Australia. ‘The Americans are only interested in success,’ he decided.104 Lawler stayed on with the rest of the company, giving two dozen more performances of The Doll during one of New England’s coldest nor’easters.
Lawler remembered; ‘The last night [February 15] was an absolute blizzard. [Laurence] Olivier got in touch with us and said, ‘What are you doing afterwards?’ and we said, ‘Well, the weather’s so awful, we thought we’d wait till next week and have a lunch’. I mean, we couldn’t get around. There were no taxis on the streets or anything. And Olivier said, ‘No you’re not! I’ll take you all out’. He was playing The Entertainer at the time, so he walked up to the Coronet from his [Royale] theatre [at 242 W.45th St]—he couldn’t get a taxi either—and took us to a little Irish pub he knew nearby and stayed with us until well after two o’ clock [in the morning]. We were the only ones in the place, talking about all sorts of things’.105
At some point, the conversation surely turned to why The Doll had failed to ignite American audiences. The reasons seemed obvious. The idiom of the play, for one thing. The bittersweet comedy for another. Lawler’s ‘ragged and deflationary humour had a ready English audience’.106 In New York, people were just mystified by it. But in analysing ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Grant found two other reasons that cut to the very heart of Lawler’s ‘study of the loss of illusion’.
‘In the first place,’ he wrote, ‘I do not think Americans would understand the social character of Roo and Barney. I feel sure no American audience would appreciate Roo’s shame at being forced to work in a factory; in addition, his life with Barney has a gallantry which Americans, inclined to regard their itinerant workers as hobos evading responsibility (such as the pursuit of success), would not easily understand.’ Grant’s second reason for The Doll’s failure on Broadway had to do with it being a ‘warm and heartening play’ in the tradition of Chekhov. ‘It is a fair reflection of the simple beliefs and hopeful energy of the country from which it came,’ he wrote. But set against the ‘run of guilt, frustration and great tragedy which Broadway has had in the post-war years’, typified by the Southern Baroque of Tennessee Williams, Lawler’s play seemed ‘tame’, and ‘the vigour of The Doll would not save it’.
Grant closed his analysis with a big picture view: ‘Ray Lawler’s gifts are theatrical and Broadway has long been—and will remain—part of the world’s theatre. For success, the two must come together. If they do not, it is a failure’. But failure, he emphasised, ‘is different from a fault. It is better to regard both The Doll and Broadway as valid, and try to work out what kept them apart’.107
In the last days of The Doll’s New York run, Lawler was already contemplating another play about ‘the Doll people’.108 That play would emerge 15 years later, in the shape of a prequel but in the early hours of 16 February 1958, Lawler faced a more pressing task: finding his way home.
‘When we came out of the pub, there were still no taxis,’ he said, ‘but we were OK and fairly near our hotel. Olivier was staying at the Algonquin, a good way downtown, and watching him head off along the street with the snow coming down, I thought: ‘What a wonderful thing to have done on our last night, probably just because he thought we were in the depths of gloom’. We weren’t, actually’.109
The photographs by Henry Talbot were taken in July 1956 during the play’s second Melbourne season at the Comedy Theatre. Lloyd Berrell played Roo on this occassion.
The publicity photographs used for both the UK and New York season’s of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll were taken by Angus McBean during the play’s try-out season at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham in April 1957.
Allan Aldous, Theatre in Australia, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1947
The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: The first year, Sydney, 1956
Baillieu Library Exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the MTC: Keeping The Drama On Stage, University of Melbourne, 2003
Katharine Brisbane, ‘Growing up in Australia’, Introduction to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978
Ernest Burbridge, ‘Is The Doll exportable?’, Adult Education, September 1956
Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2001
Wal Cherry, ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’, Meanjin, Autumn 1956
Gwendda Coalstad, Theatre in Victoria, Council of Adult Education, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1950
Peter Coleman (Ed.), Australian Civilization: A Symposium, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1962
Peter Fitzpatrick, After the Doll: Australian Drama since 1955, Edward Arnold, Melbourne, 1979
Bruce Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, Meanjin, September 1957
Bruce Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Adult Education, March 1958
Fiona Gregory, ‘High Cultural Histrionics: Judith Anderson’s 1955 Australian Tour’, Australasian Drama Studies 48 (April 2006)
Derham Groves, The Doll Theatre Project: Designing a theatre for Ray Lawler’s Doll Trilogy, slv.vic.gov.au
Hugh Hunt, The Making of Australian Theatre, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960
Geoffrey Hutton, It Won’t Last A Week: The first twenty years of the Melbourne Theatre Company, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1975
John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, Bloomsbury Circus, London, 2014
Ray Lawler, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978 edition
Ray Lawler, The Doll Trilogy: Kid Stakes, Other Times, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press, Sydney, 1978
Keith Macartney, ‘The Shifting Heart’, Meanjin, June 1958
John McCallum, ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, Sydney, 1995
Garry O’Connor, Darlings of the Gods: One Year in the Lives of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Hodder & Stoughton, Melbourne, 1984
Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Development of theatre in Australia: A Survey 1956-57’, Meanjin, April 1958
Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor, Coronet Books, Great Britain, 1982
John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent, Chatto and Windus, London, 1958
Todd S. Purdum, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, Henry Holt & Co., New York, 2018
Robert Ray, ‘The Rise and demise of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’ (Part 1), Theatre Heritage Australia, theatreheritage.org.au
Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, Miegunyah Press, 1995
Melanie Sheridan, ‘Meet John Sumner & Ray Lawler’, Melbourne Theatre Company, mtc.com.au
Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier: A Biography. Harper Collins, London, 1991
John Sumner, Recollections at Play: A Life in Australian Theatre, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne 1993
John H. Valder, ‘From Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll is First Australian Play to Be Done Here’, New York Times, 19 January 1958
1. Playbill for ‘Summer of the 17th [sic] Doll’, Coronet Theatre, New York, January 1958, playbill.com
2. Ray Lawler quoted in John H. Valder, ‘From Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll is First Australian Play to Be Done Here’, New York Times, 19 January 1958, p.1
3. British dramatist Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) was renowned for his hit West End plays such as the Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948) and Separate Tables (1954). Having attended The Doll’s London opening on 30 April 1957, he told reporters: ‘I found the play utterly modern, absolutely contemporary, about real people, and deeply moving. I will come to see it again’. Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May 1957
4. English theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980) wrote weekly columns in the Observer. In his 5 May, 1957 review of The Doll, Tynan praised Lawler for presenting ‘working people’ as ‘human beings in their own right, exulting in universal pleasures and nagged by universal griefs ... we have found ourselves a [new] playwright, and it is time to rejoice’. Quoted in ‘The play in the Theatre’, from Ray Lawler, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Currency Press Sydney, 1978, p.xxxiv
5. Harold Hobson, Sunday Times, 5 May, 1957, ibid p.xxxi
6. John Sumner, Recollections at Play: A Life in the Australian Theatre, p.76
7. Sydney Sun, 9 May, 1957
8. Sumner, p.76. John Hackman Sumner (1924-2003) entered professional theatre as an assistant stage manager in Dundee, Scotland and was later stage director and manager for the London-based commercial entrepreneur H.M. Tennant Ltd. Arriving in Melbourne in 1952 to manage the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne, Sumner persuaded the University to support a small professional acting company that could use the theatre when it was not required by students. The Union Theatre Repetory Company (UTRC) was born, dedicated to presenting ‘theatrical entertainments not generally offered by commercial managements’. Through the UTRC, Sumner also wanted to ‘encourage [Australian] playwrights’ by presenting their work ‘whenever practical’. For a biography of Sumner, see the Australian Live Performance Hall of Fame. liveperformance.com.au
9. ibid, p.77
10. ibid, p.76
11. Hugh Hunt, The Making of Australian Theatre, p.40. British born theatre director and producer Hugh Hunt (1911-1993) was executive director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) for five years (1954-59). He came to Australia with a sterling reputation as a theatre maker, having managed the Old Vic Company in London and Ireland’s Abbey Theatre.
12. Oscar Hammerstein’s long distance correspondence with Richard Rodgers, from the Hotel Windsor, is described in Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, pp.10-11. Hammerstein visited Melbourne with his Australian born wife, Dorothy Blanchard, ‘a former chorus girl from Tasmania’, p.180
13. Valder, p.3
14. British born Lawrence Langner (1890-1962) arrived in the United States in 1911 and co-founded the Theatre Guild in 1919. The Guild’s progressive reputation was built on its enduring support for playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw and Eugene O’Neill. Langner, a prominent patent attorney, also wrote and produced plays for the Provincetown Players and established the Westport Country Playhouse.
15. Roger L. Stevens (1910-1998) co-produced West Side Story, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Man for All Seasons. See New York Times Obituary, 4 February 1998, nytimes.com
16. Quoted in Donald Spoto, Laurence Olivier: A Biography, p.235. Between the wars, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) made his name on the British stage playing Shakespearean roles, but his wider fame in the late 1930s rested principally on Hollywood films such as Fire Over England (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1939).
17. Confessions of an Actor, p.174
18. Spoto, p.182. ‘He [Olivier] was ever conscious of his place in the English hierarchy. Vivien [Leigh], with her beauty, intelligence and talent, quickly adapted to the demands of their august status’.
19. Cited in Valder, p.1
20. Allan Aldous, Theatre in Australia, p.45
21. Rusty Bugles premiered at Doris Fitton’s Independent Theatre in October 1948 and was the first Australian play to be given a professional production after World War Two. Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991), a Sydney actor and dramatist, only heard a reading of it before his departure to the United States in July that year. See Katharine Brisbane’s ‘Rusty Bugle’s entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press Sydney, 1993, pp.515-516
22. Hunt, p.16
23. Tyrone Guthrie, who visited Australia in April 1949 as a guest of the British Council, observed: ‘The best local actors – many of whom have talent of potential top standard—continue to leave Australia, and with great difficulty struggle in Britain and America. If successful, they become British and American actors and their gifts are totally lost to Australia, and cannot truthfully be regarded as an expression of Australia’. Quoted in Gwendda Coalstad (Ed.), Theatre in Victoria, p.4
24. The Guthrie Report, prepared by Tyrone Guthrie (a former administrator of the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells), noted standards of performance were very low in Australia and recommended a contentious ‘import-export’ strategy: importing first class British productions to elevate audience appreciation, and exporting ‘theatre workers’ to London to help them meet ‘cosmopolitan, not provincial standards’. See ‘Guthrie Report’ entry in Companion to Theatre in Australia, pp.255-256
25. The AETT was backed by government subsidy and public subscription. Dr Coombs said ‘the ultimate aim of the Trust must be to establish a native drama, opera and ballet which will give professional employment to Australian actors, singers and dancers and furnish opportunities for those such as writers, composers and artists whose creative work is related to the theatre’. See H.C. Coombs, ‘The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust’, Meanjin, vol. 13, no. 2, Winter 1954, pp.283-285
26. Valder, p.3. Lawler was just 23 years old when he sold his first stage play to J.C.Williamson. His early plays included Hal’s Belles, Storm in a Haven, and Cradle of Thunder (which won the 1949 Commonwealth Jubilee play Competition). Reflecting on his early scripts, Lawler said: ‘My advice to young playwrights is: stay away from backgrounds you don’t know intimately’.
27. Summary in Adult Education, September 1956, p.8
28. ibid, p.6
29. Sumner, p.62
30. Quoted in Geoffrey Hutton, It Won’t Last a Week: The first twenty years of the Melbourne Theatre Company, p.29
31. ibid, p.30
32. Sumner, p.64. ‘The vernacular [of the play] tended to make people put on an exaggerated accent,’ he recalled, ‘so things could sound very forced’.
33. ibid, p.66
34. Hutton, p.31
35. Cited in Katharine Brisbane, ‘The Play in the Theatre’, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, p.xxiii
36. ibid, p.xxvi
37. Cited in Peter Fitzpatrick, After The Doll: Australian Drama Since 1955, p.1
38. The Bulletin, 18 January 1956. The magazine’s anonymous critic thought the play needed ‘more of a canecutting ending ... unless it is to be wild, extreme and exalted like Lear, the drift into age makes merely a depressing theme; and in any case, Lawler’s two canecutters seem still too young to go tottering off’.
39. George Molnar, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January, 1956, reproduced in The Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust: The first year, Sydney, 1956
40. J. Griffen-Foley, ‘True Australian Play at Last’, Daily Telegraph, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxvii
41. Dame Sybil Thorndike, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 January 1956. Dame Sybil and her husband, actor Sir Lewis Casson were starring in an AETT sponsored production of Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince, with Sir Ralph Richardson.
42. Ernest Burbridge, ‘Is The Doll exportable?’, Adult Education, September 1956, p. 6
43. Sumner, p.68. Following its first successful Sydney season, The Doll went on tour, visiting 60 country towns in New South Wales and Queensland in three months. The play returned to Sydney in March, as part of the ‘classical tour’ by the newly formed Australian Drama Company. The Doll was played in tandem with Twelfth Night and The Rivals.
44. Laurence Olivier, co-producer, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxx. Sumner remembered ‘complaints in Adelaide that ‘This really is not a very nice play’. Then, with the news that Hugh Hunt had interested Sir Laurence Olivier in presenting it in London with an Australian company, some of the distrust evaporated’.
45. Sydney Morning Herald, 21 June 1956
46. Critic Lindsey [sic] Browne in Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1956. Browne was the SMH’s chief music, drama and film critic from 1947 to 1960.
47. Cited by Derham Groves, The Doll Theatre Project: Designing a theatre for Ray Lawler’s Doll Trilogy, slv.vic.gov.au
49. Sumner, p.71-72. ‘Vivien Leigh came in and greeted me warmly ... she stayed with us a while, providing refreshments and chatting, and we were soon to see more of her’.
50. ibid. In an unpublished 2011 conversation with the author, Lawler remembered: ‘With our out of town tour in England, Vivien [Leigh] came with us and took us around ... she was wonderful and made sure we were happy and well looked after’.
51. Sumner, p.77. ‘Ray once summed Elsie up, wisely I thought, by saying she was most in her element when things went wrong; then, she could be a tower of strength’.
52. ibid. Sumner: ‘I asked for some weeks of out-of-town tryout to allow the cast to become adjusted to American audiences’.
53. Daily Mirror (Sydney), 23 January 1958, report from New York bureau. Sumner called The Doll’s giant Broadway poster—showing ‘a sexy girl by a lamp post’—‘unsuitable’, p.78.
55. Sumner, p.77
57. Valder, p.1
58. Hecht-Lancaster Productions earned a Best Picture Oscar for Marty (1955). A year later, under the new name Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, it enjoyed critical acclaim for Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and a box office hit with Separate Tables (1958).
59. Dame Sybil Thorndike, Adelaide Advertiser, 25 July 1957
60. Lawler and Plant, 2011
61. Robin Boyd, Age, 21 September 1957. See Geoffrey Serle, Robin Boyd: A Life, p.171-174. Serle, who describes the ‘Austerica’ article as ‘a classic of pamphleteering invective’, reports that the Australian-American Association was ‘gravely offended’ by Boyd’s remarks.
63. ibid, p.172. Boyd explained: ‘Austerica is on no map; it is, as an Austerican advertisement would say, not a place but a way of life ... Austerica’s chief industry is the imitation of the froth on the top of the American soda fountain drink. Its religion is ‘glamor’ and the devotees are psychologically displaced persons who picture heaven the pool terrace of a Las Vegas hotel’.
64. Textile manufacturer and arts patron Claudio Alcorsco, in a letter to Robin Boyd about ‘Austerica’, 22 September 1957. Quoted Serle, p.174
65. John Douglas Pringle, Australian Accent, p.17
66. Poet James McAuley, ‘Literature and the Arts’, in Australian Civilization: A Symposium edited by Peter Coleman, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1962, p.122
67. bid. ‘The myth of true Australianity is still something to be reckoned with,’ McAuley wrote.
68. Peter O’Shaughnessy, ‘Development of theatre in Australia: A Survey 1956-57’, Meanjin, April 1958, p.60
69. Keith Macartney, ‘The Shifting Heart’, Meanjin, June 1958, p.188. Associate director, critic and producer’, Macartney was attached to the English department at the University of Melbourne.
70. Eunice Hanger, ‘Forebears of The Doll’, Southerly, vol 18, 1 March 1957, p.29. Hanger went on to write: ‘There have been plays by Australians successfully staged in England before now; but they were never done with an all-Australian cast, they were not often on an Australian theme, and when they were, they were not comparable in kind with The Doll’.
71. Valder, p.3
72. Sumner, p.76
73. New York Times, 17 July 1957, ‘London Stage Hit Bought for Film’. Olivier befriended Lancaster and Hecht after they secured film rights to The Devil’s Disciple. Olivier agreed to play British General John Burgoyne in their movie version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, hoping HHL might finance his film of Macbeth. Production on The Devil’s Disciple (starring Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) did not start in America until late 1958, when HHL was simultaneously shooting Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in Australia.
74. Sumner, p.76
75. Lawler and Plant, 2011
76. Valder, p.1
77. ‘Prefatory Note from the Author’, Playbill for Summer of the 17th Doll, private collection
78. Sumner, p.77
80. Pringle, p.19
81. Valder, p.3
82. Sumner, p.77
83. Hanger, p.31
84. Hilda Spiel, ‘Australian Writers Come of Age, Southerly, vol. 19, December 1958
85. Bruce Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, Adult Education, vol. 2, March 1958, p.10
86. Sumner, p.77
87. Hutton, p.31
88. Sumner, p.77
89. Cited in Bruce Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, Meanjin, September 1957, p.295. Grant noted: ‘Unlike most contemporary plays, The Doll did not divide the critics: it united them, high and low’. But Sumner went on to tell Grant that ‘fundamentally, it did not matter whether the play went well in London or not. It would not disprove anything about the play’.
90. Sumner, p.77
91. Grant, ‘Why The Doll failed on Broadway’, p.11
92. Sumner, p.78
93. Review extracts of The Doll by Watts, Aston, Coleman and Kerr cited in Grant, ‘Why The Doll failed on Broadway’, p.11
94. Sumner, p.78
95. Brooks Atkinson, ‘Theatre: Down Under: Summer of the 17th Doll Staged Here’, New York Times, 23 January 1958, p.23. One well-travelled reader, David Reddig of New York, leapt to The Doll’s defence in a letter to the NY Times on 2 February, 1958: ‘Having witnessed performances of Summer of the 17th Doll in London and in New York, I wish to rebut your critic’s comments on the play. Although Ray Lawler is writing of ‘commonplace people’, he states some verities which are all too often forgotten. How many of us today have substituted an illusion for the real thing? Mr Lawler has not only captured the true atmosphere of his homeland, he has given us an evening of theatre singularly free of the Freudian overtones so common to contemporary American drama’.
96. Sumner, p.78
97. Burbridge, p.8
98. Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, p.298
99. Sumner, p.78
101. Lawler and Plant, 2011
102. Sumner, p.78
103. Lawler met Brisbane actress Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher on the Queensland leg of The Doll’s Australian tour, where she appeared as Bubba. They were engaged in June 1956. Kelleher replaced Fenella Maguire as Bubba but pregnancy, later that year, prevented her from replaying the role in England. Maguire was also committed to another commercial production. So, Sumner turned to Zoe Caldwell, an 18-year-old Melbourne actress who had appeared—with Kelleher—in the AETT’s 1955 production of Medea (starring Judith Anderson). Caldwell was also maid of honour at Kelleher’s wedding. In The Doll, Sumner said Caldwell ‘gave a lovely portrayal [as Bubba]’ but when Maguire became ‘available again’, she was chosen for the English tour. See Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra: An Actress’s Journey, Text Publishing, 2001, pp.53-54.
104. Sumner, p.78
105. Lawler and Plant, 2011. The Entertainer, starring Laurence Olivier, opened at New York’s Royale theatre on 12 February, 1958—three days before the curtain fell on The Doll. The Coronet’s next production (from 4 March, 1958) was The Waltz of the Toreadors.
106. Grant, ‘English Critics and The Doll’, p.298
107. Grant, ‘Why The Doll Failed on Broadway’, pp.10-12
108. In his introduction to The Doll Trilogy, 1978, Sumner remembered: ‘Very soon after the opening of The Doll in New York, in January 1958, Ray Lawler mentioned that he felt he still had another play to write about the characters he had created’. p.vii. Lawler, in fact, went on to write two more plays about The Doll characters, tracing their lives from the summer of the first doll (Kid Stakes) through World War Two (Other Times) to the fatal seventeenth year. The trilogy was performed twice by Melbourne Theatre Company in 1977.
109. Lawler and Plant, 2011
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