In the 1950s Australia was in the midst of an economic boom. Robert Menzies was Prime Minister and the post war immigration programme was slowly challenging the idea of Australia as a solely Anglo country. Questions were being raised about the nature of Australian identity. Artists such as Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd were emerging and Australian literature was flourishing. In the midst of this cultural resurgence, Victorian Ray Lawler wrote The play's uniquely Australian character and presentation of Australian life in a realistic manner was a revelation for theatregoers at the time.
In the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll ,(1955) Australian playwright Ray Lawler shows how changing experiences and circumstances often force us to
On Day One, I decided that I would ignore all of Ray Lawler’s stage directions and let our production evolve its own choreography. Within a very short time, lacking an overarching pattern of movement myself, traffic jams started to occur. Someone found themselves stuck by the piano, unable to get past the other someone who was blocking the door. Laughing, I decided to go back and see what would happen if I followed Lawler’s stage directions to the letter.
While engaging us in a loving portrayal of the Australian character in some of its variety, Lawler subtly questions our shibboleths of freedom and friendship and our understanding of the dimensions of love. Olive. the all-woman who has foregone the boredom of marriage as she has seen it around her for the vivid sensuality of a seasonal romance, by the end of the play has subtly transformed into a romantic child in flight from maturity. Roo and Barney, the migratory eagles from the north who for seventeen summers have filled the dark Carlton house with vitality are the incarnation of that manly strength which has given Australia its character. But gradually Lawler makes us see the burden behind the myth, the strain on the men who wish to lay the burden of their manhood to rest in the comfort and understanding of their women; and who find in Olive a reflection of that illusion they and their society have created. The play moves in ever widening circles into our society and its failing rhythms fit its structure immaculately.30
Olive’s push through the early part of the play is a desperate nostalgic re-enactment of the first, second, third, fourth summers when Roo would bring her a cheap fairground doll. Accepted as sweet tokens of young love, these candy stick dolls take on an increasingly garish quality. Lawler writes in his stage directions that these kewpie-dolls, ‘wearing tinsel headdresses and elaborately fuzzy skirts, attached to thin black canes shaped like walking sticks’, are everywhere. They ‘peep coyly from behind pictures, flower in twos and threes from vases, and are crossed over the mantelpiece’.
Waiting in gloom, protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things,
Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search
of this day.)
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you;)
The President holding a cabinet council is surrounded by the great
On the piazza walk three matrons stately and friendly with twined arms,
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold,
The Missourian crosses the plains toting his wares and his cattle,
As the fare-collector goes through the train he gives notice by the
jingling of loose change,
The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the
roof, the masons are calling for mortar,
In single file each shouldering his hod pass onward the laborers;
Seasons pursuing each other the indescribable crowd is gather'd, it
is the fourth of Seventh-month, (what salutes of cannon and small arms!)
Seasons pursuing each other the plougher ploughs, the mower mows,
and the winter-grain falls in the ground;
Off on the lakes the pike-fisher watches and waits by the hole in
the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep
with his axe,
Flatboatmen make fast towards dusk near the cotton-wood or pecan-trees,
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river or through
those drain'd by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas,
Torches shine in the dark that hangs on the Chattahooche or Altamahaw,
Patriarchs sit at supper with sons and grandsons and great-grandsons
In walls of adobie, in canvas tents, rest hunters and trappers after
their day's sport,
The city sleeps and the country sleeps,
The living sleep for their time, the dead sleep for their time,
The old husband sleeps by his wife and the young husband sleeps by his wife;
And these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.
I was getting into my suit in a dressing room with Ray Lawler as he put on an Hawaiian shirt and got the fake tan onto his legs. Tonight would be his last ever turn as Barney.
In the late 1990s a farewell tribute was put together by Melbourne Theatre Company for John Sumner. It was his retirement after more than 30 years as Director of MTC. The man who had directed the original production of Summer of The Seventeenth Doll was sat in the theatre he had helped design and treated to excerpts of plays he had brought to the stage.
In returning to these characters and writing what became The Doll Trilogy, Lawler satisfied both his own and his audience’s desire to know more of these people – to know how they had arrived at their seventeenth and last summer.
Summer of The Seventeenth Doll, despite its stage directions, is not really set in Carlton. Its heart is in Footscray, the place where Ray Lawler grew up. When I asked him to write an article for The Age about his childhood, working in factories, following on from his Dad’s job on the night cart, Ray described to me a world he had left behind. Later, after his tax exile in the UK and Denmark, he would talk regretfully about being a ‘grass roots writer’ who had been uprooted. Ray Lawler worked for the BBC, had plays produced, made a living writing, but he talked about being forced away from where he truly belonged.