like many of us, you last studied the play 'Summer of the seventeenth
doll' (or now known more fondly as 'The Doll') when you were at
school. If so, you may be thinking that you know the play well
and wish you did not have to do it all over again in this unit.
But I urge you to rethink and to reassess your view of the play
- to approach it with open and new eyes, to enter into the spirit
of journeying through the play willing to explore its dramaturgical
dimensions with a different perspective than when you were at
school. If on the other hand, the play is entirely new to you
than I believe you will undoubtedly enjoy reading and working
with the play - I still believe (after many years of teaching
this play) that it is a wonderful and unique piece of quintessential
Australian theatre history. I would like you to consider the play
from a number of different angles:
play as a piece of Australian playwriting
play as a mirror of an emerging new 50's Australian society
play as a mirror of the Australian character and ideals
- a sociological exploration if you like
challenge to the legend of the bush, the old order where
the Australian male truly was considered a legendary masculine
concept of aging and the reassessment of dreams
the play using the former areas as guides is helpful in deciphering
some of the more contentious issues and debates surrounding the
play over the years. I have provided you with two readings (Cousins1987
and Ferrari 1999) which provide some insight into the diverse
perspectives of the play both as a piece of theatre and as a cultural
and sociological discourse. But for now we will look at the play
from a variety of angles, an invitation for you to think deeply
about the work and form some opinions of your own.
would like to begin with a quote from Peter Holloway (1981) who
describes the 'Doll' in the following terms:
of the seventeenth doll' is concerned with what should be a wildly
exciting annual reunion bubbling with happiness which instead
falls flat and proves to be the last of seventeen such occasions.
Thus, appropriately, it begins in a mood of gaiety and joyful
anticipation but ends in disillusion and bitterness. (p.204)
sense of an endpoint is an important one for considering the doll
as a mirror of a changing society and a signal of movement from
one way of life to another. It is to this point we will return
soon but first, let us consider the play as a piece of theatre.
play as theatre
play written in 1955, provided a significant spotlight for Australian
theatre in international terms. For the first time, an Australian
play drew serious attention from overseas observers and critics
as an important piece of theatre writing. The play has been described
by some as a well-written, superbly constructed piece of work.
Its use of realistic props, stage business, its fine balance of
text and sub-text, its grasp of rhythms of the spoken Australian
language and its use of space and lighting was superior to that
of earlier plays.
(1981) describes the play as a combination of melodrama and humour
- significant elements of the dominant earlier style of playwriting.
Indeed, there is an interesting mixture of joviality and lightheartedness
contrasted against heightened tragic emotion - in particular the
closing scene is a powerful example of melodrama where Olive refusing
the marriage proposal from Roo drags herself out of the room.
Roo, devastated by the end of a dream, numbly sits with his face
in his hands, a beaten and disspirited figure.
it was this juxtaposition of the melodramatic and naturalistic
which has posed problems for other critics (see readings provided)
who felt the exploration of the 'myth' of the outback stereotypical
man set against the naturalistic suburban scene brought with it
a myriad of contextual and stylistic difficulities.
the overtones of melodrama , Lawler's play was still heralded
as one of the first naturalistic Australian plays offering its
audiences rich local idiom and culture in a recognisable and popular
setting. It was enthusiastically described by one critic as, 'the
first play about Melbourne that Melbourne has seen.' (in Carroll
1985) (For further analysis on this subject, refer to the provided
play as a mirror for an emerging society/a challenge to the old
order through the development of characterisation
play did not simply reflect the masculinist images so popular
in Australian cultural history since colonisation but rather intrinsically
reassessed the contextual framework in which these images were
grounded. The play's narrative provided a closer look at what
happens when the 'outback' hero, the seemingly stoic and physically
strong male protagonist, begins to age, to show signs of fragility
and vulnerability in a time of change and uncertainty. What then
happens to the dream? Fitzgerald (1979) describes it thus:
doll) was itself the agent and myth; and after analyses like Russell
Ward's "The Australian legend," the stereotype of the
outback hero and the rites he evolved to cope with a hostile environment,
could not easily be assented to as representative of a present
Australian reality. (in Cousins 1987, p.3, Copy provided from
play provided what Carroll (1985) refers to as a more 'critical
attitude' of the old Australian order. To give you some historical
background (albeit briefly), in the 1950's Australia was faced
with a post-war situation where the country realised it could
no longer look to Britain as its major ally for defense and support.
was a recognised need for the nation to increase its population
(the populate or perish ideology) and to establish its own defense
force and economic independence.
new decade of defensive nationalism resulted in a 'xenophobic'
nation (one fearful of foreigners and strangers) facing difficulty
in coming to terms with the changing face of the Australian nation.
A surge of immigration meant the old Australianist attitudes made
way for new cultural and societal ideas and directions and so
in turn, the old national identity - the Australian 'legend' ideal
declined. Carroll (1985) extends on this point:
Australia, the 1950's was essentially a decade of defensive nationalism
in the face of new contact with outsiders..and a new intake of
outsiders and a new intake of citizens which at first Australians
did not really know how to assimilate
in the best plays of
the 1950's, the protagonists were often older individuals who
have a deep commitment to the older Australianist images of identity
and conduct.' (pg.105)
then, how does the play 'The Doll' reflect such changes? Firstly,
the dominant theme in the play is about change, the pathos of
'growing old'. It is set against a romanticised past exploring
the love affairs of two cane cutters who come south to Melbourne
for five months in the lay off season. It is here in surburban
Carlton, that their women have waited for the past sixteen years.
These two 'outback men,' Roo and Barney, epitomise freedom, mateship;
toughened 'bushmen' who make their money labouring under the Australia
sun. They represent a metaphor for the great Australian past,
a country of freedom, of wide open spaces where 'men' could roam
at will whilst their women waited for them at home.
this year, things have changed. Past experiences, those of the
last sixteen years are immediately challenged with the opening
of the play. Nancy, who has long been there with Olive waiting
for Barney, has married a book clerk (a 'soft' city man) and Olive
is left desperate to fill the void left by Nancy's departure.
Another barmaid, a friend of Olives named Pearl, replaces her
for this summer but it is immediately a relationship of tension.
Pearl represents the 'new', a woman not easily swept away by the
so called romance of the past which Olive has described so enthusiastically
to her on the first night. Pearl is not taken in by what is on
offer. She is not willing to accept what Barney has to offer her
- unlike Nancy she perhaps sees Barney for what is really is,
an aging larrakin who has difficulty settling down. She wants
security (like the nation itself) and direction and rejects the
old. In many ways Pearl is blamed for the failure of the seventeenth
summer - if she had only been more yielding, everything would
have been just like before! Pearl is the metaphor for the changing
nation, the old to the new, the myth facing the reality.
Olive, we see a woman desperately trying to hang on to the past,
to stand still, to remain stagnant. Living in the myth of the
past, she is like a small child who clings to her kewpie dolls
for security and comfort. It is in Olive that we so poignantly
witness the tragic consequences of inertia and denial. Act one
unravels for us the intensity of this commitment to Roo and the
past and the ultimate Australianist codes it stand for. In Act
two, we see the importance of a man's commitment to his mates
and to himself - Roo is portrayed as the physical'king' of the
northern cane fields whilst Barney is represented as the great
lover. It is in the final scene that Lawler most powerfully deconstructs
the Australian myth where Roo is left a broken man. There will
be no more of what went before, the cane cutting is finished with
Roo usurped by the stronger and younger Dowd. Olive, emotionally
deficit, staggers away with Emma, her mother, demanding the men
leave the house.
is important here now to mention the characters of Bubba and Dowd
for it is they who act as metaphors for the younger and changing
Australia. Bubba who has always regarded Roo and Barney as icons
of real men is attracted to Dowd because of the way he reminds
her of her adopted 'uncles'. She declares to Roo and Barney that
she will have what they had but it will be better, more 'real'
as she puts it. (Carroll 1985) Certainly it is ironic that Dowd
is the one to take Roo's place as 'cane cocky' but also as the
new leading man in Bubba'a life. Carroll (1985) describes Dowd
in the following way:
to his older role model (Roo), Dowd is more willing to reasonably
compromise, more self aware, more willing to expose his vulnerability.
He treads Bubba as an adult insisting on using her real name,
Kathie, which contrasts with the way Roo has always involuntarily
perpetuated Olive's childishness. (pg.112)
discussion is not complete in itself. Rather it is meant as a
springboard for your understanding of the play, to supplement
the lecture and the provided readings and not to replace them.
The readings you have been provided with will help you explore
issues further with more depth and clarity. Undoubtedly 'The doll'
will have some kind of effect on you. Hopefully you will see the
play for the unique piece of Australian theatre that it is, appreciating
the complexity of the piece in terms of sub-plots and sub-text
and the unraveling of characters whose traits are familiar to
us all. I would urge you to consider all these former points as
you move through the play now with actor's eyes and strive to
explore the metaphors which make the play so powerful and unforgettable.
(1985). Australia Contemporary Drama. New York:Peter Lang
J. (1987). Gender and genre: The summer of the seventeenth
doll In The Australian journal of media and culture. Vol.1.
C. (1999). Summer of the seventeenth doll. Lecture transcript
on the HSC Study day, Charles Sturt University: Wagga Wagga.
P. (1987). Contemporary Australian drama Sydney:Currency