Summer of the Seventeenth Doll Synopsis

 Front Cover

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll  –  A Play by Ray Lawler

Why is Summer of the Seventeenth Doll Still Relevant Today?

This ground-breaking piece of Australian drama premiered at MTC in 1955.  It is surely dated, with many colloquialisms and morals of the times not heard of today.  However, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (‘The Doll’) still captures an audience.  This is not necessarily because of its Australian-‘ness’, but more because of its series of universals.  This is a play about ordinary people, which people can immediately relate to.

For sixteen summers, Roo and Barney have spent their long layoff from the cane-cutting season down in Melbourne having a high old time with two Carlton barmaids, Olive and Nancy.  However, back for their seventeenth summer, it seems time has finally caught up with them.

The Driving Force Behind Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is Sadness 

The driving force behind the play is surely the desperate sadness which permeates the very heart of the play.  This sadness is brought about by the fact that a group of people are trying to stay young, and are refusing to realise they are growing old.  They have a lack of understanding of the growing process, and so stick with what they know best – their youth; ultimately to their downfall.  We see the very young along with the very old in this play, we see the beginnings of a cycle of women in a situation, each one determined to make their life work, although they have seen the downfall of the older woman.

Emma hasn’t had an easy life, and although Olive has seen this, she hasn’t learnt any lessons from her, except that she wants to have it differently.  Bubba, similarly, can see that Olive’s life was less than perfect in the outcome, and is determined to make it work for her – she sees the opportunity in Johnnie Dowd, but fails to understand why it is that the group of friends have fallen apart.  The audience doesn’t know whether Olive will turn out like Emma, hardened and cynical, but ultimately wise, which is an audience-capturing in the thoughtfulness.

The Joke – Facade of Men Trying to Stay Young

We can see that the men who at one stage came down like ‘eagles flyin’ down out of the sun’ are coming down this summer battered and bruised.  They are not the fit young men they were – Roo has a bad back, and Barney has had many blows to his ego regarding the studliness he once enjoyed.  Behind his joking facade, we can see that he is actually a rather pathetic man, who is prepared to break the unwritten code of mateship to save his own skin.  This act of self-preservation has lost Barney the respect and friendship he once had from Roo, as can be seen when they fight in Act II Scene 2.  The audience, however, sympathises with Barney, because they can see that behind his facade he is really hurt and sad when he is laughed at by women.  The audience sympthasises with this because everyone knows how it feels to be laughed at.

Nancy is the Only One Who Embraces Change

Nancy, the only main character we don’t actually meet, has realised she is getting old, and wanted to get out of the slowly crumbling dream of the lay-off, consequently getting married, and leaving Barney and the others.  She embraced change in a way that Olive cannot understand – Olive believes Nancy’s choice as being traitorous to the dream, “She made a mistake – Marriage is different, and Nancy knew it.”  Through this, we can see a crumbling, insecure world with people who cling, like Olive, or change and grow after the coming of realisation, like Nancy and Roo.

Olive Clings to a Reality that Cannot Continue

Olive clings to a reality that cannot continue. Pearl sees this, and is used in this play as a critical voice, so the audience can size up the characters and compare their actions.  Pearl sees the lay-off for what it is, “…if you’d only come out of your day-dream long enough to take a grown-up look at the lay-off…”  Is it a faith for Olive, or a fantasy?  “I’m blind to what I want to be.”

Roo Sees His Future is Doomed Unless he Embraces Change

Roo, however, sees, perhaps too late, that it is doomed, and wants to embrace change in an effort to retain as much as he can. In listening to what Emma has to say, he understands, finally the reality.  It is the bluntness with which Emma presents the reality to Roo that makes this scene so appealing.  We can see again how ordinary these peoples’ lives are.

Olive Sees Roo’s Change as Being Traitorous

However, Olive sees Roo’s attempt at change as being traitorous.  She believes that if Roo leaves with Barney, as he usually does, it is the only thing she has left – the last shred of the dream for her.  Her youth has gone, and she suddenly realises that she has lost everything, except for the memories, and the desperate hope that if he leaves, it will all be magically better next time, when Roo says, “Olive, it’s gone – can’t you understand? Every last little scrap of it – gone!”  She becomes so intense, she believes that her ideal life has been stolen from her: “You give it back to me – give me back what you’ve taken.”

Roo’s Reality is Profoundly Sad

Roo’s reality is profoundly sad. He refers to it as “…the dust we’re in and we’re gunna walk through it like everyone else for the rest of our lives!”  This ‘dust’ he refers to suggests mortality, and the fact that everything has been smashed to dust, and cannot be reconstructed.  He smashes the seventeenth doll as a powerful visual image – there is no attempt at resolution, or subtlety – the smashing is borne of a brutal, primitive instinct of helplessness and frustration.  This adds enormously to the play’s appeal.

The End is Unresolved

The end is unresolved, and a change from the usual ‘happy endings’, and relies on the vitality of the characters to play it out.  The tension between the fantasy and reality is most seen here, as the ultimate theme of mortality is reinforced.  This ending shows the brilliance of the play in its theatrical nature – there is no sentimentality in the play – only shocking realities that confront the audience about their own everyday lives.

Impending Doom

These people are so ordinary, but throughout the play we get a sense of impending doom, which makes this almost a Grecian drama – the climaxes show the characters’ humanity, and enthrals the audience.  This play has been labelled by some critics as ‘the tragedy of the inarticulate’ – a tragedy of people who feel intense emotion and symbolism, but cannot express their feelings.

Does Olive Suffer from a Psychological Disorder Rejecting the Idea of Growing Old?

Some critics believe that Olive suffers from arrested development, a psychological disorder in that the person rejects the idea of growing old and remains childlike in many ways, e.g. dressing like a child, or carrying dolls etc.  It is a detachment from reality that Olive seems to possess, however she also has spirit and vitality, unlike many sufferers of this condition.  She has given up the conventional morals of the times, and takes risks to glory in a dream of her own fabrication.  Olive has a great wit and we can see some of her mother in her cynical comments.  So this view of Olive as having this condition is a rather narrow one indeed.

Is The Play a Representation of the Growth of Australia from Colonisation?

Other critics feel that Lawler had some ulterior motives in writing this play – they believe he draws parallels to the growth of Australia itself; it’s confrontation of colonialism and development to a recognised nation.  By the 1950’s the colonialistic view of Australia by its inhabitants and its ‘Mother Country’ Britain had begun to change, and during the World Wars Australia realised how far away from Britain it actually was, and decided that trade deals and treaties were best made with America and the Asian nations, and these would have to be recognised because Australia itself sits on the Asia-Pacific rim, further from Britain than any of her other large colonies.

Themes in the Play

  • Maturity
  • Stereotypes (especially male/female of the 1950’s)
  • Ageing and time
  • Change
  • Ideals, dreams vs reality
  • Mateship and Loyalty
  • Expectations

The Themes of Mateship and Loyalty are Crucial in the Play

1.       Roo and Barney

The theme of mateship is also explored readily in this play; we see the loyalties that each person has, and what they are prepared to sacrifice them for.  It especially comes under scrutiny when Barney pretends that his friendship with Roo hasn’t suffered from his leaving him up North.  Although Barney offers emotional and monetary support to Roo, Roo knows just how much Barney betrayed him up North, and shows him how their trust and loyalty has broken down over that incident.  Barney doesn’t realise until it is too late just how much Roo suffered when he abandoned him, and then tried to pretend that nothing happened.

2.       Roo and Olive

Roo is also fiercely loyal to Olive, and he is confronted by Barney about this when Barney wants to leave to go back North.  Roo knows how much the lay-off means to Olive, and doesn’t want to abandon her, like Barney did him, because he knows just how much damage that can do, when loyalties are tested like that. Olive also has loyalties to Roo, but her priorities are with the layoff, and her dreams – which is where the loyalties begin to come undone.  She doesn’t realise that she cannot have loyalties in something that is based on crumbling foundations.

3.       Nancy, Bubba and Emma

Nancy realised she cannot have loyalties in something that is based on crumbling foundations when she left to get married.  Although she has moved on, Nancy still sends Barney a telegram to wish them well; which shows her loyalties are still somewhat with them.  Bubba is very loyal to the other characters of the play – she has grown up with them always in her life, and believes that this situation is the ideal way of life for.  She bases her dreams on what has been the stable elements in her life.  Emma is also loyal; for all her wisdom and sardonic comments, her loyalty is to Olive, her daughter.  She is also somewhat loyal to Roo, as she sees him as the potential husband of her daughter, so offers to help him out when he is broke, although she knows the value of money very well.

The Play Works Because it Touches our Sense of Compassion

This play ultimately works because it touches our sense of compassion; we feel pity for the breakdown of the relationships in the play, and for the characters, and for the situation – we feel pity for them growing old.  We feel pity for the characters’ desire to build an ideal world; we see Bubba’s fears for the future, and her determination to overcome them, and at the other end, we see the outcome in Emma’s wisdom: although she hasn’t built herself an ideal world, she has learned to walk in her ‘dust’ and make the most of what she has.  This play is about how ordinary people hurt in themselves, and how they can hurt one another, and how people are reluctant to change – a human flaw that resides, to some extent, in everyone.

Is the Play a Tragedy – Fatal Flaws?

There are indeed ‘fatal flaws’ in the two main characters, Olive and Roo.  Olive’s is her naivite, and her strong ideals and the holding on to these ideals that breaks her down in the end.  The breaking of the dolls is significant here, because it shows the dissolving of her innocence.  Roo’s flaw is his ‘dirty lousy rotten pride’ that is the undoing of him – he won’t recognise that he is too old for the type of work he is in, and the fact that he gets a job in the paint factory shows the extent to which his pride is broken.  The characters, however, never seem to be able to manage to talk about what they are losing – they resort to fighting, and smashing things, but never seem to be able to fully understand how they have lost their dreams or why it happened.

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The Life of Galileo Play by Bertolt Brecht

In his notes, Bertolt Brecht says of this play, “But it would be highly dangerous, particularly nowadays, to treat a matter like Galileo’s fight for freedom of research as a religious one; for thereby attention would be most unhappily deflected from present-day reactionary authorities of a totally unecclesiastical kind.”

With this comment, Brecht demands that his audience sees this play as more than a battle between science and religion.  It is, as he says:

  1.  a conflict between progressive and conservative thinking
  2.  a conflict between political activism and political indifference
  3.  a conflict between freedom and oppression
  4.  a conflict between the individual and authority

Underlying all these is the central tenet of inquiry.  Without inquiry, without “hypothesis” or “doubt”, we are merely “goggling”, [or “gawping”] and “Goggling isn’t seeing”.  The Life of Galileo suggests that it is only through the process of questioning – and engaging that society can learn and grow.  How much success we have depends on our preparedness to “have a look for ourselves”.

In terms of conflict in the play students should consider

  1. Conflict between Science and Religion – While Galileo is ultimately defeated by the triumph of faith and superstition over knowledge and reason, Andrea’s escape to Reformation Holland with the ‘Discorsi’ is a step toward resolving the conflict in favour of science.
  2. Conflict with the Self – Brecht’s characters demonstrate how easily the individual evades moral responsibility by submitting to a higher authority, be it church, state, community, and so on, but also shows that moral compromise can create deeper inner conflict, which is not so easily dismissed.
  3. Individual vs. the State – Brecht suggests that when the freedom of the individual to expose a fallacy and reveal the truth is denied, the ensuing conflict will always be resolved in favour of the state.
  4. Conflict within the Community – In The Life of Galileo, Brecht represents the Church as offering stability, but in a way that leads only to stagnation.  The play demonstrates that conflict is essential in effecting change for the better.  As with all serious conflict, the effects are always damaging and nobody escapes unscathed.

The Life of Galileo is like a Chameleon

Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo is always going to be like the chameleon.  There was constant adaptation by Brecht during the twenty years he worked on the play and the play reflected the changes that he witnessed in Europe over that period.  Brecht had watched with the rest of the world the often horrifying events of the first half of the twentieth century and he had moved from the old world to the new during the latter part of his life.  All these influences were to be reflected in the final form taken by The Life of Galileo and audiences continue to adapt the ideas of the play to their own perceptions of current events.

Questions Explored in Brecht’s Play

There will continue to be new situations in which questions explored in Brecht’s play will be raised.  There will be situations involving the relationship between the individual and authority; there will be questions about the problems of remaining true to one’s opinions and beliefs or questions about the need for old ideas to give way to new.  As these situations arise the play will change its alignment and it will be able to be applied to those new situations.  Over its life the play has been read as the story of the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century, it has been read as the struggle between the Nazi politicians and industrialists and the Communist workers of Germany in the 1930s.  It has been read as the struggle between McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the American writers and artists of the late 1940s.

Brecht’s plays are important because Brecht was an innovator in the theatre.  He was both a theorist with a carefully detailed rationale about the purpose of dramatic performance and a playwright who was experienced in stagecraft.  He knew the techniques he wanted to use to achieve his desired outcome.  Like his character Galileo, Brecht was able to see new possibilities and he persevered with them even when many, particularly those experienced in the American theatre, were critical of the content of his plays or advised him that they would not be successful.

Looking at the Big Issues Raised by this Play

I suggest that students studying The Life of Galileo will need to look at some of the big issues that have always confronted people and which are raised by this play.  They will need to explore the notion of freedom for the individual in relation to various forms of authority, they will be challenged to discuss the idea of “things worth fighting for”, they will be challenged to look at the past and the present to see if there are new ideas that are struggling to find acceptance.  When they look at the issue of Galileo’s recantation, they may never reach a conclusion in the inevitable discussions that will take place about what Galileo should have done.

For many people, The Life of Galileo is not really successful as theatre because it is too didactic.  For them it is “a play for reading”.  To just “read it” is to ignore the fact that it is drama.  It should be experienced as drama, drama of a particular kind.  Then it is possible to come to grips with the question of whether Brecht’s play is successful.  It is also possible to determine if the success is in spite of Brecht’s theories rather than because of them.

Different Perspectives on Galileo

Rather than presenting one interpretation of the text, I suggest that students use these outlines below as a framework for developing a number of different, detailed responses to Brecht’s work.

1.        Power

One view of the text is that it is about power and the struggle for power.  Brecht presents his conflict by having the Church as the holder of power using its energies to maintain that power.  In this situation someone like Galileo who has new ideas is a threat.  Furthermore, Galileo, by the nature of his scientific discoveries, becomes allied to those people in society who can make use of the discoveries to improve their commercial enterprises.  The prelates of the Church fear that these merchants being receptive to one set of new ideas might embrace any new ideas including those which undermine the authority of the Church.

Using this perspective on the text it is easy to read the story as a metaphor for the class struggle.  While Brecht’s own position as a communist was subjected to modification, his sympathies remained with political structures that involved a centrally controlled economy even if he was repelled by the later excesses of totalitarian communism.

The position of Virginia in this perspective is interesting since she is caught up in the power struggle but she is unable to exert any influence over events that affect her.  Mrs Sarti is also worth looking at as a character who is both powerful and powerless.

2.     An ethical perspective

The Life of Galileo can be viewed from an ethical perspective.  Such a perspective involves analysing the action of the main characters in the light of what they ought to have done.  Should Galileo have recanted?  Should Barberini have supported Galileo against the Inquisitor?  What justification does the Inquisitor have for silencing Galileo?  Should Andrea have turned his back on Galileo?  Ought Andrea have been reconciled to Galileo because of the secret writing of the Discorsi?  Should Andrea have lied to the guards so that he could successfully smuggle the Discorsi over the border?  Did Galileo betray his profession?

These questions challenge the values that are being presented in the text by particular characters.  Brecht’s own discussion of the ramifications of Galileo’s recantation is important (pp 10-11)  The broader questions (What things are worth fighting for?  Is there anything that a person should be prepared to die for?) could also arise when looking at the text from this perspective.

3.    A philosophical approach

Someone taking a philosophical approach to the text will possibly see it as the exploration of the nature of truth, the paramount importance of seeking the truth regardless of all other considerations and the relationship of scientific inquiry to questions of morality.  The philosophical perspective also sees the The Life of Galileo as a play about the nature of authority and the consequences of a challenge to authority by the individual.

There is also the interest by Brecht in the notion of “new times”, the sense that there are periods in history when new attitudes and new understandings are developing.  A possible result of this is that a breakthrough in one area will cause a rethinking of assumptions in other areas.  Galileo calls Andrea to be aware that “this is a new time”, (p. 6).  The “new time” idea is revisited in scene 14 when Andrea asks Galileo, “So you no longer believe a new age has started?” (p. 109)

4.            Historical views

An historical perspective on the The Life of Galileo would examine the story of Galileo and his work against the changes in science and religion that were occurring at the time.  It might see the play as a presentation of the conflict over the respective roles of the individual and the Church in salvation.  When Galileo says, in response to Sagredo’s question “So where is God?”, that God is “Within ourselves or nowhere” (p. 28), he is entering the debate about these roles.  The question and its answer also raises the theological question of how to hold God’s transcendence and immanence in tension.  These are questions which have continued beyond the historical period covered by the play.  The matter of the use of vernacular languages in liturgy and theological disputation and the importance of the growing commercial classes and their reluctant acceptance of ecclesiastical constraints are part of the story of the Church and its relationship with its adherents.

The historical perspective can also see The Life of Galileo as providing a view of the relationship between science and religion, particularly the Christian religion.  Bellarmin claims that “Science is the rightful and much-loved daughter of the Church” (pp. 60 – 61). This point of view is echoed by contemporary writers such as John Polkinghorne who holds that the Christian doctrine of creation “provided an essential matrix for the coming into being of the scientific enterprise” (One World : The Interaction of Science and Theology, 1986, page 1)

5.            A psychological perspective

Ordinarily this kind of perspective would be the one most commonly used.  However because of Brecht’s stated intention in writing his plays it is a perspective that works almost by default.  The concern in the play is not with the revelation or development of character or the understanding of or identifying with the characters.  It is Brecht’s expectation that the members of the audience will try to grapple with the ideas and complexities of the central issues.

As a result of this, character studies would show the characters “standing for” ideas and theories.  In the case of Galileo and possibly Andrea there is arguably a much more conventional presentation of character.  Emotions are evoked even if that was not the intention and the sympathy of the audience is engaged.

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