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.
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
- Stereotypes (especially male/female of the 1950’s)
- Ageing and time
- Ideals, dreams vs reality
- Mateship and Loyalty
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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