Essay by Michael Gurr

What frightened the author, director and cast on the opening night of the first production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955 was that they were offering up a play that was unashamedly spoken in Australian language and accent. Set in an Australian house. Populated by Australian people.

Until then, Australian plays had largely tended towards the quaintly rural, the fraudulently British and the apologetically small in scope. Australian plays were tolerated, indulged, or taken as medicine. Aside from the communist radicals who thought that theatre could be used as a social weapon, no one took Australian plays very seriously.

But Lawler’s play made no apologies and aimed for big themes. In scope and energy it was closer to Tennessee Williams than to the pitter-patter of reproduction drawing-room comedies or the moderately operatic scale of the drama coming from European theatre.

The author, director and cast need not have worried. They didn’t know they had a classic on their hands, but they were canny enough to know what the laughter of recognition and the thunder of applause meant.

They had a play on their hands that chimed with what Tennessee Williams had done in the American theatre: the stories of ‘ordinary’ people told on an almost heroic scale. When I asked Ray Lawler why there had never been a musical made of the play, he said that no one had approached him with the right ideas. Operatic conventions dismayed him as they might apply to this small Carlton terrace. He awaited someone who might bring the sensibility ofPorgy and Bess. A folk opera, he thought, might fit the bill. So far no such sensibility has presented itself to Lawler’s satisfaction and he enjoyed dismissing the idea of a ballet. ‘Imagine Roo and Barney on pointe!’

The Melbourne barmaid, Olive, who spends most of the year waiting for her man to finish the cane-cutting season and fly down out of the sun like an eagle for an off-season of sex and fun, has been deliciously and horribly trapped in late adolescence. This perfect arrangement – independence for some of the year and a swirl of romance and heightened eroticism for the rest – sets her up for a dreadful and inevitable fall.

Her barmaid friend Pearl is the new one brought into the agreement, a beady-eyed and cynical widow who has been seduced by Olive’s ecstatic descriptions of the ‘lay-off’ but remains self-consciously astute. You can’t help but wonder whether Pearl’s apparently clear-eyed take on the situation masks a desperate loneliness. If not, then why is she here, with her packed bag and her knowledge that the lay-off with Roo and Barney involves a lot more than trips to Luna Park?

Pearl’s presence is one of the play’s several guns-in-the-drawer. She is only here because Nancy, her predecessor at the pub and in the Carlton house, has betrayed the idyll in the most terrible way: she has got married. Nancy had seen the writing on the wall. This was going to be, after all, the seventeenth summer. How long could the party go on with age creeping up and the sun dimming on passion and bodies?

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is, among other things, a play about the search for an alternative to marriage. It is also a terrible punishment for that search. It tells us that we will be crushed for the self-delusion that such a search involves. In this way, is the play inherently conservative? Has Ray Lawler, like Tennessee Williams with Blanche Dubois and Amanda Wingfield, shown us a magnificent fragile dream in order to destroy it and teach us a lesson?

By the end of the play it is hard to imagine any kind of future for Olive, the spirited and determined centre of the action.

She says the play’s most heart-breaking line: ‘I want what I had before!’

This is something that no one, but no one, can ever have. Time has destroyed her dream, and in refusing to believe the dream would ever end, she has put no insurance aside.

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’.

This is not exuberance. This is Miss Haversham’s wedding cake in a Carlton terrace. Hope promised and now gathering dust. Olive herself is the seventeenth doll, the one her lover will crush to pieces in the play’s final scenes. And though the play begins in wonderfully skittish hope and anticipation, the men are in trouble, too.

Roo, the champion of the cane-cutting gang, has had his physical dominance challenged for the first time. A time bomb, called Johnny Dowd, has come along and almost unwittingly shown the older man up.

If this was a game of AFL, Johnny Dowd would be the naturally talented goal kicker who mistakenly made the current champion look inept. In a wiser age, an age less stuck in the inarticulate fury of competition, Roo might have been Johnny’s friend, maybe even his mentor. Not in this play.

There is a humble beauty now in the way great football players realise the end of their careers and become coaches. They know they can’t kick that big, and they’ll nurse along the new kid who can. But Roo’s ego will never let this happen. For him, a young man who can cut cane faster than him is an emasculator. Johnny Dowd does more than cut down cane very fast; he castrates his erstwhile hero.

It is Roo’s final tragedy that in trying to find a new way to keep Olive – by proposing marriage – he loses her. Without the idyll they have created, Olive is adrift. In rejecting marriage, she is at once the child who will eat nothing except its favourite food and a woman standing against convention.

Circling the play like a wily bird is Olive’s mother Emma. She is at once the play’s wisest and most cruel character. Her character assessments are spot-on. Recalling how she first met Roo, she says that she summed him up on the spot. ‘A packet of trouble but he’s honest.’

Later, as the world of the dolls is crumbling, it is Emma who reaches into the inherited language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible to tell Roo with piercing honesty: ‘There’s a time for sowing and a time for reaping – and reapin’ is what you’re doing now’. In response to this assessment, somehow compassionate in its brutality, Roo is described by Lawler as being ‘dazed with misery’. Between the old woman and the fallen king of the canefields there is the love of the created family. Had Roo been her actual son, or son-in-law, she might have spared him the hard edge of her judgments. Emma and Roo have what is perhaps the play’s most emotionally honest relationship.

Just as Roo’s age has slowed him down on the canefields, so has Barney’s randy pride been dented. He has children in several postcodes and wears his fly-by-night sexual charm with a self-deprecating ease. But once his sexual prowess begins to wane, a chasm opens up inside him. He has not made the leap from sexually swaggering young man to responsible adult and the loss of his reputation hits him like a train. For a while it seems his pragmatism might see him team up with young Johnny Dowd, but in the play’s final moments, he sees that his fate is bound up with his wounded friend.

While Roo, Barney and Olive manifest the play’s preoccupation with the passage of time primarily through psychological changes, it is Bubba, the ‘little girl’ next door, who gives the idea its strongest physical shape. From the first, characters are noticing how much she has grown, how she is now a young woman, no longer the innocent child of past summers. During the play, Bubba’s social and sexual maturity creep up almost unnoticed, until she, like Johnny Dowd, stands as a physical challenge to the world in which she has matured. It is telling that when she wants to go to the races with Dowd, it is the champions of free summers past who warn her most urgently against the carefree promiscuity they have enjoyed so much themselves.

When I directed the play at the Victorian College of the Arts, I was blessed with a tall Roo, a short and racy Barney, an Olive who channelled infectiously nervous energy – a cast who seemed to effortlessly merge with the characters they played. We did have the slight technical problem of a Bubba who was taller than our six-foot Roo. There was nothing for it but to ride out the inevitable laugh that came with Roo’s line about how much she had grown.

Directing the play was a great pleasure because it showed me what conscientious playwrights do. Unfashionable now, the script (I will never use the word ‘text’, do your worst) was mightily specific about who stood where and when they sat. About who cleared the beer bottles from the table.

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.

I thought it would be a useful exercise for myself – who had only directed free-flowing productions – and for a young student cast who might find in this discipline the freedom that comes from following a few rules.

So we followed the stage directions. The play unfolded effortlessly. On a set made of shaky walls but populated by living actors, we hit the thing this play always hits: an irresistible force that even under our meagre lights drew an audience in. One of the most surprising things of that first presentation at the VCA was that the original Olive, June Jago, who was teaching Drama there, was seeing the play for the very first time. She had resisted seeing productions but was now professionally obliged to attend and assess her students. Fair to say it was a big night for her.

Ray Lawler could occasionally be lured into seeing odd interpretations of his play. He saw one in Melbourne where the men were dressed in Edwardian costumes, the women in Greek togas, the whole thing set in ankle-deep water, and declared himself well pleased. He wasn’t too bothered by the mad versions; in fact I think he was happy that people found his play worthy of radical reimagining. When I shared an office with Ray at Melbourne Theatre Company, letters would come in from all points of the compass asking permission to perform his play. We wasted happy time together imagining flamenco versions, Gypsy versions. Underneath the jokes was the knowledge that this story would somehow work wherever and however you told it. Ray Lawler had landed on one of the big stories.

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.

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.

Ray has never seen the film version of The Doll. It had American film stars in it and was set in Sydney. Just when Australian voices were cresting the wave, we still needed Ernest Borgnine to make an Australian film happen. Fast forward to 2014 and we hear the same arguments.

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.

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.

Carmel Powers was to play Emma in this little excerpt and I stood beside her in the wings of the theatre. She was shaking with nerves. I held her arm and we heard the line: ‘What are ya doin’ out there, Emma?’

She called back her response from the dark: ‘Gettin’ a sea-breeze off the gutter. What d’yer think?’

The sound I heard from that audience was something beyond a laugh. It was an involuntary shout of recognition, it had joy and heart in it and it was the most uncensored sound I have ever heard in a theatre.

© Copyright Michael Gurr 2014