Ray Lawler Essay - Critical Essays


Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is by far Ray Lawler’s most important work. Several of his early plays have not been published, and his subsequent plays do not have the same verve, although two of them, The Piccadilly Bushman and The Man Who Shot the Albatross, have both received critical acclaim.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a seminal play in the development of contemporary Australian drama. It was written at a time when Australia was emerging from the domination of Great Britain and the United States, although both countries have retained a strong influence on the Australian way of life. Australia was subjected to a veritable invasion of British immigrants after World War II. By the time the play was written, more than one million Britons had moved to Australia. British and American films dominated the Australian market, and the most popular stage productions were from the West End or Broadway, often with second-rate British or American actors in the main roles and Australians in the secondary roles.

This problem had been recognized in Australia since at least 1938, when a number of Australians joined together to start the Playwrights Advisory Board (PAB), with a view to promoting the work of indigenous playwrights. The PAB was to have a lasting effect on Australian theater. One of its aims was to circulate plays among Australian producers, thereby seeking outlets for the playwrights, and it was responsible, during its existence from 1938 to 1963, for nurturing a great number of Australian playwrights. One of its methods for encouraging Australian writers was to develop competitions for Australian works. It was in one of these competitions that Lawler won first prize in 1955.

While Lawler was writing Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust—“the Trust,” for short—was being formed. This organization was begun at the instigation of H. C. Coombs, Governor of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. The Trust was to be formed as a private enterprise, with the support of the public in the form of subscriptions. As Coombs wrote in 1954, in the literary magazine Meanjin, “The ultimate aims must be to establish a native drama, opera, and ballet which will give professional employment to Australian actors, singers and dancers and furnish opportunities for those such as writers, composers and artists whose creative work is related to the theatre.” The Trust was to encourage such activities by offering financial support and guarantees to those producing Australian works. The initial appeal was for $200,000, and it was hoped that, once the Trust was established, the Australian federal government would lend its support to the cause of theater subsidies—which is precisely what happened. The federal government matched grants on a one-to-three basis, contributing one dollar for every three dollars raised by the Trust.

Both the PAB and the Trust played immensely important roles in Lawler’s career. His sharing of first prize in the 1955 PAB-sponsored competition was a turning point for all involved. By 1954, the Trust had its own home, a former theater in the industrial Sydney suburb of Newtown, converted to a movie house and then restored to a theater. In January, 1955, it produced its first play, and then three more, not one of which was Australian. This was contrary to its founders’ philosophy. On January 11, 1955, however, according to the official publication of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, The First Year, “a new page of theatrical history was written. . . . An Australian play by an Australian author, with an all-Australian cast, achieved at once a complete and resounding success.” Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was the play, and with that success, Lawler’s career was launched.

On November 28, 1955, Lawler’s play opened at the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne, where he was director. Although Lawler had felt somewhat diffident about having his play produced in the theater in which he was employed, fearing the production would lead to charges of favoritism, both the PAB and the executive director of the Trust prevailed on the vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne to encourage the production.

The play opened to critical acclaim in Melbourne newspapers, as well as in other Australian and even British papers. It played for three weeks at the Union, earning for that theater the princely sum of $3,735.50, probably more money than the theater had hitherto made from any one play.

Once the play had gone through its tryout period as an experimental, university-produced play and had proved a success, the Trust was confronted with the problem of where to stage it in Sydney. The Trust owned the theater in Newtown, newly opened and renamed The Elizabethan. It was an immense barn of a theater, with some fifteen hundred seats, and it was almost solidly booked for its first year of operation. There was, however, a three-week gap in its bookings, starting in mid-January: This period falls right in the middle of Australian summer, and the theater had no air-conditioning. Lawler’s play was booked for this slot and once again received universal praise; Lawler’s pioneering work was compared to that of Eugene O’Neill in the United States and John Millington Synge in Ireland, establishing a first-rate national theater.

After it completed its three-week booking at the Elizabethan, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was taken on tour throughout New South Wales by the Arts Council of Australia. Other touring companies were formed, and some amusing anecdotes relate to those tours. Australia has vast distances, and the play was touring the Northern Territory. One playgoer saw the production and thought that his wife should see it also. The following night, however, it had moved some six hundred miles, to the “neighboring” community. The man took his wife to that community for the production and then returned home—a trip of twelve hundred miles to see a play.

After eighteen months, negotiations were under way to present the play in London, where Sir Laurence Olivier, who had read the script, became involved. It opened on the West End in April, 1957, with most of its original Australian cast from The Elizabethan, after tryouts in Edinburgh, Nottingham, and Newcastle. Lawler made a curtain speech in which he said: “The first play was produced in Australia in 1789. It was a convict production—and, need I add, it had an all-English cast. It has taken 168 years for an Australian company to pay a return visit.”

During its run at the New Theatre in London, the film rights for the play were sold to an American company. Lawler shared in the profits, together with the Trust, Olivier, and a Broadway management firm. Arrangements were also made for a Broadway production, and after seven months at the New Theatre, the play was moved to New York. On opening night, there were seven curtain calls, but the press reviews were largely negative, and the production closed after three and a half weeks. Nevertheless, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll did find American success: Ernest Borgnine played the part of Roo in the film adaptation, and the play was very popular with summer stock companies. It was also presented in translation in Germany and Finland and was even translated into Russian.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll relates the story of two sugarcane cutters, Roo and Barney, who work seven months of the year in the Australian north and then have a five-month summer layoff in Melbourne, in the Australian south. Thus, they follow the sun. For the previous sixteen years, during their Melbourne sojourns, Roo and Barney have stayed in a boardinghouse, where they have taken up with Olive and Nancy, two barmaids whom they have known for the entire sixteen years. The play derives its title from Roo’s habit of bringing Olive a Kewpie doll each time he arrives for the layoff. Olive has collected and kept all of these dolls as symbols of the good times the foursome have had during the sixteen previous years.

This summer, the seventeenth, Nancy is no longer at the boardinghouse. She has decided to marry, and Olive has tried to replace her with a fellow barmaid, Pearl. Unfortunately, Pearl does not have the same disposition as Nancy, and Barney and Pearl do not hit it off. Matters are further complicated by the fact that Roo and Barney are getting old. Roo had a disastrous season and left the cane cutting early, being supplanted as the chief of his...

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