Raymond Evenor Lawler was one of eight children born to a tradesman in Melbourne, Australia. At the age of thirteen, Lawler started work in an engineering plant and took lessons in acting in his spare time. When he was twenty-three, he sold his first play, which was never produced, to J. C. Williamson’s theatrical company, known in Australia simply as “the Firm.” Lawler acted and wrote pantomimes and scripts for revues, and when he was in his mid-thirties, he became manager and director of the Union Theatre Repertory Company. While in that position, he worked on the script of his masterpiece, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in which he had written a part for himself, that of Barney.
Lawler appeared in the original Australian production and in both the London West End and New York Broadway productions, and his work as an actor received high praise. After the early closing of the Broadway production, he moved to Denmark; later, he returned to London, then moved to Ireland in 1966. These moves were indirectly prompted by the success of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: Lawler could not return to Australia, nor could he live in London or New York, because of a tax situation resulting from productions of his play and the sale of film rights. He took up residence in Ireland after learning that he could obtain an income exemption granted to writers in that country. Lawler is of Irish descent and admires Irish writers. Lawler’s wife, Jacqueline Kelleher, is an actress originally from Brisbane; they have twin sons, born in 1957, and a daughter, Kylie, born in 1959.
Lawler returned briefly to Australia in 1971, after a lengthy absence, to assist with the production of The Man Who Shot the Albatross, a play about Captain William Bligh’s rule as Governor of New South Wales. He moved back to Australia in 1975, and in 1977 assisted with the production of The Doll Trilogy, comprising Kid Stakes, Other Times, and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. The Doll Trilogy relates the history of the protagonists of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in the sixteen years prior to the time frame of that play. Both Kid Stakes and Other Times were written in the 1970’s, some twenty years after Lawler’s success with Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Born one of eight children to a lower-middle-class Australian family, Raymond Evenor Lawler went to work in a factory at age thirteen but was always interested in the theater. He took acting lessons and worked at the Cremone Theatre in Brisbane during the late 1940’s. There he became Will Mahoney’s personal assistant, doing everything from roles in the pantomimes to walk-ons as a straight man for the comics; he began writing his own pieces as well. By twenty-three he had completed his first play (unproduced), and in his mid-thirties he was offered the position of manager/director of the Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne. He accepted eagerly.
To fully comprehend Lawler’s contribution, it is necessary to take into account that theater in Australia, from its beginning as a penal colony, was dominated by British drama. Even after World War II, the theater (and films) consisted of mainly second-rate British and American works. To counteract this, and to promote indigenous artistic creation, the Playwrights Advisory Board (PAB) and the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust offered prizes and subsidies to native writers who would write plays about their fellow Australians and stage them with native-born actors. Lawler won first prize in a contest in 1949 for Cradle of Thunder, and then, in 1955, nine unproduced plays later, he shared the first prize (of two hundred dollars) in a contest sponsored by PAB. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was staged, with the playwright performing one of the lead roles.
Prior to its production, there had been a negative feeling about “homegrown” dramatic products, but the unparalleled international success of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll changed that perception radically. Included in Ten Best Plays of the American Season, 1957-58 and named best play by the Evening Standard, the play was a success in London, on Broadway, in a number of European countries, and in the USSR. Lawler also received favorable reviews for his acting in the Australian, London, and New York productions. In 1960 Ernest Borgnine and Anne Baxter played the leads in the American film version.
At this time Lawler was married to Jacklyn Kelleher, an actress from Brisbane, and in 1957 the couple had twin sons, then a daughter, Kylie, in 1959. The family lived in England, then Denmark, and finally Ireland because of the favorable tax situation there. Lawler had come a long way from splitting a two-hundred-dollar prize to worrying about taxes because of the success of his play.
In 1975, however, the Lawlers returned to Australia so that the playwright could participate in the production of The Doll Trilogy, which includes Kid Stakes and Other Times as well as The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It covers the lives of its characters over a sixteen-year period. In all three plays Lawler creates ordinary working-class Australians who speak in the native vernacular and behave conventionally except for their unconventional view of marriage.
In The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the two male characters, Barney and Roo, have been working for many years as canecutters in the north and consider themselves “mates” forever. Each year they have come to Melbourne during their summer layoff to stay at the boardinghouse of Emma Leach and her daughter, Olive, a barmaid, who is Roo’s girlfriend. With Nancy completing the foursome, the two couples have enjoyed sixteen carefree summers of fun. But this year is very different.
Nancy has gone off to be married, so Olive has tried to replace her with another barmaid friend, Pearl, who neither understands Olive’s enthusiastic view of their wonderful summers nor Barney’s code of morality. Even more significantly, Roo is deeply angry at Barney because instead of leaving the field with him after he was injured, Barney chose to remain with a “new friend,” Johnnie Dowd. Somewhat short of cash, Roo has taken a job in a paint factory, and to add insult to injury, when some of the “boys” come to town, Barney brings Johnnie Dowd to Emma’s to “patch things up.”
Roo, realizing that the days of their youth (when they were, according to Olive, “eagles flying down out of the sun for mating”) are gone forever, has a physical altercation with Barney. Then, settling for a more traditional lifestyle, he asks Olive to marry him, saying that he intends to remain year-round working at an ordinary job. Each year Roo has brought Olive some gifts from the North, including an elaborately dressed kewpie doll. Now, refusing to acknowledge the truth of the situation, Olive leaves the scene as Roo in torment smashes this year’s gift, the seventeenth doll.
Of the other plays in the trilogy, Kid Stakes, set during the Depression, shows the beginning relationships of the four principal characters, while Other Times, set after World War II, explores more deeply the bond between the men and foreshadows Nancy’s departure.
Among Lawler’s other dramas, The Piccadilly Bushman examines the patronizing attitude of the British toward the “colonials” and the ambivalent attitude of Australians toward Britain. The Man Who Shot the Albatross deals with the notorious Captain William Bligh, now governor of New South Wales, who cannot help but connect the original mutiny on the Bounty with the military insurrection known as the Rum Rebellion. Godsend, originally written for British television, has to do with the remains of Thomas à Beckett, supposedly entombed at Canterbury but quite possibly to be found in a little church in Kent. In 1981, Lawler was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.