Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by Ray Lawler

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Themes and Meanings

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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll tells how life’s illusions—both public and private—inevitably shatter. First, in the Australian context, the play debunks the bush myth and the corollary idea of mateship. Roo and Barney are in truth “no-hopers,” as Roo admits, not heroic figures. While Barney is a paunchy, loud-mouthed sort, Roo is a forty-one-year-old canecutter who can no longer compete with the younger men. Barney fails to see the truth about himself; even at the end of the play he reasserts his optimism, long fed by the belief that the bush offers limitless opportunity, indeed the only real life: “And there’s a whole bloody country out there,” he tells Roo, “—wide open before us.” Roo, however, cursed or blessed with self-awareness, only looks at Barney, and, as the stage directions indicate, “in this brief meeting of eyes there is no bravado or questing hope, it is a completely open acknowledgment of what they have lost.” Like Barney, Olive refuses to accept defeat, for she ignores Roo when he tells her that “it’s gone—can’t you understand? Every last little scrap of it—gone.”

The public myth is inextricably bound with the private, for national illusions translate into personal ones. Australia has been called by its inhabitants “the lucky country,” a place where all things are deemed possible, where irresponsibility and a carefree existence are within reach. The two couples had lived this myth for sixteen summers, never allowing it to face the reality of winter. Once it started to wither, Nancy—whose presence hangs over the play—escaped into a respectable marriage; Olive clung to the shreds of romance and retreated from reality; Roo admitted the truth; Barney set out to prove that such dreams need not be forsaken. Because the play is open-ended, no one solution receives sanction.

In some ways, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is intrinsically Australian. It did receive acclaim in London, but perhaps, as some critics have pointed out, for the wrong reasons. The British, always condescending toward their former colonists, may have viewed the play as an amusing depiction of dreary, parochial Australian life, rather than as a serious work about the erosion of national and personal myth. On Broadway in 1958 it ran for a mere twenty-nine performances; at that time Australia was largely unknown to Americans, so the play’s national peculiarities may have mystified audiences. Still, there remains nothing purely Australian about disillusionment, whether it be personal or national.

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