Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by Ray Lawler

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The Play

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Anyone not familiar with Australian culture and geography may find it difficult to understand aspects of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. For one thing, in Australia a sharp division has long existed between attitudes toward the city and toward the country—or “the bush.” The bush is thought to represent the true Australia, and city life is considered a betrayal of bush values. A masculine world, the bush has bred a mythical man: strong, brave, silent, faithful, self-reliant. These men from the bush—where women are scarce and play a secondary role—take care of one another, share burdens, remain steadfast through all adversities, and form a distinctive alliance called “mateship.” The two leading male characters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll are “mates,” who work as canecutters in tropical Queensland, a state about one-fifth the size of the United States. Finally, in contrast to the vast and sparsely populated bush where the men in the play spend most of the year, Melbourne is a cosmopolitan city of a million or more people and is located in southern Australia—more than two thousand miles from northern Queensland.

All the play’s action takes place in the living room of a house in one of Melbourne’s working-class neighborhoods. The drama opens by revealing the events of the past sixteen summers and introducing what will unfold during the seventeenth. (It should be noted that the Southern Hemisphere’s summer begins in December.) Barney and Roo, the canecutter mates from Queensland, have spent their past “lay-offs” with two Melbourne barmaids, Nancy and Olive, but since the men last returned to the canefields, Barney’s longtime lover, Nancy, has married a city man who works in a bookstore. Determined that this summer will be as pleasant as the previous ones, Olive, Roo’s faithful part-time lover, has recruited a replacement for Nancy, another barmaid named Pearl.

The men arrive, and everyone works to reestablish the past enchantment. As always, Roo has brought Olive a cheap carnival doll, which symbolizes their seasonal romance; the other sixteen dolls hang on the wall above the piano. No matter how much they try, circumstances are now working against them. Nancy’s absence creates a vacuum, because Barney fails to impress her substitute. Roo reveals that he has not worked steadily during the past season and is broke.

As the play unfolds, the seventeenth summer crumbles, and as it does so it undermines the illusions built during the days long gone. The first scene in act 2 depicts a dreary New Year’s Eve party that contrasts sharply with the remembered pleasure of such celebrations in the past. After all, the participants in the charade are aging, and what transpires reveals not only their weaknesses but also their failures. Olive holds stubbornly to a lie; Barney emerges a loud and vulgar braggart; Roo, the archetypal bushman, has in fact lost his status as champion canecutter to a younger man and, broke, has taken a factory job in the much-hated city. Pearl, the stand-in for Nancy, places herself above such tawdry relationships and refuses to play a part in the fantasy.

In the second scene of act 2, Barney brings home Roo’s competitor from the canefields, a young man named Dowd. Forced to face in Dowd the image of his lost youth, Roo turns on Barney. The “mates” argue bitterly and reveal the truth about one another. Barney had failed with the women he had supposedly seduced; Roo had lost his canecutting job, not because of a bad back, but because of his inability to perform. They begin to fight, and when Olive and her mother intervene, Roo says...

(This entire section contains 793 words.)

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of the women: “Well, it’s about time they knew what they was dealin’ with anyway, a coupla lousy no-hopers!” As the scene concludes, Roo smashes a vase containing the seventeenth doll, which lands on the floor; then, in a pathetic gesture, Olive picks up the doll and holds it close to her.

In act 3, Pearl tries to make Olive accept the truth about the fabled summers, but Olive refuses, just as she refuses Roo’s offer of marriage, screaming at him in horror: “You think I’ll let it all end up in marriage—every day—a paint factory—you think I’ll marry you?” Defeated, Roo replies: “This is the dust we’re in and we’re gunna walk through it like everyone else for the rest of our lives!” Barney then begs to reaffirm their mateship, but Roo reveals without words the futility of such a move when he picks up the seventeenth doll and beats it against the piano, smashes and tears at it “until it is nothing but a litter of broken cane, tinsel and celluloid.” The men exit.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287

Ray Lawler followed the dictates of the traditional well-made play in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It is reminiscent both of a drama such as Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (pr., pb. 1879; A Doll’s House, 1880) and of work from the American theater such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (pr., pb. 1949). Lawler worked out his theme through the traditional three-act structure, maintained fidelity to real life, and set ordinary people on a course that takes them to some kind of realization. Each scene is marked by a beginning, middle, and end, with the action rising steadily toward a climax that will lead the characters to their moments of recognition. Lawler avoids didacticism by letting these characters express through their words, actions, and reactions the ideas that inform the play’s theme. Finally, because of the ironic denouement, no single interpretation emerges—just as there are no absolutes in life.

Even if, from the standpoint of world theater, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is somewhat imitative and mundane in its dramatics, the play did introduce new devices to the Australian theater. Scant though they were, earlier Australian plays either portrayed comical country life or the epic grandeur that the bush myth engendered. For the first time, Lawler placed down-to-earth, urban Australians on the stage; making full use of the vernacular, he let them sound like Australians. Even in the 1950’s, more than 70 percent of the population lived in cities, but as a result of the bush myth’s strength—it had been largely ignored in the country’s literature, which still promoted the ideals by which the characters in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll attempted to live. The dramatic devices Lawler employed revolutionized Australian theater.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 108

Sources for Further Study

Carroll, Dennis. “Ray Lawler.” In Australian Contemporary Drama. 1985. Rev. ed. Sydney, Australia: Currency Press, 1995.

Fitzpatrick, Peter. “Ray Lawler.” In After “The Doll”: Australian Drama Since 1955. Melbourne, Australia: Edward Arnold, 1979.

Goldsmith, Kerryn. “Is It a Boy or a Girl? Gendering the Seventeenth Doll.”Southerly: A Review of Australian Literature, Autumn, 1995, 89-105.

Hibberd, Jack. “After Many a Summer: The Doll Trilogy.” Meanjin 36 (Summer, 1977): 106-109.

Hooton, Joy. “Lawler’s Demythologising of The Doll: Kid Stakes and Other Times.” Australian Literary Studies 12 (October, 1986): 335-346.

McCallum, John. “Ray Lawler.” In Contemporary Dramatists. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James, 1988.

Rees, Leslie. The Making of Australian Drama. Sydney, Australia: Angus and Robertson, 1973.


Critical Essays