'The most famous Australian play and one of the best loved, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a tragicomic story of Roo and Barney, two Queensland sugar-cane cutters who go to Melbourne every year during the 'layoff' to live it up with their barmaid girl friends. The title refers to kewpie dolls, tawdry fairground souvenirs, that they brings as gifts and come, in some readings of the play, to represent adolescent dreams in which the characters seem to be permanently trapped. The play tells the story in traditional well-made, realistic form, with effective curtains and an obligatory scene. Its principal appeal – and that of two later plays with which it forms The Doll Trilogy – is the freshness and emotional warmth, even sentimentality, with which it deals with simple virtues of innocence and youthful energy that lie at the heart of the Australian bush legend.
'Ray Lawler’s play confronts that legend with the harsh new reality of modern urban Australia. The 17th year of the canecutters’ arrangement is different. There has been a fight on the canefields and Roo, the tough, heroic, bushman, has arrived with his ego battered and without money. Barney’s girl friend Nancy has left to get married and is replaced by Pearl, who is suspicious of the whole set-up and hopes to trap Barney into marriage. The play charts the inevitable failure of the dream of the layoff, the end of the men’s supremacy as bush heroes and, most poignantly, the betrayal of the idealistic self-sacrifice made by Roo’s girl friend Olive – the most interesting character – to keep the whole thing going. The city emerges victorious, but the emotional tone of the play vindicates the fallen bushman.'
Source: McCallum, John. 'Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.' Companion to Theatre in Australia. Ed. Philip Parson and Victoria Chance. Sydney: Currency Press , 1997: 564-656.
Queensland canecutters Roo and Barney have spent the previous sixteen summers off in Sydney with their girlfriends, Olive and Nancy. Each year, Barney has ritualistically presented Olive (a barmaid) with a kewpie doll. Time has begun to take its toll, however, and this seventeenth summer is very different. After a bad season--which saw him lose his position as head canecutter to a younger man, Dowd--Roo quits the gang, leaving him without a job and short of money. His and Barney's friendship is subsequently tested when Barney decides to continue working under Dowd. In another change since their last visit, Nancy has married, and although Olive has arranged for Pearl, a manicurist, to move in with Barney, the new arrangement doesn't feel right. When Roo tries to persuade Olive to settle down with him in marriage after all these years, she at first refuses angrily but later accepts.
The film's screenplay moves the play's location from the Melbourne suburb of Carlton to Sydney. The theme of faded dreams is also weakened by a more optimistic ending.
BBC adaptation of Lawler's play for television.
'The original work on which this production is based is the classic Australian play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. This play put Australian theatre on the international map in the 1950's, and remains a seminal work in the Australian canon with its evocative rendering of lost time. Playwright, Ray Lawler, gave permission for Jacqui Carroll to reconfigure his most famous work as a theatrical fantasy. This work has a mystical aura through the use of imagery that is both cartoon-like and surreal. Ninety percent of the dialogue has been replaced by movement and music that is entertaining, poignant and witty.
'Olive, Roo, Barney, Pearl remain as the dreamy main characters and, surrounded by the vocal and musical chorus of the three probing realists, they continually search for past happiness in a world that has changed forever. In this production the Doll has morphed into a life sized fairy that flits in and out, casting her charming, eccentric spell over everyone.'
Source: Artfilms website, Doll Seventeen entry: http://www.artfilms.com.au/Detail.aspx?ItemID=2096.
Sighted: 03/03/ 2015.
Unit Suitable For
AC: Senior Secondary (English Unit 4 and 3). While the play and some of the activities are suitable for students between years 10 to 12, the unit has been designed to contribute to the achievement of the outcomes of Unit 4 of the Senior English course: By the end of this unit, students: understand how content, structure, voice and perspective in texts shape responses and interpretations examine different interpretations of texts and how these resonate with, or challenge, their own responses create cohesive oral, written and multimodal texts in a range of forms, mediums and styles. It may also be used to achieve the outcomes of Senior English Literature Unit 3. By the end of this unit, students: understand the relationship between language, culture and identity develop their own analytical responses by synthesising and challenging other interpretations create oral, written and multimodal texts that experiment with literary style.
Australia, Australian identity, change, coming of age, friendship, gender, tragedy
Critical and creative thinking, Information and communication technology, Literacy
First produced at the Union Theatre, University of Melbourne on 28 November 1955 with Lawler in the role of Barney, and then at the Elizabethan Theatre, Sydney, 11 January and 27 March 1956. Seasons directed by John Sumner.
Produced at the Rialto Theatre, West End, Queensland, 22 May 1956.
Produced at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 21 July 1956.
Produced at the Theatre Royal, Adelaide, 25 August 1956.
Produced in London in 1957. A New York season followed in 1958.
First performed with Other Times and Kid Stakes as The Doll Trilogy at the Russell Street Theatre, Melbourne on 12 February 1977.
Broadcast on ABC Radio National on Sunday 9 January 2011 as part of the Playing the 20th Century series.
Produced at Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre from 24 September 2011.
Produced by the State Company of South Australia as part of their 2015 season, 24 April to 16 May 2015.
Director: Geordie Brookman.
Set and Costume Designer: Pip Runciman.
Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings.
Composer: Quentin Grant.
Cast includes Christ Pitman and Jacqy Phillips.
Performed at Black Swan State Theatre Company 5-20 May 2018.
Set for production by Theatre Works and Hit Productions, 24 June - 27 June 2020.
Director: Denny Lawrence.
Production postponed, but not initially cancelled, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ray Lawler explains the circumstances in which he decided to create the Doll Trilogy. He also provides background information on canecutting, boarding houses and kewpie dolls.
'Black Swan State Theatre Company’s terrific new production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll joins other recent revivals such as those by Belvoir Street Theatre (2011) and State Theatre Company of South Australia (2015) in showing that Ray Lawler’s 1955 classic has lost none of its power to entertain and provoke.' (Introduction)