'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 replace 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.
First performed in 1955, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll has become an Australian classic, praised for its accurate portrayal of ‘ordinary Australia’. Its sense of authenticity springs from the way situation, characterisation and language depict a turning point in how Australians saw themselves and were seen by others.
"Ray Lawler's revised script (2012) of his (and Australia's) most famous play, in which two larrikin canecutters and their women awaken to middle-age. The impact of The Doll cannot be overstated. Its success both here and abroad was quickly recognised as a defining moment in Australian theatre history."
Source: Currency Press
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.