Below is the text of a talk I gave at the Wheeler Centre last month as part of the series Australian Literature 101. I was asked to discuss Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which allowed me to expand some of my earlier responses. Most of all, I'm struck by how Olive has most often been seen as a secondary and ultimately childish character, when I've always thought the principal tragedy of the play belongs to her.
To anyone familiar with Australian theatre, Ray Lawler’s 1950s play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a monument: the most famous Australian play ever written or produced. Like many monuments, it generally stands unnoticed in the background, covered with dust and sundry pigeon droppings, and every now and then it’s dusted off to remind us about the achievements of Australian culture. As I said in a review of Neil Armfield’s recent Belvoir St production, which I saw at the MTC earlier this year:
“One of the paradoxes of art is the uneasy legacy of success. As soon as a work is labelled a "classic", it becomes curiously invisible: it transforms into a monument, cobwebbed by all the extraneous things its success now symbolises, and the energies that made it a success in the first place are polished away by the pieties that must now attend it. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a good example: a fixity in the Australian theatrical universe, a symbol of nationalistic pride, it too easily becomes a thing instead of an act. It even has a nickname: The Doll.”
|Alison Whyte as Olive. Photo: Jeff Busby|
The significance given to the Doll as a unique, groundbreaking Australian drama, the “Great Australian Play”, has meant that it has been largely read through a lens of cultural identity, which I think has inadvertently obscured some of its interesting aspects. I agree with everyone, however, that it’s a thoroughly Australian play. Its cultural status has also obscured other plays of the time that might have an equal claim to attention. All the same, it deserves its place in theatre history. I don’t believe it’s a great play – Australian playwrights have arguably written works of greater theatrical and literary significance. Even in its own time it broke little new ground: it opened in London the week after the premiere of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, which starred Laurence Olivier. Next to The Entertainer, the Doll, as a well-made three-act play, appears a little old-fashioned. But it is churlish to deny that the Doll remains a compelling drama sixty years later: it’s a realist tragedy that still has the capacity to strike home. If anything makes a classic, it’s the ability of a work to remain vivid, a quality of suppleness that allows it to speak to us powerfully in times different from those in which it was written: and the Doll certainly qualifies.
Lawler’s play has suffered from its classic status, as much as it has benefited from it: the nimbus of nationalistic pride, and especially the masculine ethos that goes with that, has tended to obscure its more interesting aspects. Armfield’s magnificent production earlier this year revealed it to be a play of more complexity and genuine power than is usually assumed. I hadn’t seen it, or thought about it much, since I saw the 1978 MTC production in high school: for me, as for many others, it was a dusty part of our theatrical heritage, an achievement worthy of genuine respect, but perhaps not of huge intrinsic interest. Armfield’s production reminded me, first of all, just how well-written it is: it’s an impeccably structured play without one ounce of fat, in which every utterance works inexorably towards its shattering climax.
The other thing that struck me was that in Olive, then played by Alison Whyte, we saw a protagonist every bit as tragic, every bit as iconic, as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. For me, Olive is the central character – hers is the desire which holds the dream together and which, finally, destroys it. Although the tragedy in the play belongs to all the characters, it belongs most of all to Olive.
Lawler's story of itinerant cane cutters who migrate to Melbourne every summer for the lay off is a parable of fantasy coming into brutal collision with reality and, like all tragedies, a meditation on mortality. For sixteen years, Roo and Barney have returned to their lovers Olive and Nancy, for a white-hot summer of love in the Carlton boarding house run by Olive's mother: each year Roo brings Olive a kewpie doll, as a token. But now Nancy is gone: she has married a bookshop owner and settled down. Olive, refusing to face the implications of Nancy's desertion, has roped in her barmaid friend, the respectably widowed Pearl, to take Nancy's place.
When the boys arrive, it's clear that all is not well: Roo is broke, and his and Barney's relationship simmers with unsaid hostilities. These have been catalysed by the arrival of a young ganger, Johnnie O'Dowd, whose youthful virility shows Roo that he isn’t the man he once was. As the play continues, the fantasy crumbles under the sceptical eyes of Pearl: against Pearl’s sardonic observations, the other observer, Bubba, a young girl who lives next door, asserts the reality of the romance. Roo gets a job at a paint factory, and finally, in the shattering conclusion, proposes marriage to Olive: a proposal that she rejects in horror. In the final scene, Barney and Roo, both broken men, leave the house forever.
The Doll employs an Australian idiom that has largely vanished from our cities, with the broad vowels and supple, ironic wit that later became caricatured as the "larrikin" or the ocker. In Lawler's hands it's plain and unexaggerated, the speech of working class people. The play's three-act structure is similarly unadorned. Armfield’s stripped down production exposed the bones of the play, and showed what it always has been: a startlingly well-written text, of its time and place, but resonating beyond them.
As John McCallum notes in his book Belonging: Australian Playwrighting in the 20th Century, the Doll was “the first professionally produced Australian play outside the commercial theatre to receive any serious professional support and backing.” He argues, rightly I think, that much of its subsequent success was in luck and timing. It’s worth remembering the fate of Oriel Gray’s The Torrents, which, with the Doll, was joint winner of the Playwrights Advisory Board’s play competition. In fact, the judging panel considered The Torrents “the more complete play”: but Gray’s work, without the support of a production, sank into total obscurity.
This illuminates a major aspect of theatre writing, which doesn’t apply to works such as poems or novels: playwrights must have a theatre to write for, and a play isn’t complete until it’s produced on stage. This makes a play an impure artform, as it necessarily becomes the point of focus for a range of other disciplines that together produce the finished (or, perhaps, to steal a phrase from Duchamp, the “finally unfinished”) work of art.
Because of this, there’s been a lot of discussion in recent years on whether plays can be considered “proper” literature: if the text is subject to such instability, to the rigors of interpretation and reinterpretation through the visions of directors, designers, actors, musicians, can it really be thought of as literary art? Some playwrights, inverting the literary snobbery too often directed against their artform, themselves resist the idea that plays are literature. Myself, I don’t see the argument: to me it makes no sense at all to deny that plays are literature, especially in an Anglo culture which considers its greatest literary genius to be Shakespeare, and which traces its roots back to Aeschylus. You can read plays, just as you can read other books, and they exhibit all the qualities we expect from other literary writing: formal curiosity, style, intellectual and emotional engagement. Well, at least, good plays do.
No matter how good they are, playwrights need a theatre to write for, and in the 1950s it scarcely existed. The Doll, with its unapologetic Australian vernacular, its invocation of the bush legend and its contemporary urban setting, burst on the scene in 1955 with stunning effect. According to critic Katharine Brisbane, it was a household name within a year of its premiere.
Most of all, the Doll was rapturously received as a “mature” play, a statement that Australia was, at last, “growing up” and asserting its unique identity in the world. This, of course, was reinforced when it went on to a highly successful London season. It was even made into a Hollywood film starring Ernest Borgnine, which I’m told is best forgotten. When it opened at the Elizabethan Theatre in Sydney in 1956, Lindsay Browne in the Sydney Morning Herald struck the note:
“This fine play, untranslatably Australian in all its accents, gave Australian theatre goers the chance to feel as American audiences must have felt when O’Neill first began to assert American vitality and independence in drama, or the Irish must have felt when Synge gave them The Playboy of the Western World. This was real and exciting Australiana, with Australian spirit springing from the deep heart of the characters, and never merely pretending that Australianism is a few well-placed bonzers, too-rights, strike-me-luckies and good-Os.” J. Griffin Foley in the Daily Telegraph wrote similarly: “It has happened at last – someone has written a genuine Australian lay without kangaroos or stockwhips, but an indigenous play about city dwellers.” (Indigenous, of course, was used differently then.)
As those reviews make clear, the Doll was lifted up on a burgeoning nationalism, a hunger to assert Australian identity unapologetically in the face of our colonial heritage. John McCallum traces the various readings of the play: as he says, “The Doll is so well-known, and has been written about so widely, that it is difficult to discuss it without cliché or, more importantly, without supporting one or more of the standard critical perspectives. Is it a socio-cultural document of its time or an individual drama of personal interactions? Is a story of the failure of childish illusions or a proud assertion of a new vision? Is it a hard-nosed study of a new urban Australia or a sentimental elegy for a lost past?”
In 1978, Katharine Brisbane wrote that it was a play about growing up, locating its meaning firmly as a statement about Australia’s national identity. “It is about growing up and growing old and failing to grow up: and the study throws into relief not only the failures of a dilapidated Melbourne household, but the character of a nation”. She placed it in context of a struggle for national cultural identity: in the 1950s, as Brisbane puts it, Australians had “a yearning to mix on terms of equality with those older civilisations thousands of servicemen had glimpsed during the War.” She said that Lawler had “unconsciously drawn upon the major themes of our literature: man pitting his strength against nature, mateship and freedom and alienation in the itinerant life this vast country offers, rugged individualism and the resilient humour that shrugs off despair. He presses these country-bred virtues into a new, urban context and gently questions them one by one, finding behind the sun-blessed strength a tragic lack of spiritual resource.”
This points to a common interpretation of the play as a “tragedy of inarticulacy”: as Brisbane says, one of the qualities of the play is “the economy with which [Lawler] expresses the inarticulate nature of the characters and the way the deprivation of language is related to a deprivation of spirit and intellect”. I would take mild issue with this: Lawler’s characters all seem to be, on their own terms, perfectly articulate to me. I’m troubled about the class judgment implied here, since these inarticulacies are seen to be the result of being uneducated, working class characters: it’s perilously close to saying that the inability to express feelings means that those feelings don’t exist. Lawler certainly positions the unseen Nancy as smarter, a woman who is forever reading books and who escapes the impending doom of the layoffs by marrying a bookshop owner. But I’d suggest that there’s a profound ambivalence here. One thing underlining this ambiguity is the fact that it’s the very articulacy of these characters that allowed them to create their alternative reality: the myths that they have constructed around their relationships crucially depend on the imaginative capacities of language.
Olive heroicises the image of rural masculinity symbolised by Roo and Barney: as she says, for years they have flown down from the south, “two eagles flyin' down out of the sun”. She vividly portrays them to Pearl as the epitome of untrammelled, sexual force:
Nancy used to say it was how they’d walk into the pub as if they owned it, even just in the way you walked you could spot it. All round would be the regulars, soft city blokes having their drinks and their little arguments, and then in would come Roo and Barney… She always reckoned they made the rest of the mob look like skinned rabbits.
Just as it’s language that builds the myth, it’s language that ultimately tears it down. Now nearing their their forties, Roo and Barney both find, to their bafflement and anger, that they are no longer young, that the youth and vigour which they took for granted has deserted them. But it takes Pearl’s innocent laughter at Barney’s toast to “glamorous nights” to rip away the final rags of the illusion. Roo is prepared to cut his cloth to his new circumstances, and gets a regular job, just like the soft city blokes, readying himself to make an honest woman of Olive. Barney, once the epitome of sexual charisma, finds himself mocked by the women who once succumbed to his charms. The quintessential henchman, Barney shifts his loyalty to the new alpha male, Johnnie O’Dowd.
Reading the critiques of the Doll now, it’s striking how the action of the play is critiqued primarily through its male characters: Olive’s desires and struggles are seen as subordinate, certainly secondary, to the drama of the men. In 1987, Jane Cousins wrote that “Roo is the term of reference and Olive merely the site at which his new identity is to be confirmed.” Certainly, the final image is the play is of the two men leaving together, after a sudden, “uncharacteristic”, gesture of genuine friendship from Barney, in which he touches Roo's shoulder and gently leads him away. Here the glossy ideal of mateship that the two men supposedly embody is stripped of its mythos, and reduced to a single moment of insight and compassion. I’m not sure that this gesture really legitimates, as Cousins claims, “a nostalgic return to [the] imaginary unity [of the outback hero]”: it’s far too ambiguous. In its unexpected tenderness, it could be seen as the introduction of a feminine understanding into the aggressively masculine ideal of mateship. It's certainly an image of overwhelming defeat.
The character who is most invested in the ideal of the layoff is Olive herself: she is the person who passionately resists change, and who will destroy everything rather than compromise her dream. Olive is a huge role, both emotionally and in terms of her presence on stage: we see her well before Roo and Barney, she drives the action, and the dramatic climax belongs to her.
Why does Olive so passionately resist Roo’s offer of a wedding ring? Lawler himself, implicitly rejecting the grander notions that he was making a narrative of Australian identity, said that he thought the Doll was simply a play about “alternatives to marriage”. With this in mind, it’s worth looking again at the relationships portrayed in the play.
Olive has mostly been seen as the foolish, immature woman, clinging to unrealistic dreams: Joy Hooton places her with the infantile feminine imaginary, “seduced by an illusion”. Brisbane says of the famous scene in which Olive rejects Roo’s proposal of marriage that “it is a woman’s response that is needed here – but Olive in Roo’s care has never grown to womanhood. She wants, not marriage, but her girlhood restored.”
Cousins considers Olive as a site of feminine resistance and conflict in the constitution of a national character, and concludes: “this requires an analysis of the formal constraints within which the attempt to change the meaning of the dominant [bush] image of national identity led to the staging of contradictions within this figure as a conflict between the 'masculine' outback and the 'feminine' city… Critics have hailed the Doll as the agent of a positive transformation of the ‘national character’, but this character (secure within its humanist and phallocentric frame) remains predictably unified, univocal, and gendered masculine.”
I read the Doll rather as a critique about the difficulty of sustaining equality in sexual relationships in a society in which roles for man and women are rigidly defined. The dream that is destroyed is a dream – Olive’s dream – of equality. Behind this is a hint of another Australia, one that in the late 19th and early 20th century bridged the urban and rural divide. This is the Australia that was thought of as the “working man’s paradise”, in which the rural shearing unions were as crucial to social progress as the building unions in the cities; the country that was the first to introduce the eight hour day and only the second to give women the vote. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to read the Doll as an elegy, not for the "bush", but for this egalitarian vision: it's a portrayal of how this idea of Australianness began to vanish after World War 2, when working class aspirations began to give way to the middle class values espoused by Pearl.
It’s certainly uncontroversial to say that the conflicts in the Doll are driven by socially gendered constraints, symbolised most powerfully by the marriage which the major characters have rejected. But if we take Olive to be an active protagonist, rather than a passive reflector of the men, it seems to me that Olive isn’t rejecting the “feminisation of the outback hero” so much as demanding those outback freedoms for herself. She seeks to reconstitute those freedoms in an urban context, making herself a “mate” as well as a lover. When she hears that Roo is broke, she says aggressively “What’s wrong with me? I’m workin’, ain’t I?” Roo, defending his masculine pride, tells her he won’t bludge off her, and insists that he will get a job: but Olive herself has no problems at all with the idea that he might be financially dependent.
Olive’s resistance to marriage has been taken to be a proof of her refusal to “grow up”: it’s seldom been seen as a resistance that goes to the heart of her autonomy as a woman. At the end of the play, in a brief but significant moment of rapport, Roo says to Olive: “Y’know, a man’s a fool to treat you as a woman. You’re nothin’ but a little girl about twelve years old.” Olive’s response is to refer to her job: “Try telling that to the mob on a Saturday night.” Roo insists: “”S true, all the same,” and then attempts to persuade her to take the day off work. It’s an offer that Olive tellingly refuses.
Olive is usually taken at Roo’s estimation, but seldom at hers: in her own eyes, she is an independent working woman. If she marries, she loses her freedom: she becomes indeed the dependent female that she’s ironically been often considered in criticism. By entering marriage, she gives up her name, her autonomy and especially her financial independence (in the 50s, married women lost her jobs, just as Nancy has had to leave the bar to be with her bookshop owner). For Olive, this means giving up her life. With Roo away for seven months of year, she can have her cake and eat it too. The lay-off, she tells Pearl, is “not just playing around and spending a lot of money, but a time for livin’. You think I haven’t sized that up against what other women have? I laugh at them every time they try to tell me. Even waiting for Roo to come back is more exciting than anything they’ve got…”
This statement has usually been taken as an assertion of Olive’s dependence on Roo, rather than an expression of her independence. Yet when it comes to the crunch, Olive gives up her man, but she won’t give up her job. Our last sight of her is after the dream has crashed: in a magnificently melodramatic moment of renunciation, Roo kneels down and tells her, “This is the dust we’re in and we’re gunna walk through it like everyone else for the rest of our lives!” Olive reacts with physical anguish, “doubling over herself on the floor as if cradling an awful inner pain”. What she is mourning is her sexual life, which is now over: the trade-off that women must make, choosing between autonomy and sexuality, is inescapable. Perhaps the worst possibility of all is that the equality she thought she possessed never really existed. That’s the real betrayal in Roo’s proposal: to him, she is only a little girl. In the face of this, stumbling with shock, she does the only thing left to her: she picks up her bag and goes to work.
In the Doll, Lawler puts both masculinity and femininity under the burning glass. The roles evaporate in the heat of the drama and reveal desperate people seeing through a glass darkly, aware of how they are trapped, but unable to do anything about it. None of the characters is socially conventional, but for all their refusal of their allotted roles - as dutiful working husband or suburban wife - they remain trapped: Roo and Barney in their limited ideals of manhood, Olive and Pearl in different imprisonments of femininity. Their tragedy is that in the society in which they live, there is no escape for them: the only alternative to accepting the deathly conventions they have abjured all their lives is absolute loss. I think that central dilemma is the reason it remains such a powerful play today.