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Diamond Doll

by Karen Vickery, 24 March 2016

Karen Vickery delights in a thespian thread of the Australian yarn.

Ray Lawler, 2006 (printed 2010) by Bill McAuley
Ray Lawler, 2006 (printed 2010) by Bill McAuley

An extraordinary photograph in the National Portrait Gallery collection is that of Ray Lawler, taken by Bill McAuley in 2006. The portrait shows a pixie-like, senior Lawler emerging from shadow into a bright spotlight, clutching a lurid, green-clothed kewpie doll on a stick. The shadow cast by the spotlight looms behind the figure of man and doll; the whole effect is both whimsical and menacing. The kewpie in the photograph was presented to Lawler after the 1995 production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at the Sydney Theatre Company, and the play that emerged from the shadows of Australian theatre into the spotlight has gripped the national imagination and been revived on Australian stages over the past sixty years. 

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered on 28 November 1955 at the Union Theatre in Melbourne. The play gave audiences unmistakably Australian characters in a familiar setting, speaking with their own accents and telling their own stories. Relatively little Australian work had been produced in theatres up to this point. The Doll, as it soon became affectionately known, was a turning point in Australian theatre history and soon became a classic of the Australian repertoire.

In the 1950s, Australia was in the midst of an economic boom. Robert Menzies was Prime Minister and the post-war immigration policy was beginning to change the nature of the Australian identity. Artists such as Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan were emerging, and Australian literature was finding a voice. Pubs were largely a male domain and closed at 6pm, leading to the infamous ‘six o’clock swill’, Sundays were deathly quiet in towns and cities, obscenity laws were being tightened and Customs could ban books.

Ray Lawler was born in Victoria, growing up in working class Footscray during the Depression and working in a factory from the age of thirteen, until one of his plays was taken up by JC Williamson when he was twenty-three. Encouraged, Lawler tried acting, producing and writing, eventually becoming a director of the Union Theatre at Melbourne University, a pro-am theatre which was shared with student productions in the off season. The Doll was directed by Englishman John Sumner, with Lawler casting himself as Barney. Sumner, whose portrait by Jim Paterson is held in the Portrait Gallery’s collection, went on to found the Melbourne Theatre Company. 

John Sumner, 1976 by Jim Paterson

The play had shared a win in the 1954 Playwrights’ Advisory Board Competition, sharing the two hundred pound prize money with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents. Part of the prize was that the board would undertake to produce the winning play, and the newly founded Elizabethan Theatre Trust, led by Englishman Hugh Hunt, was approached. Formed in the wake of the Queen’s visit to Australia, the Trust aimed to ‘provide a theatre of Australians by Australians for Australians’. Philanthropists, corporations and the Commonwealth Government provided funding. 

On debut, the play was met with an enthusiastic reception and enjoyed a hugely successful season, with The Argus stating: [Lawler has] ‘… written a play so superbly true to Australian thought and the Australian scene that theatrical conventions disappear. Barney, Roo, Pearl and Emma are real people. We know their faces, their voices – we share their dreams, we understand their failures.’

Photograph from the records of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) 1957

Despite anxiety that the play set in a terrace house in Carlton and referring to Melbourne’s iconic Young and Jackson Hotel might be deemed too parochial, the play received a rapturous reception on opening in Sydney in a small theatre in run-down Newtown. Although many first-nighters refused to go to Newtown to see an Australian play, the opening night, 10 January 1956, was an extraordinary, watershed moment in Australian cultural history. 

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: ‘Here 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.’

The first night crowd in their pearls and satin were recorded as having applauded the set as the stage curtain parted. The Carlton boarding house, which formed the background of all the action of the play, had retreated into shabbiness from its once highly polished respectability. Ranging from an upright piano, described by Lawler as ‘purchased in 1919’, to a ‘chromium smoker’s stand won in a pub raffle last month’, the rooms were furnished more for practicality than style. Dominating the decoration were sixteen kewpie dolls clad in tinsel and tulle, attached to fine walking canes. A flurry of stuffed tropical birds adorned the walls, along with a display case of butterflies and the odd piece of coral and shells from North Queensland.

'History making play returns'. The Doll company: John Sumner, Ray Lawler, Madge Ryan, Fenella Maguire, Ethel Gabriel 1957

The play thrust the style of European naturalism into an Australian setting. Not unlike the American dramas of Arthur Miller in the forties and fifties, The Doll took the model of the socially conscious dramas of European naturalism and co-opted them to a local setting, authentically exploring ordinary people in their own milieu. 

For sixteen years, on their annual five-month layoff from cane cutting in North Queensland, Roo and Barney have lived with two barmaids, Olive and Nancy, in Melbourne in the Carlton boarding house run by Olive’s widowed mother, Emma. Roo gives Olive a kewpie doll each year when he arrives. In this seventeenth year, Nancy has married and been replaced in the quartet by Pearl, a widowed barmaid and colleague of Olive. Unbeknownst to Olive, Roo has quit and plans to stay in Melbourne. The changing times hit Olive hard. 

A parable of youthful dreams coming into harsh collision with the realities of changing times and ageing, Olive’s treasured memories of sixteen summers of carefree love and good times come into brutal relief under Pearl’s more sceptical eye, and the realities of Roo’s diminished physical capacity, which has been directly challenged by a younger, fitter ganger, Johnny Dowd. The previously inseparable Roo and Barney find their once solid mateship splintering under the pressure. The simmering tension between them culminates in a bruising fight in the living room, during which the seventeenth doll, symbol of the cherished layoff season, is smashed. In the final shattering scenes, Roo, now a worker in a local paint factory, proposes to Olive. She recoils in horror and rejects suburban marriage. Devastated, she picks up her handbag and goes to work. Barney and Roo, supporting each other once more, leave the Carlton house forever.

Commentary on the play has often considered Olive’s refusal of Roo’s proposal as a failure to come to terms with reality, and an immature response. More recently, Olive has been described as a woman with a vision of a different reality, one in which settling for a suburban marriage and leaving work to be a housewife is not imaginable. Either way, the loss for all the characters is terrible.

In 1956, after the stellar season in Melbourne, each performance of the three-week season in Sydney was sold out, after which the Trust sent the play on a tour of Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Launceston, followed by the regions. Sixty country towns in New South Wales and Queensland were visited in the following three months. Indeed, demand was so strong in 1956 that several additional companies of actors were formed, and they toured the play concurrently. It was reported in the Companion to Theatre in Australia that ‘people drove hundreds of kilometres and a man swam a flooded river to see it in the Northern Territory’. 

None other than Sir Laurence Olivier invited the play to tour to London, saying, ‘It’s a damn good play. It’s as simple as that. Good plays are not easy to find.’ The Oliviers, Sir Laurence and Vivien Leigh, had conducted their own royal tour of Australia in 1954, and contributed financially to the refurbishment of the Newtown Theatre in which The Doll played. A youthful and handsome Richard Pratt joined the Doll company tour to London as the young gun Johnny Dowd, threatening the supremacy of the ageing Roo in the Queensland cane cutting gang. The play won a best new play award for its season at the West End.

The New York season was less successful, closing after five weeks. One can speculate about the specificities of the Australian dialect being lost on an American audience, but equally, more familiar with a diet of Miller and Tennessee Williams, perhaps the play seemed less revolutionary in America than it did in England, where critics noted the respect for working people provided a salutary lesson for homegrown dramatists. Nevertheless, Hollywood produced an adaptation in 1959 starring Ernest Borgnine, Anne Baxter, Angela Lansbury and John Mills, called Season of Passion, in which the characters approach their Carlton residence by travelling on a ferry on Sydney Harbour after a night out at the Easter Show. 

The film version also has a ‘happy ending’, with Olive acquiescing to Roo’s proposal of marriage as if this was what she’d aspired to for seventeen years. The only member of the Australian cast in the movie was Ethel Gabriel, who performed the role of Emma to acclaim.

The Doll has been translated into many languages, was adapted to an opera, and in 1977 the Melbourne Theatre Company commissioned Lawler to write two prequels, Kid Stakes and Other Times, which became known as The Doll Trilogy.

Though many feared that the trilogy would dampen the impact of the beloved Doll, it is generally agreed that the two prequels penned by Lawler over twenty years later served to deepen our affection for, and understanding of, the characters in the original play. The Doll retains its ineffable power and hold on audiences.

When asked recently about whether he tires of talking about his best-known work, the now ninety-four year-old Lawler gracefully responded: ‘Let’s be honest at least; I think any writer is lucky to have one play or one book that people like; it’s wonderful.’