Summer of the Seventeenth Doll: The way we were

To celebrate Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’s 60th anniversary, State Theatre of South Australia will present playwright Ray Lawler’s most famous work. The dramatist writes about the play’s longevity.

To celebrate Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’s 60th anniversary, State Theatre of South Australia will present playwright Ray Lawler’s most famous work. The dramatist writes about the play’s longevity. The Doll had its first production in 1955, and the forthcoming State Theatre presentation marks the play’s 60th anniversary year. Since 1955 there have been numerous revivals, the text has never been out of print, and whenever a new production is staged, the question most frequently asked of me is how to account for the play’s longevity. It is a question I usually try to dodge – it seemed to belong to the same category as how long is a piece of string – but because this is the 60th anniversary year and I believe I now have a clue as to what may be involved, I would like to make a stab at an answer. Probably the key to this is a walk I took with John Sumner in New York’s Central Park on a bitterly cold day in 1958. John was the play’s first director, he had guided us through a long Australian tour, a season in the New Theatre in London’s West End, where the play had won the Evening Standard Award For Best Play Of The Year, and where the successful London season had been cut short at the urgent request of the New York Theatre Guild, in order that the group might make take full advantage of the 1958 American season. An urgency that may have flattered and lulled us into a false sense of security, and we made no objection when the Guild proposed that we should fast track the season by opening with a number of New York high priced charity performances, sold off to various organisations, rather than embark on the sort of out-of-town regional tour that often helped to get Guild plays off for a successful opening. If so, the first of our charity performances shocked us into an awareness that we were playing to a very different audience, people who had bought expensive tickets to support a particular charity, were not necessarily interested in theatre at all, and certainly in no mood for anything more demanding than the easiest of nights out. The reaction to our Australian accents and slang was at first one of restless bewilderment, and then resentment – the failure to understand us and the play evident in the fact that all humour in the show died an immediate death. Committee members of the Theatre Guild who had arranged the charity previews now split immediately into two different camps: those who had seen the play in London where the Australian accent and slang had presented no particular difficulty, telling us that we would find the usual New York audience much more appreciative and theatrewise than a charity audience, while an opposing group insisted that the strongly Australian qualities of the play were a bar to easy American understanding. The dominant proposal of the latter group was that changes must be made, accents eliminated or at least no more than lightly suggested, slang terms changed for American equivalents, and exposition scenes simplified before our official New York opening. Meanwhile we were faced with the rest of the charity previews. We had, I think, nine charity performances altogether, and we still had four or five to go on the day John and I took our walk in the park. We had been told the theatrical word was already out around town that the show was in deep trouble, which we knew wouldn’t help our opening, but neither of us felt that the advice we were getting from the Guild was likely to remedy the matter. Talking things over, I wondered gloomily if the trouble wasn’t that the play dealt with the end of a long 17-year relationship, and we could hardly expect an audience to grasp the subtleties of this if they were unfamiliar with the background and couldn’t follow our accents. Perhaps the sort of play they needed here was something starting from scratch, more a summer of the first doll? John, who never liked pointless discussions, dismissed this with a shrug, but then went on to say: “You do have to wonder how an arrangement such as the layoff could have come about at the beginning ?” It was no more than a passing comment, and one we didn’t pursue, but that was the springboard for what eventually became the Doll Trilogy. How much the circumstances of the opening had to do with our failure on Broadway is a question, but our closing didn’t affect seasons of the play elsewhere, and it continued to be revived on its own home ground. So much so that years later, living in Ireland, I came to ask myself why this play seemed to have a life of its own, much more so than anything else I had written. It was only then, looking at the 17 summers of the storyline, that I realised what three different periods of Australian life the narrative covered. I had written and set the play in 1953, which meant that the first summer of the layoff had begun in 1937, when Australia was still strongly in the grip of the Great Depression. The layoffs then continued through the Second World War, years with their own very different troubles, and carried through afterwards to 1953, with our great intake of migrants arriving from Europe and the beginnings of what we might recognise as the modern Australian way of life. And what’s more, the 17 years also divided very neatly into a trilogy – the first summer when the Depression would have made its own demands on the setting up of the celebrations – the middle play in the ninth year, when the end of war was bound to make a crossroad questioning of the future – and the seventeenth summer in 1953, when many of the old ways of doing things were at an end, including cane cutting by hand and the nomadic life lived by Roo and the gang up north. I shan’t pretend that any of this was consciously in my mind when I wrote Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll. But I have lived through those times; they were my formative years, all in there somewhere. It seems to me in writing the original play, I had chanced on a theme and characters with recognisable echoes of a past Australia. It is this remembrance of the way we were that keeps the play in public awareness, I believe, and I send the State Theatre Company of SA all good wishes for their production on this 60th anniversary year. Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll Dunstan Playhouse Continues until Saturday, May 16 statetheatrecompany.com.au

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