Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

"Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" is a pioneering Australian play written by Ray Lawler and first performed at the Union Theatre in Melbourne, Australia on November 28, 1955. The play is almost unanimously considered by scholars of Literature to be the most historically significant in Australian theatre history, openly and authentically portraying distinctly Australian life and characters. It was one of the first truly naturalistic "Australian" theatre productions.


The play is set in Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, and it details the events of the summer of 1953, in the lives of six central characters. The structure of the play is such that the nature of these characters and their situation and history is not revealed immediately, but rather gradually established as the story unfolds. By the end, the story and all its facets have been indirectly explained.

The summer that the story spans marks the seventeenth year of an annual tradition in the lives of the characters, wherein two masculine sugarcane cutters, Arthur "Barney" Ibbot and Reuben "Roo" Webber, travel south to Melbourne for five months of frivolity and celebration with two city women, Olive Leech and Nancy (bringing with them as a gift a kewpie doll, hence the name). One of the women, Nancy, has apparently gotten married just months ago, and she is not present in the play, so in her place Olive has invited Pearl Cunningham to partake in the tradition. The other women present in the play are Kathie "Bubba" Ryan, a 22-year old girl who has been coveting Olive and Nancy's lifestyle from her neighbouring house almost all her life, and Emma Leech, Olive's cynical, irritable but wise mother. Olive was always a feisty child and whenever she is performing she is nothing but aggressive to her audience members.

As the play progresses, it becomes obvious that, for many collective reasons, this summer is different to others; it is full of tensions, strains to recreate lost youth and, from what is said of previous years, not a fraction of the fun that others have been. Steadily things become worse; Roo is revealed to be broke and unemployed, disillusioned with his age and weaknesses, while relations between him and Barney are in doubt, due to a recent question of loyalty. The situation is agitated in part by Pearl's uptight indignation and refusal to accept the lifestyle she is being presented with as "proper" or "decent".

The play ends with a bitter fight between Olive and Roo after he proposes marriage to her and she is affronted, threatened by the prospect of any lifestyle other than the one to which she is accustomed. In the final scene, the two men leave together, the summer prematurely ended and the characters' futures uncertain.

"Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" is one episode in a trilogy generally referred to as the "Doll Trilogy"; the story of The Doll is preceded by "Kid Stakes", set in 1937, when the characters of The Doll are children, and then "Other Times", which is set in 1945 and includes the same characters.


Note: "The comments made below on the themes of "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" are not entirely objective, but rather of an analytical nature".


The issue of maturity is dealt with in the play as a demonstration of the characters' lack thereof; in attempting to continue their youthful tradition into their middle years, even after the departure of Nancy, they establish themselves as beings lacking in both maturity and wisdom. The character of Olive is the exemplification of this, she is so devoted to preserving her youth that some even suspect she suffers from a condition called Arrested Development, a form of emotional autism. In some ways, her fundamental immaturity is rooted in more than just a reluctance to "grow up", to accept the restrictions of her age and society, but rather a crippling incapability to conceive of any other lifestyle than the one she has chosen, and which entirely defines her. Furthermore, by attempting to build a life out of what is, by its very nature, transient, the characters reveal not only a fantastic immaturity, but an idealistic and overly simplistic naivety.


Nostalgia is one of the key components of the play, and certainly of the characters. It is a theme further accentuated by Lawler's device of using characters to enthusiastically reminisce about times and joys not only unattainable but never even witnessed by an audience. It is in these respects that the audience, like the characters of Pearl and Johnnie Dowd, are "outsiders", unable to fully realize the alleged bliss that previous summers have entailed, and therefore unable to sympathize with the others' loss.

"All that's happened in a house makes a feeling — you can't tell anyone that. It's between people." — Kathie "Bubba" Ryan to Johnnie Dowd

Friendship and Loyalty

The Play encapsulates the testing of many relationships. These relationships are built on the loyalty each character shares or has broken by the lack of it.

"I didn't need you other times. That was once I did." — Roo

"It wasn't enough to chase after [Jonnie Dowd] up north after i walked out on the gang, now you're aiming to get him here for the lay-off as well?"

Australia in the 1950's

Action in 1950s society reverberates within "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" as Australia was becoming more urbanised, there was more international focus and there was a loss of identity with life in the bush.

Productions of the play

The World Opening

"Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" made its world premiere on November 28, 1955, where it opened at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne, Australia. This production of the play was directed by John Sumner and featured the following cast:

* Roma Johnston — Pearl Cunningham
* Fenella Maguire — Kathy "Bubba" Ryan
* June Jago — Olive Leech
* Ray Lawler — Barney Ibbot
* Carmel Dunn — Emma Leech
* Noel Ferrier — Roo Webber
* Malcolm Billings — Johnnie Dowd

ydney Production

The play opened in Sydney, Australia approximately two months later, on January 10, 1956, this time with a different cast:

* Madge Ryan — Pearl Cunningham
* Fenella Maguire — Kathie "Bubba" Ryan
* June Jago — Olive Leech
* Ray Lawler — Barney Ibbot
* Ethel Gabriel — Emma Leech
* Lloyd Berrell — Roo Webber
* John Llewellyn — Johnnie Dowd

Country Tour

On 28 January, 1956 a thirteen-week country tour of the play was announced, commencing on February 14. The play toured New South Wales and Queensland, returning to Sydney for an encore season, and featured the following cast:

* Yvonne Lewis — Bubba Ryan
* Jacqueline Kott — Pearl Cunningham
* June Jago — Olive Leech
* Robert Levis — Barney Ibbot
* Ethel Gabriel — Emma Leech
* Kenneth Warren — Roo Webber
* Keith Buckley — Johnnie Dowd

United Kingdom Production

After the final Sydney show of the play's country tour, "The Doll" moved to the United Kingdom, where it spent two weeks showing in Nottingham and Edinburgh before opening in London on April 30, 1957, with the following cast:

* Fenella Maguire — Bubba Ryan
* Madge Ryan — Pearl Cunningham
* June Jago — Olive Leech
* Ray Lawler — Barney Ibbot
* Ethel Gabriel — Emma Leech
* Kenneth Warren — Roo Webber
* Richard Pratt — Johnnie Dowd

New York Production

Encouraged by its more-than-warm reception in Australia and Britain, "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" took a trip to America, where audiences and critics were, most likely due to drastic cultural differences, rather underwhelmed with the production. The play opened in New York City on January 23, with no changes made to the cast. "The Doll" only ran a five-week season in America.

Film Adaptation

After continuing to tour Australia through 1958, "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" was adapted by Les Norman (who had previously produced "Eureka Stockade" and directed "The Shiralee" in Australia) for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions (whose first film had been "Marty" with Ernest Borgnine) for United Artists in 1959. The film was retitled "Season of Passion" for the American market. [imdb_title|0053321|Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959)] This decision was severely lamented by some fans of the play, whose complaints were rooted in three essential criticisms:
*The "Americanization" of the text, namely the casting of American actor Ernest Borgnine, who played his character (Roo) with an American accent. Others have thought the film was a recruiting film for migrants with the Englishman John Mills as Barney and Alan Garcia as Dino, an Italian friend and fellow cane cutter who does not feature in the play. The female leads are played by Anne Baxter and Angela Lansbury, though the film features many Australian actors.
*It was filmed in Sydney rather than Melbourne and displayed the characters enjoying themselves overlooking Bondi Beach and Luna Park Sydney rather than moping around dreary Melbourne.
*The drastic changes to key plot points, namely the alternate, "happy" ending that the 1959 film adaptation entailed. This alternate ending was considered by some to be representative of a dire misunderstanding of the play and its message, and by others an attempt to make the film an international success at the box office and critical acclaim similar to the kitchen sink realism of "Marty". The producers also added a comedy sequence where a young girl attempted to trick Roo in a tent at Luna Park.

Most Recent Productions

*1965: Sydney's Q Theatre stages a production of "The Doll", one in which Ethel Gabriel, a member of the cast for nearly a decade, gave her last performance as Emma
*1973: The Nimrod Theatre stages a production
*1974: The Queensland Theatre Company stages a production
*1977: The Melbourne Theatre Company revives the play as part of "The Doll Trilogy" (featuring prequels "Kid Stakes" and "Other Times")
*2006: M. Sheehy directs stage production of "The Doll" at the Glenbrook Theatre, Glenbrook
*2007: T. van Oyen directs stage production of "Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll" at Brookman Street Theatre, Kalgoorlie
*2008: The play is staged in May by Queensland's La Boite Theatre Company.

Critiques of the Play

[ Gender and Genre: The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Jane Cousins]


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