There is no exaggerating the importance of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll when discussing the history of Australian theatre. The play drew a unanimous response on its opening in 1955, from audiences not used to seeing Australian characters or hearing Australian accents and vernacular so vividly represented. It is one of the nation’s most produced plays and it has been to Broadway and the West End, where it won a best new play award.
So, having the opportunity to meet the playwright himself was a huge thrill for me. We organised to meet at the Victorian Art Gallery and at 98 yes - 98 the spritely and independent Ray Lawler caught the tram from his seaside home into the city.
Lawler spoke fondly of his growing up in Footscray, Melbourne in 1921, the second eldest of eight children. At 13, he went to work as a factory hand in an engineering foundry. He stayed there for 11 years and started acting and writing plays in his spare time. He loved vaudeville and it was whilst performing in Brisbane he had the idea of the story of two Queensland cane cutters, who head south to Melbourne for their five months ‘lay off’ and the relationships with their barmaid girlfriends.
Originally it was known as the slack off period and Lawler toyed with the idea of making the men tailors! Ray was particularly excited that for the Black Swan season, director Adam Mitchell had cast actor Kelton Pell in the role as Roo. Not only is Kelton one of WA’s best well known and loved actors who featured in the company’s inaugural production, this will mark the first time an aboriginal has starred in the role.
Lawler commented that it “was John Sumner’s (Manager of the Union Repertory Theatre Company, precursor to Melbourne Theatre Company), idea to go back and write about the lives of the character’s in the Doll.” So, twenty years later, he returned to the Carlton household and created two more plays: Kid Stakes (1975),set in 1937 the story of the first ‘Doll’, and Other Times (1976) , set in 1945 about the wartime years which proved a turning point in the character’s lives.
He felt it was an interesting process to go backwards, knowing where they would end up in the final instalment. When writing the trilogy one of the aims was that the plays should serve as an acting challenge for a team of seven performers. The idea being that those cast as Roo, Barney, Olive, Emma, and Bubba would play thee roles throughout the three plays keeping in mind their appropriate stage ages.
The play has taken Australia’s name around the world, and has been part of the Education curriculum for decades. I had studied the play at school, and recall the disappointment when we watched the movie made back in 1959, but the leads were not Australian! He was happy to receive a copy of a photo, from the Museum of Performing Arts collection of himself, (Lawler played the role of Barney) good friend June Jago and Madge Ryan from their tour to Perth at the Playhouse in 1956. I was proud and honoured when Lawler presented me with the Doll Trilogy which I readily re-read over the summer. I was struck with the detail, and Mr Lawler had said to pay attention to the stage directions, as everything was there. I felt mixed emotions saying goodbye to this literary legend who had paid me the courtesy of a meeting, and was awe struck at the immense legacy he has left the performing arts world, playwrights, and other actors both in Australia and internationally.
by Irene Jarzabek, BSSTC Publicist.