Playwrights use the stage to convey a representation of the world to audiences, however, it is actually only ever one version of the world as they see it. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a classic Australian drama, through which dramatist Ray Lawler provides a window into life in 1950’s Australia. The play presents a unique version of the world, yet at the same time it portrays themes and truths that are universal about mankind, relationships and ageing. Lawler gives audiences rich insights into various aspects of gender issues and cultural identity issues, typical of Australian life in this period of time. The play is a story about a group of ordinary people, who are desperately trying to stay young and will not acknowledge the reality that they are aging. In their desperate bid to escape the inevitability of the consequences of change, the characters inflict hurt upon themselves and one another, evoking pity and compassion in audiences. Through the characters Lawler explores issues about Australian masculinity, mateship and social "norms". Lawler creates a particular version of the world in order to foreground the problems that he recognised in Australian society. Through presenting the particular "version of the world" that he does, Lawler comments on the need he sees for Australia to grow up. He challenges readers to examine and question the ideals, values and attitudes, which form their own "world", by exposing the limitations of lives based on the pursuit of unrealistic aspirations. Lawler constructs a version of the world through the setting, various symbols and the values, attitudes and ideas represented and explored by the characters.
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The setting plays an integral part in the construction of the "world" Lawler presents to audiences. The historical, social and cultural setting of the play, act as building blocks and set Lawler’s version of the world apart from any other. Whilst the play does incorporate some universal themes about aging and shattered dreams, it is essentially a sociological exploration about the changing face of Australia. The 1950’s were for Australia a "crucial period". Now in a post war situation the country began to realise that Britain could no longer be Australia’s sole provider of defence and support. The nation recognised the need that there was for an increased population, economic independence and a national defence force. If Australia were to move forward a great amount of change, growing up and taking responsibility would need to take place. Lawler recognised this and therefore chose this setting to explore the emerging new 1950’s Australian society. The most obvious indication of the plays setting, is the frequent use of distinctly Australian idiom, which allows audiences to recognise the play as a representation of only one version of the world. The cultural and historical setting allowed Lawler to pinpoint specific problems he recognised in Australian society through the power of observation. Lawler constructs stereotypical white, working class characters that display universal aspects of humanity and yet in themselves are unique embodiments of the "Australian identity". Lawler most likely also chose characters of that particular nationality, class and race because these people came from the section of society where the problems and issues Lawler commented on were most accentuated. The audience is substantially influenced by the setting of the play, which presents a unique version of the world through its portrayal of life in 1950’s Australia.
Playwrights use characters and their ideals, values and attitudes to portray aspects of society that are prominent in the version of the world they portray. Lawler juxtaposes the characters of Pearl and Olive contrasting the different values and ideals each of them represent. Olive’s character for example is used by Lawler to represent those who do not conform to social "norms" and who go against conservative values of the time. This is seen in her attitude towards marriage "You think I’ll let it all end up in [just] marriage "every day" a paint factory "you think I’ll marry you?" she screams at Roo after he proposes. On the other hand, audiences recognise that all the more traditional and conservative values of the time such as motherhood, marriage and self respect are embodied in the character of Pearl, "I meant decent like marriage," she comments in Act One. Pearl is very conscious of her responsibilities, particularly her role of a mother "It doesn’t matter for you, you haven’t got a daughter to think of" she snaps at Olive in one scene. Pearl’s character we see is also much more realistic in her approach in life, recognising the need for change and because of this audiences who may see Pearl as a somewhat of an "indemnitable moralist", still acknowledge the value there is in accepting the realities of life and taking responsibility. Contrastingly Olive’s character is very childish in her perceptions of reality, particularly in regards to what she expects from her relationship with Roo.She fails to exchange her immaturity for responsibility and even Roo recognizes this telling her, "know, a man’s a fool to treat you as a woman. You’re nothin but a liitle girl about twelve years old". Her immaturity is revealed further, when she blames the failure of the lay-off on Pearl
Pearl: "You’re blaming me, aren’t you? Because I was here instead of Nancy."
Olive: "Yes" .
The ideals that Olive’s character holds, are not particularly realistic, and yet at the same time her ideals represent the same silly hopes, dreams and aspiration we all participate in at times. We therefore feel pity for her desire to build an ideal "world". At the same time we recognise the courage required for those who like Olive, choose alternative lifestyles and to not conform to the gender roles accepted by society. Lawler uses the character of Olive to confront viewers with the consequences of basing ones life around idealistic dreams and disregarding values that society expects, although he does not condemn non-conformity. Contrastingly, Lawler uses Pearl as a representation of the respectable voice in society. The characters in the play and the values they hold and represent, form the core of, and challenge audiences about the version of the world they are presented with.
In the same way, Roo and Barney are used to comment on aspects of society that are both integral and unique to the version of the world Lawler presents. The representations these characters present encode stereotyped views of Australian identity. Through the characters, and the values and attitudes they represent, Lawler comments on gender issues and mateship. The characters of Roo and Barney are very different. They both portray archetypes of Australian masculinity, being bronzed and athletic but they have two contrasting personalities. Lawler portrays Roo as a "physical king" and uses him as a representation of the "strong and silent type", a view which was particularly endorsed during the 1950’s.Roo is big and strong and "epitomises the quality of the bushman hero" (P.Fitzpatrick). On the other hand, Barney’s character is portayed as as being a great lover and represents the "typical Australian Larrikan," another glorified Australian image "Roo’s the big man of the two, but it’s Barney who makes you laugh. And like I said it’s Barney the women go for". Their masculinity is not only defined or proven by their personalities as such, but also by their jobs and thus physical strength. When Roo and Barney return for the seventeenth summer, the audience is made aware that they have aged and lost some of their physical strength, once the finest canecutter Roo can no longer keep up that pace of his youth. Audiences recognise the impact this has upon Roo’s character as it undermines his identity and masculinity. Lawler himself comments that Roo is "at the mercy of a different conception of himself" after his prowess fail him. The same thing happens to Barney only it occurs when Nancy leaves him and he is left questioning his identity as a “womaniser”. Thus Lawler leads audiences to question what it is that makes a man Ã”masculine” and encourages them to recognise the definitions of Australian masculinity, part of the version of the world he presents, as very narrow minded. Audiences also reflect on how these two outback men are the epitome of freedom. They earn money working under the Australian sun and then come back to their woman at will. They act as a metaphor for the Australia, the country of freedom and wide-open spaces as it was once known. On the other hand, the characters of Dowd and Bubba act as metaphors of the much younger Australia who is looking to change. This is especially evident in Bubba when she comments to Roo “I’ll have what you ad “the real part of it” but I’ll have it differently. Some way I can have it safe and know that it’s going to last”. The theme of mateship is also an integral part of the version of the world presented. Lawler privileges the Australian concept of mateship and explores the idea of “sticking by one another” through ”thick and thin” He exams the loyalties of Barney and Roo to one another. 1950’s and 20th century audiences are encouraged to look down on Barney’s character when he breaks the unwritten code of Australian mateship by betraying Roo in order to save his own skin. However, ultimately we see that these two canecutters do stick by one another, “to hell with all the boys ”we’ll go of on our own Roo” a value very much endorsed by Australians. Themes of mateship, masculinity and freedom are essential parts of the version of the world Lawler explores and critiques through the representations of Barney and Roo’s characters.
Furthermore, symbolism and the physical stage setting help mould and define the unique version of the world Lawler presents. Various objects and phrases are used to impart multiple meanings or associations to audiences that further shape Lawler’s “world”. The most significant of these symbolic or metaphorical items is of course the kewpie doll, an annual gift from Roo to Olive. The doll appears initially as merely a cute reminder of the fun the group has together each year. The kewpie doll may also be perceived by some as a substitute for the children, which the unconventional and impractical nature of Roo and Olive’s relationship does not allow. This assertion is supported when audiences learn Olive held the seventeenth doll “almost as if it were a baby” . However, the doll also comes to represent Olive’s naivete and her refusal to let go of childish and unrealistic dreams. This is evident when Emma comments to Roo, “middle of the night Olive sat here on the floor, huggin” this and howling. A grown-up woman, howling over a silly kewpie doll. That’s Olive for yer.” Just as the fragile doll breaks so easily when it is smashed in the third act of the play, we are led to recognise that it is symbolic of the shattering of the dream that particularly Olive was holding onto of reliving the previous sixteen summers over and over. The broken vase also acts symbolically, representing the emotional states of the characters. Pearl ”good black dress” is also significant, it conveys to audiences her desperate desire to be seen as respectable. The physical setting of the play represents a commonplace house in a commonplace street, typical of working class citizens. It is set apart though, by all it’s adornments. “The most notable of these are the sixteen Kewpie dolls, wearing tinsel headdresses and elaborately fuzzy skirts, attached to thin black canes shaped like walking sticks” They have as their companions a flight of brilliantly arranged plummaged stuffed Northern Queensland birds, a variety of tinted coral pieces and shells from the Great Barrier Reef” . The unusual “cor that the men have mostly contributed, serve as reminders of their presence as the women endure the long wait. The image of “shimmering winged tropical butterflies,” contribute to the illusion of Olive’s romantic ideals. The stage set successfully creates an atmosphere and place, which are conducive in determining the version of the world presented. Thus Lawler comments on Australian society through the physical setting also.
The way in which different audiences react differently to the play and the issues it raises reflects on the fact that what Lawler presents truly is only one version of the world as he sees it. It may resonate closely with the way many others perceive life but the variety of responses it received from Australian and British audiences then, and continues to receive now shows that it cannot possibly be a presentation of the whole world. It is evident that the historical context of audiences is vital in determining, the version of the world audiences perceive. For example when the play was initially performed most Australians had never before seen themselves (working class citizens) portrayed on stage. Thus Lawler’s national self-criticism left many people shocked and appalled. However, over time the play has been much more warmly and openly received by Australian audiences and has become somewhat of an Australian icon. It is also important to recognise the significance of the social and cultural context of audiences. This is demonstrated by the reactions to the character of Pearl. John Summers noted that “in the first productions” the character of Pearl “the observer “had been received most enthusiastically. She had so often spoken for the audience of the day, especially in her criticism of the lay-offs and the “indecent” way in which the character lived [But by] 1977 Pearl was looked upon by part of her audience as a wowser. Likewise, audiences these days tend to view Pearl more as self righteous, than the respectable, moral character cultural context led original audiences to perceive her as. In fact, some year’s later critic J. McCallum labelled Pearl as a “carping hypocrite”. Similarly, audiences today tend to be much more accepting of Olive’s discarding of a conventional marriage. This is a result of our changing moral climate, today in the 21st century, such relationships outside of marriage are not considered extreme, and instead it has become the “norm”. The world is so diverse that it cannot possibly be represented in its entirety in one stage production. Yet, it was noted by British critic Lawrence Kitchin that “Lawler builds towards a design applicable far beyond local conditions until he reaches a universal statement about people, valid anywhere. Summarily, what Lawler presents to audiences is a unique version of the world, which somehow manages to embody universal truths about man. It is predominantly the context of audiences, which determines their reactions to the play.
Summer of the 17th Doll is much more than just a story. It is a representation of how Lawler perceived the Australian lifestyle. He makes audiences aware of the problems he recognised in society and mankind, through the characters and the values and ideals represented through them. The historical and cultural setting of the play, help create a unique version of the world through which Lawler comments on aspects of society, such as mateship, masculinity and gender roles. The stage set and symbolic items mould and define the version of the world Lawler presents. The Doll as it has become affectionately known deals with the battle between dreams and reality, childishness and maturity and male and female. Lawler’s portrayal of a unique version of the world illustrates how ordinary people get hurt themselves and how they can hurt one another, mainly because of the reluctance we all have to some extent to change. Through the play audiences are challenged to question and evaluate the values, attitudes and ideal which form their own “world”.
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