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.