In the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll ,(1955) Australian playwright Ray Lawler shows how changing experiences and circumstances often force us to reconsider who we are and our vision of ourselves and our future. There may be a change to group dynamics as individuals move in and out of groups; or we may be just growing older or we may change our priorities in life; whatever the challenge, we often have to reconsider our dreams, our goals, our illusions, our relationships and priorities. Failure to constantly amend and adapt has serious consequences for our happiness and wellbeing.
When Pearl replaces Nancy, and Johnny replaces Roo, Olive, Roo and Barney all have to deal with changes to who they are and how they see themselves. They have to deal with how they wish to relate to each other and on what terms. They have to face the evaporation of their youthful dreams.
Personal growth and development
In Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the aging members of the group must come to terms with their changing circumstances, and must re-evaluate their hopes, their goals, their expectations (their relationships) and their illusions in life. Whilst Olive, Roo and Barney are reluctant to make the necessary adjustments, Lawler suggests that the failure to change will inevitably lead to disappointment, sadness and a sense of failure.
Accordingly, Lawler uses the seventeen dolls symbolically to represent the search by the protagonists to find a meaning in the life. It is a time of reckoning; it is a time to make adjustments and to think about one’s future.
(Roo brings Olive a Kepia doll each year. The dolls represent the idealistic dreams and hopes of their alternative romance; which they believe is more unique, fresh and exciting than the ordinary, mundane married lifestyle.)
The most obvious sign that the lay-off season is over, and their relationships destroyed, is when Roo takes down the seventeenth doll from the piano. He smashes it “again and again, and then tearing at its fabric until it is nothing but a litter of split cane, shredded material and broken celluloid”. ”. In her typically grim and determined voice, Emma warns Roo, “The lay-offs in this house are finished – for all of you”.
Lawler suggests that the failure to make adjustments leads to misery and despair.
The physical destruction of the 17th doll mirrors Roo’s psychological despair as “something breaks deep within him”; he stares at the “tinsel mess” with a “helpless loss and anguish
As Barney and Roo leave the house there is a sense that they have all lost a great deal because of their inflated dreams.
Personal growth and development:
Lawler suggests that it is critical at stages in our life to make such necessary readjustments.
Through characters such as Roo and Nancy, Lawler suggests that we must come to terms with our limitations and know when to move on and when to let go of youthful, idealistic dreams. Roo is prepared to come to terms with his bleaker future working in a paint factory and believes that their best chance is to opt for marriage and stability.
As a leader of the canecutters, Roo is forced to confront his own (physical) limitations through the rivalry with Johnnie Dowd. He is getting older and is not able to keep up the fast and furious pace. He has to make adjustments if he is to survive; he cannot cling to the myth of his superiority; he will have to humble himself and find a different job – one that does not make such physical demands on an ageing body. This is a humbling experience for one who prides himself on his physical prowess and superior strength. He tries to be honest to Olive and shows resilience in the face of his increasing weakness. This rivalry sets him up for mockery and he has to revise his dreams (the paint factory) and his role as leader.
Likewise, individuals often have to make adjustments because of unexpected tragic accidents/circumstances/illnesses.
Failure to adjust leads to a life of missed opportunities and regrets. Barney spends the summer pining for Nancy. The wedding photos of Nancy to which he clings symbolically remind him of his loss.
Although he is losing his sexual prowess, Barney does not want to admit that he is no longer able to court women with the same charming audacity. Reluctantly, he must face the fact that he has lost perhaps his best chance of a secure, settled, and loving partnership which ushers in regrets and a time for soul-searching.
Olive refuses to change her illusions.
Whilst Roo is prepared to come to terms with his bleaker future working in a paint factory, Olive refuses to settle for marriage. Olive inflates, exaggerates and sensationalises their time together in order to give the impression that she is living a perfect, romantic lifestyle with the two men. She presents their weekend place at Selby as a palace. So grand are her dreams that Pearl expects the town to explode like balloons when the men arrive.
Ominously, Olive recognises the shabbiness of the dolls when she takes the dolls down to dust, but refuses to countenance an end to their dreams. “They fell to pieces. Some of the dolls were moth-eaten, and the butterflies, you couldn’t touch ‘em. Coral and the shells were alright, but they looked so silly on their own I couldn’t put them back”. (82).
Roo tells her, “you’re nothing; but a kid ‘bout twelve years old”. (93) She clings to the illusion that it could still work if Roo goes back with Barney: “It’s the only chance we’ve got”. Lawler depicts Olive uselessly clinging to the past “I want what I had before”, which he suggests will exacerbate her despair. Olive literally wants to evaluate the Summers as a profit and loss sheet, but cannot block the feeling that she has lost more than she has gained. In particular, she is humiliated by the fact that Pearl seems to recognise the extent of her loss as she always did. She is annoyed that Pearl feels sorry for her because she has never been “within cooee of the real thing … that’s what hurts..” (92)
Olive clings to illusions which eventually lead to disappointment and failure..
Contrastingly, Olive fails to make adjustments. As Olive states, “I’m blind to what I want to be”. Up until the end of the play, and even after Roo’s demise, Olive still determinedly clings to the romantic myth of a blissful alternative and exciting lifestyle. She is personally affronted and angry at anyone who seeks to challenge the myth or undermine it. Olive idolises a romantic past with Roo and Barney whom she presents as two eagles who come down South every season “for the matin’ season”. Her illusions and vision of herself remains wedded to the past and her idea of the “eagles” who swoop into town to romance and give the girls an alternative lifestyle and a fun-filled summer haven.
In order to cling to the illusion, Olive conveniently overlooks many factors such as the rickety Sunday night boat trips. She refuses to accept that Roo, as he ages, has to rely on work in a paint factory; the “glamorous” times have evaporated and she refuses to opt for marriage. As she loses her youthful vigour and charm, she becomes ever vulnerable to loneliness, sadness and disappointment – the excitement that surrounds the lay-off season is coming to an end.
Roo brings Olive a Kepia doll each year. The dolls represent the idealistic dreams and hopes of their alternative romance; which they believe is more unique, fresh and exciting than the ordinary, mundane married lifestyle. Olive inflates, exaggerates and sensationalises their time together in order to give the impression that she is living a perfect, romantic lifestyle with the two men. She presents their weekend place at Selby as a palace. So grand are her dreams that Pearl expects the town to explode like balloons when the men arrive.
Newcomers to the group
Challenges ahead It is not only their age that forces the evaluation; the newcomers, Pearl and Johnnie, force the members of the group to evaluate their increasingly unrealistic expectations.
As Pearl states, their’s was an inflated ideal; Olive “boosted you two up so much before you came, I didn’t know what to expect” (45) Likewise, the boys tell Johnnie that they have a fun-filled Summer down South which he realises is completely incongruous to the rather ordinary drab house where they stay with Olive and Emma.
Johnnie also recognises the extent of the boys’ deceit when he visits them. Team members and their interaction can provide us with significant insights, especially those involving the dynamics of leaders and their gang. The canecutters work in groups of around 10 workers. Lawler suggests that there is a hierarchical structure in the group and that people often occupy and change places according to their degree of physical and psychological power. Johnnie is on the ascendancy and there are signs that whilst he is prepared to apologise and reconcile with Roo, he nevertheless expects to surpass him as leader, and this is a humiliating realisation for Roo.
Barney has also forewarned Roo about the inevitability of Johnnie’s ascendancy. Barney recognises that his fortunes lie with the “young Dowd”. He knows that he will rule the group whether or not Roo approves, and it will be better to “split up, get away from one another”. (90)
The day after the smashing of the dolls, Olive, Roo and Barney must all confront the fact that times have changed and that they have no option but to change with the times. Although it seems as if it happens in just one violent confrontation, the signs have been evident from the beginning of the seventeenth summer. Lawler shows that each of the protagonists must confront the realisation of their fading dreams. He suggests they are simply too old to continue the wonderful myth of an excellent summer lay-off season which depends upon youthful vigour and charm, coupled with a degree of insouciance and naivety.
Often an unfortunate experience, encounters with others (often outsiders), and physical problems make us confront our goals and expectations in life and challenge us to make readjustments. Roo confronts the humiliation of his physical shortcomings and this has an impact upon his psychological strength. He must readjust his vision of himself; his physical demise means that he is no longer the extolled leader. With his crashing dreams, he humbly makes Olive an offer of marriage, but she is not prepared to accept the end of their dreams.
Alternatively, it takes the voice of wisdom such as Emma’s to challenge their views and undermine their false sense of confidence. (Emma forces Roo to revisit their first meeting – the boys who were “out of their depth”, but who were nevertheless able to attract the girls’ attention for seventeen summers.) Roo is forced to confront his growing self doubts,(85) and candidly admits that they are just a “couple of lousy no-hopers” (75)