Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler

When this play arrived on the Australian scene it wowed everybody. Notes to a Belvoir Theatre production say that

Demand for the play was so strong, that in 1956, several additional companies of actors were formed, who toured the play concurrently. A huge popular success, “it was reported that people drove hundreds of kilometres and a man swam a flooded river to see it in the Northern Territory” [Philip Parsons [ed.], Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995, p565].

Its UK premiere was backed by Laurence Olivier, won the Evening Standard award for best new play of the year – 1957 – and went on to a six month season. The year after, that award was won by Tennessee Williams, with whom an obvious comparison has been made.

When the play next had its US premiere,  it was backed by The Theatre Guild. Lawler really impressed the heavy-weights of the theatre world. But in the US the play bombed. Lawler was pressured to take out the Australian idiom which certainly isn’t the point of the play, but absolutely provides its flavour. The themes may be universal, but the play’s take is Australian. Lawler, in consultation with the cast, refused to submit to this castration.

As if to prove Lawler’s folly, the film version did this to it:

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

By all means cringe. IMDB quotes:

That was her great longing…
She got everything she wanted out of love – except marriage!

It is hard to believe that the film could have so bastardised Lawler’s play which is about strong women and what they want. Olive? Marriage??? Not on your nelly.  Indeed, when the proposal comes, she is aghast by it.

Wiki’s description only adds to the embarrassment:

The film was retitled Season of Passion for the American market. 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 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 the confines of the then working-class Melbourne suburb of Carlton.

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.

How long can one sustain fantasy? Maybe that’s the big question the play addresses. And the answer is until outsiders break in and see what really is and tell what really is. Watching this process at work and how it makes a lie not only of the present but of the past, all sixteen years of the past, is the gutwrenching experience we go through as we, the audience, spy on this world.

The current South Australian Theatre Company’s production is splendid.

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4 thoughts on “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler

  1. Happy ending?! Was this done by the team that wrote the famous happy-ending version of Romeo and Juliet?

  2. I’ve never understood why Hollywood had to destroy quality literature to service their perceived audience.

    Have you had a chance to read the triptych of plays?? Do so, but be disappointed – really Summer is the best & should have been left as a stand alone.

    Glad you both are enjoying the culture of Adelaide.

    • I don’t think they do it to their own literature. And to be fair, for instance, compare the nice seventies American production of The Great Gatsby with the awful recent Australian directed one. I was cringing by the ten minute mark. Imagine doing something so stupid to a perfect story as that whole alcoholic-Nick-with-the- psychiatrist thing. And was it for any reason other than jobs for the boys? Jack Thompson??? Lordie, lordie.

      I was surprised to read re the other two, which I haven’t seen and aren’t likely to, I guess, that he was contracted to do them. I thought maybe he was trying to figure out how to write another play people would watch, much as it was late in the day to go back to the Doll.

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