In 1955, two plays, The Torrents by Oriel Gray and Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler, shared first prize in a Playwrights Advisory Board Competition (about £200). Such competitions were a regular feature at the time: earnest, if limited attempts to kick-start Australian drama into life.
Gray was an experienced writer, and a member of Sydney’s New Theatre (a Communist affiliated organisation), though she left the Party in 1949. Lawler had a background in vaudeville, and was director of the most recent addition to Melbourne’s theatre scene, the Union Theatre Repertory Company – today, the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Many Australians are familiar with the Doll. It is a frequently revived Australian play (the AusStage database lists over 150 professional productions). The Torrents is less well known, but is an important work for its type, if not for its individual qualities. Together, the two works mark a new horizon of creative possibility for Australian theatre. If there is a year in which our national drama can be said to have achieved critical mass, 1955 is it. Dennis Carroll puts it this way:
The best of the 1950s plays… open up themes of wider universality than those of earlier plays, themes that transcend Australianist specifics… [They] often use a family or domestic setting, which [makes] the conflicts more archetypal and puts the local context and social specifics into a more widely applicable human perspective…
They exemplify a level of dramatic and theatrical craftsmanship which earlier generations [of writers] could not match, not least for the organic connection between the material and its expression.
The Torrents is a comedy-drama set in the newsroom of a regional paper, the Koolgalla Argus, in 1890. It has a double narrative. In the first storyline, Koolgalla, a gold town, grapples with its future as an agricultural one. A struggle ensues among its civic leaders over water use, and the issues explored are those of personal courage and political vision.
The second storyline revolves around the Argus’s latest employee, J. G. Milford, hired sight unseen by the paper’s redoubtable editor, Rufus Torrent. When Milford arrives it is immediately apparent that “J” stands for “Jenny”. A struggle ensues in the newsroom over women’s rights, and the issues explored are ones of class identity and gender equity.
In the middle of the play, the two storylines neatly intersect. Rufus’s son, Ben, drafts an article in support of a new irrigation scheme. He immediately backtracks, but Jenny publishes it without either Torrent’s consent.
Her actions prompt both men to a new awareness about what must be done if the town is to survive in the fragile landscape around it.
RUFUS: I think it is only right that I should tell you that my son accepted full blame for that statement. He said he had done it alone. But I am not a complete fool, Miss Milford.
JENNY: You should be proud of him! He put into words the problem that everyone in Koolgalla has to face – and the solution to it. Though you publish fifty retractions, Mr Torrent, you can’t wipe that article from their thoughts.
RUFUS: I should have known, when I denied my better judgement, and took a woman into this office that we might expect some kind of specious underhand, interfering feminine logic…
JENNY: … instead of open, honest, manly illogic.
RUFUS: If you were a man, madam, I would know how to deal with your action.
JENNY: If you were a man, Mr Torrent, you’d stand by it.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is set in what was then up-to-the-minute inner city Melbourne. Every year for 16 years, two Queensland cane cutters, Barney and Roo, come to Carlton to lay over with two single women, Olive and Nancy, during the off-season. It is worth noting that in 1955 this was no longer deeply scandalous, even for Menzies Australia. It gives credence to Katharine Brisbane’s observation that Lawler’s play is “about growing up and growing old and failing to grow up”.
This year Nancy is absent, however, having recently got married. Olive, desperate to find a partner for Barney, talks the stiff-necked widow Pearl into making up a fourth. The men duly appear, bringing a kewpie doll with which they traditionally mark their visits: hence the play’s title.
The Doll is a tragedy of classical rigour and force. A single action is explored in a single setting over a limited period of time (a Melbourne summer). Despite its surface realism, its meaning lies in in the notes of mortality, failure and self-delusion that mark its downwardly-inclined narrative spiral.
There is no equivalent to the Doll in British or US drama. It relies on no pre-given overseas formula. It is a case of one. Right from its opening night, when Lawler played the part of Roo, this is how it struck Australian audiences. Niall Brennan, the manager of the Union Theatre where the play premiered, later recalled:
Some strange conversion took place in the minds of the Australian theatregoers before they even saw the play; for it was the best dressed, and most sympathetic first-night audience I had ever seen as the Union. They came rolling in, in furs and starched shirts, and I remember saying to one of the usherettes…. ‘I think this play is going to be a great success’.
None of us could understand it. The jinx [on Australian plays] had just gone. They clapped the house curtain when it went up, and they clapped the set. They clapped every actor who came on and the roars which greeted Ray’s own entrance were tremendous. When the curtain came down at the end, the theatre almost shook… It was the first Union Theatre Repertory play ever to play to an extended season.
In considering The Torrents and the Doll together, it is easy to make facile comparisons. Gray was influenced by theatrical superstar George Bernard Shaw, author of Pygmalion and 60 other stage works. Her play is witty, makes its points with a light touch, and is a vehicle for progressive political views. It carries messages about women, the environment, the media and so on, but can feel somewhat schematic.
The Doll contains no ideas of this kind. Its storyline does not develop themes in the Shavian mode but complicates its characters’ lives in a Shakespearean one. It offers not opinions to be considered but experiences to be ingested. Though it uses the same three-act structure and verbal techniques as The Torrents, its aim is not to instruct but to bear witness.
At the end of the play, when Roo finally asks Olive to marry him, there is little left to say:
OLIVE: You can’t get out of it like that – I won’t let you…
ROO: [appalled] Olive, what the hell’s wrong?
OLIVE: You’ve got to go back. It’s the only hope we’ve got.
ROO: Stop that screamin’, will yer?
OLIVE: You think I’ll let it all end up in marriage – every day – a paint factory – you think I’ll marry you?
ROO: [grabbing her and shouting back]: What else can we do? You gone mad or something? First you tell me I’ve made you low, and now look – you dunno what you want!
OLIVE: [breaking away, possessed] I do – I want what I had before. [Rushing at him and pummelling his chest] you give it back to me – give me back what you’ve taken.
ROO: [grabbing her wrists and holding them tight] Olive, it’s gone – can’t you understand? Every last scrap of it – gone!
[He throws her away from him, and she falls to the floor, grief-stricken, almost an animal in her sense of loss.]
Do these differences make the Doll a better play than The Torrents? There are two reasons why absolute verdicts about play texts are unwise. The first relates to their staging. A production of a play is more than an extension of its literary features. It is another form of life. There may be circumstances where a good production of Gray’s play works better than a bad one of Lawler’s.
When we take a broad view, comparative judgements are even harder to make. The Torrents has a place in a certain genus of Australian comedy. It harks back to Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe and forward to Joanna Murray-Smith’s Female of the Species.
Its stylistic approach can be seen in TV comedies like Utopia and Upper Middle Bogan. There may also be occasions when we would prefer reviving The Torrents to reviving the Doll: if it is infrequently produced, for example, or speaks to the current moment in a pertinent way (literary managers talk of plays going in and out of “the time envelope”).
The Doll, by contrast, is inimitable. Famously so. The tributary plays that followed in its wake were dubbed by the theatre critic Harry Kippax “the Doll clones”, and were largely unsuccessful. Australian drama in the 1960s did not build on the achievement of the 1950s. It remained an uneven terrain of “oncers” and playwrights who fled the country (as Lawler did, for over ten years).
The Doll exhausts the conventions it uniquely exploits, while The Torrents suggests their further development. This is no small point. The fate of a single play is, from the perspective of a national drama, unimportant. What matters is the corpus from which the collective theatrical imagination flows in infinite potential. The Doll had few successful imitators, The Torrents many. Which is the more important play in the end?
The question is specious, of course. Each makes a bespoke contribution to Australian culture. As we construct our canon, we shall make this pledge: each time we visit our list we will change one name on it. By doing this, we engage with the plays of the past in the way that truly matters: as drama serving our present needs.
Image: Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of the Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – photo by Jeff Busby