Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Gender and Genre: The Summer of the Seventeeth Doll

Jane Cousins

The Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll opened in Melbourne at the Russell Street Theatre in 1955. Within a year, according to Katharine Brisbane, it had become a household word, and by the time it reached a London stage in 1957, it was being hailed as the long-awaited proof that Australian drama had come of age. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1956, Lindsay Browne pro claimed that:

This fine play, untransplantably Australian in all its accents, gave Australian theatregoers the chance to feel as American audiences must have felt when O'Neill first began to assert American vitality and independence in drama, or the Irish must have felt when Synge gave them The Playboy Of The Western World.l

Headlines such as 'Fair Dinkum Play A Success' and 'True Australian Play at Last" register the impact the Doll had in signalling, as one critic put it, "the death of the old and stupid notion that Australians could never write a worth while play."2 Even the English critic Kenneth Tynan closed his review of the Doll's first London production with the accolade: "in short we have found our selves a playwright, it is time to rejoice."3 By 1964 the Doll was entrenched in the Australian literary canon as "one of the very few mature works of our dramatic literature",4 and although its status as the first authentically Australian play is now shaky, the Doll still stands as a symbol of 'cultural maturity'. Not only is it seen as a watershed in the development of Australian drama, but also as an important-discovery in the search for the 'authentic form' in which to present the 'unique Australian identity'.

It is in the context of this quest both for 'cultural identity' and for the 'essential national character' that I approach the Dollfrom a feminist position. I do so not so much to demonstrate that this 'Australian identity' is constructed as masculine, as to illustrate that what is at stake in the choice of 'form' or genre is not just the possibility of representation but the formal conditions of possibility of self-representation. For as an attempt to transform the dominant image of 'national identity' in the 1950's the Doll is exemplary. I argue that its attempt to transcend the stereotype of the 'outback hero' and to construct a new, unified (and ultimately masculine) Australian identity founders on the sexual division of narrative labour through which its well-made naturalism constructs masculine identity. What I argue, in essence, is that a particular textual construction of 'woman' as mirror of male identity does not necessarily serve the historically specific interests of masculine self-representation. This is not to say, of course, that it serves the interests of female representation. But rather it is to suggest that an exploration of how gendered identity is textually encoded within historically differentiated generic constraints may lead to the framing of textual strategies which do enable female self-representation.

Pre-texts and Contexts

The historical significance of the Doll - as the fulcrum on which Australian drama has been seen to turn - may be glimpsed by taking a brief look at the formal and institutional constraints which operated on Australian drama in the first half of the 20th century. During the l9th century, theatre in Australia meant melodrama, a form which travelled well and required little or no adaptation for the presentation of Australian themes. With World War I, however, melodrama and spectacle declined, and eventually, with the onset of the Depression, were displaced by the Hollywood movie. On the stage, over which the film of J.C. Williamson's had a monopoly, theatre complised popular and commercially successful imports: American musical comedy and vaudeville, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as musicals with Australian themes, the comedians Roy Rene and George Wallace, and theatrical versions of such works as The Sentimental Bloke and On Our Selection. Since the commercial theatres refused to take risks with new Australian plays, the chances of Australian playwrights having work performed there were virtually nil. Various at tempts were made to found an Australian drama5 Of particular importance was the amateur movement which began to emerge at the beginning of the century. This movement was influenced by social realism and expressionism; and was predominantly middle class and socialist. Nevertheless, a remarkable number of literary dramas written between the 1920s and 1950s share a common concern with defining the uniquely Australian, and favour outback settings. These plays had little success, however, since a lack of funds precluded both professional production and access to a wider audience. It was only the beginning of state subsidisation, with the founding of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954 (which in fact gave Lawler's play its first professional performance3, that made possible the nurturing of Australian plays from script through to professional production on the stage.6

In addition to these institutional problems, however, there was also the difficulty of articulating a national self-consciousness in terms inherited from the European dramatic tradition. This was a task made more difficult, Peter Fitzpatrick argues, because:

...the dominant sense of a distinctively Australian character remained that of the man of the outback, and the dominant formal influence was that of 'well-made' naturalism. It was an awkward conjunction, but one assayed repeatedly. Partly the difficulty lay simply in adapting a convention most familiar in plays which focused on psychological conflict in claustrophobic interiors, to the presentation of a myth in which the central conflict was between man and a hostile environment. The outback plays represented more specific difficulties, too; characters in naturalistic plays are rarely offered as archetypes, and are rarely noted for being uncommunicative.7

In other words, it was difficult to stage, within the established literary forms available to Australian playwrights, the spectacular conflicts waged between man and the hostile land. The fires, floods and stampedes of the outback plays could not be represented on stage. The strategies adopted to deal with these problems (locating action just outside a hut, camp or farmhouse) tended to produce more difficulties than they solved - the need for reportage, the awkward motivation of entrances and exits, and the danger of visual boredom.

What Lawler was able to do, within such an historical conjunction of literary and social systems, was to bring the characteristic elements of the out back play (the bushman stereotype and the values of mateship and physical prowess) into the domestic interior of classic European naturalistic theatre. As Fitzpatrick points out, this "allow(ed) those values to be explored in their interaction with a more complex and diverse set of relationships", while, in addition, the greater "range of conversational stereotypes also provide(d) a context in which the taciturnity of the bushman could be relieved, and become itself a dramatic subject "8

This national self-consciousness was made possible, on the one hand, by the generic conventions of naturalism, and on the other, by the new socio economic conditions produced by rapid urbanisation. With the accompanying re assessment of the practice of mateship and ideology of selfhood on which the play was based, the figure of the Outback hero was beginning to be displaced from its centrality as the national archetype, and to recede into what was be coming, for an ever increasing number of Australians, a figuratively as well as literally peripheral outback. As Fitzpatrick puts it, the Doll "was itself the agent and symptom of an increasingly sceptical attitude to the value and reality of the myth; and after analyses like Russell Ward's The Australian Legend, the stereotype of the outback hero, and the rites he evolved to cope with a hostile environment, could not easily be assented to as representative of a present Australian reality."9

As both agent and symptom of this critique of 'national identity', the Doll may thus be seen as a dramatic mediation of competing definitions of the 'Australian experience' and 'character'. However, while the play dramatically embodies and enacts this discursive conflict, its dramatic resolution does not resolve it unequivocally. For the Doll works neither uncritically to naturalise the image of the outback hero as the emblem of national character, nor simply to transcend the stereotype and unmask it as irredeemably hollow. As Fitzpatrick points out, the Doll "does not close on a reversal of frontier values; in stead they survive in cut down, compromised forms".l0

This equivocality is itself reproduced at the level of criticism. As Joy Hooton says: "Responses to the denouement have been nothing if not varied. Praised as powerful, logical, tough and tragic, the scene has also been criticised as tearjerking, manipulative, sentimental, pathetic and melodramatic."ll That this critical friction is as much a function of the Doll's structural ambivalence as it is of its thematic contradictions is perhaps best illustrated by Margaret Williams' comment that the play, "a blueprint of well-made naturalism, is essentially a play of conflicting social orders, though it is the Doll's stroke of genius to have clad them in living flesh."l2

Readings of the play tend to fall into those which either read character through a set of interpretive norms which derive from the conventions of naturalism, or those which read character through the conventions of those genres (such as melodrama) in which character performs a representative-symbolic function.

An example of the latter is provided by Davison. He sees in the decline of Roo's physical powers not only the passing of a nation's youth, but also a "questioning of the validity of the myth of the Outback in contemporary Australia"13 Davison's criticism that the Doll manifests a 'lack of clarity' in its dramatic resolution is entirely consistent with the conventions of a genre in which conflict is clearly and symbolically resolved in the exterior world.l4 specifically, "what is not clear... is whether the way of life that has ended for Barney and Roo (typifying... the old Australian way of life) has also ended for... the new generation, or whether it will be possible for them to refashion it, 'have it differently', so that is can be had 'safe', 'to last'."15 finally, Davison senses that Lawler is concerned with something of wider significance "in dramatising the breakdown of the relationships of Roo and Barney to the gang". But the ending of the play is so "equivocal" that it "does not clarify what is being said". He asks: is it "a reaffirmation of the values of the past being given, or [does] the sentimentality of this moment make its own pointed comment on the worth of such values in contemporary society?''l6

For Fitzpatrick, operating within a naturalistic frame, the play's equivocal ending is seen neither as an unresolved thematic problem nor as a structural fault, but rather as a "challenging ambiguity accounted for in the convincing range of contending perspectives."17 Acknowledging at the same time, however, that this "is a quality that may seem at odds with the exploration of self consciously Australian sets of values through recognisable social stereo types,"18 he defends his own reading by invoking the authority of a naturalistic frame: is dangerous when the play is made to represent historical rather than personal change. The outsider Pearl is proposed as representing the old guard who cannot believe that 'the Australian dream' has ended. Such a reading is inevitably concerned with the demonstrable, perhaps 'objective', truth of the representative stereotypes within society at large, rather than with the meaning those stereotypes have for the people in the play itself; and it is inevitably hostile to the final ambiguity of tone."19

Fitzpatrick simultaneously poses and disposes of an important issue here. For this critical tension between the two possible generic frames through which the Doll might be read, is the question of how meaning is mapped onto bodies, of how bodies assume the function of signs. It is a question, ultimately, of how we construct or read 'character' as the bearer of this rather than that meaning. This is not only a question of genre, but also of gender. This question has not, to my knowledge, been posed in the critical literature on the Doll. Perhaps this is because the assumption of a sexually undifferentiated reader/spectator consistently constructs the national character as masculine. This is illustrated in the following historical gloss by Margaret Williams, in which the conventional elision of sexual difference in critical discourse constructs simultaneously as masculine the subject of language, of vision, and ultimately of the 'Australian experience':

Our playwrights are more concerned with corporate and representative man than with the exploration of individual psychology, so the well made play formula of protagonist and antagonist is not helpful. Only since its demise have we begun to explore forms that can accommodate a distinctively, if not uniquely, Australian view of collective man, and the peculiarly constricting nature of social ritual."20

While Williams' formulation rejects humanist categories (through its displacement of subjectivity from the individual to the realm of the social) it nevertheless retains the notion of a single and unified 'point of view', implicitly predicated of a masculine subject. It thus falls in with both Davison and Fitzpatrick's desire for a unity denied by the Doll's structural ambivalence. Fitzpatrick even concludes, that, despite its 'final ambiguity of tone', the play achieves no more than the presentation of an outdated stereotype. Although he judges the play successful according to the criteria of naturalism, naturalism itself is rejected, on the grounds that it is an inappropriate form within which to articulate Australian consciousness. As "the reconciliation of a passing model of national self-consciousness and a somewhat old-fashioned dramatic form", the Doll is viewed by Fitzpatrick as the "culmination of a long and difficult process, rather than a radical beginning."21 Ultimately for Fitzpatrick it fails to reject limited kinds of experience'.

From the apparently different standpoints of naturalism and melodrama, both Davison and Fitzpatrick eventually judge the play in terms of its failure to 'refashion' the Australian dream, to transcend the stereotype of national character. Thus, despite their divergent aesthetic evaluations both critics con verge on the unresolved conflict between the elevated world of the outback hero (two eagles flyin' down out of the sun) and the pedestrian, emasculated world of the 'soft city blokes' with their drinks and their little arguments'. The problem for these critics, I suggest, is the irreconcilability of these two opposing social stereotypes, within the Doll's naturalistic frame. In their view the play's weakness is that it fails to construct a unitary position from which present Australian reality may be seen; it fails to construct, in other words, a unified, univocal and ultimately masculine identity.

This desire for unity and coherence is one that has been echoed through the decades of Australian drama criticism. It is one which searches for that elusive form within which may be expressed the content of the 'real', authentic Australian experience. This form/content dichotomy has also characterised much of the critical literature on the Doll. It is exemplified by Brisbane's comment that "the Doll, when it came, combined the blessings of a refined framework in the European naturalistic convention with a vividly and exotically Australian content"22 However, as her own description of the search for a suitable form suggests, it is not simply a matter of finding - as her first comment implies - the appropriate form in which the outlandish Australian national character may be made presentable (in both sense of the word) for its debut on the European stage. Rather, it is a matter of a wider discursive process through which the Australian 'experience' was itself constructed:

The Doll was unique because it defined a quality of life which those who sought to express it did not yet understand. It is a play about the deprivation of feeling and understanding deriving from the long, unbeaten struggle for survival in the sun; and how our long-felt admiration for youthful prowess has left us unequipped to fulfil our age, or even recognise there is a tomorrow. Years were to pass before Australia itself began to learn to grow up, to feel the truth of Lawler's statements and to lend a sympathetic ear to the rob of the creative artist in showing us how to express ourselves.23

If the form/content dichotomy is re-thought in terms of a formal disjunction, and the play approached for the relationship it reveals between the 'refined framework of a European naturalistic convention' and the changing perception of national identity, then it becomes possible to read the Doll as mediating a crisis in national identity by attempting to transform the recognisable social stereotypes of melodrama through the naturalistic conventions of complex character construction. We may thus see the formal problem facing Lawler as not unlike that with which Ibsen was confronted in his play of a similar title A Doll's House. This is not only a problem of how to invoke and at the same time reject conventional dramatic stereotypes, but of how simultaneously to develop new dramatic categories through which experience may be articulated. The comparison must not be taken too far, however, for apart from their obviously distinct national, historical, social and literary contexts there is another crucial difference between the plays. While both plays end with a refusal of marriage by their central female character, this denouement serves ostensibly different functions in each.

In A Doll's House the action revolves around Nora, her dawning self-consciousness and her quest for self-realisation, whereas in the Doll, it is Roo who is the subject of transformation. To put the difference crudely, it might be said that where Ibsen was attempting to rewrite femininity, Lawler was attempting to rewrite masculinity. Like A Doll's House, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll embodies this process of redefinition in the changing perceptions of its characters. It relentlessly demonstrates the split between the 'ideal' and the 'real', and forces its characters to confront under the weight of history, the injunction to create for themselves the conditions of their own self-realisation. Also like A Doll's House, the Doll reveals that it is the burden of its own structural 'inheritance' which finally prevents its characters from achieving this. Nora fails in her quest for self-realisation because Ibsen's rejection of the structural imperatives of the intrigue form (which require either the punishment or forgiveness of the heroine who refuses to perform the conventional specular function of woman) leaves Nora no alternative position or identity. Similarly, Lawler's refusal of the outback hero's melodramatic victory over (or defeat by) a hostile environment constructs for Roo an equally untenable position. No longer able to identify with the outback myth of masculinity, Roo is also unable to construct a new masculine identity in the differently hostile world of the city - a world that is both hostile to, and unable to sustain, the myth of an omnipotent outback masculinity.

Here, significantly, it is once more upon a female character's refusal of the specular position that the male quest for self-realisation founders. If we read both plays as demonstrating that feminine desire does not always conform to the desire of the Other, then I suggest that whereas A Doll's House reveals that the contradictory construction of woman as both specular image and subject of desire constitutes a problem for women, the Doll, as its specular opposite, reveals that this construction of 'woman' also constitutes a problem for men.

The fact that Roo's identity turns on Olive's, and that she constitutes a site of troubling ambiguity, a resistance to his changing self-conception, is indicated in Hooton's speculations on the final scene between Roo and Olive. Here, in searching for the meaning of Olive's action, she poses once more the familiar question of female desire:

If the feelings of the past have been so deep, if the ritual of the past sixteen summers has been a warm and enriching one... why, in this case, does Olive reject the idea of marriage? Is this a profound rejection of suburbia and all its conventions? A magnificently quixotic dream? A final pathetic demonstration of the extent to which she has been seduced by an illusion? A powerful demonstration of the backlash of male chauvinism? A scornful rejection of an offer she recognises as Roo's face-saving option to returning to the canefields? An initial refusal which will, or should properly, be succeeded by a more sensible acceptance of the gold band and the one suburban roof?24

The Doll

To begin to answer this question as a question of the limits of representation, it is necessary to trace the Doll's narrative movement from illusion to disillusion (in both senses of the word), from reified stereotype to degraded reality. I shall begin with the meaning those stereotypes have for the play's dramatis personae. The Doll embodies the problem of 'seeing' as a problem of distinguishing between appearance and reality (a problem here rewritten in post-structuralist terms as one of deciding between competing constructions of the real). It does so in a fairly conventional naturalistic manner by juxtaposing its characters' incompatible perceptions of reality. 'Discrepant awareness' in the Doll, however, while embedded partly in structure (as in Chekhov) and partly in symbol (as in Ibsen) is also thematised at the level of language, in the characters' own speech:

Dowd:     Funny thing. I imagined this place pretty often
(in answer to her puzzled look) Oh, of course, I've never
been here, it's just the reputation that's been built up 
amongst the boys up north.    
Bubba:    Things Barney said?
Dowd:     And bits of talk the boys picked up. Or made up, 
by the looks of it. (he eyes the souvenirs disparagingly).    
Bubba:    (nervously) It's not a big place.
Dowd:     Size is nothin'. It's the other things - 
like all the fun they're supposed to have here. I just can't 
see it. 
Bubba:    (defensively) You don't know. 
Dowd:     No? You tell me then. 
Bubba:    (Turning away, shakily) H-how can I? All that's 
happened in a place makes a feeling - you can't tell anyone 
that.  It's between people. 
Dowd:      Oh. (Indicating the dolls on the mantelpiece) 
What are the dolls in aid of? 
Bubba:     Roo gives one to Olive every year when he arrives. 
Like a mascot. 
Dowd:     (Snorting in coarse amusement) Dolls? Is that the 
best he can do? (p.67)..... 
Bubba:     You shouldn't have said that about the dolls. 
They mean something to Olive and Roo, it's - it's hard to 
explain. You wouldn't understand. (p.68)

At one level this exchange invokes the familiar appearance/reality dichotomy. However, the metonymic slide from 'speaking' to 'seeing' to 'understanding' also reveals the role of language in mediating perception of the real. This scene, read through the categories of psychoanalysis, demonstrates that seeing is grounded in discourse (where the personal intersects with the social) and implicated in the circulation of desire. Vision here may be seen to have its origin not in the individual but in the social, symbolic order. Within the naturalistic frame of the play, however, this scene functions to represent the split between the 'ideal' and 'real', dream and reality, past and present. An analogous exchange between Olive and Pearl serves the same purpose. Olive's perception (representing the dominant definition of the lay-off for the group) is seen by Pearl as pure fantasy:

Pearl:     ... (to the men) Honest, she boosted you two up 
so much before you came, I didn't know what to expect.     
Olive:     It wasn't as bad as that.
Pearl:     (in superior smugness) Oh yes it was Olly; 
I don't think you realised. The way you went on about 
everythin' - sounded just as if when they arrived the whole 
town was gunna go up like a balloon.(p.49)

And later, more pointedly, Pearl proclaims to Olive "there's not one thing I've found here anything like what you told me... Take a look at this place now that you've pulled down the decorations. What's so wonderful about it? It's just an ordinary little house the hell of a lot worse for wear. And if you came out of your dream long enough to take a grown up look at the lay-off, that's what you'd find with the rest of it." (p.77)

If the Doll embodies its competing definitions of 'present Australian reality' in the incompatible points of view of its characters, it is precisely through the intradiegetic play of looks between them that this conflict is mediated. That is, it is primarily through the specular function of characters within the world of the play that the crisis of meaning is played out. Transformations in the characters' perceptions of their world revolve around changes in the way they see themselves, and these changes in turn revolve around the way they are seen by others. It is thus, for example, in the exchange of looks between Bubba and l )owd (who is already, in the eyes of the boys up north - but not in Roo's and Olive's eyes - an embodiment of stereotypical masculinity) that Bubba sees herself for the first time as a 'grown up' woman, and Dowd has his manhood confirmed:

Dowd:     (Summing up her reaction and asking her one of 
the big questions of his life) Tell me somethin', will yer? 
Why is it every time I come across anything connected with Roo, 
I'm supposed to act like I'm too young to live up to it?..
Anyway, what's it matter, tomorrow's the thing. That is 
if you'll still come with me after the cracks I've
made. Will you?
Bubba:    Yes I'd like to.
Dowd:     What did you say your name was again?
Bubba:    Bubba Ryan.
Dowd:     Bubba? Is that what they call you? (as she nods) 
Seems to me they're keeping you in the cradle, too. (they 
look at one another in a moment of perfect understanding) 
What's your real name?     
Bubba:    (softly) Kathie.
Dowd:     Kathie? Well, that's what I'll call you, okay? 
(he smiles at her and she responds) (p.68)

But while Bubba and Dowd are mutually affirmed in each other's eyes, Olive's 'narcissistic' gaze fails to have returned from Pearl either the flattering image of Olive the 'all-woman' or confirmation of her past sixteen years of pleasure:

Olive:     ...the way she looked at me this mornin' when 
she told me I  I didn't know what livin' was.     
Roo:      That's a fine thing to let worry you, the 
way Pearl looks.
Olive:     You didn't see her - And it's more than looking 
this is difficult for her to say) it's having another woman 
around knowin' your insides and sorry for you 'cos she thinks
you've never been within cooee of the real thing. That hurts. 
Her control gives way and she starts to cry)...It was true
everythin' I told her was true, an' - an' she didn't see 
any of it. (p.90)

Pearl herself has an ambiguous status (alluded to by the phrase 'the way Pearl looks', meaning both the way Pearl sees things and the way she is seen by others). She is the outsider - she comes to fill a vacancy in this cast of intimate players, and she is alienated by their unfamiliar narrative. As such Pearl brings at once a detached gaze but also an inappropriate set of values by which to judge what she sees; an inappropriateness signified finally by her appearance. On the morning of her departure from Emma's house, the night after Barney and Roo have fought and broken the seventeenth doll, Barney and Pearl do battle, both with looks and words:

Barney:     (she turns away embarrassed as he appraises 
her clothes) 'Struth, I'll bet that's the most respectable 
get-up in your whole wardrobe. I don't mind you walking out
on me lovey, but do you have to look like you're leaving a 
Pearl:     (putting on gloves) I knew you wouldn't be able to 
stand the thought of me being respectable again. 
Barney:     Pearlie, I'll let you into a secret. 
You've never been anything else. 
Pearl:     (flashing) Maybe I haven' been any second Nancy, 
but then I never set out to be. 
Barney:    (puzzled) Why the hell pick on poor old Nance? 
(she maintains a tight-lipped silence) If it comes to that 
you're walking out for the very same reason she did.     
Pearl:     Nancy left to get married.
Barney:    Only because she couldn't get what she wanted here.
Pearl:     (in sad exasperation) You can still see yourself 
as the best prize in the packet, can't you? Well, I might 
have had some idea of marrying you... 
But not after last night. And it's not only finding out you're 
the great has-been. It's what you wanted me to do with Vera... 
I got caught up with that myself around her age, and I've ended 
up here with you. Well, it's not going to happen to my 
daughter. She's gonna have the sorta respectability that 
don't-need a black dress to show it. (pp.78-9)

While Barney steadfastly refuses to see in Pearl the shattered image of his own invincible charm, Pearl, having been forced to see the fiction of her 'respectable mother stunt' and to recognise that Barney will never realise it, removes herself from the scene.

Within this field of relativised perspectives no one character has a monopoly on the 'truth', until, however, Emma emerges in classic well-made style from the background to take up the role of raisonneur. She is the central but ironically distanced figure in whom is now invested an authority which has so far been denied the other characters. Shrewd and old (almost beyond gender), she stands outside the entanglements of the couples and views them with the wry, complacent wisdom of someone who has seen it all before. If, in Davison's allegorical terms, Pearl is the 'carping migrant, who can only see the tawdriness, the emptiness of what she has been introduced to', Olive represents the old way of life, and Bubba 'the new generation, who, brought up in full awareness of the dream, believe that they can inherit it', then perhaps Emma is the 'mother country', casting a watchful eye from a respectful distance (now that the colony has officially come of age) and refraining from intervening in internal squabbles unless invited:

Roo:     (in sudden resolve) C'mon Emma, you're supposed 
    to know the lot. Whose fault do you reckon it is?.....    
    Emma:     Nobody's fault, yer melon.
    Roo:      Don't be silly, it must be somebody's.
    Emma:     (exasperated) Why must it? All that's happened is 
    you've gone as far as you can go. You n' Barney n' Olive, 
    you're too old for it anymore.    
    Roo:      Old?
    Emma:     That's it - old! Take a look in the mirror.....
    Roo:      (stubbornly) I ain't old. Old is - what you are, 
    and - and - (he gropes for a name and the only one he 
    eventually finds is a shock to him) Tony Moreno. (After a 
    moment he turns to survey his face questioningly in the 
    mirror over the mantle. It is the action of doubt. From here
    on Roo is at the mercy of an entirely different conception of himself.)(pp.82-3)

Thus, with the help of Emma, Roo finally solves the puzzle of what has gone wrong with their enchanted world. He sees himself as he really is, and from this moment on he sees his world differently too. Roo sees in the mirror, as Olive has seen in Pearl, Pearl in Barney and Barney in Pearl, not the flattering image of the rugged outback hero, but the real, 'ordinary' man, 'the hell of a lot worse for wear'. It is an act of self-consciousness which divides him from himself. For his awareness of the disjunction between his body and the image of the outback hero disrupts in turn the identity produced by his identification with this image. He is, however, the only one fully to grasp or accept this knowledge and therefore the only one with the capacity to change (or in Ibsen's language 'adapt'. It is ultimately in relation to the kewpie doll - symbol of a happy childhood which they have outgrown but refuse to relinquish - that his capacity for transformation is clearly differentiated only in relation to Olive:

Roo:     What about Olive?
Emma:    Olive's a fool. I'll show you somethin'
(rummaging in a cupboard she takes out the doll.
She speaks with bitterness) You see this? 
Middle of the night Olive sat here on the floor, 
huggin' this and howling. A grown-up woman, howling
over a silly old kewpie doll. That's Olive for you! (p.84)

And while Olive clings to the doll, refusing Roo's proposal of marriage and demanding that he return the past which she claims he has taken from her, Roo literally destroys the doll. This act symbolically registers his awareness of its constraining fiction. The movement from illusion to disillusion, however, does not mark the transcendence of the present by the past, the triumph of fact over fiction, reality over myth, for the two terms remain in an irreconcilable opposition. As Joy Hooton puts it "The full brunt of the false image's power is only postponed... to the moment when Roo realises that Olive is not equipped to see beyond it. Forced finally to remove his Roo mask, he is appalled to see that Olive can only relate to the mask, not the man."25

While the nature of the knowledge produced by Roo's discovery marks a departure from the gratuitous resolutions of intrigue drama, and his failure to resolve the question of identity posed by this knowledge marks a departure from the providential resolutions of melodrama (with its confirmations of identity), the Doll remains, nevertheless, firmly within the grip of a binary logic. At its end we are left with two central characters, protagonist and antagonist, the one who sees and the one who does not, the one who changes and one who does not. Within this hierarchical opposition of masculine and feminine, where Roo is the term of reference and Olive merely the site at which his new identity is to be confirmed - the screen onto which his now transformed desire is to be projected - she can only reflect what is already there. Since there are only two diametrically opposed incarnations of masculinity available with in the play - the deified masculinity of the outback and the degraded masculinity of the city - and the Doll refuses them both, Olive cannot function as the figure of narrative closure where a transcendental male identity is affirmed, but constitutes instead the site of division, of contradiction, of impossible desire.

The Dolls sexual division of narrative labour is itself reflected at the level of criticism. For Davison Olive is not only the "representative of an old way of life and remembers only a time when all that is now a dream was reality", but more significantly, "cannot see... that the change has come about as a result of a change in Roo - that is, a change within." Similarly, for Hooton Olive is "blind to Roo's inner life"26 - a condition she explains, through re course to the categories of popularised psychology, as the result of Olive's 'infantile materialism'. She claims that Olive's obsession with things (such as the kewpie dolls) shows that she "is still enclosed in that world Piaget described as typical of the infant in that she does not seek to benefit at the cost of others, she simply has not fully grasped that there are other selves."27 Thus, for both critics, Olive belongs to a different order - the imaginary world of dreams and infantile narcissism. Figuratively representing either the conservative weight of history or a regressive psychological type, Olive is here construed as resistance. She is precisely that which is not susceptible to transformation. Belonging to an undifferentiated, pre-symbolic world, she can neither tell nor make the difference - between d eam and reality, mask (or myth) and man.

Roo, on the contrary, is seen as a soul in the torment of transition, torn between the "naivety, gentleness and inarticulate chivalry of the pre-war, back block Australian", on the one hand, and his "individual rigidities which fatally fit the bronzed Anzac mask,"28 on the other. And as Hooton rightly points out "even his names imply the disabling contradiction, (Kanga) Roo expressing the prosaically narrow outback type he emulates and Reuben, his inner individuality which responds to the Bible's poetry like a parched plant to water."29 Within the play's naturalistic frame, the lay-off provides the space within which these irreconcilable characterisations of masculinity may co-exist for a time within the same persona. For the lay-off both imposes the stereotype - it is the condition of Roo's presence in the Carlton house - and also provides an environment which demands the expression of qualities that are conventionally excluded from the figure.

It is, however, still an opposition - an oscillation between the two that is figured by the men's ceaseless cycle of migration from the canefields to the city and back again. When Roo is forced to choose, and finally brings his heavy cane-cutter's boots to rest on Olive's hearth, he finds that Olive is no longer in the place he thought she was, is, or should be, waiting with a more comfort able pair of slippers. However, it is in spite of, or maybe even because of, this unhappy eventuality that Brisbane claims the Doll is "one of the very few mature works of our dramatic literature". She continues:

While engaging us in a loving portrayal of the Australian character in some of its variety, Lawler subtly questions our shibboleths of freedom and friendship and our understanding of the dimensions of love. Olive. the all-woman who has foregone the boredom of marriage as she has seen it around her for the vivid sensuality of a seasonal romance, by the end of the play has subtly transformed into a romantic child in flight from maturity. Roo and Barney, the migratory eagles from the north who for seventeen summers have filled the dark Carlton house with vitality are the incarnation of that manly strength which has given Australia its character. But gradually Lawler makes us see the burden behind the myth, the strain on the men who wish to lay the burden of their manhood to rest in the comfort and understanding of their women; and who find in Olive a reflection of that illusion they and their society have created. The play moves in ever widening circles into our society and its failing rhythms fit its structure immaculately.30

Brisbane's eloquent plot summary reveals with perfect clarity woman's specular function; not only for the male characters within the play (and for 'their society', but also in the play's construction of its subject of address. Constituted as the ground of representation, 'the looking glass held up to man', Olive reflects a subject in crisis, a subject divided by a crisis of vision, a crisis of representation.

Implicit in Brisbane's reading of the Doll as a history of the Australian national character is the notion of a 'fall' - a fall into language and civilisation. For Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll is "about growing up and growing old and failing to grow up." It "throws into relief not only the hopes and fears of of a delapidated Melboume household, but the character of a nation."31 Mediated by the mythical unity and plenitude of the lay-off (that space and time where anything is possible), the transition from the silence and simplicity of the outback to the noise and confusion of the city marks the irreversible fall into gauge and culture where unity and coherence (of self, vision and meaning) are finally denied. The sense of loss conveyed by Roo's first doubting gaze into the mirror is underscored by Emma's "Strikes me you don't know what's hit you" and Roo's reply: "All I know is something went wrong." It is ultimately on the figure of Olive, however, as representative of the past, that the full extent of the loss is registered. In the final scene her body becomes the site of an 'elemental' and unspeakable desire:

She gives a rasping cry and doubles over herself 
on the floor as if cradling an awful inner pain) 
Emma:     Olly, what's the matter? Tell me. 
But Olive shakes her head dumbly, not looking up. 
She draws away from her mother and rises, swaying... 
she stumbles forward to pick up her bag and move 
from the house. It is the progress of a drunk woman, 
her head hangs down, her hair tumbles about her face,
and she lurches as she walks. The only sound is a 
rhythmic, gagging catch in her throat, too elemental 
to be defined as sobbing. On the verandah, she steadies 
herself for a moment against a post, clinging for 
support before relinquishing her grip to plunge off 
front verandah and wander out of sight.) (p.934)

Olive's failure to 'grow up' - to become a 'real' woman - reveals the textual problem posed by woman, functioning as object and support of desire and representation. Olive is both absent and present - absent in representation as 'real' woman (subject), present as 'woman' (object, image, sign):

Roo:     Y'know, a man's a fool to treat you as a woman.
You're nothing but a little girl about twelve years old. 
Olive:   Try telling that to the mob on Saturday night.
Roo:     'S true, just the same. (p.91)

Reflecting the impossibility of satisfying demand, of possessing the object of desire, Olive's failure reflects finally the impossibility of securing meaning and self-identity. This impossibility is still predicated on a masculine subject, irredeemably divided by the rupture of look and identification. So although the figure of the outback hero may have been displaced from its prior centrality as the dominant incarnation of national character, it is nevertheless still a masculine subject that retains centrality in the quest for a new one. The Doll, despite the claims of 'contending perspectives' (Fitzpatrick) and egalitarianism (Brisbane), takes in the end the classic oedipal form mapped out by Teresa De Lauretis. It too is a "two character drama in which the human subject [attempts] to recreate himself out of a purely symbolic other - the womb, the earth [outback], the cave, the grave, the woman... The drama has the movement of a passage, an actively experienced transformation of the human subject into - man."32

If the Doll fails specifically to effect such a transformation of 'man' from one incarnation to another, then this failure is itself recuperated by projecting it onto woman. Failing to maintain Olive's image as the figure of narrative closure, the Doll transforms her into a personified obstacle which blocks Roo's quest for identity. As the body upon which a social meaning (Olive the 'all woman') was inscribed for Roo and which confirmed him in his 'Roo' persona, Olive now becomes the screen onto which this impossible dream of male omnipotence is projected as feminine desire. However, this reinscription of the image - body - of woman (through a naturalistic logic of motivation which retrospectively ascribes to Olive the unconscious motivation of the hysteric) is not achieved without straining the well-made frame. Fitzpatrick's comment is apposite here: "Olive's refusal of Roo's proposal is entirely consistent with her commitment to a romantic ideal and the directness of her passion, and it works very convincingly on stage - but in her lack of self-awareness (and considerateness) here Olive seems a little disconnected from the very wifely woman of Act "33

This tension indicates, perhaps, that there is something more at stake in Olive's rejection of Roo's proposal. Precisely what this might be is revealed indirectly by Davison in a footnote:

Roo's proposal of marriage threatens the complete severence of the bonds of mateship between Roo and Barney - according to Roo, 'Barney'll get along, he doesn't need me anymore.' In part, Olive's rejection of Roo suggests her desire to preserve the past in which she believes, a past which is based upon the mateship of Roo and Barney, not on that of men and women.34

If, as De Lauretis argues, all stories have man as their single term of reference and address (thus making "her story, like any other story,... a question of his desire") then it could be argued that Olive's refusal of marriage constitutes the disavowal of a male desire for a past - a social order - based exclusively on the fellowship of men. This fellowship was a homoerotic economy in which women have value as the objects of exchange between men (as evidenced by Olive's 'use' of Pearl, and Barney's of Bubba, to maintain the sexual economy of the lay-off). While the closure of the Doll suggests that a return to this social order in its original form is impossible, it nevertheless reaffirms the primacy of men's relationship to one another over their relationship to women. Entirely consistent with, and symptomatic of, Olive's function in this reaffirmation, is what Hooton describes as the dominant reading of Olive's character "Common to most commentaries on the Doll is the perception of Olive as the central figure of the lay-off, just as her point of view is the one that has prevailed. Responding to her passionately defensive account of the past romance, audiences and reviewers have tended to align with what is seen as her heroism and idealism, Refusing to submit to the tame categories of social convention." 35 Hooton argues that this is a gross misreading of Olive's character. She regards the play as being "only indirectly concerned with outback values... Iess a universally relevant study of the effects of time than a specific study of a certain kind of infantile, yet magnetic psychology."36 As we may have come to expect, however, even Hooton's alternative account of Olive's character and motives is ultimately complicit with the reading she opposes. For while she reads Olive as representing the personal rather than the historical, she also concludes that " is not marriage or even free love that Olive seeks but mateship."37 However, while both readings finally converge in the production of the same old story, Hooton's insistence on the primacy of the 'individual' at least poses the question of Olive's desire. Although Hooton reads Olive's refusal of marriage as an effect of her failure fully to achieve 'femininity' - her description of Olive's desire as constituted by "an eccentric mixture of androgynous motives" does raise the question of what is at stake for Olive, and thus too for the female spectator who may identify with her.

According to Hooton, Olive is drawn to Roo because of his rugged masculinity. Furthermore, "not only does Roo's eagle-like image provide a flattering mirror for her own ego, but she also attempts to appropriate some of his masculine freedom."38 As an alternative to marriage, the family and a female stereotype, the lay-off, Hooton argues, provides "all the 'female' security of marriage with an impression of 'male' sexual freedom, as well as the cheery razzamatazz of perpetual stag parties... the world that Olive seeks to enter on the equal terms of a psuedo-mateship is really a paler, 1940's version of the male, adolescent world of Williamson's Stork."39 The lay-off may be seen therefore as providing a space for Olive (just as it does for Roo) in which both her passive (female') and active (male) aims may be realised.

If we see masculinity and femininity not as qualities or characteristics inherent in the individual, but rather as posidons available to the subject in discourse, and more precisely as positionalities in the movement of narrative discourse, then it is possible to read Olive's relation to the world of the lay-off as exemplary of the female spectator's relation to the world of the play. For just as Olive is seen to pursue both 'male' and 'female' desires, so female identification, De Lauretis has argued, is with both subject (male) and object/space (female) of narrative, with both the figure of narrative movement and the figure of its closure. She argues, further, that it is through the surplus of pleasure produced by this double identification that women are seduced into femininity. For while it is as the object of Oedipal desire that women must learn to identify with the feminine position, this identification, as Freud himself knew, is not guaranteed by the actual development of female subjectivity: since in our culture it is much more difficult for the little girl to identify with her mother than for the little boy to identify with his father, it is therefore more difficult for her to learn how to "fulfil her role in the sexual function and perform her invaluable social tasks."40 Thus the closure and identity promised to the little boy by the Oedipal narrative (the promise made to him at the oedipal phase that the woman will be waiting at the end of his journey, to fulfill his desire, his biological and affective destiny) remains only a promise. For "while the aims of biology may be accomplished independently of the consent of women, the aim of desire (heterosexual male desire, that is) may not."41 Women, there fore, "must either consent or be seduced into consenting to femininity."42

In the light of this we may agree with Hooton's claim that Olive has been "seduced by an illusion". She has been seduced into her 'all-woman' femininity by the surplus of pleasure she gains from the lay-off arrangement in which she not only identifies with both narrative positions, but also evades the social and economic constraints that 'marriage' normally entails. Olive has indeed, as Hooton disparagingly puts it, "a tenacious grasp of the practicalities of a range of deceiving dualities."43 It is thus not surprising that when Olive is herself disillusioned and required both to conform and to perform her 'invaluable social tasks', she refuses to forgo her double identification for the single identification that is proper to the feminine position.

Turning now to the question of spectatorship, one might argue that the 'proper' strategic position for the feminist critic is not one simply of identification with Olive (as an idealised heroine who refuses to submit to the requirement of narrative closure) or against her (as a 'fool' who is 'seduced by an illusion'). Rather, what is required is a practice of reading and viewing which at once maintains and refuses the terms of this 'deceiving duality', which at once identifies with these positions and refuses the terms within which (in the service of articulating male identity) sexual differentiation within both characters and spectators is reduced to sexual difference between them.

In the case of the Doll, this requires an analysis of the formal constraints within which the attempt to change the meaning of the dominant image of national identity led to the staging of contradictions within this figure as a conflict between the 'masculine' outback and the 'feminine' city. In this conflict, Olive, constituted as resistance, not only signifies the failure of a sexual relation, but defends against the feminisation of the outback hero, and legitimates a nostalgic return to its imaginary unity. Critics have hailed the Doll as the agent of a positive transformation of the 'national character', but this character (secure within its humanist and phallocentric frame) remains predictably unified, univocal, and gendered masculine. Invoking the undeconstructed metaphoric opposition of form/ content: clothes/body, Hibberd puts it as follows:

Instead of cane-cutting feats we now have GT Chargers and occupational status, instead of Kewpie dolls we have dream homes and the latest deciduous mod-cons.... the replacement of the Colgardie safe by the fridge, the drover by the commuting executive. [The Doll] presages an Australia with a new face and a new set of clothes, yet one whose physiology is principaUy and depressingly the same."44


  1. Lindsay Browne, quoted in Katharine Brisbane 'Introduction" in Ray Lawler, Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll (1957, repeat Sydney: Currency Press, 1983), p.xxxvi.

  2. Frank Harris, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxvii.

  3. Kenneth Tynan, quoted in Brisbane, p.xxxiv.

  4. Katharine Brisbane in Literature of Australia, ed. Geoffrey Dutton (Penguin: Australia, 1976) p.265.

  5. See Leslie Rees, The Making of Australian Drama (Angus and Robertson, 1973).

  6. However, see Rees on the importance of radio drama in the general development of Australian drama.

  7. Peter Fitzpatrick, Afer "The Doll": Australian Drama Since 1955, (Edward Arnold Australia Pty Lld Melbourne, 1979), p.6.

  8. Ibid, p.7.

  9. Ibid,p.ll.

  10. Ibid, pp.24-25.

  11. Joy Hooton "Lawler's Demythologising of the Doll: Kid Stakes and Other Times", Australian Literary Studies, v. 12, no. 3 (1986), p. 336.

  12. Margaret Williams, "Mask and Cage: Sbereotype in Recent Drama" Meanjin, v31,no.3 (1972) p.308.

  13. P.H. Davison, "Three Austalian Plays: National Myths Under Criticism, Southerly, v.23, no.2 (1963), p.lll.

  14. Ibid, p.ll3.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid, p.ll4.

  17. Fitzpatrick p.28.

  18. Ibid, p.28.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Williams, p.308.

  21. Fitzpatrick, p.28.

  22. Brisbane, 1983.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Hooton, p.336.

  25. Ibid, p.342.

  26. Davison, p.ll2.

  27. Hooton, p.340.

  28. Ibid, p.341.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Brisbane, 1976, p265-6.

  31. Ibid. Teresa De Lauretis, Alice Doesn't: (Macmillan: London, 1984), p.21.

  32. Fitzpatrick, p.28.

  33. Davison, p. l 14.

  34. Hooton, p.339.

  35. Ibid, p336-7.

  36. Ibid, p.341.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid

  39. De Lauretis, p.l33.

  40. Ibid, p.l34.

  41. Ibid

  42. Hooton, p.341.

  43. Jack Hibberd, "After Many A Summer: The Doll Trilogy", Meanjin, no.l, (1977), p.l07-8.

New: 5 January, 1996 | Now: 8 March, 2015