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

'The historical relations between theatre and film:
The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll'

Tom O'Regan

It is surely ironic that whilst film studies has had a productive relation with literary theory over the past decade such that both have influenced each other, it has not had the same kind of relation with theatre/performance studies, photography and the visual arts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the separation of the study of Australian theatre and filmmaking in critical discourse. This is despite the fact that the theatre has constituted a reference point for film producers from pre-sound cinema days to the present in terms of film properties, script-writers, acting talent, and directors; and there has always been a significant crossing over of personnel from one medium to the other right up to David Williamson in the present.

Nothing comparable to Graeme Turner's analysis of the relation between Australian literature and film (National Fictions reviewed in this volume by Sam Rohdie) exists for the relation between Australian film and theatre. This is despite the fact that, arguably, Australian film has had more connections with, and has developed in ways which are more firmly related to theatre. It is surely a paradox that at an industry level the connection between film and theatre is all too apparent (some film critics seeking Hollywood norms of the well made film say that this reliance upon the theatre in Australian film is to its detriment), yet at the level of the critical formation it is a relatively unimportant relation. There, it is film in itself and to a lesser extent, literature and film, which occupies centre stage.

Whilst freely acknowledging the debt to international theatrical trends in the formation of Australian drama, theatre studies tend to see this debt in narrowly theatrical terms. It owes itself to the theatre itself (rather than having also to do with other more dominant audio-visual performance media such as film, radio drama - very big in the 1940s and 1950s - and TV after 1956). Another tendency is the constitution of an Australian tradition of theatre without reference to local productions in other media and the reconceptualisations forced upon theatrical practice by those media. In this way theatre studies remains hermetically sealed off from the influences and contexts which have shaped the theatre's performative codes and stylistic preferences.

Much the same argument, it could be said, applies to Australian cinema studies where there has been little systematic attention paid to the role of adjacent media in the cinema's Australian formation and subsequent development. [1] This is despite the fact that - like most precarious national cinemas - the absence of an economically secure film production industry has meant that theatrical codes, ideas, norms, and personnel constitute an important resource for film production and whose effects upon filmmaking projects need to be considered. At a time when film studies internationally is increasingly looking to study the impact of other media upon the shape and practice of the cinema - both Australian film and theatre studies have remained remarkably immune from this kind of archaeological project and the related challenge to find any influence upon its traditions by "other media".

Compounding this film and theatre studies have been immune to each others' theoretical work. Within theatre studies the theoretical work developed within film theory - around notions of the gaze and film performance are only now being considered in relation to theatre. It is as if looking and the exchange of looks is of no especial significance in the theatre despite the fact that it is an audio-visual form. [2] Similarly film studies has not sought to engage with theatre studies theorisations of dialogue and performance (as if speaking, its tonality, its meaning effect were of relative unimportance to film meaning).

It is in this context that Jane Cousins' article marks a significant change. It takes up the issue of representation, gendered reading and "nationality" in relation to one of the most important cultural events of the 1950s - the play The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Lawler, 1955). Cousins brings to bear methodological models developed in relation to film studies - particularly the work of the feminist film semiotician Teresa de Lauretis. [3] Her focus is at once upon bodies, vision and notions of the female as the ground of vision and subjectivity; and upon generic structurings within the play determining the grounds for its critical reception.

For the general problematic of Australian Film in the 1950s The Doll importantly poses the issue of the historical relations between theatre and film in this period. In The Doll's film contemporary Cecil Holmes' Three In One (1956/7) Australian actor John McCallum, by then an actor of some international standing, introduces to camera the three stories of the title from his dressing room in a Sydney theatre. This opening sequence not only points to the importance of the stage for Australian actors and creative people at a time of the downturn in film production, but it also gestures to Holmes' careful positioning of his film as much in relation to theatre as to cinema. This was apposite in that, as Cunningham has argued, (see "Nascent Innovation") the film incorporated art cinema protocols within Australian film. If Three in One can be seen in relation to theatre, The Doll can be seen in relation to film.

The Doll was created by an actor. It is an actor's play. A method actor's play. If its dialogue emphasises seeing and being seen, its stage directions indicate a level of gesturality, a dimension of hystericisation, an excess of the body of the actor - which is more familiar within method acting. Its antecedents are usually sought in either a domestic Australian theatrical tradition, or else in an international stage tradition (with the rob of Eugene O'Neill being most stressed). Rarely is the importance of film as a vehicle for the extension and incorporation of new styles into Australian theatre addressed. Yet it is surely obvious that Australian theatrical audiences, producers and managers as much understood the emergence of method acting, and its application to O'Neill's plays via the film work of Elia Kazan with Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), as via the work of O'Neill himself. Kazan's pivotal role as a Broadway director in the 1940s with the work of Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets and O'Neill and in the forming of the Actor's Studio (the "home of Method acting" in 1947) found its way to Australia as much through his subsequent films and those of other cinema directors such as Nicholas Ray (who were effected by his theatrical and cinematic work). This method input was clearly signposted in the casting of Ernest Borgnine, already well known for his roles in From Here to Eternity (1953), Johnny Guitar (1954) and Marty (1955) in the leading role in the film version of The Doll (1959). Borgnine was cast as Roo, Anne Baxter as Olive, John Mills as Barney and Angela Lansbury as Pearl. The only member of the original stage performance in the film was Ethel Gabriel as Olive's mother. [4]

Changing constructions of realism were also of importance here - one should mention here the work of Paddy Chayefsky. His work in the early 1950s in one hour plays for American TV was much commented on at the time and led to his scripting of Marty. TV drama - ie drama made specifically for TV was still oriented to the live play performed and screened at the time of the performance (this persisted in Australian TV till about 1964). This style of presentation had its heyday in the USA before the days of videotaping and the historical shift of TV drama production to Los Angeles in the mid-1950s. Chayefsky's work was subsequently performed on both stage and TV.

What needs to be remembered then is that theatre and film/TV production were not hermetically sealed off from each other. It is the historic tendency of academic work to separate them both off not their historical reality. Film societies, with their screening of filmed versions of topical European, American and English plays were a vehicle for new ideas about performance and staging film practice (with their incorporation of new styles of acting and suggestions on staging). These film societies also had an audience in common with the theatre. Those who went to film societies could also be expected to form a part of the theatre audience. This audience took to the theatre modes of appropriation, ideas of registering performance, that cut across the two.

The Doll , it could be argued, had as much to do with an Australian rewriting of much talked about ideas of realism conveyed through a focus upon inarticulate people locked into dramatic situation, as it had to do with a reassessment of an Australian tradition. In short its connection might well be sought in relation to ideas around realism, performance and dialogue which were finding an uneven staging point in the 1950s as it had to do with its line of continuity with Australian theatre more generally. If as Geoffrey Dutton points out in Snow on the Saltbush 5 Australian writers by and large have not read much Australian writing but are familiar with international writing, then any attention to the mode of production and performance within Australian film and theatre (this would not be a literary endeavour - being concerned with performance) would surely need to accord a place to the real discontinuity that constructions-of an Australian tradition tend to paper over. That is we might well have discontinuous kinds of stage performances over time, in the same way, as we have for Australian cinema. The continuity, implicit in notions of tradition, needs to be sought elsewhere. This elsewhere might be the "discursive climate" about Australia and Australians. That is, an ideological set sometimes called a "social imaginary" which might perform this binding work in the absence of any ongoing tradition within the literary, filmic, televisual output of Australian cultural industries. The connection which could inform any "continuity" needs to be found in the political and social registers of education, journalism, and information. Clearly, a study of the historically specific relations between theatre and film and TV production is yet to be written. The ignorance associated with these issues is of no small significance in this country.


1. This absence is starting to be redressed by the work of the Madison-Wisconsin school. See David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson and Janet Steiger The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production (London: RKP, 1985).

2. It is as if Tony Barr's assessment that the main talent in film acting is not the delivery of dialogue but the capacity to listen and to look has no applicability to theatre practice. See Tony Barr, Acting for the Camera (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1982), passim.

3. Teresa De Lauretis, Alice Doesn't (Bloomington Indiana University Press, 1984).

4. The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll dir. Leslie Norman, prod. company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, 1959. When The Doll was a huge success in London the films producers paid some $250,000 for its film rights. The ending of the play was changed and its location was switched from Melbourne to Sydney because of the greater scenic values associated with Bondi, the Harbour Bridge and Luna Park.

5. Dutton, Snow on the Saltbush (Ringwood: Viking Press, 1984), passim.

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