Today we’re discussing Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler in relation to Identity and Belonging. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Identity and Belonging yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.
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Alright- on to Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which I’ll just call “Seventeenth Doll” or the play from now on.
Lawler’s play explores many of the central concepts of identity and belonging through the lens of Melbourne in the 1950’s. In particular, the play relates to the complexities and confusion surrounding how we know who we are and the ways in which we forge a sense of belonging with others. This play is often said to be “authentically Australian” and it is worth considering the ways in which it represents and reflects on aspects of our national culture and identity.
The idea that a need to belong is an inherent human desire is explored throughout the play. Olive and Bubba are both protective of the dynamics and external perception of their group, each drawing a sense of identity from their membership to it.
Bubba is constantly justifying her stories of the “good ol’ days” with statements like “you wouldn’t understand” when outsiders don’t grasp the symbolic significance of the group’s traditions, such as the annual doll delivery from Roo to Olive. Furthermore, Bubba has grown up in the group and retains much of her younger self’s identity rather than risk upsetting the balance that has developed for the group, particularly now that Nancy is gone, such as not requesting the other’s begin calling her by her real name. Significantly, this real name is not revealed to the audience until Johnnie Dowd asks where the nickname of Bubba has come from, demonstrating her total immersion in her life with the group. Having coveted Olive and Nancy’s life with the canecutters from a young age, Bubba goes so far as to desire that life for herself; Lawler positions Johnnie Dowd as Bubba’s own ticket to a continuation of the traditions she has grown up with. In this way, the course of Bubba’s life is depicted as shaped by her membership to this group and her idolisation of its members.
Olive is affected by external perceptions of the group in a similar way to Bubba. She emphatically defends her stories from the past when Pearl questions if things were really all they were “cracked up” to be. She is shattered that Pearl isn’t able to see the group the same way she has described it as being for the past seventeen years because so much of her life is tied up in her connection to Barney, Roo and Nancy. This sense of total devotion to the group is mirrored in the reactions of the present characters to Nancy’s departure; they are all shocked that she has truly gotten married and left Barney and the group behind her.
In a different way, the importance of belonging is depicted through Roo’s falling out with the other canecutters and Barney’s determination to mend these wounds. Not only are Roo and Barney financially reliant on group dynamics (they have lived with Nancy and Olive in Emma’s house for the past seventeen summers and they work in a group of canecutters for seven months of the year) but the importance of a positive working relationship with “the boys” is shown in Barney’s attempts to reconnect Roo with Johnnie Dowd. The practical and emotional significance of Roo being “out” of the group of canecutters is demonstrated in his emotional confession to Olive that he is broke, and Barney’s earlier revelation that Roo almost refused to return to the house this summer.
Seventeenth Doll explores the ways in which a strong connection with others can influence our sense of self. In some ways, all of the characters rely on the group for affirmation of their identities, but Olive and Bubba are particularly affected by this link.
Much of Olive’s identity is tied to the uniqueness of her relationship with Roo. She looks at her married friends with astonishment and some disdain. She is desperate to depict Roo and Barney as different from other, “ordinary” men in her descriptions of them to Pearl, and establish that their return for five months of the year is well worth their disappearance for the other seven. Olive reveals her vulnerability by displaying her fear that the group is breaking up with the departure of Nancy and revelation that Roo may be done as a canecutter; this is why she tries to replace Nancy with Pearl and reacts so strongly to Roo’s proposal of marriage. For Olive, the end to the group as she knows it would not only be the end of her relationship with its members, but an attack on her sense of self.
Bubba’s idolisation of the group dynamics and Nancy and Olive’s relationships with Barney and Roo results in her desire to mimic their lifestyle in her own life. Growing up next door to the Leech house’s annual summer tradition has shaped not only her sense of belonging, but her desires and expectations for her own life.
In any text there are thousands of indications as to how a character’s identity is formed, but there are a few points worth noting that are specific to Seventeenth Doll.
Olive views her identity as altogether tied up in the health of the group and her status as an unmarried woman. She fears being “trapped” like her married female friends and of changing group dynamics after Nancy’s departure. Her breakdown at the conclusion of the play stems from her realisation that Roo has altogether misunderstood her identity; his offer to marry her reveals his thinking that she has wanted marriage all of these years and he has kept it from her. In contrast, Olive considers her lack of desire to get married part of her identity because it positions her as unique from other women around her, including Nancy and Pearl.
For the men, their identity is grounded in not only their job, but the caricatures of themselves that others seem to accept as fact; Barney as a womaniser and Roo as a champion canecutter. Barney is deeply shaken by Nancy’s marriage, not only because of his feelings for her, but because after many years of waiting for him, his charms appear not to be enough anymore. Even more so, Roo’s identity is challenged by the events of the months preceding the opening scene of the play. He is ashamed to confess to Olive that he is “broke… flat, stony, stinkin’ broke!” and goes along with Barney’s story about his bad back so as to live in the illusion longer that he is still the best of the canecutters. Both men are threatened by their fading youth, a fear that is intensified by the emergence of Johnnie Dowd. In particular, Roo struggles to come to terms with aging and the changes that come with this, because he identifies himself as a gang-leader and Barney’s right-hand-man, two things that have ended in the months preceding the play. This is exemplified in the scene where Barney brings Johnnie Dowd to the house to make amends with Roo- he is ashamed to be seen with paint on his clothes, working a job other than canecutter, just like the men with “city jobs” that so many of the characters seem to resent.
Lawler reflects on aging and the draw of fading youth throughout the play, leading naturally on to an exploration of how identity can change as we grow older and have new experiences.
For seventeen years, Roo has had a very clear idea of who he is, but recent events with Johnnie Dowd have shaken this resolve and he begins to feel his age. By the final scene of the play he has come to terms with aging and begun to develop a new idea of where he might fit in; accepting that he could keep his job in the paint factory and settle down with Olive. Her rejection of this new resolve disrupts the trajectory of Roo’s developing new identity, and he reverts back to the sense of self he has held for the past seventeen years: that of canecutter and Barney’s right-hand-man.
Pearl too changes over the course of the play. Once she decides to stay in the house, the stage directions note that she is visibly happier and more relaxed. But Barney’s request for her daughter to join him and Johnnie Dowd at the races leads to their falling out and her subsequent return to her former stiff self.
In this way, the conclusion of the play is devastating as it sees characters revert back to the identities they originally held, rather than develop further to find a new sort of peace with their sense of self.
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