Theme, Opposition and Sensory Analysis through stage direction in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

“Never underestimate or disregard location: as one of the givens in the play; it is there for a purpose.”

Patsy Rodenburg

Understanding the geography of a scene and the signposts of meaning has arguably never been more of a challenge due to the sheer weight of images that are immediate, unearned and accessible in today’s world. I propose that the world of a play, the plot elements within it, and its thematic concerns can be entirely understood through stage direction. To be able to accurately ‘predict’ a play based on a handful of lines is a useful skill for time poor participants. As a society, we are hungrier than ever for ‘relevance’ and immediate access to a text; so the ability to perceive foreshadowing is invaluable. Given the attention that the narrative text receives, it is understandable that the role of geography and stage direction is less clear in this paradigm.

Act 1, Sc. 1:

The extensive stage direction and setting notes in Ray Lawlor’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll provide innumerable clues about the play’s subjects and its trajectory.

Writing at the time of publication in the mid 1950s that the ‘house of the play is situated in Carlton, a now scruffy but once fashionable suburb of Melbourne,’ the playwright is alerting us to an important subject: ideas, dreams, relationships, buildings, and even entire facades fade. Colours also fade, and the pale pink of the house’s interior is an ironic choice in that pink is said to pacify through its association with the maternal. Nonetheless, the fecund shrubbery, the wild garden, and the collection of ferns do suggest the vibrancy of life and the idea of the urban oasis.

Participants need to develop a clear mental image of the entrances so that scene arrivals and departures, and the crucial meaning that they often bring, can be understood in the context of space. In the case of this play: ‘Narrow-leaf French windows give entrance to the room from the back veranda, and a front door lets on to the other.’

The piano gives the impression that the room is known for its communal warmth, although the presence of the sixteen dolls is perhaps incongruous: a public space displaying, throughout, a peculiar private collection. The themes of youth fixation and of hoarding the past are strongly depicted in this design. Emma’s image in act three of her daughter crying over the seventeenth doll is telling. It is also curious that the room houses stuffed birds and images of tropical butterflies: representations of flight and flight curtailed, perhaps coinciding with the life of Olive and the idea of the life unlived.

As the first scene begins the playwright informs us that ‘The room of the play has a dressed up look that is complementary to, and yet extending beyond, the usual decorative scheme,’ and that a table ‘is heavily set for the big meal of the week.’ The dramatic point in such an opening is that it suggests the idea of peaking too early, of trying too hard, and of a façade that will inevitably be breached. Linking to character, it might be said that Barney, as a man, peaked too early from which point (with the ensuing female attention and popularity that such a young man evidently received) he had not developed the intellectual or emotional capacity to adjust to the leaner times that age can bring. These notes from the beginning of the scene indicating the room’s cosmetic or artificial qualities also warn of the dangers of expectation and anticipation, and how hope itself can lead to distortions in reality.

Act 1, sc. 2:

While it is common for additional scenes within acts to provide fewer references to geography than what is contained in the opening, given that the geography of a traditional Aristotelian drama is set, the stage direction to begin scene two nonetheless advances the story with further clues and crucial layers of meaning in a mere seven and a half lines.

The writer informs us that it is the following morning. In this instance the transition of days has not brought the freshness of dawn, but has instead brought a new dawn signifying decay and disruption: ‘The room has a stale, used look; the remnants of last night’s meal still clutter the table; empty glasses and bottles are scattered about…’ Significantly, the audience meets this uninhabited holocaust so that comparisons to the preparatory and puffed up stage direction of the previous scene can be adequately made. There is an incomplete aspect to the scene: it will have to be remade again if we are to move on from the spectre of antecedent joys, historic triumphs, and interpersonal glories of the past. The wrapping paper suggests that the gift is now worn; that it can never be what it was, and that its best days – as a symbol of giving, renewal, and love – are behind it. Furthermore, the unveiling of a gift and the remnant wrapping paper help to foreshadow the significance of shedding and de-layering as important avenues to growth through uncovering truth.

Emma, Olive’s mother, enters and is immediately associated with the act of cleansing – entering from the kitchen ‘with a floor rug which she takes on to the front veranda and hangs over the wrought iron rail.’ Her action of looking at the weather and sniffing the air captures the old-school cunning and common sense of a bygone age. A change is in the air. Clearly, Emma is far more than the cranky antithesis that we might choose to ridicule or ignore. Despite her caustic persona, Emma has wisdom and compassion, and proves a good judge of character. Her entrance to this scene may seem obvious or heavy-handed, but it’s worth remembering that the non-verbal is no less significant than the verbal when it comes to the formation of meaning.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
Black clouds gather in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Act 2, sc. 1:

Quite often, stage direction introducing a scene will house the incongruity to be explored thereafter. In the case of this scene, given the context of New Year’s Eve, it is the incongruity of mood.

The writer informs us that it is a warm summer night: ‘Inside the room it is an electric, sweat-reflecting pink.’ Although lighting design differs from production to production, the playwright is clearly intending to maximise the perception of heat and irritability – along with distance, stillness, tension, and a sense of exhaustion. Observe the state of the French windows – or any showpiece design element: in this scene they are open; but offer little assistance, given the lack of breeze. Olive and Roo are playing cards, in what is perhaps an unconscious bid to normalise their lack of communication through non-verbal, socially acceptable combativeness. It is hardly the type of celebration that Olive had been promising. Furthermore, there is no sense of occasion in their attire: she in a dirndyl – everyday dress, native to Bavaria, historically worn by older women – perhaps as incongruous as the mood, and slippers; he in ‘drab shirt and pants.’

In a wonderful show of irony, it is Pearl who makes the effort here. The playwright informs us that she has blossomed ‘from the suspicious, tentative approach’ she held previously; yet, she again proves to be at odds with herself and her environment: her attempt at youth and life through a bright outfit sees her camped, knitting in a rocking chair; while her daring ‘dominant note of red’ clashes with the claustrophobic pink of the walls. Barney, too, is wonderfully drawn against the grain of our perception: sitting in silent self-control, dressed in silk and, almost unbelievably, writing a letter!

Audience members or readers who have bought into the drama on account of the first act, and with it the central and consistent setting of the house, must now face the subversion of a writer who, by offering an anti-climactic opening to the scene, is perhaps establishing the idea that the action or life (or central setting) is somewhere else entirely. In this respect, distance is a crucial element in the scene’s establishment – not least between the four individuals, but also carried by the ‘distant and various sounds of New Year’s revelry.’ Even the ‘drawn out cries of children’ reference a remote location to which the adults no longer have access.

Act 2, sc. 2:

Fading sunlight is an image that could be said to sum up the play, suggesting the eventual twilight of lives, dreams, and bonds – even illusions. The fact that the sun takes on a ‘deep blood tinge’ as the scene progresses signifies the rage that concludes it. The playwright again makes mention of the French windows – their closure in this scene changes the audience’s relationship to space and the idea of access. Participants need to be aware that such geographical alterations are usually the result of something beyond the merely practical or functional. While a door closed against the impending night depicts nothing exceptional, the greater inference here is that access is being denied and that what once was open is now blocked. If open doors can have the effect of enlarging space, their closure minimises or confines. It is amid this reduction that we find Roo: himself reduced by the fatigue of his new identity. For such a man to be asleep ‘sprawled on the sofa’ so early in a public part of the house is an admission that things are not well and that he is not himself. His paint-bespattered shirt reinforces this idea, indicating that Roo’s life has grown messy and that he is now, in symbolic terms, the victim of some practical joke or abuse.

Act 3:

Apart from setting up the confrontation between Olive and Pearl, the stage direction at the opening of the final act is the visual equivalent of the purpose of tragedy: the stage is not merely deserted, tidied, and neat; the removal of the dolls and souvenirs signifies that it is cleansed of the impurities of illusion – foreshadowing the sacrifice of essential good in Roo and Olive’s relationship. The sparseness in the conclusion of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll insinuates the future for each of the characters, and Pearl’s stance of ‘imminent departure’ with suitcase is made more poignant by her funereal black. 


Lawlor, R. (1988) Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Sydney: Currency Press. Rodenburg, P. (2002) Speaking Shakespeare. London: Methuen.

Copyright © Cameron Sievers, 2019