How are the elements of realism used to present believable characters to the audience? “If you know your character’s thoughts, the proper vocal and bodily expressions will naturally follow” said by the creator of realist theatre Constantine Stanislavski, is used heavily in the assistance to the portrayal and understanding of the characters in Ray Lawler’s ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’. Actors and actresses can achieve great heights with the depiction of the characters through Lawler’s use of dramatic elements and a constant realist setting and symbolic props.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ is a play set in Australia during the 1950’s which was a crucial period in the development of the Australian identity. It was a time of post-war reconstruction and immigration, of materialism, a wool boom, of suburban comfort and conservatism- the first decade since early in the century in which the ordinary Australian had not been hounded by war, depression and drought. It was also a time period in which the sugar cane industry was booming and many workers made their way up to the sugar cane fields in Queensland to harvest the sugar cane and earn a living.
This was the occupation of Barney and Roo as they are coming back from their seventeenth year working in the fields as the play begins. Like all realist and naturalist plays, the characters portrayed in ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ are in a constant state of flux, reflecting human actions within the cultural milieu of 1950’s Australia, attempting to present perspectives on ‘truth’ in such a way that the Australian culture can digest that ‘truth’ as they desperately struggle to hold on to the adopted traditions that regularly take place within the lay-off season.
Lawler effectively uses symbolism to distinctly highlight the characters ongoing futile attempts to hold on to their various illusions, through the accidental smashing of the vase containing the seventeenth doll, and as the play progresses their flaws unfold. Olive and her perception of the lay-off season becomes her flaw as she considers this a time in which she can thoroughly enjoy herself in the company of men without the fear of commitment and the pressures of a family. She made a mistake’ is replied by Olive after Pearl had said, ‘Didn’t seem to stop her from getting married’, as Olive shows her unwillingness to be within wedlock. ‘Compared to all the marriages I know, what i got is … is five months of heaven every year’ as Olive further reinforces her unchanging views of marriage. Also the men have their flaws through their pride and masculinity suffering a severe beating. Roo, the silly cow, strains his back’ is told by Barney to Olive of Roo’s horrid year in the fields then continues on to say ‘Instead of pointin’ out he had a bad back, he puts himself to work by this Dowd – gonna show him up, see’ further accentuating his grip on his pride and masculinity. However Roo and Barney engage into a heated argument which eventuates into the smashing of the vase which contained the seventeenth doll. ‘The big man rips it from his hands and throws it away into the centre of the room, smashing the vase and scattering the dolls’.
At this high point of tension the audience feels shocked as the vase and the dolls had symbolised the great joy that the lay-off season is supposed to bring. ‘There is a sudden silence. Olive sinks to her knees and picks up the seventeenth doll, hold it close’ the absence of dialogue is extremely effective as the audience can feel the raw emotions of Olive as the smashed vase symbolises her hopes of the lay-off season being shattered into pieces. Through slow and accentuated movements the audiences can easily understand the significance of the doll to Olive therefore deeply sympathise with her character.
Furthermore the shattering of the vase is again symbolic for Roo as just before the vase was smashed it was revealed that his back wasn’t sore and that it was jealousy that led him to lie about his back. ‘He never had a bad back’ was exclaimed by Barney moments before the smashing of the vase. This again was highly symbolic of the smashing as the realisation of his fleeting masculinity and the inevitability of his ageing mind and body are finally beginning to sink in, and his true self is revealed to the audience.
Also, considering the play was set in the 1950’s of Australia, the people of Australia had their own unique way of the pronunciation of words and had adopted a very colloquial styled language. Lawler had taken this firmly into account as he consolidated this type of language into the play. ‘… the regulars’d stand aside to let ’em through, just as if they was a – a coupla kings’ was said by Olive as she described Barney and Roo. Again, Olive says ‘these are a coupla sugarcane cutters’.
This exemplifies an ordinary, raw and realistic representation of Australian culture and life in the 1950’s which is especially evident through the word “coupla. ” In pairs we worked to together to workshop a scene between Olive and Pearl which involved us changing our tone of voice to suite the 1950’s Australian language. ‘Well I dunno what it’s gunna be like livin’ here’ was a line that I said as I had played Pearl and using the words “dunno”, “gunna” and “livin” really assisted me in believing in my role and my character.
When we performed or dramatic reading in front of the class the authenticity of a 1950’s Australian was shown through the alterations in our tone of voice as it became laid back in the not climactic beats of the scene and our accents deepened and again our tone of voice altered in the high points of tension, ‘Here, sit down and shut up if you can’t talk sense. ‘ In class we worked together to create a scene through our dramatic reading that lead me play Roo in the scene where Barney smashes the vase containing the seventeenth doll.
The lines that were read were as follows: Roo: No, I think that’s up to you [he charges across at Barney, pushing Olive out of the way. He savagely whips Barney’s arm behind his back, and forces him to his knees, facing the women] It’s your lie – you tell’em! Barney: [his face contorted with pain]Aah – cut it out. Roo: [increasing the pressure] tell’em Barney: [gasping] he never had a bad back. At the high point in tension where I (Roo) charged over at Barney and grabbed his arm and whipped it behind his back I used fast explosive movements to convey to the audience the frustration and anger felt by Roo.
I forced Barney to his knees in order to show the levels between the characters so that Roo was the more dominant figure, and when Barney was to reveal the secret to the women, he would’ve had to comprehend extreme guilt whilst feeling lower and belittled towards everyone else. ‘His face contorted with pain’, the person playing Barney reacted to the arm whipping feeling very subdued with dynamic facial expressions to compliment the pain he must have felt.
As I ‘increased the pressure’ and forcefully exclaimed “tell’em”, all of my movements were extremely tense as I created this enticing moment for the audience and the characters. The person playing Barney ‘gasped’ and revealed the enticing situation and said ‘he never had a bad back’. The characters and audience were left stunned at this revelation and, the tone, movements and facial expressions used within those beats and units had created strong dramatic meaning as the audience was gripped onto hat would happen next. The concept of dramatic realism operates within Summer of the Seventeenth Doll through aspects such as the use of slang, language, set, costume approximates real life, natural language rhythms, relevance to society of that era, etc. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is set in the 1950s, Olive and her black dresses and when she changes it for that night symbolising change and at the end when she changes back to black and symbolising nothing has changed