Thursday, 27 May 2021

The Play’s the Thing: Ray Lawler OBE

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Continuing our tribute to Australian playwright  Ray Lawler, who turned 100 on the 23 May 2021, FRANK VAN STRATEN takes a look at his life and legacy.

Ray LawlerRay Lawler, 1955; photograph by Henry Talbot. Henry Talbot collection, State Library Victoria, Melbourne. ‘By the mid-1950s, Ray Lawler was writing from his own bloodstream about the people he knew,’ wrote Zoe Caldwell; she was a member of the then recently established Union Theatre Repertory Company in Melbourne, when Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first produced. ‘His play was so extraordinary for all of us because it reflected an Australian sensibility quite apart from England. For decades Australia remained hell-bent on trying to imitate England, yet the sense of inferiority remained. Lawler was part of the change that was in the air. I felt for the first time the joy of using my own Aussie voice and speaking of places that I really knew, and at the same time knowing that the audience had the same experience. No conjuring up or imagining a world not ours. First Melbourne cheered, then Sydney, then all of Australia, and finally London. But nothing will ever be the same as that first time when a veil was lifted and communication was direct’.

Raymond Evenor Lawler was born in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray on 23 May 1921. At the age of 13 he left school and worked in a foundry. At the same time he studied acting at a school called Stage Door, run by an American, Sophie Graves. During the war she transformed it into the Stage Door Canteen for servicemen, while Lawler spent most of the war working 12-hour night shifts, squeezing in some writing during the day.

Towards the end of the war Lawler took a play called Hal’s Belles to Lorna Forbes and Syd Turnbull, who had established their Melbourne Repertory Theatre in a small disused cinema in Middle Park. Hal’s Belles was produced there in September 1945 with 19-year-old Frank Thring as Henry VIII; it was Lawler’s debut as a playwright, and Thring’s as an actor. Its success warranted a transfer to Gertrude Johnson’s National Theatre in Eastern Hill. Lawler stayed with the National for a while. He acted in a number of their drama productions, but also had the satisfaction of seeing several more of his plays produced there, notably Storm in the Haven and Brief Return, which he wrote under the pseudonym Alan Sinclair.

Lawler’s professional career started in 1948 at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane, where Will Mahoney was presenting fortnightly-change revue. He became, he said, ‘secretary to Mr Mahoney, assistant stage manager, small-part walk on actor and general dogsbody.’ He also absorbed some of the material that he would later inform Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. After a year, Lawler retuned to Melbourne and the National. During the National’s 1949 drama season at the Princess he appeared as Feste in Twelfth Night. In 1951 he was one of six actors chosen for the National’s permanent professional drama company. Its repertoire was mainly unadventurous, but for Christmas 1951 Lawler devised, wrote and directed a pantomime version of St George and the Dragon. Lawler also played the witch’s servant. The Advocate said it was ‘as good as anything Barrie could have given us’.

In 1952 Lawler’s Cradle of Thunder won the National Theatre’s Australia-wide play competition. It was presented it at the Princess in the National’s 1952 Three Arts Festival. Lawler claimed that it was ‘only the tenth straight play by an Australian author produced on the professional stage in Australia in the past 35 years’. He directed and played the part of Cully, a Welsh seaman. George Fairfax, then 24, was the half-mad innkeeper. At the end of 1952 the National presented two more Lawler plays, Alas, Poor Ghost, a reworking of Hal’s Belles, and Ginger Meggs, a panto based on the beloved comic strip. Lawler wrote the book and lyrics and played the title role. The following year he provided the script for a spectacular Pageant of Royalty, staged at the Exhibition Building to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and then set to work on The New Adventures of Ginger Meggs for Christmas. The Age credited with ‘a peculiar charm’.

In 1954 Lawler was recruited by John Sumner as an actor, writer and director for the second season of the Union Theatre Repertory Company, based at the University of Melbourne. He made his mark swiftly, most notably providing material for the Company’s first end-of-year ‘special’, a topical revue called Tram Stop 10! The season concluded with Lawler’s well received production of Twelfth Night, the UTRC’s first attempt at Shakespeare. In mid 1955 Sumner moved to Sydney to manage the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, and Lawler took his place as director of the UTRC.

In 1954 Lawler had entered a new play, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, in a competition organised by the Playwrights’ Advisory Board. It shared the £200 first prize with Oriel Gray’s The Torrents but only reached the stage after much manoeuvring, largely because of Lawler’s reluctance to program one of his own works. Eventually, with the encouragement of the AETT, it was scheduled as part of the UTRC’s third season, and Sumner was released from his Sydney duties to direct it.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered at the University’s Union Theatre on 28 November 1955 with Roma Johnston (as Pearl), Fenella Maguire (Bubba), June Jago (Olive), Ray Lawler (Barney), Carmel Dunn (Emma), Noel Ferrier (Roo) and Malcolm Billings (Johnnie Dowd). The setting, by Anne Fraser, perfectly evoked the play’s setting, a terrace house in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton. Lawson’s sensitive exploration of mateship, ageing, change and the nature of happiness immediately won wide approval. Maguire, Jago and Lawler were retained for the Sydney season, which opened at the Elizabethan on 10 January 1956. The newcomers were Madge Ryan (Pearl), Ethel Gabriel (Emma), Lloyd Berrell (Roo) and John Llewellyn (Johnnie). This was followed by an extensive Trust tour in repertory with The Rivals and Twelfth Night. Lawler played Barney and Feste in Twelfth Night, and his wife, Jacklyn (Jackie) Kelleher, played Bubba for part of the run.

The next stop was London, where The Doll was presented under the auspices of Sir Laurence Olivier. After ‘running in’ in Nottingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle, The Doll opened triumphantly at the New Theatre on 30 April 1957. Maguire, Ryan, Jago, Lawler and Gabriel repeated their roles, but there was a new Roo, Kenneth Warren, and a new Johnnie, Richard Pratt (yes, that Richard Pratt). In his first night curtain speech, Lawler quoted from the prologue to The Recruiting Officer, the first play performed in Australia: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood—We left our country for our country’s good.’

The Doll ran for 8½ months in London and received the Evening Standard ‘Play of the Year’ award. After its warm reception in Britain, its disastrous 29-performance New York season, at the Coronet from 22 January 1958, was a bitter anticlimax. So was the film version. Virtually everything was wrong: John Dighton’s adaptation reset the story in the more photogenic environs of Sydney, and contrived a ‘happy’ ending, while the producers, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, employed an English director, Leslie Norman, and assembled an oddly-accented international cast: Angela Lansbury (Pearl), Anne Baxter (Olive), John Mills (Barney) and Ernest Borgnine (Roo); the principal locals were Vincent Ball (Dowd), Janette Craig (Bubba) and Ethel Gabriel (Emma). In an ultimate insult, for its American release the film was crassly retitled Season of Passion.

Lawler’s next play, The Piccadilly Bushman, revolved around an expatriate actor’s return to Australia in an attempt to save his marriage. It had the unusual distinction of a commercial production by J.C. Williamson’s—who in 1944 had optioned but not produced one of Lawler’s earlier efforts. Directed by John McCallum, The Piccadilly Bushman played for eight weeks at the Comedy in Melbourne and another eight at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in 1959, but it could not match the success of The Doll.

Lawler and his family moved to Britain, and later to Ireland. In 1963 June Jago and Alfred Marks played in his The Unshaven Cheek at Newcastle and at the Edinburgh Festival, but for the next two decades Lawler’s focus was primarily on writing and adapting for television. His output—all for the BBC—includes A Breach in the Wall (1967), Before the Party with Anna Massey and Sinister Street (1969), Cousin Bette with Helen Mirren (1971), The Visitors (1972), Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont with Celia Johnson and Two Women (1973), and The Brotherhood with Ben Kingsley (1975). A theatrical version of A Breach in the Wall, a fantasy about the rediscovery of the body of Thomas à Becket, was staged at Canterbury in 1970.

Lawler returned to Australia for the staging of The Man Who Shot the Albatross, which the Melbourne Theatre Company premiered at the Princess on 14 October 1971 with John Sumner directing. Leo McKern, like Lawler an expatriate, played the irascible Governor Bligh at the time of the Rum Rebellion. In The Herald Gerald Mayhead said: ‘Does one expect too much? Like Bligh’s albatross, the weight of past brilliance hangs heavily on Mr Lawler’s neck.’ Nevertheless, the play did well in Melbourne and Canberra. The following year it was presented in Sydney and at the Adelaide Festival, and was televised by the ABC.

In 1974 John Sumner commissioned Lawler to write Kid Stakes. Set in 1937, it depicted the start of the relationships that culminated in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Kid Stakes premiered at the Russell Street Theatre in Melbourne on 2 December 1975. Its success encouraged Lawler to write Other Times, set in 1945, thus completing ‘The Doll Trilogy’. Other Times premiered on 14 December 1976; the three plays were then presented in repertory, with two memorable Saturdays on which all three were played in sequence, marathons which culminated in standing ovations. At the end of 1977 the Trilogy was directed for Channel Seven by Rod Kinnear. It was not screened until January 1979.

By this time Lawler had returned to Melbourne to live. He joined the MTC as artistic advisor, director, play assessor and occasional actor. His play Godsend, a reworking of A Breach in the Wall, was presented in 1982 but it was not a success. Lawler received an OBE in 1980 and retired seven years later.

The Doll, however, has not retired. It has been produced in translation around the world—including Der Sommer de 17. Puppe on West German television in 1968. The Melbourne Theatre Company revived it in 1962, 1977 and 1995—its fortieth anniversary. There have been countless other productions in all states. Rodney Fisher directed the Trilogy for the Sydney Theatre Company in 1985. Richard Wherrett’s STC production of The Doll played at the Pepisco Summerfare Festival in New York in 1988. He had previously directed it for Nimrod in 1973 and in 1996 directed an operatic adaptation commissioned by the Victoria State Opera. With music by Richard Mills and a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy, this premiered at the Melbourne International Arts Festival on 19 October 1996. There have been avant garde versions, too, such as Jean-Pierre Mignon’s anti-naturalistic interpretation for Anthill in Melbourne and at the 1988 Singapore Festival, and Jacqui Carroll’s pared down Doll Seventeen for Frank Theatre at the 2002 Brisbane Festival. In 1986 a group of NIDA graduates took a 50-minute version, approved by Lawler, to the Festival of Dramatic Colleges in Bratislava—and took first prize.

In December 2003, to mark the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 50th Anniversary, Ray Lawler presented his treasured Evening Standard Award trophy to the Australian Performing Arts Centre at Arts Centre Melbourne.

Critic Leonard Radic describes Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as Australian theatre’s finest play. ‘If Lawler had written nothing else,’ he says, ‘his position in Australian theatre history would still have been secure.’

© Frank Van Straten, 2007

 

Principal references

Zoe Caldwell, I Will Be Cleopatra. Text Publishing, 2001

Terence Clarke, ‘Benchmark play germinated theatre of a nation’ in Theatre Australasia, April 1955

Peter Fitzpatrick, ‘The Doll Trilogy’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

John McCallum, ‘Ray Lawler’ and ‘Summer of the Seventeenth Doll’ in Companion to Theatre in Australia. Currency Press, 1995

Leonard Radic, The State of Play. Penguin, 1991

John Sumner, Recollections at Play. Melbourne University Press, 1993

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Frank Van Straten

Over the years Frank has amassed a vast collection of Australian theatre memorabilia. He was director of the Victorian Arts Centre Performing Arts Museum from 1984 until 1993. For 15 years Frank researched and presented ABC Radio's popular Nostalgia feature over Melbourne's 774. He contributes historical articles to many theatre programs and journals. His books include National Treasure: The Story of Gertrude Johnson and the National Theatre (1994), The Regent Theatre: Melbourne's Palace of Dreams(1996), Tivoli (2003), Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh (2004), Florence Young and the Golden Years of Australian Musical Theatre(2009), Her Majesty's Pleasure (Her Majesty's, Adelaide. 2013), Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne: The Shows, The Stars, The Stories (Australian Scholarly Publishing, Kew, 2018), and Hanky-Panky: The Theatrical Escapades of Ernest C. Rolls (2020).