The layoff season is a longstanding tradition for Roo, Barney, Olive, and Nancy, and it is the guiding event around which they organize their year. As such, the characters prize loyalty to their tradition highly—even at the expense of loyalty to and empathy for one another. When the seventeenth layoff season doesn't unfold as planned, the play begins to question the wisdom of relying so heavily on upholding a tradition, since true friendships begin to crumble under the weight of loyalty to a ritual that has clearly run its course.
Within the greater tradition of observing the layoff season, the four friends observe a number of smaller traditions and rituals. They take the same boat tour every year, attend the same holiday parties with the same people, and spend Christmas at a house in Selby. These traditions are so much a part of the layoff season that the participants stop questioning whether or not to do them. However, despite the mindlessness with which they observe their traditions, they're fiercely loyal to the traditions at the expense of people about whom they presumably care. For example, when Olive learns that Roo walked out on his job in the cane fields and must get a job in the city, she fails to empathize with the difficulty of that decision and instead becomes enraged by his betrayal of their tradition. Similarly, Olive considers Nancy's decision to marry a betrayal. By characterizing these decisions this way, Olive shows that she values loyalty to a tradition over anything else, even when Roo and Nancy's "unconventional" choices are construed as being made out of necessity (in the case of Roo's job) or out of free will and a desire for a change (as with Nancy's marriage).
The relationship most threatened by the layoff season's changes is that between Barney and Roo. Like the construction of their masculinity, the depiction of their friendship is classically Australian: it's an example of "mateship," an Australian literary tradition that focuses on exploring platonic male friendship that develops based on shared experience, often in Australia's harsh bush climate. By both working together and playing together during the layoff season, Barney and Roo continually affirm their affection and loyalty for each other. Though their friendship likely started in the cane fields, the fact that their friendship continues into the layoff season every year shows that this kind of platonic male loyalty can survive changes of scenery and routine. However, the potential durability of their friendship is compromised by their conflation of loyalty to one another to the tradition of the layoff season, which—unlike their friendship—is untenable. When Barney chooses to stay in the cane fields after Roo walks away from his position as gang leader, Roo sees this as an act of betrayal, not a choice Barney made out of financial necessity (which Barney claims it is). For both Roo and Barney, the entire spirit of the layoff season is compromised primarily because their loyalty to each other suddenly seems tenuous and untrustworthy.
The characters' conflicts over loyalty to tradition versus loyalty to one another reach a fever pitch near the end of the play. Barney and Roo consciously try to shift their loyalty away from each other: Barney decides to leave early with Johnnie, while Roo decides to remain in the city and marry Olive. However, when Olive refuses Roo's offer, she refuses to shift her loyalty from the layoff season to Roo—though in doing so, the layoff season comes to a premature, grinding halt, so her misplaced loyalty was worthless. Though the season ends, this brings about a reaffirmation of Barney and Roo's loyalty to each other. Their rekindled friendship suggests once again that relying on tradition is foolish, as traditions are guaranteed to change. When Barney and Roo leave together, the play demonstrates that the loyalty they share is stronger and more resilient than any tradition.
Loyalty, Friendship, and Tradition ThemeTracker
Loyalty, Friendship, and Tradition Quotes in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
That's what the lay-off is. Not just playing around and spending a lot of money, but a time for livin'. You think I haven't sized that up against what other women have? I laugh at them every time they try to tell me. Even waiting for Roo to get back is more exciting than anything they've got.
Olive: You didn't go with him?
Olive: Why not?
Barney: I dunno. It was all messed up. You know what Roo's always been to me, a sort of little tin god. I've never seen him in the wrong before.
No, they're not. Someone's taking special care. Other times they've been pretty, but this one's beautiful. You can see.
Gettin' a bit crowded, maybe you should start upstairs.
Y'know, it's a funny thing. All the wimmen I've ever knocked around with, there's never been one of them ever knitted anything for me. Now, why d'yer reckon that is?
The way you went on about everythin'—sounded just as if when they arrived, the whole town was gunna go up like a balloon.
...We come down here for the lay-off, five months of the year, December to April. That leaves another seven months still hangin'—what d'yer reckon Olive does in that time? Knocks around with other blokes, goes out on the loose every week? No, she doesn't, she just waits for us to come back again—coz she thinks our five months is worth all the rest of the year put together!
Oh, of course I've never been here, it's just the reputation that's been built up among the boys. I reckon you could say it's almost famous, up north.
H-how can I? All that's happened in a house makes a feeling—you can't tell anyone that. It's between people.
I started off trying to fix up what they broke. After that, I couldn't seem to stop. Emma always sez tryin' to shift heavy furniture on your own's a sign you're crooked on the world. Wonder what spring cleanin' at two o'clock in the morning means?
This is what I call interestin'. The lot of yez squabbling at last 'stead of all that playin' around went on other times. Only thing I'm sorry for is Nancy ain't here. She knew which way the wind was blowin', that one.
You and Barney are two of a pair. Only the time he spent chasin' wimmin, you put in being top dog! Both of you champions! Well, that's all very fine and a lot of fun while it lasts, but last is one thing it just don't do. There's a time for sowing and a time for reaping—and reapin' is what you're doing now.
And it's more than looking—it's havin' another woman walking around knowin' your inside and sorry for you 'coz she thinks you've never been within cooee of the real thing. That's what hurts. It was all true, everythin' I told her was true, an'—and she didn't see any of it.