Our Country's Good

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Our Country's Good
Our Country's Good.jpg
Dramatic Publishing Co. edition, 1989
Written by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Date premiered 1988
Place premiered Royal Court Theatre
London, UK
Original language English
Subject Based on a true story of convicts rehearsing a play
Genre Drama
Setting 18th century, Sydney, Australia

Our Country's Good is a 1990 play written by British playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, adapted from the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker. The story concerns a group of Royal Marines and convicts in a penal colony in New South Wales, in the 1780s, who put on a production of The Recruiting Officer. First staged at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 10 September 1988, directed by Max Stafford-Clark. It ran on Broadway in 1991.

Background[edit]

In the 1780s, convicts and Royal Marines were sent to Australia as part of the first penal colony there. The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that it is possible for ‘theatre to be a humanising force'.

As part of their research, Stafford-Clark and Wertenbaker went to see a play performed by convicts at Wormwood Scrubs, which proved very inspiring: "in prison conditions, theatre can be hugely heartening and influential and indeed in prison your options are so limited you can become a born-again Christian, a gym-queen constantly working out, a bird watcher or you become passionate about theatre." The convicts were, at least momentarily, civilized human beings, and they had taken their work very seriously: The convicts knew their lines absolutely because they had nothing else to do and they didn't want to waste time with pleasantries; as soon as you came into the room they started rehearsing. The two hours were very intense because the time was so valuable and we saw immediately how doing a play could become absolutely absorbing if you were incarcerated.

Most of the characters in the play are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet, though some have had their names changed. Wertenbaker was able to read the journals of First Fleet members in order to portray them accurately.

Synopsis[edit]

In the hold of the convict ship ‘’’Sirius’’’ the convicts witness the off-stage flogging of one of their numbers, before expressing fear about their future.

In Sydney Cove, an unnamed Aboriginal Australian witnesses the arrival of the first fleet. Throughout the play, he continues to comment on the British settlement's effect on the indigenous populations, reacting with curiosity, confusion, and finally fear.

Some time after the arrival, Governor Arthur Philip goes bird shooting with Captains David Collins and Watkin Tench, as well as the provost Midshipman Harry Brewer, discussing the case of three men recently sentenced to death for stealing food from the stores. Philip is unsure whether the execution will make any difference, leading to a discussion about the goal of sentences (punishment vs. rehabilitation) and criminal tendencies (innate vs. acquired). When Tench mentions that the convicts consider hanging ‘entertainment’, Philip wonders if they could be offered something else. He suggests that the convicts could stage a play, but nevertheless orders Harry to find a hangman and prepare the execution.

Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark is sitting in his tent, writing to his wife Betsey Alicia in England. Harry comes to see him, plagued by guilt about having hanged two of the men convicted of stealing food. One of them, Handy Baker, was Harry’s rival for the affection, or at least the body, of “Duckling”, a young convict woman Harry is crazy about. Harry claims to have seen his ghost. He tells Ralph about the idea to have the convicts stage a play and Ralph picks it up with the hope of finally getting noticed by the Governor.

Ralph chooses George Farquhar’s restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer and starts holding auditions. An old convict named Meg Long misunderstands Ralph’s call for women, but he persuades her to leave. Next to arrive is Robert Sideway, a flamboyant pickpocket who claims to have seen many plays. Dabby Bryant comes in with Mary Brenham, whom Ralph wants to ask to make copies of the play, as he so far only has two. He offers Mary the role of Silvia (the main role) and reluctantly agrees to Dabby playing Rose. Liz Morden is offered the role of Melinda; she snatches the play from Ralph saying that she’ll “let [him] know” (Act 1, Scene 5).

The play is discussed among the officers one evening. The discussion revolves around theatre, punishment, criminality and morality, where Major Ross, his acolyte Captain Campbell and the pragmatic Captain Tench express conservative opinions and oppose the play, which is defending vehemently by Philip, Collins and Ralph Clark. Collins conducts a vote and with the majority in favour, Ralph is allowed to start rehearsals.

Harry goes rowing with Duckling, who is sulking. She complains that Harry is always watching her, leaving her no freedom. He offers her to take part in the play to make peace with her, which she agrees to.

Dabby and Mary start learning their lines. Mary feels inadequate for her part, as she is guilt-ridden for selling herself to a sailor on the ship for food and resents Dabby for her part in it. Dabby argues that Mary already was no virgin and that she might otherwise not have survived the voyage. They are interrupted by Liz, demanding to be included. Dabby understands that Liz also can’t read, which Liz violently denies. Their fight is broken up by James “Ketch” Freeman, the hangman, who learns about the play from them.

That evening, Ralph is again writing to his wife, distracted by the “scenes of whoredom in the women’s camp” (Act 1, Scene 9). He wants to kiss his wife’s picture, a practice he has elevated to a ritual, when he is interrupted by Freeman, who turns to Ralph for comfort, claiming his innocence for the murder he was transported for (killing a sailor who broke a strike), explaining why he agreed to take the office of hangman (he was one of the men convicted for stealing food and had been told “hang or be hanged”) and finally begging Ralph for a part in the play.

Mary is copying “The Recruiting Officer”. The Jewish convict John Wisehammer, working nearby, engages her in conversation about the meanings and sounds of words. Mary suggests he also take part in the play.

The first rehearsal begins with Ralph introducing the cast only to discover that two men, Henry Kable and John Arscott, are not present. The convicts’ inexperience of acting provides the main source of humour in this scene; Sideway overacts, while Liz does not act at all. A convict named Black Cesar arrives and asks to play Sideway’s/Worthy’s servant, a non-existent role. Ralph promises to think about it. The rehearsal gets interrupted by Ross and Campbell, who inform Ralph that Kable and Arscott have escaped. Ross arrests Cesar, who went with them but came back, Wisehammer, as Kable was last seen near Wisehammer’s hut and Liz, accused of helping Kable steal food from the stores. The rehearsal is left in shambles.

In prison, Liz tells Wisehammer her story. Wisehammer protests that he is innocent and will go back to prove it. Cesar dreams of another escape attempt to get back to Madagascar. John Arscott, who has been recaptured, desperately cries out that escape is impossible. He shows Wisehammer the compass a sailor sold to him, which is just a paper with “North” written on it. Sideway, Duckling and Mary arrive to rehearse.

Ralph talks to Philip, as he wants to stop the play, seeing as half of his cast are in chains, but Philip exhorts him to continue trying, making Ralph see the much larger meaning the play has for the colony. It transpires that it was Philip who asked Ralph to include Liz Morden, as he wants to make an example of her – through redemption.

In his tent, Harry Brewer sees and speaks in the voices of the two men he had hanged, Handy Baker, his rival, and Thomas Barrett, a seventeen-year-old. He shouts for Duckling, but when she finally arrives, he cannot trust her, as the “ghost of Handy Baker” had “informed” him that Backer and Duckling had been on the beach together.

On Philip’s orders, Ross has brought Wisehammer, Cesar and Liz to the second rehearsal. Nobody feels comfortable rehearsing in his presence and Ralph tries to coerce him into leaving, making Ross even more furious. He starts humiliating the convicts, forcing Sideway to show his flogging scars, Dabby to imitate a dog and Mary to show her tattoo high up on her inner thigh. Sideway and Liz start acting boldly across the room and the words of the play take a double meaning highly significant to the situation. Ross orders Campbell to continue Arscott’s punishment for escape and the sounds of the flogging and Arscott’s cries definitely end the rehearsal.

Liz has been sentenced to death for stealing food and Freeman reluctantly obeys the order of measuring her for the hanging. Harry, who oversees the process, still hears the ghosts of the dead. It becomes clear that Liz did not defend herself at her trial, but just as Ketch and Harry are about to leave, she asks Harry to tell Ralph that she didn’t steal the food. As they question her as to why she didn’t speak before, Harry collapses with a stroke.

As Kable is not back, Ralph has taken his part. It is clear by now that Wisehammer and Ralph are rivals for Mary’s affection, just as they are for Silvia’s in the play. The actors discuss love and marriage, seemingly concerned with their roles, but obviously referring to their own situation. Dabby complains about the play, as it doesn’t affect her situation, but Wisehammer argues that a play should teach you something new. Arscott remarks that the play allows him to forget about his own situation, contrasting Dabby, who wants to play herself. The arrival of Ketch Freeman ends the rehearsal as the others refuse to act with him.

In Harry Brewer’s tent, Duckling promises love and fidelity to Harry, should he wake up, only to discover that he has just died. She collapses.

Mary is practising on her own. Ralph joins her and from reciting their lines in the play they end up confessing their love and start undressing.

Philip, Ross, Collins, Campbell and Ralph discuss Liz Morden one more time. Philip is afraid of a miscarriage of justice as the evidence against her is flimsy. Liz gets called and given a last chance to defend herself. She finally speaks, saying that she knew about Kable wanting to steal the food but wasn’t present when he did. Collins orders a retrial and Liz surprises everyone present by promising to do her best in her role with a very refined turn of phrase (suggesting that Philip’s “experiment” succeeded).

Backstage before the performance, the actors attempt to console Duckling, who confesses that she loved Harry but didn’t dare to tell him. Sideway suggests they practise the bow together. The actors dream of the future: Dabby plans to escape that night, Sideway wants to start a theatre company, which Liz and Freeman want to join and for which Wisehammer wants to write plays and Mary and Ralph dream of their future together. Arscott has found Cesar who suffers from stage fright. Only the ludicrous threats from his fellow actors convince him to go on stage. Wisehammer timidly reminds Ralph of the prologue he wrote for the play and reads it. Although titillated, Ralph doesn’t dare to use it, not wanting to make enemies on the first night. Ralph then thanks his entire cast for their enthusiasm. Arscott and Cesar go on stage for the first scene as the rest of the cast listen in trepidation to Kite’s first speech which is met with tremendous applause.

Characters[edit]

Use of doubling[edit]

The play has been written with the idea of doubling in mind, needing only ten actors for twenty-two roles. It is typically performed with performers changing costumes on stage; a wig and military uniform jacket marking the only differences between an officer and a convict. Ralph Clark is the only character that has to be played by an actor without a second role; every other actor plays at least one convict and one officer, with three actors even taking three roles. The following table shows the list of characters with all roles typically (as done by the original production and imitated by most later productions) taken by one actor in the same horizontal line

List of characters[edit]

Overview of Characters[edit]

  • Captain Arthur Phillip, RN: The real Arthur Phillip had been called out of retirement to take on the position of Governor of the first fleet to Australia. He is a calm and controlled leader, contrasting Major Robbie Ross's leadership. He shows an obvious patience and understanding towards the convicts, especially Liz Morden. Throughout the play he refers to historical people and situations, such as famous thespians Garrick and Kemble. He is intellectual, understanding, and authoritative.
  • Major Robbie Ross, RM: The real Major Robbie Ross had previously been on the losing side of the American War of Independence. In the play, Ross makes a reference to this, 'This is a profligate prison for us all, it's a hellish hole we soldiers have been hauled to because they blame us for losing the war in America.' (Act Two, Scene Ten) The fact he feels he is being blamed may account for some of his bitterness. He is a vile, power obsessed man, who intimidates the convicts and believes that the convicts' punishment should be severe. He is completely against the play 'The Recruiting Officer' being put on, and constantly ridicules Ralph Clark for it.
  • Captain David Collins, RM: Collins was appointed as the colony's judge on arrival at Botany Bay in 1788 and as such, his contribution to conversations at hand are generally from a legal perspective. He approaches subjects with the other officers very logically and justifies all of his comments. He fully supports Ralph's decision to stage a play and conducts a vote amongst the officers to find out who agrees with them. The real David Collins went on to found the first settlement in Tasmania.
  • Captain Watkin Tench, RM: Tench is an officer who dislikes all of the convicts for the simple fact that they are convicts. whenever he has a comment to make about them, it is always a sarcastic aside. He does not believe in the redemption of the convicts, nor in the fact that they can be converted from their criminal ways. He regards all of the convicts as barbarians, stating that hanging is "their favourite form of entertainment" (Act One, Scene Three).
  • Captain Jemmy Campbell, RM: A follower of Ross. There is great debate among productions as to his sobriety and while he is often played as drunk, there is nothing ever mentioned in the script to confirm this thought. He tends to copy Ross's views on everything though finds himself amused by the idea of the convicts performing a play.
  • Reverend Richard Johnson: The first clergyman in the Australian Penal Colony at Botany Bay, Johnson was to be a moral guide to both the convicts and officers of the camp, but seems more concerned with the play propagating Catholic doctrine than any more pressing matters at hand. The Real Reverend Johnson was given a patch of land on which he planted oranges and lemons from Rio de Janeiro. It is said that he sold his 'Farm' for a fair profit when he left the colony.
  • Lieutenant William Dawes, RM: The colony's astronomer, who couldn't care less about matters on earth. He agrees to the play if he doesn't have to come and watch it.
  • Lieutenant George Johnston, RM: An officer most famed for his "compassion, if not to say passion" (Act One, Scene Six) for the convict women. The real Johnston lived with a convict named Esther Abrahams and later take part in the Rum Rebellion.
  • Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark: Ralph is struggling as a lower officer. He desperately wants promotion, and when he hears through Harry Brewer that Arthur Phillip has suggested a play be put on by the convicts, he jumps to set about doing it. You see his transformation in the play as he turns from a man who is extremely nervous and uneasy around women, even ridiculed for not having a women convict for himself on the voyage to Australia, to a man in love with the convict Mary Brenham. He is influenced, to changing his feelings towards the convicts, by Arthur Phillip, giving them respect in the end, apologising to Liz Morden for interrupting her line in a rehearsal. The real Ralph Clark later went on to father a child to Mary Brenham, whom he named Betsey Alicia - for his wife in England.
  • Second Lieutenant William Faddy: He opposes the play simply because he doesn't like Ralph. His dislike is never really explained, but all of his comments in his only scene (Act One, Scene Six) are sarcastic snides or even insults directed at Ralph.
  • Midshipman Harry Brewer: Not as low as a convict, not as high as the other officer from the Royal Navy, Midshipman Harry Brewer struggles to find his place. Tormented by the apparent ghost of Handy Baker, a man who he had hanged, and other ghosts, he seeks reassurance in Ralph. Since in Australia, he and convict Duckling Smith have been together. He is a very jealous man, and is always keeping a watchful eye on Duckling, much to her dismay. He dies, with Duckling at his side in despair.
  • John Arscott: John Arscott's hopelessness as a convict becomes apparent in Act Two, Scene One. He says, 'There's no escape I tell you.' His utter hopelessness becomes more apparent when it is revealed that his compass he bought from a sailor is actually a piece of paper with 'North' written on it. Depending upon the delivery, this line can be full of humour or full of pathos. He eventually becomes most lost in the play, claiming that he doesn't have to think about reality when he plays Kite, finding a different way of "escape" through the theatre. The real John Arscott never actually tried escaping and got rich enough after his liberation to return to England.
  • James "Ketch" Freeman: Transported to Australia for the killing of a sailor who broke a strike, Freeman is made the hangman of the colony when he is told 'hang or be hanged'. Despised by many of the other convicts for being a hangman, in particular Liz Morden, Ketch struggles to be accepted. He exchanges words with Ralph in Act One, Scene Nine. He explains how he came to be in his situation, blaming a mix of reasons including leaving Ireland where his guardian angel was. You see also in this scene his desperation to be an actor in the play.
  • John Wisehammer: Transported to Australia for stealing snuff, he continues to claim his innocence. He is Jewish and struggles against slight (Liz) and strong (Ross) anti-semitism. His large knowledge is self-taught and he says of himself that he "like[s] words" (Act One, Scene Ten). He writes a new prologue to the play, which Ralph doesn't want to use on the first night, as he considers it too political. In the end, Wisehammer wants to stay in Australia, as "no one has more of a right than anyone else to call [him] a foreigner" (Act Two, Scene Eleven), and to become an author there. He and Mary Brenham exchange words, literally, in Act One, Scene Ten, where Wisehammer's slight intellectualism is explained. The real Wisehammer would get married and become a merchant after his release.
  • Black Caesar: Originally from Madagascar, Caesar wants to join the play and gets the (silent) parts of Worthy's servant and Kite's drummer more or less written for him. Stage fright gets the better of him in the end and he is only made to perform after the most ludicrous threats from his fellow actors. The real John Caesar was described as one of the most troublesome convicts and would be one of the colony's first bushrangers before being killed in 1796.
  • Robert Sideway: A London pickpocket, severely punished on the transport ship for insulting an officer, Sideway tries to act as a cultured gentleman in front of Ralph, but keeps falling into cant when upset. He claims to have seen many theatre pieces, but his acting is completely over the top and one of the major sources of humour in the first rehearsal scene, when he accompanies near every word with a gesture. He says that he wants to found a theatre company in the last scene, which, according to the epilogue in Thomas Keneally's novel, the historical Sideway actually did.
  • Mary Brenham (Branham): A very shy girl, whose love for "A.H." turned her into a thief, she gets as good as dragged to the audition by Dabby Bryant, but is offered a part by Ralph after having heard her read only a few lines. She opens up gradually, but remains slightly naive in comparison to the people around her. She finally falls in love with Ralph and dreams of a future with him. Brenham and Clark would indeed have a daughter, but Clark would leave both of them behind upon returning to England.
  • Dabby Bryant: Mary's friend who constantly dreams of returning to Devon. Although she did sell Mary for food on the ship, she obviously cares for her. Although she seems to enjoy the play, she thinks the content and especially her character, Rose, are stupid and argues for a play that is more relevant towards their current situation. In the final scene, she reveals that she has plans for escaping that night. The real Mary Bryant would indeed become famous for a daring escape in 1791.
  • Duckling Smith: A young thief and prostitute, sentenced to death at only 18 years of age. Harry Brewer is hopelessly in love with her, a feeling that for a long time does not appear to be mutual. She only admits to loving Harry once he is close to dying and later says that she never told him about her love as she feared he might become cruel towards her. Keneally lists her real name as Ann, but none of the three women named "Ann Smith" on the First Fleet fit her description.
  • Liz Morden: One of the most troublesome women, Governor Phillip wants to make an example out of her: through redemption, which is why he wants her in the play. Liz is accused of stealing food, but does not defend herself at her trial. The play makes her care enough about herself to defend herself when given the last chance in Act Two, Scene Ten, where she claims that before, speaking wouldn't have mattered. In Keneally's novel, her name is Nancy Turner. Neither name can be found on the list of First Fleet convicts.
  • Meg Long: Nicknamed "Shitty Meg", she acts as a madam for the other women convicts. She has a short but humorous appearance in the audition, where she completely misunderstands Clark's call for women.
  • An Aboriginal Australian: He describes the British settler's efforts with curiosity and later with fear. Depending on how prominent his appearances are made in a given staging, the subject of colonisation may become more and more central to the play.

Educational use[edit]

In England, the play is used by the exam board AQA and Edexcel as a set text for Advanced Level Theatre Studies and as a set text to use in comparison essays for GCE. It has also been used in universities' performing arts and English departments. It has been performed across Europe as part of GCE candidates' final performances. It is also used at AS level in English Literature studies, as well as a set text in the OIB administered by CIE and is also commonly used in English speaking English Literature classes for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

Productions[edit]

The play's first production was at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 10 September 1988, directed by Max Stafford-Clark. The production starred David Haig as Ralph Clark, Jim Broadbent as Harry Brewer, John Arscott and Captain Campbell, Linda Bassett as Lieutenant Will Dawes and Liz Morden, and Ron Cook as Captain Arthur Phillip and John Wisehammer.[1]

Our Country's Good premiered on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1991 and closed on June 8, 1991 after 12 previews and 48 performances. Directed by Mark Lamos, the cast featured Cherry Jones (Reverend Johnson), Peter Frechette (2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark), Tracey Ellis (Lieutenant George Johnston), Amelia Campbell (Lieutenant Will Dawes, Duckling Smith, Meg Long) and J. Smith-Cameron (2nd Lieutenant William Faddy).

The play was performed at the Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre, directed by Caroline Hall and featuring Louise Gold as Lieutenant Will Dawes and Liz Morden.[1] It was also presented at the Liverpool Playhouse in 2007. Among the cast members was Charlie Brooks. The actors also provided a workshop for real life convicts in Walton Prison.[citation needed]

In 2012 Max Stafford-Clark, the play's original director, directed a new production for Out of Joint and the Octagon Theatre, Bolton which played at the St James Theatre.

Awards and nominations[edit]

1988 Laurence Olivier Award
  • BBC Award for the Play of the Year {Winner}
  • Director of the Year (nominee)
  • Actor of the Year in a New Play (David Haig (Winner))
1991 Tony Award
  • Best Play (nominee)
  • Best Actor in Play (Peter Frechette) (nominee)
  • Best Actress in a Play (Cherry Jones) (nominee)
  • Best Featured Actress in a Play
    Amelia Campbell (nominee)
    J. Smith-Cameron (nominee)
  • Best Direction of a Play (nominee)
1991 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award
  • Best Foreign Play
Drama Desk Award
  • Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Tracey Ellis) (nominee)
2012 Manchester Theatre Award
  • Best Visiting Production (Original Theatre Company) (nominee)

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Shane, Emma. Our Country's Good at the Louise Gold website, accessed 20 January 2011
  • Wertenbaker, Timberlake; Keneally, Thomas (1988). Our Country's Good (First edition ed.). London: Methuen. ISBN 0-413-19770-0. 

External links[edit]