Plot and subplot -
Plot and subplot
“Our Country’s Good,” a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is about a group of English convicts bound for Australia by sea in 1788. In the first scene, Sideways, a convict on board the ship, is being brutally whipped and we are introduced to the constant, overwhelming fear, hunger and despair that the convicts are going through.
We are also introduced to all the officials on board. They are debating the punishment of hanging that three of the convicts have received for stealing, and we see the different attitudes different characters have to this. Governor Arthur Phillip supports a humane approach to dealing with the convicts, but Judge David Collins believes that the law must be upheld and that a crime, however petty, is still a crime. Captain Watkin Tench says that the convicts are beyond redemption anyway, and Midshipman Harry Brewer takes the opinion that the convicts have become desensitized to hangings and even consider it “their theatre”. In the end Governor Phillip believes that a play for the convicts to put on, with “fine language [and] sentiment” is the way to go in order to encourage the convicts to change their ways in this new environment.
We learn the play chosen play is to be “The Recruiting Officer” (1706) by Irish actor-turned-playwright George Farquhar (1677-1707). It is about his experiences working as a recruiting officer for the army for three years, and one his last works before he died a year after it was performed. Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark begins holding auditions for the play. Ralph Clark is interested in timid convict Mary Brenham for the play, as she knows how to write and therefore can make copies of the script. Ralph Clark has the role of “Sylvia” in mind for Mary. Clark gives the boisterous Dabby the role of “Rose”, although a little skeptical because she is unable to read. Rough and tough Liz Morden then comes in, snatches the play from Ralph Clark and tells him she’ll “let [him] know” about her decision of her character.
The officers are already passionately quarreling about the play that night, which is induced by their consumption of alcohol. They are debating as to whether the convicts should be allowed to put on a play. Some officers are against it, for example Major Robbie Ross, who is a character constantly at odds with everyone around him. “You want vice-ridden vermin to enjoy themselves?” he asks. He argues that the play will teach “disobedience [and] revolution”. However, as Phillip is in charge, the plan goes through in the end, under his word that the convicts should be educated and reformed. Ralph Clark echoed Phillip’s sentiment, saying that already some convicts have lost “some of their corruption”.
Quiet and unconventional convict Duckling now joins “The Recruiting Officer” as well, under the firm suggestion of Midshipman Harry Brewer, who is obsessed with her. Ketch Freeman, the hangman on board, enters while Dabby, Mary and Liz (as the character “Melinda” in “The Recruiting Officer”) attempt to rehearse. They promptly send him away, which leads him to talk to Ralph Clark. He opens up, desperately asking for forgiveness for his actions that his job brings about. He feels that if he is to redeem himself amongst the convicts, he should act in the play with them.
The first rehearsal does not run smoothly due to conflicts between the convicts. Also, some convicts do not turn up. The convicts’ attempts at acting in this scene, although whole-hearted, are amusing however. But this comedy is soon broken by the antithesis of Captain Jemmy Campbell and Major Robbie Ross entering in a fury, proclaiming that the two convicts who did not show up to rehearsal have escaped, stealing food from the ship’s stores along with them. They point to three convicts, including Liz Morden, as possible accomplices and the rehearsal is left ruined.
This marks a struggle for “The Recruiting Officer,” with Ralph suggesting to Phillip to stop the play going forward as half the convicts are in chains and there is strong opposition from officers in a higher position than he. However, Captain Phillip inspires Clark to go on. In the second rehearsal Robbie Ross is causing disruption yet again, however, as the convicts begin to act regardless, Ross finds himself impressed and any further impediments cease.
Liz Morden is sentenced to hanging as a result of accusations of her stealing. She asks Harry Brewer to tell Ralph Clark, after she is hanged, that she was innocent all along, so that he knows the truth. However, Harry suffers a stroke and collapses at this point, after having been mentally ill for quite a while. He dies that night, with Duckling by his side.
The officers debate Liz’s sentence. Captain David Collins does not support the verdict as he states that there is only circumstantial evidence and Liz refused to verify or speak up about any part of the situation. However, Robbie Ross still considers her guilty. Liz Morden is then brought in and the officers urge her to talk “for the good of the colony … and of the play”. Liz does indeed speak eventually, and she is found innocent. Therefore “The Recruiting Officer” goes on as well.
Finally, the performance night comes. The convicts’ different aspirations are revealed, with Dabby wanting to escape back to her beloved Devon, Wisehammer wanting to become a writer and Sideways planning to start a theatre company in Australia. There is a sense of triumph among the convicts as Ralph Clark thanks the actors for their work and the performance begins. “Our Country’s Good” comes to a close.
There are also many subplots in the play, which give deeper meaning to the situations and to the play as a whole. One sub-plot is that of the issue of nature vs. nurture, an example of which is shown in the officers’ discussion about whether the play should go on or not. Most of the officials on board say that the convicts cannot be helped and are “beyond redemption”. However, simply because the convicts have a lower social status than the officers, does this give them right to have this prejudice? Their unruly behaviour may not simply be the nature of the convicts, but instead it is their nurture and underprivileged environment they grew up in that might have lead then to where they are in life now. So based on this, are they not entitled to a second chance? This is the point Phillip makes very early on in the play, as the voice of reason amongst the officers, when he tells the officers “how do we know what humanity lies hidden under the rags and filth of a mangled life?” Even though the officers have power in their positions, are they entitled to abuse this power and cause suffering to people that they could have easily be in the situation as, had Lady Luck not been on their side and let them be born into comfortable, middle-class or upper middle class families?
Another subplot in the play is that of love – specifically, unconventional love. There is the love-stalker relationship between Harry Brewer and Duckling, which is introduced in a scene where they go rowing together and Harry is extremely jealous, as he believes Duckling is seeing another man. Duckling says “I need freedom sometimes, Harry,” as he gives her none; however, they still care about each other greatly and Duckling is there by Harry’s side when he dies. There is also a relationship between Ralph Clark and Mary Brenham, as Clark finds himself growing increasing affectionate towards Mary as rehearsals progress. However, as Mary is copying out the script, John Wisehammer finds himself drawn and captivated by the words she is writing on the page, which then leads to love of Mary herself. This creates a love triangle, but since Ralph Clark is Second Lieutenant and Wisehammer a mere convict, he never really stands a chance.
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A third subplot is that of the Aborigine – an individual oblivious and unaware of Western culture. Scenes with the Aborigine’s insight show of his confusion of how to relate to the large sailboat and the unfamiliar people, both of which he has never encountered before in his life. He does not know what he is seeing and he does not know what to do, so therefore he relates it to the Dreamtime, which is the only subject he has knowledge of that can provide a satisfactory explanation to him of this strange phenomenon coming his way. He calls the white-skinned officers and convicts “ghosts who have spilled from the [Dreamtime]”. He ponders aloud, “what do they need?” and “how can we satisfy them” so they will go back to whence they came? However, at the end of the play the Aborigine contracts smallpox from the Westerners, which causes him to see that this may not be from the Dreamtime after all. This subplot of the play gives great insight into a completely objective view of the Westerners, and also relates it back to Australia as this was the first ship with foreigners going to colonize Australia.
A final subplot is the monologue Liz Morden gives at the beginning of Act II, where she recounts her life story and how she got into the situation she is in now. This basically gives some insight into Liz’s background and tells of her life of crime and punishment, but ultimately innocence. This, along with the other subplots, goes towards adding more depth and meaning to the play – which effectively makes it more captivating for the audience.
Use of Language
There is great use of literary, language and dramatic techniques in “Our Country’s Good”. For example, there is a clear difference between the language used by the convicts and the language used by the officers. The convicts often use taboo words, colloquial expressions and informal language, with much simpler vocabulary and syntactical structures than the officers. Unorthodox orthography is also used to represent the different dialects of the characters. Timberlake Wertenbaker has done this to identify the difference in social status between the officials and the convicts, and also to reflect their educational and regional upbringings. For example, John Wisehammer is Jewish, Caesar is Black, Ketch Freeman is Irish, Dabby Bryant comes from Devon, and Sideway and Liz Morden are from London. Therefore, it is crucial for all these different characters to have a ‘voice’ that distinguishes their individual personalities.
The officers do not always speak formally, however. Formality depends on the context of the conversation, and it is interesting to see the distinction between officer to convict conversations and the conversations between officers themselves. For example, the officers do not speak formally during rehearsals, because they are addressing the convicts who are not only uneducated, but who the officers do not think highly of in the first place.
The officers’ speech differs as well. For example, Governor Phillip, as the man in charge aboard the ship, speaks in a very clear, eloquent way, which reflects his position and garners him respect. He speaks in slightly longer stretches than other characters, but all the time giving important information or words of wisdom, so loquaciousness is certainly not a factor. The same cannot be said for other officers, however; namely Major Robbie Ross and Captain Campbell. Robbie Ross is such a bitter, sadistic character that when he is angry he absolutely fumes and, as a result, cannot find the words to express his overwhelming emotions. To convey this, Timberlake created a unique form of rhetorical abuse for Ross. For example, Ross is against the play going on for the convicts and therefore, when he tries to express this, he inarticulately says “A play! A f - A frippery frittering play!” Campbell, on the other hand, is constantly intoxicated and therefore his language reflects this – with his idiolect consisting of brief statements, broken up by nonsensical sounds (e.g. “Aheeh, aeh, here?”). Timberlake is also saying something about this character’s mental capacity by this.
An example of non-standard grammar as an indication of dialect is that of Liz Morden’s monologue. Firstly, nearly all of the speech is in fragments and is full of elision (“Then. My own father. Lady’s walking down the street, he takes her wiper”). Secondly, the monologue is also full of vernacular expressions, such as “I’m no dimber mort, I says. Don’t ask you to be a swell mollisher” and “this niffynaffy play.” This is an example of Wertenbaker writing phonetically to give a clearer picture of the characters. We can clearly tell Liz’s social background from the language used here (sociolect), and therefore it is very effective for the audience.
Language is also important amongst the characters in the play. Governor Phillip first suggests putting on a play because, with the convicts “speaking a refined, literate language,” it will help liberate them and therefore have beneficial influences. And indeed, as the play progresses, convict John Arscott mentions that, when rehearsing, he doesn’t “have to remember the things [he’s] done, when [he speaks] Kite’s lines [he doesn’t] hate any more.” Instead of a life of flogging, suppression, being an ‘underclass’ and being called “lower than a slave,” the play gives the convicts some of their identity again. This also goes to show that society is made up of individuals rather than groups. Each character has a strong individual voice in the play.
There are great parallels between “Our Country’s Good” and “The Recruiting Officer”. Therefore, there are times when the lines the convicts are reading from “The Recruiting Officer” hold great significance for the situations going on in “Our Country’s Good”. The words of Farquhar act as a metaphor for the lives of the characters and the different situations they are going through, whether this is about love or hardships. They act as an intransient link between the play and reality; both between actual reality and the reality of “Our Country’s Good,” as a ‘play within a play’. The dialogue of the characters also frequently consists of adjacency pairs – often in the form of question and answer – in order to imitate authentic spoken language. This naturalistic sense is used, in contrast to less realistic aspects of the play such as scene structure, to emphasise the authenticity of what is truly important in the play – the human condition and the interrelationships between characters.
Language is also used to represent the progression of characters throughout the play. The convicts transform from using unsophisticated, dialectical language, to using far more complex structures in their speech. This is due to the practice they have received from learning their lines for “The Recruiting Officer”. A chief example of this is when Liz Morden is being scrutinized after having being accused of stealing. All the officers onboard have debated the situation and found her innocent, therefore allowing the play to go on, and at this point Liz says, “I will endeavour to speak Mr Farquhar’s lines with the elegance and clarity their own worth commands.” As you can see, this is a great leap from earlier on in the play where Liz uttered such sentences as, “why trine for a make, when you can wap for a winne?”
A pivotal use of language is in the title of the play itself. “Our Country’s Good” carries different connotations. For example, it could mean “the good of our country” or it could mean “our country is good;” although the intention is made clearer when Wisehammer writes an original prologue for “The Recruiting Officer”, which states “we left our country for our country’s good”. From the very first scene in the play, Wertenbaker uses language for dramatic purposes. Wertenbaker uses vulgar words in this scene to shock the audience, however just a few lines before a graphic and violent situation is described, where convict Robert Sideway is being flogged almost to death. The audience is more shocked by the taboo language than the gore and barbaric behaviour though, because as a society, we have become desensitized to violence. Timberlake Wertenbaker is aware of this, therefore including this juxtaposition to make a point about humanity today. She is pointing out to us that we are more shocked about a rude word, which could easily be dismissed, than we are to a scene where a man is gruesomely and inhumanely being beaten, almost to death. Therefore, Wertenbaker is truly disparaging modern society here.
FoRM AND STRUCTURE
“Our Country’s Good” was created using a research method initiated by the Joint Stock Theatre Group in the 1970s. This method consisted of the actors collaborating and exploring the background, themes and characters of the play themselves. They then later reported their information to the playwright, who would proceed to write the script. This places “Our Country’s Good” as a semi-devised play, however this method gives deeper understanding of the characters to the actors, as they go through the process of ‘discovery learning’. Therefore, this creates more structure to the play since the actors know more about the world of the play through this system.
The play consists of two acts, both consisting of eleven scenes. These scenes vary greatly, shifting between night and day and from scenes with nearly all convicts or officers onboard, to scenes with the Aborigine alone. All these different aspects must be staged, all the while building up tension and moving forward with the plot(s). However, the scenes in the play are short and non-fluent, representing ‘snippets’ of life rather than continuous realism. Therefore, detailed descriptions are given at the beginning of each scene, in order to convey the meaning and plotline simply and easily. In the first act the plot deals with dramatic exposition - setting the scene and introducing the characters; and Act Two concerns the way in which the play affects the convicts and the beneficial effect it has on all the characters, including the officers.
In the original live production of “Our Country’s Good,” there were only ten actors cast in total, to play the twenty-two different characters. This is because almost every one of the actors played both a convict and an officer. The play was actually written with ‘doubling’ of characters in mind. At first it seems that this creates great antithesis between the two groups of characters; however, then we realise that doing so in fact achieves the absolute opposite effect. The doubling of characters blurs the line between the officers and the convicts, and therefore suggests that the two groups – who at first seem entirely socially different – are not so dissimilar after all. This technique also explains why the scenes in the play are generally juxtaposed so that they alternate from ones involving the officers, to those revolving around the convicts.
“Our Country’s Good” repeatedly brings attention to itself as a play. This self-referral and ‘play within a play’ aspect are characteristic of ‘metadramas’. “Our Country’s Good” also has similarities to “The Recruiting Officer” in terms of dramatic structure; with characters paralleling those found in “The Recruiting Officer”.
VISUAL, AURAL AND SPATIAL ELEMENTS
In this section I will describe the way in which different groups in the class staged the opening scene of “Our Country’s Good,” as well as including additional elements and other options for how to stage the play, which our class performances did not incorporate. In the scene, convict Robert Sideway is being flogged, while Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark counts the lashes. Convicts John Wisehammer, John Arscott and Mary Brenham then all deliver speeches which sum up and articulate the dire conditions onboard the ship. My group used end-on staging as this was the most straight-forward as well as the most appropriate. In both in-the-round and traverse staging, some of the audience would watch a clear, front-on view of the scene, while other audience members would have a completely obscured sightline; so therefore we used an end-on format.
In terms of lighting, my group used simple fading to differentiate between the flogging and the different speeches in the scene. We also only used a single spotlight throughout, lighting only the small area of stage necessary, in order to give a lonesome,
desperate feeling, which reflects the state the convicts are in. In terms of space, we did not use a lot of our stage. We stayed at centre stage, since we felt this would give a more simplistic feel to the scene, therefore focusing the audience’s attention undividedly onto the dialogue and its raw emotion. We also only used minimal props, including a metal-chain whip and a box over which Sideways (played by myself) was sprawled while being whipped. On second thought however, using this whip was a mistake on our part, as it is an anachronism in our performance and, especially in the context of the play, historical accuracy of the props proves to be very important. Instead of this modern metal-link chain, the whips they would have used in 1788 are likely to have been made from some sort of leather.
One major area we did not include in our performance was costumes. We simply wore our casual, contemporary clothes and therefore failed to create a stage reality in this way whatsoever. Also, even though in my group’s performance we used repetitive, almost neurotic movements (such as Ralph Clark rocking slowly on the floor with his knees to his chest), and careful delivery of dialogue as stated in the stage directions (such as Ralph Clark counting the lashes in a quiet, slow and monotonous voice to give the impression that he is emotionless and has become numb to the gore and pain over the years), we still did not quite manage to create the correct pace of the scene, which should be slow and laborious. Our performance moved at a tempo which was slightly too fast.
The second group used end-on staging as well. They had very good use of space, creating an area in the middle of the stage where all the convicts were sprawled, yet at the same time cramped, clustered and confined. Chairs and boxes were placed centre stage, making great use of levels and adding great dynamism to this central area. The two officers in the scene then started walking around the convicts, creating a quite disorienting and intimidating effect. Characterisation was also excellent, with the convicts - especially Sideway - not screaming excessively loud, but instead holding back in order to give more subdued performances and portray their pain and agony. This was very effective because the characters must be in earnest if the play is to be successful, especially due to its human and interpersonal aspects. The characterization created the right tempo for the scene, which worked to their advantage since this also created great realism. Minimal props were used on stage.
The final group’s performance was slightly unique, as they used an inverted version of traditional in-the-round staging, so that the stage was set up in the following manner:
This was very effective in the intimate environment of the
class, where we could just shift our positions in order to see the different convicts all around us; however in a more professional environment, with a larger audience, I do not know how well this staging would actually work out. Lighting as well was used in an exceptional way, since in this performance the flogging of Sideway took place in complete darkness. Not seeing it visually added great power to the scene and also gave a sense of defenselessness. Delivering the lines in a flat, trance-like way, as well as giving their characters weak, fatigued demeanours to reflect their desperation, is what gave this group’s performance great realism visually.
As you can see, of just one single scene, so many different interpretations can be made. This is due to the fact that Timberlake Wertenbaker’s stage directions predominantly describe the state of the
characters emotionally, or specific action that is going on in the scene; they
do not, however, describe the setting (other than Australia) and how the stage should be set. This is where directors are free to be creative and take dramatic liberties if they please.
I will now include some additional points, which our performances have not touched upon, that are vital to the staging of the play. First of all, the scenes vary and contrast greatly throughout the play – from scenes involving one character to scenes which include many, and scenes alternating between night to day and from onboard the ship to outside in Australia – and this present a great staging challenge. Scene changes also still must remain as quick as possible throughout. Therefore, there are several ways to overcome this obstacle. First of all, blue coloured lighting can be an effective way to suggest Australia’s blue and sunny sky. However, since this may need to be implied further, to capture the great expanse, a blue cyclorama is another option that could be used. On a grander scale, a revolving stage may be the way to tackle the play, with both a night scene and day scene. Another important factor in making the staging is the setting of the play. For example, it is not just enough to have a blue day scene or a starry night scene; they also must incorporate the topography of 16th century London/Australia and this must be taken into account.
Also, costumes play a vital part in creating the stage reality of “Our Country’s Good”. Costumes defines the status of the characters and also, many of the convicts might be physically unattractive due to their situation, so therefore costumes and makeup must be used to make this a reality. I believe the convicts should wear ‘rag-like’ clothes, stereotypical of paupers in this time period. There is doubling of characters in the play, and in the original Royal Court Theatre production of “Our Country’s Good,” costume changes were often done while still onstage. Although this is not maintaining the illusion of reality and make consequently break the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, I believe this is what should be done, as nothing more clearly shows the fine line between the officers lives and the lives of the convicts.
The play bases itself on human relationships and therefore does not require many props onstage. Although there aren’t particularly many changes in location and setting, the changes that are present in the play are vast and therefore it is best to opt for a minimalist approach to producing the play. Use of symbolism instead is the key, since simply giving the essence that connotes an object is enough to make the play rich with imagery and still enjoyable to the audience.
Finally, an important aspect to consider when staging the play is the aural element of the play. Apart from the obvious dialogue, sound effects must carefully be considered, since they can be of great use to connote setting; even when it isn’t visually all there on stage. For example, sound effects of the sea washing against an Australian beach or against the ship could be used, or sound effects of seagulls present on the Australian coast could be used. Also, sounds of the wind should be used to connote a gentle coastal breeze in the very last scene of the play, once they ship has arrived in Australia. This would indicate the new location and open space to the audience. In addition, during the scenes with the Aborigine, a didgeridoo could be played in the background to enhance the native element. All these slight details go towards making the play a captivating, enjoyable, creative and sensual experience for the audience as a whole.
SoCIAL, CULTURAL AND HISToRICAL CoNTExts
There are three different contexts to the play. Firstly, it is set in 1788 and this creates one particular context. Secondly, it was first written in 1988, which is another context of the play. Thirdly, a production of the play can also be put on today, which adds yet another time period. Therefore, the question presents itself of how this play can still be relevant today, 17 years after it was originally written and certainly due to its setting in the 18th century.
This is answered by the fact that the play deals with issues that are contemporary and still very applicable to modern times. Issues such as prejudice, love, sex, crime, punishment, redemption, power or abuse thereof, and social status, are no less relevant today than they were in 1788 amongst English convicts. When dealing with humanity and human emotions as the play does, the topics never become dated.
The process by which the script was created (through collaboration and individual research) helped the actors gain deeper knowledge of the social aspects of the play. The actors gathered valuable information about the world of the play through visiting a prison and watching inmates perform a play in real life and also by conducting interviews and researching information about prison life, the criminal mind and oppression.
In the play, Governor Arthur Phillip believes performing “The Recruiting Officer” will have a positive influence on the convicts and will help liberalise them. Therefore, despite a plethora of complaints by Robbie Ross, Phillip goes ahead and supports the production of the play.
This brings in a great debate concerning the play – the issue of nature vs. nurture. Phillip believes the innate qualities of human beings are goodness and underlying intelligence, and that the convicts are simply in the position they are in because of their nurture – an unfortunate upbringing. However, the officers who oppose this view believe that the convicts’ criminal tendencies are in fact innate, and therefore they think the convicts should be punished and degraded.
These standpoints then lead to differences in opinion concerning the play. For example, Robbie Ross believes the play will simply cause disobedience and therefore should not go forward. Governor Phillip, on the other hand, considers the play crucial and absolutely vital, since the convicts are the very people who will start a new civilization in Australia, and they must be capable of doing so. Therefore, Phillip supports the play, as a means of catharsis for the convicts and also to encourage them to be responsible and think for themselves. Australia represents a new beginning and second chance for the convicts, and Phillip understands this.
The Governor, stating these innate qualities of the convicts, is making the claim that the officers and the convicts are not so different after all. Phillip’s point is that, if the officers had simply, by chance, been born into impoverished, low-class families, they too could easily be living a life of crime and be in the exact same situation the convicts are in now. Therefore, he believes in their redemption, despite their low social status. Robbie Ross, however, believing their innate tendencies are what brought them to where they are today, still stands for their perdition.
Governor Phillip’s stance on the situation implies that our morals are set by society and are not concrete. They are based on individual background and experiences, and also culture. Throughout different periods in history and among different societies, morals vary greatly. Therefore, Phillip’s argument is that it is not the prisoners’ lack of morality that put them in the position they are in, because morals are relative and differ from each individual and society; but instead, it is their upbringing that led them to the life they lead.
Another social and historical aspect to the play is representation of society. In the first scene, Timberlake Wertenbaker uses one instance of taboo language in a convict’s monologue, which the original audience of the play were extremely shocked at. However, just moments earlier in the scene, Wertenbaker makes a graphic depiction of convict Sideway being flogged nearly to death. Instead of being shocked by this though, and empathizing with the suffering of this character, the audience was just aghast at the use of a word they found offensive. Wertenbaker anticipated this reaction and therefore included this juxtaposition to send a strong message about society today.
This predictable response by the audience points out that fact that, for a human society, we are awfully inhumane. People tend to pride themselves on being compassionate and we certainly claim we have moved on from anything slightly barbaric that societies in older times might have practiced; however, with this lack of emotion to the gruesome and gory portrayal in the first scene, Wertenbaker is posing the question: “Are we are as different from society in the past as we perceive ourselves to be?” Maybe we haven’t changed as much as we would like to believe we have.
The Aborigine in the play gives a completely different cultural aspect to the play. Historically, this fleet in 1788 was the first to arrive on the Australian shore and therefore the Aborigine is unfamiliar with Westerners and the large ships they are sailing in. All the Aborigine can do is relate this phenomenon before him to the cultural experiences that he is familiar with. Therefore, he claims what he sees heading his way is from the Dreamtime, which Aborigines use to explain all existence in the world, as well as the place of everything within it.
Through his insightful words, the audience understands the significance of the colonization of Australia and how unsettling it would have been to the indigenous people. Not only must the effect have been psychological, since this was like nothing the Aborigines had ever seen before; but it was also physical, with the Westerners bringing in European diseases which the Aborigines had never suffered from before (e.g. in the last scene of the play, the Aborigine says “oozing pustules on my skin, heat on my forehead,” most likely suggesting smallpox, which he contracted from the settlers).
The play displays the power of drama as a social activity. It supports theatre strongly, despite claims against theatre throughout history. For instance, Plato believed that impersonation would actually literally affect the actor and so, following this logic, acting a corrupt character would in fact truly corrupt the actor playing the part. Plato also believed that through acting the audiences’ perception of the world could be dangerously altered. He also stated, slightly more rationally, that since acting is unreal and an imperfect copy of life, it essentially can’t teach us anything of value.
However, “Our Country’s Good” delivers the complete contradictory ideology to this; supporting drama as an essential art form and emphasizing its importance and beneficial influences on individuals and society. This is shown in play through the progression of the convict characters into humans of a more socially accepted stature, and also through the prevalence of the play in the face of adversity, since the first rehearsals are riddled with obstacles.
Indeed, “The Recruiting Officer” is ultimately more of a success than the officers ever previously imagined. The convicts start off as a broken, unmotivated group; however, as a result of the play they become committed and supportive of one another. The play gives them back some of their personal identity and consequently, their dignity.