Plot and subplot -

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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 ...

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