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Are you curious to learn more about how Australia, as we know it today, came to be? Our Country's Good (1988) is a two-act play by Timberlake Wertenbaker based on the true story of one of Australia's first penalty colonies.
|First stage performance
Our Country's Good is based on Thomas Keneally's novel, The Playmaker (1987). The novel is inspired by the true story of Australia's first theatre production - a play performed by the convicts of one of the first British penalty colonies.
Until the 17th century, Australia was populated by Aboriginal people. Their culture is one of the oldest surviving cultures in history. During the 1600s, Europeans explored Australia. In 1770, the British Lieutenant James Cook went to the east coast of Australia. Since the prisons in the United Kingdom were full, the British government decided to send the convicts to help colonise the Australian continent. There were thousands of convicts because the law was very severe. Even petty theft was a reason to be sent to a penalty colony. The convicts who weren't hanged and who survived in the Australian conditions would become the citizens of the British colonies in Australia. Many Australians today are descendants of convicts.
The youngest convict was only 9 when he was first sentenced and 13 when he was on the fleet.
Most of the characters in Our Country's Good are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet to Australia, although some of their names are changed. In addition to analysing The Playmaker, Timberlake Wertenbaker also read the journals of the First Fleet officers.
Set in the 1780s, the play follows British convicts, who were sent to the first penalty colony in Australia, and the Royal Marines who took them there.
It's 1787, a ship with convicts and Royal Marines is on its way to Australia. When they arrive in the new country, the officers discuss how they imagine the colony and think the convicts should be treated. Judge Collins and Captain Tench favour cruel punishments, such as hangings, while Captain Arthur Phillip is against them. When Phillip finds out that public hangings are the convicts' favourite type of entertainment, he insists that they are introduced to other kinds of entertainment.
Lieutenant Ralph Clark writes in his diary and talks about how much he misses his wife when Midshipman Harry Brewer enters. Harry tells Ralph that Captain Phillip wants to appoint someone to put on a play with the convicts. Ralph decides that he would like to do this. Phillip allows it, and Ralph auditions the convicts for the play, The Recruiting Officer. He casts several convicts, including Mary Brenham, in the leading role. The officers talk about the play, but there are disagreements. Major Ross and others disapprove of the idea. Captain Phillip makes the final decision that the play will happen. Harry and one of the female convicts, Duckling, are involved. They get into a fight, and Harry tells Duckling to take part in the play.
Mary and Dabby rehearse their lines when another woman who was cast in the play, Liz Morden, joins them and causes a fight. The colony's hangman, Ketch Freeman, asks Ralph to be in the play so that he can make the convicts like him better. Ralph agrees to include him. The convicts start rehearsing the play under Ralph's direction. It's a chaotic and difficult process because they don't want Liz and Ketch there. Major Ross and Captain Campbell interrupt and inform everyone that some of the convicts have tried to escape. They blame Ralph and his play. The two officers also blame Liz for stealing food. They think it's fair to punish her and set an example by hanging her.
Liz and the other convicts who are in prison talk about their hardships. Ralph asks Phillip to cancel the play because the other officers are against it. Phillip explains to Ralph why the play is important and tells him that he should do it and prove the others wrong. Harry hears the voices of the people he has sent to be hung. Rehearsals resume with some of the actors bound in chains. Major Ross and Captain Campbell come to watch. The convicts are especially scared of Ross, who is very cruel to them.
Harry orders Ketch to take Liz's measurements for the rope he will use to hang her. Ketch is not happy about this. Liz insists that she didn't steal the food; she wants Ralph to know this. Harry's condition worsens until he collapses and dies. Duckling is miserable, she finally confesses her love for him, but it's too late. Ralph has to take one of the convict's parts, and he ends up rehearsing alone with Mary. Their scripted kiss turns into a real one; they start to undress. The officers discuss Liz's situation and whether to hang her or not. She is brought in, but she doesn't defend herself. She later explains that she didn't say anything because she didn't believe anyone would listen to her. This doesn't sit well with Phillip and Judge Collins, who strive for fairness. It's decided that there will be a retrial. Liz promises to perform her role in the play.
Right before the performance begins, the convicts are all getting along and working as a team. They share what they plan to do once they're free. The play ends with the sound of applause as the convict actors begin the performance.
In the midst of the main action at the British colony, the Aboriginal Australian also appears. Read on to find out more about this character.
The following paragraphs explore the main three themes of the play.
'Unexpected situations are often matched by unexpected virtues in people, are they not?'
- Phillip, Act 2, Scene 2
Captain Phillip discusses the play with Ralph. Phillip encourages Ralph to be brave and makes him see the positive change that the play can bring upon the convicts.
The play centres around the theme that theatre can be a powerful force for social change. Captain Phillip believes that acting in a play can be a learning experience for the convicts and that it could teach them how to live their lives differently. Despite the opposition from some of the other officers, Phillip is correct. The performance of The Recruiting Officer has a positive effect on the convicts - both individually and as a group. Acting together in the play makes them come together, and they learn to get along, despite their differences. This experience also helps them find hope that, as individuals, they could live a life without hate and crime. Additionally, the play makes the convicts and the officers more equal. When Ralph and Mary rehearse together, they are no longer an officer and a convict - they are both actors. When officers and convicts are watching the performance, they are all laughing and crying together. If only for a moment, the division between them disappears.
Justice and humaneness have never gone hand in hand. The law is not a sentimental comedy.'
- Tench, Act 1, Scene 3
Captain Tench disagrees with Captain Phillip and shares his view that the convicts should be treated as criminals because they can't be taught to be valuable members of society.
Captain Arthur Phillip wants to create a just and fair system where the voice of every person is heard. He believes that criminals can change for the better if they are treated differently and exposed to culture instead of only to brutality. Phillip argues with his fellow officers that the standard ways of punishment create a vicious circle and that they don't do anything to improve the convicts. Many of the convicts will eventually be freed, and they will populate the colony. Thus, Phillip strives to build a just society in Australia where the citizens would respect the law instead of resenting it and running from it.
Captain Phillip may be just to the people of his own small society, but what about the Aboriginal Australians whose land is colonised by the British? Note that Wertenbaker implies this hypocrisy by showing us the detrimental effects the arrival of the outsiders has on the Aboriginal man.
'When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt. How can I be sure God is forgiving me? What if he will forgive me, but hasn't forgiven me yet?'
-Ketch, Act 1, Scene 9
Ketch talks to Ralph about the guilt that plagues him.
Our Country's Good explores the human struggle for forgiveness and the capacity to become a better version of yourself. Harry Brewer can't forgive himself for killing Henry Baker, Duckling's other lover. He sees Henry's ghost and the ghosts of other people he has sent to be hung. These are the manifestations of his guilty conscience. He fails to forgive himself for the death he has caused, and, in the end, he dies.
Ketch Freeman is also plagued by guilt. He was forced to become a hangman when he was caught stealing - he had the ultimatum to either be hanged or to hang others. The other convicts hate him for making that choice. Ketch doesn't end up like Harry because he is not plagued by guilt in the same way as him. Ketch has found a way to forgive himself, and now he wants God and the convicts to forgive him too.
Read more about the character in the play and their relationships.
The real Captain Arthur Phillip (1738-1814) was the founding governor of the Colony of New South Wales. He was known to be a just and fair governor. Several places in Australia bear his name.
In the play, Captain Phillip is a wise leader who calls for justice and respect for the convicts. He insists that The Recruiting Officer is staged so that the convicts have the chance to improve themselves by being exposed to something other than a public hanging.
The real Lieutenant Ralph Clark (1755 or 1762-1794) has left several diaries and letters to his wife. It is known that he had a daughter with the female convict, Mary Brenham. The girl was called Alicia, after the Lieutenant's wife.
In Our Country's Good, Ralph wants to be promoted, and when he hears about Phillip wishing to stage a play, he jumps at the opportunity to prove himself by taking on this responsibility. With time, Ralph grows fond of the convicts and learns to treat them better. At the beginning of the play, he misses his wife, and he's nervous around the women in the penalty colony. By the end of the play, he falls in love with Mary Brenham.
Mary Brenham was a real convict on the First Fleet who had a child with Lieutenant Ralph Clark.
In the play, Mary is a shy young woman who's a convict because she was caught stealing. Her friend, Dabby Bryant, drags her to the audition forThe Recruiting Officer. Mary impresses Ralph, and he casts her in one of the leading roles. She's one of the only convicts who can read. Mary falls in love with Ralph and dreams of her future with him.
The real Lieutenant-General Watkin Tench (1758-1833) published books that describe his life in the First Fleet.
In the play, Captain Tench opposes Phillip. He doesn't believe that the convicts could ever improve and become valuable members of society. He hates them all because they are criminals.
The real Colonel David Collins (1756-1810) was the founder of the first settlement in Tasmania.
In Our Country's Good, Captain Collins is appointed judge of the penalty colony. He stands by Phillip's decision for the play to be staged - he even conducts a vote about it.
The real Major Robert Ross (1740-1794) was the governor of the settlement of Norfolk Island.
In the play, Major Ross is cruel to the convicts. He's completely opposed to the play, and he ridicules Ralph for it.
Harry Brewer is romantically involved with the convict Duckling. The two of them have a complicated relationship, but it becomes apparent that Duckling loves him. Harry is plagued by his guilt. He hung Henry Baker, Duckling's other lover, and, as much as he tries to convince himself that he didn't want to kill him, he knows this is not true. Harry is haunted by the ghosts of those he has sent to be hung. He becomes ill and dies.
Duckling is a female convict, a thief and a prostitute. She's involved with Harry Brewer, who sentenced her other lover, Henry Baker, to death. It seems like Harry is madly in love with Duckling for most of the play, but the feeling isn't mutual. On Harry's deathbed, Duckling finally confesses her love for him.
Liz Morden is a troublesome convict who quarrels with the others. She's accused of stealing food, and she's sentenced to death. At first, she doesn't defend herself, but she later reveals that she didn't say that she wasn't the thief because she didn't think anyone would listen to her. By the end of the play, Liz gets along with the other actors in the play.
Ketch Freeman is a former convict who was given an ultimatum - to hang others or be hanged. He became the hangman of the penalty colony. The convicts detest him, and he wants to be in the play so that they can start to like him.
Dabby Bryant is based on the real person, Mary Bryant (1765-1794), who managed to escape from an Australian penalty colony.
Dabby Bryant is a convict who takes part in the play and enjoys it, although, on several occasions, she shares that she finds it stupid and irrelevant to their current situation. Dabby talks about returning to her home, Devon, and she plans to escape after the performance.
The Aboriginal Australian appears throughout the play to show his changing reactions towards the British colonisers. At first, he is curious, but by the end of the play, he's dying of smallpox that the outsiders have brought to his land.
John Arscott, Robert Sideway, John Wisehammer, Black Caesar, and Henry Kable are other convicts who are all based on real people.
The play uses multi-roling. Wertenbaker has instructed that only ten actors perform all 22 roles, which means that each actor portrays at least one convict and one officer.
What do you think is the purpose of this? What kind of message can this send to the audience?
Our Country's Good is one of the most popular contemporary plays in the English language. When it premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1988, it won the Laurence Olivier Award for Play of the Year. In 1991, the play also won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Foreign Play and was nominated for a Tony Award.
Our Country's Good has had numerous performances in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. Some productions involve meetings and workshops with real-life convicts.
Our Country's Good is set in the late 1780s.
Our Country's Good is a historical play.
Set in the 1780s, the play follows British convicts, who were sent to the first penalty colony in Australia, and the Royal Marines who took them there. It is based on the true story of Australia's first theatre production - a play performed by the convicts.
Our Country's Good is based on the novel The Playmaker (1987) by Thomas Keneally.
The main themes of Our Country's Good are the power of theatre, justice, and forgiveness.
True or False: Our Country's Good is based on Thomas Keneally's novel, The Playmaker (1987)
Our Country's Good takes place in...?
Which character disapproves of the convicts acting in a play?
Which character is accused of stealing food?
True or False: Harry Brewer dies.
Which play do the convicts perform?
The Recruiting Officer
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