Timberlake Wertenbaker : Our Country's Good - The redemptive power of theatre : How does the experience of putting on a play affect the characters in Our Country's Good.
When Wertenbaker began writing "Our Country's Good" (in 1988) convicts and prisoners were looked upon with more shame and distaste than they are today. She set the play in the 19th Century, and back then people were executed for stealing a biscuit! She was trying to point out the terrible flaws that occurred back then and she definitely succeeded. This, however, was not the full aim of the play. I think that the play's aim was to show convicts in a different light. In "Our Country's Good", many of the convicts are reformed by the end of the play. Because the play is based on real life, this probably happened in reality. This shows that convicts can become reformed, happy, sociable and nice people if they are just given a small chance to release their potential. Many people would have found this hard to take in and probably wouldn't have respected or believed it. "Our Country's Good" would have helped human rights a bit by highlighting certain points and displaying what really happened behind closed doors.
As I have said, Wertenbaker based "Our Country's Good" on reality and she gained many unique insights into the life of an inmate through Joe White. Wertenbaker corresponded with White in the summer of 1988, after she visited the prison he was being held in to see a production of a different play. Later, White organized a production of "Our Country's Good" for his fellow prisoners. He wrote many letters to Wertenbaker explaining what it was like holding a play in the prison. He explains how acting can release any pain or sorrow that a prisoner can have.
"Prison is about failure normally, and how we are reminded of it each day of every year. Drama, and self-expression in general, is a refuge and one of the only real weapons against the hopelessness of these places."
White explains that although the prisoners are subdued, beaten and bruised, when it comes to acting, they become completely different people. They truly take on their character's role. Wertenbaker carefully weaves this and many other real life points into "Our Country's Good". This makes the play quite unique as it takes real life situations and softly brings them into the world of the characters and the play.
When we first enter the situation of the prison colony in Australia, we meet the officers in command. They are Governor Arthur Phillip, Judge David Collins, Captain Watkin Tench and Midship Man Harry Brewer. They all have small amounts of power, but Phillip's in command. They have very contrasting beliefs as to what should happen to the convicts. Phillip is the voice of reason. He says that the convicts should be given more rights than they have at the moment. He wishes that everyone at the colony was more humane and he doesn't like the idea of hanging at all. He says that he would prefer them to see real plays with fine language and sentiment because all the other officers believe that they find hanging to be there only form of entertainment. Phillip says this is so because they have never been offered anything else. He says that the only reason that he and his fellow officers like cultured things such as the opera is because they were offered to them when they were children or young men. He continues by saying that surely no one is born naturally cultured. He is trying to prove that it isn't really the convict's fault that they are bad. He feels that they should be given a chance to become reformed human beings.
However, all the other officers don't agree. They think that the complete opposite is true. They say that the convicts can never change from their evil and wrong ways. Tench makes the strongest comment by saying that:
"Justice and humaneness have never gone hand in hand. The law is not a sentimental comedy."
Here, he is saying that they cannot be nice to some convicts and enforce the law onto the others that are still lawless.
Collins continues by saying that:
"I commend your endeavour to oppose the baneful influence of vice with the harmonising arts of civilisation, Governor, but I suspect your edifice will collapse without the mortar of fear."
Again, the other officers are undermining Phillip's vision of a harmonious colony. Collins believes that nothing will work in the colony unless the officers have the option of beating the prisoners back into line with fear of a real beating such as a lashing or even hanging.
All the officers except for Phillip believe that the convicts are no better than dogs. They treat them like dirt and with utter distain. They don't care about them at all and really just want to be paid for doing a good job. They don't like them because they think that they are outcasts of society and can't see that with a bit of help they could be reformed human beings.
The first characters we meet who aren't officers are Dabby and Mary at their audition to get into the play, The Recruiting Officer. We also meet Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark. He is the officer who is directing The Recruiting Officer. Each character is very different in personality and the way they act. Mary is the only convict that can read. She has been asked by Ralph to read for the part of Silvia. Mary is very shy and slightly anti-social. She doesn't speak unless she is spoken, and when she does speak it is always with mono- syllabic answers. She only really uses "yes" and "no" and other short, sharp and to the point answers. She doesn't speak them loudly and brashly, she mutters them under her breath. This could be due to many years of being opressed in prison by other convicts. She seems to have lost all her confidence. She uses Dabby as a human and vocal shield against communication and socialisation. Because Mary doesn't speak much at all, Dabby speaks for her. Dabby is probably her only and best friend. This is why Mary sticks by her even though Dabby sometimes pushes Mary around.
Dabby is Mary's best friend. She has come along to the audition with Mary to support and be there for her. She talks for Mary and herself throughout the scene. Dabby is the complete opposite of Mary. This leads a clever dramatic contrast between Dabby and Mary. Dabby is extremely talkative and outgoing. She is persuasive and very confident. Dabby will not let barriers stand in her way. Even though Ralph says that there is not part for her in the play at first, she persists until Ralph submits and gives her a part. Dabby is also very enthusiastic and just wants to be involved in anything she can do. Even though she cannot read at all, she says that Mary will teach her her lines. She is imaginative and this is why acting suits her very well. Dabby loves to be in control. She really has Mary at her mercy because she speaks for her. When Ralph asks Mary whether she wants to be in the play or not Dabby comes straight in and replies with:
"Mary wants to be in your play, Lieutenant, and so do I."
Ralph replies with:
"Do you think you have a talent for acting, Brenham?"
Dabby answers for Mary by saying:
"Of course she does, and so do I. I want to play Mary's friend."
This continues with Mary not saying a single word until she is asked to read from the script. Even then, Dabby keeps coming in with comments of how the play is good and how Mary is so good at reading.
Ralph is the commanding officer who has been put in charge of directing The Recruiting Officer. The first impression that we get of Ralph is that he is shy and we ask ourselves why he has been the task of directing. He is slightly weak and cannot control them very well. The fact that he has a wife at home and is embarrassed by other women doesn't help him at all. To begin with, Ralph isn't really interested by the plays benefits for the convicts, he is only really bothered about getting into Governor Phillip's good books, but this all changes later in the scene when he sees how dramatically Mary changes when she begins to read from the script. This fires his enthusiasm and he begins to put his heart into the play and becomes much more determined to make the play a success.
However, the attitude towards the play changes greatly when we enter Scene Six. The officers are discussing the play. They have been drinking and tempers are high. We meet one new main character, Major Robbie Ross. He already has a short temper and the drinking hasn't helped his cause. He is firmly against the play and his anger is shown with exclamation marks and repetition of letters (which is alliteration).
"A frippery frittering play!"
Major Ross is a dramatic tool. He is used to express an extreme negative view point. He is inhumane and just wants the convicts to be punishment. If Ross is at one end of the scale then Governor Phillip is at the other end of the scale. He is all for the play, probably because it was his idea! Phillip is idealistic and a philosopher. He believes everybody has an innate potential and thinks that everybody can be educated to be civilised, even the convicts. He is views are not shared by everyone present at the meeting. He also thinks that the theatre will remind the convicts that there is more to life than crime and punishment. Phillip may seem a good man on the outer shell, but he is actually very two-dimensional. He doesn't have much depth at all. He is another dramatic tool for Wertenbaker to discuss philosophy through.
This scene is quite a long one, but by the end of it, all the officers except Ross are agreed that the play will do no harm if it goes ahead and may even help the convicts a little.
Ketch Freeman is a convict. He has been given the unfortunate task of hanging his fellow convicts. We meet him halfway through a scene in which Mary and Dabby's rehearsal is cut short by the entrance of Liz Morden. This immediately sparks a reaction from Dabby. There is conflict between Liz and Dabby because they are both antagonistic. Mary is the mediator and she is trying to bring peace between the two other women. It is only when Ketch arrives that the women become united by their mutual animosity. The reactions that Ketch inspires are emotional and extreme. The women's focus at the end of the scene is the play and no their feelings for each other. They use the play as a barrier to screen Ketch out.
Act One, Scene Eleven.
In scene eleven, the convicts take part in their first proper rehearsal. There is much comedy added to the seen, mainly by the convicts. Sometimes it is their confusion that brings about laughter and sometimes it is their feelings towards each other. Dabby and Liz still don't get on and this sparks of a few funny confrontations. We also meet Duckling Smith, who doesn't like Liz or Dabby much either. Again, their difference in feelings leads to some comic references. Duckling also lives with an officer and Dabby uses this as a way to mock her.
Duckling: I'm not playing Liz Morden's maid.
Ralph: Why not?
Duckling: Because I live with an officer. He wouldn't like it.
Dabby: Just because she lives chained up in that old tosspot's garden.
We also meet another new character, Robert Sideway. Sideway greatly loves the theatre and hopes to open his own one day. He is eccentric and exaggerates everything he does, but doesn't realise it. He just wants to do well in the production.
Ralph: "'Tis indeed the picture of Worthy, but the life's departed. What, arms-a-cross, Worthy!"
Sideway comes on, walking sideways, arms held up in a grandiose eighteenth-century pose. He suddenly stops.
Sideway: Ah, yes, I forgot. Arms-a-cross. I shall have to start again.
He goes off again and shouts.
Could you read the line again louder please?
Ralph: "What, arms-a-cross, Worthy!"
Sideway rushes on.
Sideway continues in this exasperating search for perfection throughout the rehearsal. It is very funny and quite annoying.
There is a lot of chopping and changing between lines and decisions. The short, sharp, witty comments from the convicts often override Ralph and he seems to be always fighting them for control.
Dabby: There won't be a first scene.
Ralph: Bryant, will you be quiet please! The second scene. Wisehammer, you could read Plume.
Wisehammer comes forward eagerly.
No, I'll read Plume myself. Act One, Scene Two. Captain Plume and Mr. Worthy.
Here, there is not only comedy with Ralph's speech, but also within the stage directions. The "eagerly" is funny part because Wisehammer wants to read, but then Ralph changes his mind and shoes him away. We feel sorry for Wisehammer but still find it amusing.
With all these techniques Wertenbaker controls the comedy of the scene by switching our attention between characters and changing the mood of the hilarity. She has witty one-liners, humorous stage directions and acting hints and even funny phrases which, cooked at the right temperature, make this a very funny scene.
In Act two, scene two, Phillip controls the scene through his authority and his personality. Ralph doesn't have half as much power as Phillip and he isn't as brash and outgoing either. Ralph wants to stop the play because he is being pushed around by the other officers, particularly Major Ross. He also says that half of his cast is in chains. Ralph doesn't have the will power to make himself carry on. Phillip disagrees. He says that this is exactly what the play is designed to do. When the convicts are in chains, they are weak, disorderly and rowdy. When they are in the play, they become more civilised and happy. This is Phillip's idea. He believes that education can be a civilizing influence. He wants to rule over responsible human beings, not tyrannise over a group of animals.
In act two, scene five, the convicts are trying rehearse, but they are being hampered by Ross. Ross is cold and abrupt in his first speech. He is very cruel to Liz because he orders that everyone else should be untied except for her. The next point of conflict is between Ralph and Ross. The convicts aren't sure who to obey. They want to obey Ralph because they have grown to trust him, but they are fearful of Ross because he could easily have them hanged for disobedience. The next point is clever because Wertenbaker uses dramatic irony. Ralph asks where Arscott is. The audience and the convicts know exactly where he is, and Ralph isn't helping them by reminding them of the punishment that they might receive. Next, another point flares up between Ross and Ralph. Ross mocks Ralph by saying that he wants to be in the play and he will be "promoted" to the position of convict and that he will be in the chain gang with the others soon. No one has to say anything at the next point of tension. Ross and Campbell are waiting for Ralph and the convicts to act, but the convicts are so afraid that they cannot, and an uncomfortable silence occurs. The audience is silently egging Ralph on to fill the silence because he is on the convicts side. He eventually does and explains to Ross that the convicts have a certain modesty that he needs to respect. This sends Ross wild with anger and exasperation. He explodes by shouting 'MODESTY!' over and over again. He makes a mockery of Sideway, Dabby and starts on Mary but then Sideway and Liz begin acting across the room, over everybody. This would annoy Ross very much and is extremely brave and defiant. This shows unity between the convicts. But in the end they are beaten by Arscott's cries of pain in the background.
The last three scenes are perhaps the most important of the entire play. Many revelations are revealed. The first one is that Wisehammer wishes to marry Mary. He says that she shouldn't trust the wrong people (Ralph). He says that she would be his servant in public and that she will live in a small hut at the bottom of his garden. Wisehammer has also gained much confidence from the play and has decided to write his own. He thinks that it would mean more to the convicts if they acted his. Ralph is unsure and Wisehammer fires questions at him continuously. Wisehammer has also grown so much that he feels that he can challenge Ralph's authority over the play. He thinks that his character should kiss Silvia but Ralph doesn't, yet Wisehammer wins the small confrontation. The next point is probably the most poignant and important. Arscott says that when he acts, he forgets everything else. To Arscott, acting provides an escape. When he plays the part of Kite, he is able to relax emotionally. This helps to redeem his character. All of the convicts have grown emotionally and mentally. This is shown by Dabby's small speech:
"If Wisehammer can think he's a big country lad, I can think I'm a man. People will use their imagination and people with no imagination shouldn't go to the theatre."
This reaction is more complicated than she thinks. Without realizing, she debates quite complicated philosophical issues. Because her language is so simple, she makes these ideas very easy for the audience to understand.
There is a short interlude between the play and acting with the scene entitled "The Question of Liz". This is a discussion between the governing officers about the matter of Liz Morden. When she was on trial, she wouldn't speak at all. Ross is certain that this means that she is guilty. He doesn't care about the truth or how Liz feels, he just wants her to be punished. Ralph, on the other hand, is more philosophical. He says that they must find the truth. He says that she won't speak because she is honouring the convict code of honour. Ross disagrees strongly. Eventually Liz speaks and Ross turns everything she does say into a guilty offence. But Phillip gives Liz and chance and says that she will act in the play before anything more is said.
The first line of the next scene is very important. Ketch tells Liz that:
"I couldn't have hanged you."
This is the final scene and the play begins at the very end of it. Another point is that Sideway has been saving salt for all the actors for good luck from his rations. This is another sign of unity between the convicts.
By the end of the play, the actors have truly become a cast in terms of their unity and support for each other. It is dramatically effective that the play ends with the opening lines of "The Recruiting Officer" because this draws the attention of the audience to the nature of the theatre itself.
Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote "Our Country's Good" in 1988 for a specific company of actors at the Royal Court Theatre in London, where it was presented in conjunction with Farquhar's "The Recruiting Officer". The plays
were directed by Max Stafford-Clark.
Its main aim was to show the situation people were in and to show the redemptive power of the theatre in a new more powerful light. Timberlake Wertenbaker said:
"It is a modern play. I'm trying to write about how people are treated, what it means to be brutalized, what it means to live without hope, and how theatre can be a humanising force."
Timberlake achieved this as you can see in these comments:
"Rarely has the redemptive, transcendental power of theatre been argued with such eloquence and passion."
A moving and affirmative tribute to the transforming power of drama itself."
Stafford-Clark identified the main themes of the play as the theatre's potential to change lives, the human ability to transcend circumstances and the power of language. The historical setting helps to clarify these matters, as the play itself argues:
Dabby "Why can't we do a play about now?"
Wisehammer "It doesn't matter when a play is set. It's better if it's set in the past, it's clearer. It's easier to understand Plume and Brazen than some of the officers we know."
Another achievement of "Our Country's Good" is the power of the convicts over the officers. The play ends on a positive and triumphant note with the assured success of the convicts' production of "The Recruiting Officer". The success is much more powerful because for most of the play, it appears so improbable. The basic idea is that at the beginning the convicts are all brutalised and desperate. They have no acting experience at all. But as soon as acting begins, the convicts put aside their differences and fears and become different people. The convicts win the battle against the other officers who ridicule them from the very start. Four of the cast are put in chains but this doesn't top them. They triumph gallantly and this is the most important role of "Our Country's Good."