The play is an adaptation of Australian writer Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker (1987), which is based on historical fact. The convicts’ performance of The Recruiting Officer actually took place in the Sydney prison colony in 1789; the performance was just a year after the arrival of the First Fleet, which carried several hundred male and female convicts, along with their keepers, from England to Australia. Many of the characters in the play, such as Captain Phillip and Major Ross, are historical figures. Nothing is known about the circumstances surrounding the rehearsal and performance of the play, except that it is mentioned in historical documents. Keneally in his novel imagines what might have happened and creates a convincing picture of the colony and its reluctant inhabitants engaged in such an improbable project. Unlike Wertenbaker, though, he does not draw any themes from the action but is more interested in telling a story.
Wertenbaker uses the voice of Captain Phillip to express the central theme of the play. Through his speeches, the playwright stresses the important contribution that theater makes to a civilized society. At one point, the captain even cites the ancient Greeks’ strong belief in theater’s redemptive power. Another theme that emerges in the captain’s speeches is respect for all people, no matter how degenerate they may appear. The real Captain Phillip, unlike some of his fellow officers, believed that the convicts could reform and gain dignity if they were given the chance.
Wertenbaker has long been involved in prison theater in England and is convinced that the theater has the capacity to change lives. When asked to adapt Keneally’s novel to the stage, she immediately accepted, seeing in the story a vehicle for her ideas. The play first appeared when the Margaret Thatcher administration in England was cutting back on arts funding, a connection that was made in the reviews and discussions of the play’s initial production.