Our Country’s Good takes place in two acts, each with short scenes that are titled. In a production the titles are usually announced or flashed onto a screen. The first scene, “The voyage out,” takes place in the hold of a convict ship bound for Australia in 1787. The stage is in semi-darkness with a group of convicts huddled together. Robert Sideway is being flogged offstage on the deck as Lieutenant Ralph Clark counts the lashes. When Sideway is thrown into the hold and collapses, the other convicts begin to speak longingly of the England from which they have been exiled. The action of scene 2 is described by its title: “A lone Aboriginal Australian describes the arrival of the first convict fleet in Botany Bay on January 20, 1788.” The next scene, “Punishment,” finds Captain Phillip and other officers shooting birds and discussing the punishment the convicts should receive for stealing and other offenses. Captain Phillip objects not only to the regular floggings but also to the hangings that are scheduled for the next day, while the other officers defend such punishment.
Scene 4, “The loneliness of men,” opens with Clark reading aloud what he is writing in his diary concerning events in the prison colony. Harry Brewer enters and reveals that the man he hanged is haunting him. Clark tries to comfort him and mentions the possibility of doing a play with a convict cast. In scene 5, titled “An audition,” George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer (pr., pb. 1706), gets under way, and the dialogue takes a comic turn as the convicts react to the unfamiliar situation of actually being in a play. Theatrical performance has never been a part of their wretched experience in England.
The play’s theme emerges in scene 6 as the scene title notes: “The authorities discuss the merits of the theatre.” Several of the officers, especially the stern Major Ross, object to the production as inappropriate and frivolous for a prison colony. Captain Phillip, however, defends the idea and points out that “The theatre is an expression of civilization.” The seventh scene, “Harry and Duckling go rowing,” shows one of the personal relationships that have formed in the insular world of the remote prison. In the eighth scene, “The women learn their lines,” several of the female convicts discuss the play and in the process reveal much about their own pathetic lives. Scene 9 opens as “Ralph Clark tries to kiss his dear wife’s picture.” Clark paces about talking aloud to the picture of his wife, which he finally kisses. The convict Ketch Freeman interrupts him, and after telling Clark the sad history of his life, Freeman begs to be in the play. In scene 10, “John Wisehammer and Mary...
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