The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The succession of short scenes in varied locales has become a familiar way for contemporary dramatists to construct a complex plot. In production, My Country’s Good would be performed on a basic set, most likely on several levels, so that one scene could flow into another without interruption. Lighting and simple properties along with period costumes would establish the necessary atmosphere.

Announcing or projecting on a screen the names of the scenes—a device borrowed from playwright Bertolt Brecht—helps the audience to follow the complicated plot and to keep track of the numerous characters who appear so briefly that they cannot be developed fully. While the present condition of the convicts and their past histories are grim, the script moves easily from the dramatic to the comic, a pace which shows Wertenbaker’s sound grasp of theatrical devices. She manages to make the convicts and some of the officers, especially Captain Phillip and Ralph Clark, humane even though they are in an inhumane world. Nevertheless, the violence and cruelty hover over the play in a subtle manner. Many of the convicts’ speeches contain eighteenth century slang typical of the low class, a device that adds to the play’s authenticity.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Hornby, R. “Broadway Economics.” Hudson Review 44 (Fall, 1991): 453-461.

LaRue, M. “Our Country’s Good.” Review in Theatre Crafts 25 (March, 1991): 40-52.

Rabey, D. I. “Defining Difference: Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Drama of Language, Dispossession, and Discovery.” Modern Drama 33 (December, 1990): 518-529.

Ramsden, Timothy. “Prison Therapy.” Times Educational Supplement (September 25, 1998): 30.

Speirs, L. “Current Literature.” English Studies 71 (December, 1990): 535-562.

Weeks, Stephen. “The Question of Liz: Staging the Prisoner in Our Country’s Good.” Modern Drama 43 (Summer, 2000): 147-157.

Wilson-Smith, A. “Our Country’s Good: Theatre, Colony, and Nation in Wertenbaker’s Adaptation of The Playmaker.” Modern Drama 34 (March, 1991): 23-35.