Thomas Keneally’s 1987 novel The Playmaker follows the career and personal life of Ralph Clark, a British lieutenant (and prospective playmaker) recently relocated to penal Australia. The storyline is based loosely on true events of the late eighteenth century, when colonial Australia was still something of an experiment and the land was largely unexplored by Europeans. The novel opens with the colony’s overseer, commonly referred to as H.E., assigning Ralph to direct a theatrical production of George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer starring the prison’s convicts. And as Ralph embarks on this mission, he begins to connect past and present realities to the art of theatre–seemingly the only solace in the enigmatic and unpredictable setting of Australia–and life proves to imitate art. As the play’s production matures throughout the novel, its participants mature with it, effectively altering character development and swaying the course of an indeterminate colony and its inhabitants.
The subject of morality and its connection to art is a recurring focus of the book; Ralph and several other characters frequently find themselves struggling with an ambiguous spectrum of right and wrong, and their theatrical pursuits are able to guide them into more progressive moral perspectives. The fourteenth chapter exemplifies this development clearly by flashing back to pre-playmaker Ralph, who takes pride in his fidelity and claims that it cannot change, saying, “Ralph Clark is still Ralph Clark. Fortunate not in any cleverness but in his marriage to a divine wife. People are the people they are” (159). The views expressed in this quote, as admirable as they may seem, reflect a closed-minded version of Ralph, a version unsure of himself at heart and haunted by his desires for Mary Brenham, the soon-to-be female lead of his play. Ralph’s moral horizons expand gradually as the play progresses, and he eventually finds it in himself to approach Mary. She reciprocates his feelings and the two get together in a long-awaited outlet of passion: “Clark and Brenham were joined…beneath that moon merely rumored to be the same as the one which gave its light to Britain. … What exquisite gasps compounded of Farquhar…went into her cry as he entered” (309). Ralph’s observation of the Australian moon is an innate but uncertain attempt at justifying his morally questionable actions. His apprehension of Farquhar, on the other hand, offers him an alternative to reality and thus supplies the unreal moral resolution he truly needs. This assimilation of art and reality only intensifies when Ralph literally calls Mary by her character name of Sylvia in the following paragraph–an action to which she responds appropriately by quoting Sylvia. The narrator notes that “the play and Ralph and Mary were of one mind” (309), illustrating the successful unification of physical, emotional, and artistic intimacy; art, by connecting Ralph and Mary to the same reshaped sense of morality, ultimately connects them to each other.
In addition to shifting the moral outlook of the characters, the play also proves to have an influence over each character’s sense of self. Both the director and the cast undergo significant intrapersonal changes, mostly for the better, as they become more involved in the production. One small but significant example of the play’s positive impact on self-worth and dignity appears in the novel’s final chapter; as Nancy Turner is playing her part of the well-mannered Melinda, she “[does] not turn frontally to the crowd or bob her knee to them or wave or smile” (334). Instead, Nancy takes the disposition of her character, a disposition which suits her more respectably. And while this may at first seem like only the natural effect of acting in a play, Nancy’s development–as well as that of the other characters–is one which extends beyond the stage. Simply by virtue of taking part in the play, every player gains a sense of purpose, a solid grounding in a place where few things feel solid, and an ultimate feeling of belonging. Each player, though having approached the play with individual expectations and strengths and weaknesses, sacrifices a piece of that individuality in favor of something much bigger than him or herself and something much more special than any one person could produce. The successful effects of this sacrifice prove it to be not only an essential part of artmaking, but also of developing self-respect. Keneally reinforces multiple times the small but positive effects that the play has on the intrapersonal complexions of the characters. For instance, after a cast member bows politely to him, Ralph remarks “what an excellent means of reform a play is” (226), and the chapter ends there, leaving the reader with the ironic but authentic notion that adopting a fictional persona might be able to strengthen a nonfictional one.
Happiness–among the convicts and officers alike–is perhaps the most important sociostructural factor of prison life, and Ralph’s play offers a necessary source of it. Penal Australia is far from a glamorous home, and the novel’s pre-play exposition makes this very clear; the overall attitude of the colony is one of hopelessness and self-pity, as officers long for their families and convicts long for at least the comfort of a civilized country. This collective negativity has every reason to continue, and even to grow, throughout the book’s course of death and angst and confused sorrow. But it doesn’t. Art, as it manifests in the prison’s production, acts as a form of salvation from every negative episode of reality. One notably negative episode is the rape of Mary Brenham, which initially leaves her shaken and dejected (and with good reason). When Ralph finds out about it, he too experiences negative emotions but immediately has the idea to channel it all into art, advising Mary to “cling to the play as the thing which will give [her her] spirit back” (235). Ralph’s idea demonstrates not only the way art can abate negativity, but also the way it can turn it into something antithetically positive, something which contributes to the community’s happiness. The play’s installation of happiness appears again when Duckling, a convict characterized by apathy, finally admits an interest: “I like the friends I got here, Mr. Clark. I like you. I like them players. I like that Brenham best of them” (274). And Brenham’s reciprocal admiration of the play is evidenced at the end of the novel when she tells Ralph that “the play is the most wonderful thing that has occurred in all [her] life” (330).
By leading the reader through a microcosmic group of individuals and their struggles, Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker expresses the universal importance of art in every and any society. While life is short and unpredictable, art is long and constant. It plays a compelling role (theater pun intended) in the development of any person or group of people, and it has the power to restore respect, dismiss convention, and challenge reality’s constraints on happiness. Keneally’s written portrayal of these powers is perhaps as artful as the pursuits of his characters–so artful in fact that his readers might just acquire the same appreciation for art that Ralph Clark has acquired by the novel’s end.