A Comparison of The Tempest and Our Country’s Good: Beyond Dialogue and Conventional Stage Action
In Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, techniques including scene titles, a play within a play, self-referencing and music are utilised in order to effectively convey messages that would not be as profound using only ‘conventional’ practices. As Our Country’s Good is often categorised as epic theatre, the use of scene titles and the performing of a play, in this case The Recruiting Officer, as a significant aspect of the plot are both arguably the most powerful methods in which to remind the audience of their setting and thus encourage them to think not only of the play’s action, but rather the moral message it attempts to communicate. On the contrary, The Tempest may be seen as a ‘play about a play’; the portrayal of this is arguably only possible via self-referencing. Furthermore, both playwrights enhance the illustration of some other core themes using such techniques, such as the power of drama in Our Country’s Good and that of conflict and harmony in The Tempest.
In various productions of Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, scene titles have been displayed before each commences. Not only do these, such as ‘Punishment’ for Act One Scene Three act as an introduction to the upcoming events, but distance the audience from the play itself. One potential ‘consequence’ of theatre is that one may become lost in the events occurring and as a result not pay attention to any moral questions proposed. Not for nothing does Governor Arthur Phillip say that ‘the Greeks believed that it was a citizen’s duty to watch a play. It was a kind of work in that it required attention, judgement, patience, all social virtues’ in order to defend the positive influence of theatre. Thus, Wertenbaker utilises such scene titles to remind the audience of the moral message portrayed in each scene, a typical characteristic of the genre of epic theatre. For example, the scene title ‘Punishment’ acts as a springboard for questioning the civility of British society due to its entrenched belief that ‘prison works’ due to the apparent tendency of criminals of being ‘innate’. One could argue that not only does this title reflect British society in the eighteenth century, but also the attitudes presented in the 1980s due to Margaret Thatcher’s cutting of prison rehabilitation programmes. The revelation that modern British civilisation may in fact not have progressed a great deal in terms of punishment is indeed shocking, highlighted by the short and cutting scene title.
Although not necessarily belonging to the genre of Epic Theatre, The Tempest does contain strong indications of metatheatre, thus potentially having similar effects on the audience in terms of encouraging them to respond thoughtfully to its representation of the world. The most palpable suggestion of this is through Prospero, who arguably is a representation of Shakespeare himself. There is a strong emphasis on stories and reflecting on the past, especially when Prospero reveals the reason behind ‘the prince of power’ and Miranda’s inhabiting of such a barren isle. He tells her of ‘this story’ which ‘were most impertinent’, thus referencing theatre and establishing between Prospero, the storyteller, and Shakespeare, the playwright, between which there is arguably little difference. The link between Prospero and Shakespeare is reinforced through him ordering Ariel to ‘go make thyself like a nymph o’th’sea’ and praising him by saying ‘bravely the figure of this harpy hast thou performed, my Ariel’. Prospero has control of his servant, as a playwright has of the basic actions carried out by the actors. Furthermore, the fact that Ariel in Act One Scene Two is ‘invisible to others, playing and singing’, which would require excellent stage effects in order to appear credible, creates a sense of performance within the play itself. Perhaps Shakespeare self-references significantly in this play as a mark of the end of his career due to it being the last play he wrote alone, however one cannot ignore the inevitable effects such a technique would have on the audience in terms of moral messages.
The theme of reconciliation and redemption is illustrated through the arts in both plays. In many cases in The Tempest music symbolises divine harmony and the evolution of the island’s discordant foundations into those of a more amicable nature. For example, Ariel singing to guide Ferdinand to Miranda is successful; ‘This music crept by me upon the waters… I have followed it’, resulting in Prospero achieving his aim of resolution via the unity of Miranda and Ferdinand: ‘Spirit, fine spirit, I’ll free thee within two days for this’. The contrast between the controlling use of magic, such as the whipping up of a storm in Act One Scene One and Prospero’s use of Ariel throughout the play to control those on the island, with Prospero’s renunciation of his control in Act Five Scene One clearly shows the transition from discordance to civil harmony. Prospero abjures his ‘rough magic’ through breaking his staff, thus allowing nature to return to have full domination. The production of The Recruiting Officer in Our Country’s Good and the discussion of the merits and disadvantages of allowing convicts to act in a play not only reminds the audience that they are watching a play themselves, but also brings core themes to light. From the first mentioning of putting on a play, Midshipman Harry Brewer suggests that it would ‘educate the convicts’, suggesting the possibility of redemption via knowledge. Yet, Ralph Clark’s shocked question of ‘who would act in a play’ reveals his assumption that the convicts would be unable to take part due to their ‘innate criminal tendency’. The convicts’ incomprehension is certainly highlighted during the first audition; nevertheless, this stark contrast between the convicts’ initial ignorance and behaviour and their increased knowledge as the rehearsals progress successfully highlights the power of theatre. Initially, convicts such as Meg Long and Dabby Bryant are incredibly vulgar and insensitive, and the female convicts talking openly about sex increases this impact. For example, Meg saying ‘I’ll play you tight as a virgin’ is indeed disturbing to hear, even for the modern audience. Furthermore, Dabby Bryant’s line ‘Liz Morden’s going to be hanged’ highlights her insensitivity and lack of manners. Through only taking their dialogue and behaviour in this scene into account, one would not be wrong in saying that they were seemingly corrupt. However, even after the first audition, Ralph Clark defends theatre by appreciating its powerful influence: ‘I asked some of the convict women to read me some lines, these women who behave often no better than animals… saying those well-balanced lines of Mr Farquhar, they seemed to acquire a dignity, they seemed – they seemed to lose some of their corruption’. Through this single line the redemptive power of theatre is recognised, and its magnitude it heightened via Ralph Clark being its defendant, an officer who at first did not believe in the possibility of educating such second-class citizens.
In this first audition of The Recruiting Officer, the power of language is also addressed. Prior to Mary reading lines from the script, Ralph Clark asks her, ‘You know what a play is?’ in a rather patronising manner. However, Mary reciting “Whilst there is life there is hope, Sir” immediately develops Clark’s respect for her as he quietens Dabby in order to allow her to continue reading; ‘Shht. She hasn’t finished. Start again, Brenham, that’s good.’ The simple ability of literacy immediately separates convict from ‘animal’, and allows them to gain power and status through knowledge. Wertenbaker also utilises the lines from The Recruiting Officer being recited as a reference to the Our Country’s Good’s main themes. For example, the line ‘Whilst there is life there is hope’ resonates on the potentiality of growth in their small colony. This is reinforced by Governor Phillip comparing theatre to civilisation, and how ‘it will remind them (the convicts) that there is more to life than crime, punishment’ via the convicts ‘speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to’. He continues to refer to the colony as ‘we’, thus bridging the gap between convict and officer and highlighting the impact that working in a group by putting on the play could have on their small society. Putting on a play could provide the convicts with a sense of identity and self-worth, and enable them to fulfil their potential as human beings, achievements which would not be possible with punishment alone.
However, one could argue that not all implications of the arts are positive. Prospero manifests his power in music throughout the play, but is reliant on Ariel to execute the songs; it could be therefore viewed that the music has a greater magical impact than the magic itself, reinforcing its effect on the mind. Its mental influence is further enhanced by its ability to control, and in Ferdinand’s case, its capacity to convince him that his father, Alonso, is dead: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies…’. Thus the encouraging impact of the arts highlighted in Our Country’s Good is somewhat contradicted here, due to the element of deception present. Indeed, perhaps the music or theatre themselves are not the major influences here, rather those executing them. The arts are highly subjective and allow huge scope, therefore enhancing Ariel’s manipulative strength in The Tempest and the high ability for the convicts to be educated through theatre in Our Country’s Good.
To conclude, there are close links between the metatheatrical techniques employed by both playwrights in Our Country’s Good and The Tempest, all of which encourage the audience to consider and reflect on core themes of the plays. Reconciliation and redemption are of great significance through the development of a civil community in Our Country’s Good and the solving of past conflict in The Tempest. Such themes are incredibly effectively illustrated via techniques including a ‘play within a play’ and self-referencing as they highlight the fictional nature of the plot and therefor remind the audience of underlying moral messages. The arts are also hugely influential, in particular theatre, language and music, as they educate in a holistic manner. The power of music on the mind is heightened via its ability to create the image of a mysterious island through sound alone, and its conjunction with magic: oftentimes the music acts as a vehicle for magic itself. The principles highlighted in both plays can be translated to modern times, in regards to a civil society being defined as one of social harmony and education rather than technological advances.
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In Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, techniques including scene titles, a play within a play, self-referencing and music are utilised in order to effectively convey messages that […]