Our Countrys Good
The Transformative Power of Drama in Our Country’s Good
Wertenbaker wrote Our Country’s Good in order to depict a developmental process for the characters. Through the Howardian theory of redemption, by learning from each other, and by acting in their production of The Recruiting Officer, they transform into what Phillip calls “members of society again” as they “help create a new society in this colony.” The word ‘transform’ originates from the Latin word ‘transformare,’ meaning literally ‘to change shape or form,’ but normally has connotations of evolving rather than deteriorating. In Act 2 Scene 2, Wisehammer says, “It doesn’t matter when a play is set. It’s better if it’s set in the past, it’s clearer” and so, when the word ‘transform’ is applied to the theatre, it seems to suggest that as the characters physically change their appearance or mannerisms to act their characters in The Recruiting Officer, they equally change their way of thinking. They learn from the play’s history. Therefore, while Wertenbaker truly controls the transformations through his artistry, the characters seem to be transforming and improving themselves of their own accord.
Ralph demonstrates that he follows orders and does what he has to, to try and get out of the colony. In Act 1 Scene 6, he says, “We could…transcend…the brutality…and remember…England” as here ‘transcend’ means ‘to climb across’ or ‘to surpass,’ but this idea of going over suggests that Ralph does not want to directly contend with difficulty. Instead, he tries to evade trouble in order to keep moving. In Act 2 Scene 2, Ralph shows his complete obedience to Phillip with the terse, disjointed feedback —“Yes and I-,“ “Sir-“ and “I see- Sir”— which implies that here, too, Ralph follows through on duties to avoid confrontation and to keep life in the colony simple. Yet Ralph has not changed at all, and still wants to escape. This theme is further emphasized as in the original performance of Our Country’s Good in 1988 each of the actors played two or three characters; however, David Haig only played Ralph Clark. While this tactic could be simply practical, as Ralph appears throughout the play, it more likely suggests that he does not transform; the actors play various characters as they all work towards being united, but Ralph is left behind.
Moreover, Ralph uses Mary in order to camouflage the hardships of being on the ship. In Act 2 Scene Nine (The Love Scene) it is clear that Mary and Ralph are having an affair, but as earlier on, Ralph seems anxious and afraid—“He looks at his watch. Gets up. Paces.” His relationship with Mary could be a means for him to forget the colony, in much the same way as Arscott uses the theatre to forget —“When I say Kite’s lines I forget everything else”. However, with the affair’s status as illicit (as Ralph is married to Betsey Alicia) and with Ralph’s desire to escape, Wertenbaker could be conveying the flaws of humans. Phillip understands this idea in Act 2 Scene 2, as he seems to have been made omniscient by Wertenbaker. He tells Ralph here that “Socrates irritated the state of Athens and was put to death for it” to suggest that Ralph has irritated the colony and the convicts by not accepting his own faults, but by simply blaming others, and hence is not a good Lieutenant. Instead, Phillip states that the convicts are to “be made an example of…by redemption” and that while Ross treats the convicts like animals —“Now wag your tail and bark”—Ralph can try “redeeming [their] humanity.” Ralph however turns to the idea of martyrdom by paralleling Jesus —“I will lay down my life”— but Phillip explains that their experience is not about deification or religion —“The Reverend’s an ass”—but about fundamental humanity, so fundamental that the Aborigine understands deeply two scenes later —“How can we befriend this crowded, hungry and disturbed dream?”
In Act 2 Scene 2, Phillip also conveys the ideas of the Philosophy of the Imperfect in that trying is what matters, even if “we may fail.” He suggests here that it’s no good ‘transcending’ and trying to escape, as then one won’t move forward. Dabby does not understand this at the end of the play, as she uses the play to escape —“bravo Dabby, hurray, you’ve escaped”—and is hence unhappy—“Please, I want to go back to Devon”—while Mary, who uses the play to liberate herself, ends with the striking and independent exclamation “I love this!” Here, Wertenbaker suggests that those who use the play to forget do not end up as happy as those who use the play to transform. The irony is that the convicts understand this while Ralph does not—“Unexpected virtues are often matched by unexpected virtues in people” (Phillip).
Later, in Act 2 Scene 7, Dabby understands transformation through engagement in the words of The Recruiting Officer but does not apply such transformation to the play and to her life. She says that “Marriage is nothing, but will you look after her?” and thus explores the idea of structure becoming meaningless if there is no emotion; if the convicts see the play as simply a form of drama, as opposed to a method for them to transform, the play becomes useless. While indirectly realizing this here, at the end, Dabby does not understand the idea and sees the play as a structural device, and hence offers a contrast to the momentum of the play and to Arscott’s ideals: “When I say my lines, I think of nothing else. Why can’t you do the same?/Because it’s only for one night” Dabby does, however, develop from her hardened cynicism to passion and romance. In Act 2 Scene 7, she says that “Love is the barter of perishable goods,” and this language of trade and industry suggests that she views love through the lens of being a convict; prostitution as a means for living is the only idea of love she has had. In Scene 11, though, she appreciates beauty and uses the language of romance (“I saw the whole play, and we all knew our lines, and Mary, you looked so beautiful”) and this transformation seems to be a fulfillment of Phillip’s earlier prophecy: “The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to.” The language of theatre and the freedom of expression have caused Dabby to appreciate the beauty of humanity.
In Scene 7, there seems to be a love clash between Ralph, Mary and Wisehammer. Wisehammer tells Mary, “I would marry you…you would live with me” and, while acting, kisses her. However, Ralph “angrily” becomes offensive: “I doesn’t say Silvia is kissed in the stage directions!” While clearly a conflict, this is in fact also a transformation from the very first scene as Wisehammer speaks in the language of lust and profanity—“what is there to do but seek English cunt”—and Mary distances herself from love, belittling it —“I don’t know why I did it. Love, I suppose.” By acting the characters in the play, and openly demonstrating emotion for each other as they disguise it as the emotion of Silvia and Brazen, they allow for their sentiment and affections to grow.
Furthermore, there is also some clash on the concept of doubling in the play. Arscott argues that he, unlike Dabby, does not want to play himself, since “When [he] say[s] Kite’s lines…[he] forget[s] the judge…” Here, Wertenbaker explores theatre as therapy. As other characters use the play as escapism, Arscott tries to become absorbed by drama and lets it change him; at the end of the play, Arscott is enthusiastic and is the first to go out on stage—“Halberd! Halberd!” However, before going on stage, Arscott threatens that “I’ll kill anyone who laughs at me”; Wertenbaker seems to suggest that while everyone can be transformed or improved by theatre or another means, at our cores we remain the same. In accordance with the Lockian theory of innate criminality, Arscott will always, to some degree, still be a convict. Dabby, though, desires “to play [herself].” The cause of this impulse seems to lie in that it’s familiar and easy for her, and having lost family or friends in her life before conviction, “myself” is all she really has left, so she clings to it. However, Dabby could also be trying to achieve the same as Arscott through a different means. Arscott wanted to become the character in the play in order to change himself, but Dabby wants to play herself so that anything she does differently in the play can have a direct, transformative impact on her life.
Wertenbaker explores the idea that if people have nothing in their life to work towards, they will devolve, but once they possess something they are responsible for, they fight for it and use it to transform. This is exactly what occurs in Our Country’s Good as the convicts use theatre to improve themselves. Some fail to recognize the potential for improvement, and end up as despondent as they were to begin, but what is ultimately true is that all the convicts, once they had been given drama, were the active ones in transforming their own lives. It is simply that motivation that needs laying down before they can work to change themselves into anything they want: Sideway wants to start a theatre company, Wisehammer to become a writer, Liz and Ketch an actress and actor, and Dabby a playwright. As Governor Phillip says, “When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician.”
The Presentation of Women in Our Country’s Good
In 1787, women were marginalized members of society, an underclass not able to enjoy the same liberties as men. Combined with some of the abject poverty plaguing England at the time, the result is some of the female characterization in Our Country’s Good. The representation of these women criminals, as well as the other women, is telling of the characters’ beliefs and the situation that determines their lives.
The most striking aspect that dominates the presentation of women is their role sexually. We can plainly see the men’s views of women from the men’s dialogue. John Wisehammer exclaims; “at night what is there to do but seek English cunt. Warm, moist, soft, o the comfort of the lick”. This fixation on the woman’s vagina is an objectifying sexualization of women, presenting them as none other than sex objects to the male need. While a 20th/21st century reader knows better than to reduce women down to their “crannies and crooks”, a statement such as this displays how women are seen in 1787, and should be in the back of the mind of the reader when evaluating men’s actions towards women in the play. Wertenbaker’s decision to include this sexist exposition at the very start of the play is used to shock audiences, and sets a precedent that will not be forgotten. This tactic reflects the blatant repression of women of the time that would shock modern observers equally.
However, later on in the passage, John Wisehammer continues; “Alone, frightened in this stinking hole of hell, take me inside you whoever you are. Take me, my comfort.” Apart from the very obvious sexual undertones, this quotation shows a man’s need for female accompaniment. This description is almost metaphorical of being inside a mother’s womb, and therefore an almost Freudian state of mind can be seen in the men of the 18th century. Women are seen as the care-givers and comforters of the world, and men such as John Wisehammer, who have been reduced to stealing in the harsh poverty of Georgian England and find themselves exiled to a foreign land, may mistake this comfort for a sexual need. This aspect of how the characters think gives a complexity to Wisehammer’s exposition, and presents the underlying, deep, emotional need that women satisfy.
There is, nonetheless, a cognitive dissonance in the men’s projections of women. Despite the fixation on their sexuality, the men continually convey their disapproval of sexual women. “But how could a whore play Lady Jane” – a line said by Ralph in Scene Four, seems to imply that these whores, a derogatory term for sexually-active women, somehow constitute an underclass of woman. This paradoxical philosophy of man presents women in a position in which they cannot win in a man’s world, and therefore portrays their plight as hopeless, garnering more empathy for them in the play, and making their achievements even more rewarding.
This degradation of women thus far is called into contrast at the start of scene four, when Ralph Clark muses to himself about how he longs for his wife, Alicia. Using language such as “Dreamt, my beloved Alicia…kissed your dear beloved image a thousand times.” Wertenbaker proceeds, through the comparisons with how women are described previously, to put Alicia on a pedestal, and to show to the audience that she is greater than the whores and thieves we have seen so far. This rhetoric displays that women could be presented in a good light in 1787, as symbols of mutual love, not just sexual need, and adds a new dynamic to the female form in the play. However, when compared with some of Ralph’s other statements (such as when he describes the, in his mind, justified flogging of Elizabeth) this statement brings back the harsh reality of women’s plight. When the reader considers that this goddess-like symbol of love and equality and respect is thousands of miles away, the reader can readily see that this mind-set towards women is unrealistic and almost a fantasy, since Alicia is a fantasy for Ralph. Whilst all this contributes to the idea that women have a lasting impact on men emotionally, as we have seen in John Wisehammer and now separately in Ralph, we notice that women are not an underclass, despite how they may be overtly presented, but a necessary ingredient in any fulfilling form of society.
Often, the play seems to exploit and highlight women’s sexualities as a prominent theme, yet a theme that entails a hypocrisy specific to the historical context – for instance, with Clark condemning women as whores despite their institutionalized sexualization. Despite this, however, the audience should not be fooled into thinking that Wertenbaker is simply setting the scene through such blatant sexism and almost paradoxical events. Rather, Our Country’s Good highlights the plight of women, as the sexism is combined with the obvious hellish conditions of transportation and Australia life. This play even cleverly puts women above the men, as their achievements and high spirits are a triumph, and a victory.
Comic Elements in The Tempest and Our Country’s Good
Comic elements are often said to be integral in both in Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker and The Tempest by William Shakespeare. In The Tempest, the characters of Trinculo and Stephano are arguable almost entirely for comic effect, even having their own sub-plot comic in nature. This can also be said about ‘shitty’ Meg in Our Country’s Good, and in both plays most characters take part in some form of comedy. Whether included in dialogue or stage directions, comedy creates light and shade in both plays and thus heightens the importance of themes such as love, power and class divisions.
One of the potentially most obvious ways in which both Wertenbaker and Shakespeare utilise comedy is through arguably crude sexual innuendos. Not only do these provide light relief for the audience after a more intense and sombre scene in both plays, but also reveal the transition from innocence to experience in Miranda in The Tempest. In Act One Scene One of The Tempest, Gonzalo says ‘I’ll warrant him for drowning, though the ship were no stronger than a nutshell and as leaky as an unstanched wench’, the words ‘unstanched wench’ referring to menstrual bleeding and ‘leaky’ implying sexual incontinence. A violent storm risks the lives of all those on the ship in this opening scene, therefore providing a three dimensional atmosphere to the audience from the offset of the play. With Gonzalo being an ‘honest old councillor’, such a way of speaking would seem out of place with his class position, strengthening the element of danger in his situation whilst still being humorous. In Our Country’s Good, Wertenbaker also similarly uses this technique, with ‘shitty’ Meg telling Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark that she will ‘play’ him ‘tight as a virgin’ and will ‘play with any part you want’. This rather crude yet funny metaphor for a penis (like playing an instrument) occurs at the beginning of Act One Scene Five; the previous scene called the rather solemn title of ‘The Loneliness of Men’ consists entirely of an intense dialogue between Ralph Clark and Midshipman Harry Brewer. Thus ‘shitty’ Meg, whose purpose is seemingly only for comic effect due to her only being present in this scene and only speaking about sexually related matters, is placed appropriately in the play and again offers light relief.
However, comic sexual references are not always of a crude nature, as is shown in the discourse between Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest. In Act Three Scene One, she asks Ferdinand to be his wife straight after saying ‘all the more it seeks to hide itself the bigger bulk it shows’. Not only does this refer to pregnancy as is automatically perceived, but may also denote an erection. Miranda is a virgin (she has never seen a man apart from her father and Caliban for twelve years), thus indicating her readiness to come of age, mature and offer herself to Ferdinand. This courtly love is of a most pure nature, and her breaking out of her ‘puppet role’ in asking Ferdinand to marry her foreshadows the future harmony brought upon the characters. References to love are also prevalent in both plays; Miranda and Ferdinand experience ‘love at first sight’ and Miranda’s line when she first sees Ferdinand of ‘What is’t, a spirit? … It carries a brave form, But ‘tis a spirit’ not only highlights the fact that this is the first man she has encountered of her age, but is humorous due to her mistaking him for a magical being. Ferdinand replies with ‘No, wench, it eats and sleeps and hath such senses, As we have – such’. He speaks about himself in the third person, which the audience may have found rather amusing. The fact that both characters seem to create a rapport straight after meeting provides an insight to the audience that their love will blossom, ultimately aiding the result of reconciliation and forgiveness. With these being two of the main themes in Shakespeare’s play, it seems that the pure and courtly relationship between Miranda and Ferdinand acts as a vessel to achieving these aims. Furthermore, the ‘love triangle’ prevalent between John Wisehammer, Mary Brenham and Ralph Clark in Our Country’s Good and its associated complications can be said to have comic elements. In Act One Scene Eleven, ‘Wisehammer comes forward eagerly’ when given the opportunity to read Plume (Mary’s ‘Captain’ in the play) as he thinks it would bring her closer to Mary. Here the audience could empathise with Wisehammer’s longing yet also find his almost childish enthusiasm amusing. The comic aspect here is developed through Ralph suddenly realising that he has ‘competition’ and therefore immediately changing his mind through saying ‘no, I’ll read Plume myself’. One could imagine this scene being acted as if there were two male animals competing over their potential mate! However, Wertenbaker uses this comedy not only to provide enjoyment for the audience, but also to show the problems associated with Ralph, an officer, consorting with Mary, a convict. Although a relationship between Wisehammer and Mary would be one between two equals, there would be a potentially damaging divide if Ralph were her partner. Though love is certainly important for a successful relationship, in the eighteenth century equal status was universally regarded as a defining factor in marriage.
The fact that both Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest both believe that Prospero is against their budding relationship but that in fact it is all part of his cunning plan, revealed through his speaking ‘aside’ to the audience, is another effective tool used by Shakespeare for comic effect. Prospero indicates his seeming distaste towards their relationship for example through him saying to Ferdinand in Act One Scene Two ‘My foot my tutor? Put thy sword up, traitor… For I can here disarm thee with this stick and make thy weapon drop’. In doing so Ferdinand is unable to lift his ‘weapon’, or sword; the visual dramatic effect of this is humorous as it humiliates Ferdinand in a light-hearted way. In addition, the term ‘weapon’ may be inferred to also refer to his penis, Prospero’s threat therefore indicating an emasculation of Ferdinand. This is also a clear assertion of power over Ferdinand, power in regards to both colonialism and language being another theme addressed in both plays through the use of comic elements. In The Tempest, Act Two Scene Two shows a clear distinction between the ‘superior’ Italians Trinculo and Stephano and the ‘savage’ Caliban, whose name is an anagram of ‘cannibal’. When Trinculo first sees Caliban, he mistakes him as a fish, saying ‘What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish: he smells like a fish, a very ancient and fish-like smell. Were I in England now… and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver… when they will not give a doit to receive a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian’. Not only does the initially hilarious association of Caliban with a fish dehumanise him, the ‘selling’ of Caliban is a reference to slavery. Through equating Caliban to a fish, Shakespeare succeeds in increasing the level of shock here; the audience thinking of Caliban, a human being, being treated in the same way as a dead fish, heightens the negative impacts of slavery. This use of humour to half-mask more sombre topics requires the audience to reflect on their own lives and behaviours. The superiority of Stephano and Trinculo is further enhanced through Stephano assuming the gabardine covering Trinculo and Caliban to be a ‘two-voiced monster’; ‘his forward voice’ (Trinculo) ‘is to speak well of his friend’, whereas ‘his backward voice is to utter foul speeches… how cam’st thou to be the siege of this mooncalf?’ With ‘the siege of this mooncalf’ equating to Trinculo literally being ‘shat’ out of the ‘monster’ (mooncalf), which undoubtedly would have been incredibly amusing for the audience of the time, these lines may be interpreted to only have comic effect. However, although unknown by Stephano, this ‘monster’ is in fact Caliban, highlighting his portrayal as a monstrous ‘savage’ and thus the viewpoint many colonials would have had about indigenous people. This is shown not only through his appearance, but also through his voice consisting of ‘foul speeches’. Caliban’s speech is in English, showing that not only the actual language impacts on one’s assumptions made about a certain individual, but also the tone and accent used.
The power of language is deemed as crucial themes in both Our Country’s Good and The Tempest, and through the use of puns and slang such power is heightened. Our Country’s Good incorporates canting slang, the dialect utilised by the convicts, much of which has comic impact. ‘Screw jaws’ and ‘salt bitch’ said by Duckling and Dabby Bryant whilst in an argument highlights the vulgarity of this dialect, and acts as a huge contrast to the ‘fine language’ they are taught through acting in the play The Recruiting Officer. The convicts’ education of ‘higher’ language parallels with their transformation from unsympathetic convict to compassionate individual with a sense of identity. Through learning about higher cultures, they gain an understanding of what sort of lives they could lead, enabling them to salvage hope for the future. ‘Fine’ language is also utilised by Shakespeare in The Tempest to highlight the aristocrats’ intelligence: Gonzalo and Sebastian mock each other in Act Two Scene One through the use of word play. For example, when Gonzalo says ‘when every grief is entertained that’s offered, comes to th’entertainer and Sebastian answers with ‘a dollar’ (a pun on Gonzalo saying ‘entertainer’ as if the word were used in the sense of a paid performer), Gonzalo quick-wittingly responds with ‘dolour comes to mind, indeed’ with dolour referring to sorrow. As upper class individuals, it would have been educated and be able to manipulate language, a contrast to the blank verse used by Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano. Thus Gonzalo’s and Sebastian’s ability to make witty puns through clever handling of language strengthens the impact of class on education, understanding, and the ability to communicate effectively. Comedy is also used effectively by Wertenbaker in Our Country’s Good to highlight the difference in class between the convicts and their corresponding parts in the play.
To conclude, comedy is associated with many of the main themes in both Our Country’s Good and The Tempest, providing a stark contrast and waves of tension, thus ultimately reinforcing the emotional depth and breadth of the more sombre underlying meanings. Such themes include love, the power of language and the potentially damaging effects of static class divisions. However, as both plays end happily and with a sense of satisfaction, harmony and progress, they are often categorised as traditional comedies overall. Throughout both plays there is a transformative journey undergone by most characters, and the successful employment of comic elements encourages the audience to think deeper about the underlying message, therefore resulting in the audience experiencing a moral transformation themselves.
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.