During the first rehearsal of The Recruiting Officer, Ralph gathers the convicts he’s casted, including Sideway, Wisehammer, Mary, Liz, Dabby, Duckling, and Ketch. As Ralph tries to begin, the prisoners insult Ketch because he’s the hangman. Duckling protests the fact that her character is Liz’s maid, saying that because she lives with Harry she deserves a better part. Hearing this, Dabby scoffs at her relationship with Harry, and the two women begin to verbally spar. Meanwhile, Ralph tries to proceed but notices that Henry Kable and John Arscott (two other convicts he cast) aren’t present, though he notes that Arscott said he’d be there in an hour. Dabby laughs at this, saying, “You won’t see him in an hour!” Liz mumbles that Dabby isn’t the only one who knows something is afoot, though she doesn’t clarify what she means.
Although the play has already had a positive effect on some of the convicts, there’s no denying that Ralph will have a hard time getting the actors to behave. He’s in a position of authority, but in order to properly direct the play, he’ll have to find a way to be firm while also managing to encourage his actors—a job that will no doubt be difficult for a man whose primary duty is to watch over a group of unruly prisoners. To that end, Liz and Dabby’s insinuative conversation about the whereabouts of Arscott and Kable hint that the two men have perhaps taken this opportunity to run away when no one was watching them.
Ralph begins the rehearsal with a scene that includes Sideway, who overacts his part by accompanying every word with a physical gesture. As Ralph tries to convince him to act a more casually, Sideway realizes that his handkerchief is gone, at which point he flies into a rage, letting his posh diction fall away as he yells, “My wiper! Someone’s buzzed my wiper!” Looking about himself, he jumps at Liz and starts to fight her, but Ralph separates them and forces Sideway to continue the scene. Not long after they resume, a convict known as Black Caesar arrives and begs Ralph to include him in the play, saying that he’s seen multiple plays in Madagascar. When Ralph says there’s no role for Caesar, the convict declares that he’ll be Sideway’s servant and refuses to leave.
This rehearsal is quite chaotic, and yet another sign that Ralph has his work cut out for him if he’s going to pull off a successful production of The Recruiting Officer—even if there are several convicts in the cast who are genuinely skilled and excited to be in the play. In this moment, then, Wertenbaker challenges the idea that the artistic process might lead to substantial personal transformation for the convicts.
Deciding to rehearse a scene with the female convicts, Ralph calls Liz and Mary to the front of the group and asks them to read for him. Liz has memorized her lines, but she delivers them quickly and without feeling, so Ralph tries to tell her to act like a rich woman, since her character is wealthy. However, this only distracts the convicts, as they begin to fantasize about what they would eat if they were rich. Soon enough, they get back on track, but Major Ross and Captain Campbell barge in and inform Ralph that five prisoners—including John Arscott and Henry Kable—have run away during the rehearsal. Ralph tries to point out that the play has nothing to do with this, but Ross maintains that the entire production is bringing “calamity” to the penal colony.
The fact that several prisoners have run away during the first rehearsal doesn’t bode well for Ralph’s production, as it enables detractors like Major Ross to frame the entire endeavor as ill-advised. Once again, Wertenbaker invites readers to reconsider whether or not the artistic process is really something that has a place in the penal colony. By encouraging the audience to truly scrutinize this, the playwright makes sure that any kind of positive outcome that might come of the play is fully appreciated when (or if) it comes to fruition.
“Caesar!” Ross shouts, noticing the convict amongst the actors. “He started going with them and came back.” He then looks at Wisehammer and accuses him of being “guilty,” and when Wisehammer says he was completely uninvolved in the escape, Ross says, “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” Lastly, he turns his attention to Liz and claims that she was seen near the colony’s food supply the previous night with Henry Kable. “You will be tried for stealing from the stores,” he declares. “You know the punishment? Death by hanging.” With this, he turns to leave, and Campbell—who is exceedingly drunk—mumbles that The Recruiting Officer is a good title, though he adds, “But a play, tss, a play.”
It’s obvious that Major Ross wants to do anything he can to derail the play, which is why he accuses as many of the actors as he possibly can (and reveals his blatant anti-Semitism in the process). Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that Ralph will be able to prove that criminals are capable of change, since the small group of escapees has just reinforced the idea that convicts will jump at any opportunity to break the rules.