Our Country’s Good


Timberlake Wertenbaker

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Our Country’s Good: Act One, Scene Five Summary & Analysis

One day after Ralph decides to direct the play, a prisoner named Meg Long approaches him and says she heard he’s “looking for some women.” Meg’s implications are clearly sexual, but Ralph tries to ignore this. Still, she insists that “there ain’t nothing [that] puts Meg off,” which is how she got the nickname “Shitty Meg.” Trying to explain what he’s doing, Ralph tells Meg that he’s casting prisoners to participate in a production of The Recruiting Officer. Nevertheless, Meg still thinks he’s interested in having sex with the women he casts—an idea that pleasantly surprises her, as she admits that everyone thinks Ralph is “prissy” since he doesn’t have a “she-lag.” Having said this, she takes her exit.
Meg’s treatment of Ralph is worth noting, since her relaxed manner and sexually explicit way of talking suggests that Ralph isn’t necessarily respected or feared by the prisoners. Furthermore, she outlines the fact that the entire penal colony looks down on him for not engaging in an extramarital affair with one of the prisoners. This underlines just how common it is in the colony for an officer to abuse his power and to use his position of authority to have sex with female convicts, many of whom (it seems, judging by Meg’s insinuations) invite these interactions. Given that Duckling lives in Harry’s tent, the audience can conclude that the prisoners stand to gain certain favors by sleeping with the guards, though Ralph remains loyal to his wife.
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As Meg leaves, Robert Sideway appears, greeting Ralph in a polite manner and telling him that he was “once a gentleman.” When Ralph asks what he means, Sideway explains that he was a professional pickpocket in London but that he enjoyed a high-society lifestyle, going to plays in the evening and admiring the beautiful clothing everyone wore in the audience. “The coaches, the actors scuttling, the gentlemen watching, the ladies tittering, the perfumes, the clothes, the handkerchiefs,” he says, elegantly handing Ralph a handkerchief that, Ralph realizes, is his own. “Here, Mr Clark, you see the skill,” Sideway says conspiratorially. At this point, two convicts named Dabby Bryant and Mary Brenham approach. Ralph has specifically requested to see Mary because he heard she can read. When she reads aloud from the script, Ralph is pleased with her performance, though annoyed because Dabby insists upon participating too.
At this point, it’s clear that Ralph has succeeded at getting Phillip’s attention and has been made the director of the play, The group of people he has available to him, though, is a very eccentric collection, ranging from crass people like Meg Long to well-spoken, literate people like Mary and Sideway. As he begins to choose convicts for the play, the audience sees that he might have a hard time assembling a group of like-minded individuals capable of forging a unified, cohesive cast.
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“Where do I come in, Lieutenant?” Dabby interrupts, and when Ralph asks if she can read, she admits she can’t, though she assures him that Mary will teach her what to say. Ralph begrudgingly casts her as Rose, the cousin of Mary’s character, Silvia (who is the play’s lead). As Ralph tries to lead this audition, Liz Morden arrives, much to the chagrin of Dabby, who looks at her confrontationally while Mary “shrinks away.” Turning to Ralph, Dabby tells him he can’t cast Liz because it’s obvious she’s going to be executed sooner rather than later. Ignoring this, Liz grabs the script from Ralph, saying, “I understand you want me in your play, Lieutenant. Is that it? I’ll look at it and let you know.”
There have already been several instances in which Liz’s name has come up in the play. The most recent was when Ralph wrote to his wife and mentioned that Liz had recently received a whipping, which he thought she deserved. Bearing this in mind, it seems strange that Ralph would cast her in the play, since she’s likely to make trouble. At the same time, Governor Phillip wants to stage this play as a way of helping the convicts become better people, so it makes sense that the production should include someone like Liz, who needs reformation so badly.
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