Our Country’s Good

by

Timberlake Wertenbaker

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

Summary
Analysis
Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark is up late one night writing in his diary. He addresses his entry to Betsey Alicia, his wife who stayed behind in England. In his writing, he tells her about life in the colony, saying that a prisoner named Liz Morden was whipped for being “impertinent.” This, Ralph thinks, was much deserved, since Liz has had such punishment coming for a long time. Moving on, he tells Alicia that he kisses her picture a thousand times every Sunday. He also mentions his frustration regarding the fact that he hasn’t been promoted to First Lieutenant. As he writes, Harry Brewer enters and starts talking to him, clearly wanting to soothe his loneliness. At one point, he mentions that he could easily have ended up like the convicts if it weren’t for Governor Phillip, with whom he’s worked for a long time.
The first real glimpse Wertenbaker gives the audience of Ralph is telling, as he spends his time diligently writing to his wife. As he tells Betsey Alicia that he kisses her picture a thousand times each Sunday, it becomes clear that he’s a disciplined and loving man, someone who misses his former life and is unsatisfied with his new existence in the penal colony. Harry Brewer’s assertion that he himself could have ended up like one of the camp’s criminals if it weren’t for Phillip again illustrates the Governor’s compassion, since it’s clear that he has been kind to Harry, showing him the kind of support he apparently needed in order to avoid a life of crime.
Themes
Love, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Changing the subject, Harry says that he saw Handy Baker the night before. “You hanged him a month ago, Harry,” Ralph replies, but Harry insists that Baker has “come back,” explaining that he saw him holding a rope. He then starts talking about Duckling, the female convict with whom he lives. He tells Ralph that she has stopped talking to him because of his involvement in Handy Baker’s hanging, since Handy was Duckling’s other lover. When Harry saw Baker’s ghost the night before, Baker taunted him by talking about Duckling, bragging about how she likes having sex with him better than having sex with Harry. “I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t,” Harry says. In response, Ralph points out that Baker stole food, adding that he himself voted to hang him because he didn’t know Phillip would oppose the punishment.
When Ralph reminds Harry that he hanged Handy Baker a month ago, Wertenbaker makes it clear that Phillip eventually allowed his colleagues to go through with the public execution that he was so uncomfortable with. The fact that Harry has started seeing Handy’s ghost suggests that he can’t forgive himself for playing a part in the man’s death, especially since he obviously had a personal investment in Handy’s execution. Harry feels guilty, which is why he insists that he “didn’t want to hang” Handy, though Ralph never suggested this in the first place.
Themes
Punishment and Rehabilitation Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Guilt, Regret, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Still talking about Duckling, Harry tells Ralph that she claims to not “feel anything” when she’s with him. He then worries that she did “feel something” when she was with Handy Baker. “She thinks I hanged him to get rid of him, but I didn’t, Ralph,” he reiterates. After a brief pause, he explains that he saved Duckling’s life by getting her exiled to Australia when she was about to be executed. “But when I remind her of that she says she wouldn’t have cared,” he says. He then points out that Governor Phillip thinks the guards should treat the female prisoners with “kindness,” and Ralph wonders how he could possibly show convicts respect. “Not all the officers find them disgusting,” Harry says, asking if Ralph has ever been “tempted” by them—a question that appalls Ralph.
Not only is Harry guilty about having played a part in Handy Baker’s execution, he also feels insecure about his relationship with Duckling. This is a reasonable way to feel, since their relationship is founded upon a vast imbalance of power: Harry is one of the guards, whereas Duckling is a prisoner. Ralph, for his part, is seemingly aware of the volatile dynamics that arise when a person in power has a relationship with a prisoner, though his harsh reaction seems to have less to do with his morals and more to do with the fact that he finds it hard to respect the convicts.
Themes
Punishment and Rehabilitation Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Guilt, Regret, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Ralph complains that Phillip never notices him, and Harry tells him the Governor wants to stage a play with the convicts as actors. Ralph finds this idea ridiculous, but he soon sees that this might be a way to get Phillip’s attention. He mentions that he has experience in the theater. Still, he finds it hard to believe that the convicts could possibly be good actors, but Harry tells him that some of the female prisoners are “good women. “I believe my Duckling is good,” he says. “It’s not her fault—if only she would look at me, once, react. Who wants to fuck a corpse!” Trying to ignore this, Ralph asks Harry to tell the Governor that he would be capable of directing the play. Harry agrees, and before he leaves, he asks Ralph if he thinks he killed Handy Baker. “No, Harry,” Ralph answers.
Throughout this exchange, Ralph’s primary focus is on how he can catch Phillip’s attention. As such, he decides to involve himself in the play not because he believes in the transformative effects of the theater, but because he wants to gain the Governor’s approval. As he makes these calculations, Harry continues to struggle with the idea that Duckling hates him for executing Handy Baker. When he tries to get Ralph to make him feel better about having helped execute Handy, the audience sees how heavily his guilt weighs on him.
Themes
Punishment and Rehabilitation Theme Icon
Theater, Liberation, and Unity Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Power Theme Icon
Guilt, Regret, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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