While drinking one night, Governor Phillip and a number of his fellow guards debate the pros and cons of staging a play. Major Ross is strongly against the idea, thinking that everyone has better things to focus on, though Judge Collins points out that the play won’t keep the much-anticipated supply ship from finally arriving to restock the colony’s food stores (though nor will it speed the ship along). Still, Ross doesn’t like the idea that the play will include female convicts, who he thinks are “filthy, thieving, lying whores.” Phillip assures him that he won’t be forced to attend the play if he feels so strongly about it, but this does little to calm Ross, who thinks the guards have a duty to “make sure [the convicts] get punished.” Although Phillip agrees with this, he adds that it’s already punishment enough that the prisoners have been exiled.
Again, Phillip finds himself at odds with his colleagues. When Ross suggests that the play is a waste of time, he devalues the artistic process, seeing it as nothing more than a trifling and potentially problematic source of distraction from punishing the prisoners. This perspective clashes with Phillip’s outlook, since Phillip is a compassionate man who isn’t solely focused on punishing the convicts. Rather than spending all his energy making sure the prisoners are miserable, Phillip is interested in providing them with opportunities to change.
Phillip also suggests that the prisoners can “be reformed” while enduring their punishment in the penal colony. “We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals,” Tench responds. “They have a habit of vice and crime. Habits are difficult to break. And it can be more than habit, an innate tendency.” Going on, he says that vice is “in their nature,” but Phillip disagrees. Turning to Reverend Johnson, the Governor asks if he believes the convicts can be “redeemed,” and Johnson says that he does, though he’ll only support the play if it touts positive religious morals. Tench states that “a crime is a crime” and that if someone commits a crime, he or she is a criminal. “It’s like the savages here,” he says. “A savage is a savage because he behaves in a savage manner.”
Unlike Phillip, Tench is a very judgmental man who is hesitant to extend empathy to people who aren’t like him. Instead of seeing the convicts as capable of change, he writes them off as inherently flawed, thereby allowing himself to go on punishing them without having to consider their humanity. Similarly, he disparages the Aboriginal Australians upon whom he and his fellow Brits have intruded. Rather than thinking about the fact that the British have treated the indigenous people of Australia unfairly, Tench sees them as “innate[ly]” inferior, yet again giving himself permission to do whatever he wants without having to reflect upon his actions.
Ralph argues that the play could alter the way the colony functions (even in just a small way), but Tench makes fun of him for thinking that letting the convicts make “fools of themselves” will have a positive impact. As the group continues to argue, Phillip points out that many of the convicts will soon be finished with their sentences and that it would be worthwhile to expose them to culture before they “help create a new society” in Australia. “The theatre is an expression of civilisation,” he says. He also notes that the actors would be using “refined” language and engaging with ideas they’re not accustomed to expressing. “It will remind them that there is more to life than crime [and] punishment,” he says. He says the play will also bring everyone—guards and prisoners included—together, even if only for a few hours.
Again, Phillip makes a case for the artistic process, maintaining that it’s capable of teaching people how to lead better lives. By saying this, he reveals his desire to reform the prisoners, seeing the penal colony not as a place to simply dole out punishments, but an environment that can inspire change. Because Tench refuses to accept this, though, Phillip points out that the convicts aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the play, since it will create a sense of unity throughout the entire community.
Agreeing with Phillip and trying to convince his peers, Ralph says he has already noted a “change” in some of the female prisoners during the auditions. Although many of these women often act like “animals,” he says that several of them have “seemed to acquire a dignity” and lost “some of their corruption.” In particular, he sings Mary’s praises, saying that she was a fantastic reader and hoping aloud that the play will “keep her from selling herself to the first marine who offers her bread.”
Having watched Mary read from the script of The Recruiting Officer during auditions, Ralph tries to provide concrete evidence that the artistic process actually affects the prisoners. By speaking of “dignity” and the loss of “corruption,” he urges people like Tench and Ross to consider the benefits of going through with the play, framing it as a means by which the guards might make the prisoners easier to deal with.
One of the other officers mumbles that Mary will probably “sell herself” to Ralph instead of the “first marine who offers her bread,” since he’s taken such an interest in her. Brushing this off, Ralph says he thinks the other convicts will also benefit from the play, adding that it will give the officers a chance to pretend they’re at the theater back in London. Eventually, Judge Collins polls the group, taking a vote regarding who wants to do the play and who’s against the idea. Tench and Ross are the most outspoken critics of the idea, but they’re outnumbered. Furious, Ross erupts, saying that “theatre leads to threatening theory” and that he plans to tell Phillip’s boss about what’s going on. When he storms away, Phillip turns to the rest of the men and says, “The last word will be the play, gentlemen.”
It’s obvious that the officers themselves are quite divided. This is why Ralph says that the play might bring them together by inviting them into a collective experience—an experience that will also let them escape the stressors of their little world, at least for a little while. In this manner, Wertenbaker intimates that art—and specifically theater—has the ability to soothe burdens while simultaneously unifying otherwise disparate groups of people.