In Our Country’s Good, Wertenbaker suggests that successful romantic relationships rely upon equal power dynamics. Many of the characters in the play engage in sexual affairs, but very few actually achieve true love. This is because most of the convicts use their sexuality as leverage, having sex with guards in exchange for special treatment. Despite the unemotional nature of these liaisons, though, Wertenbaker intimates that this behavior can lead to complex feelings, as is the case when Duckling eventually admits that she loves Harry Brewer despite the way he has lorded his authority over her. Nonetheless, their relationship is doomed because of the irreconcilable imbalance of power that exists between them. In keeping with this, the only relationship in Our Country’s Good that is actually successful is the one that blossoms between Mary and Lieutenant Ralph Clark. Because neither of them wants anything tangible from the other, their feelings grow organically, and when they finally consummate their love, it isn’t because Mary wants special treatment or because Ralph is only interested in sex, but because they’ve cultivated a mutual affection. By comparing their successful relationship to the colony’s more complicated liaisons, Wertenbaker suggests that healthy romances occur when neither partner is trying to get something from the other, but simply following their romantic impulses.
For the female convicts, the benefit of sleeping with authority figures is clear. It is, after all, a way to survive through difficult times, since having sex with an officer enables them to ask for favors. Because of this, Mary lets her friend Dabby convince her to have sex with one of the sailors on the ship that takes them to exile. This earns her more food, but she hates the fact that she has to sleep with this man in order to make her life easier. “What would you have done without that lanky sailor drooling over you?” Dabby asks, pointing out how helpful it was for Mary to have this affair. “I would have been less of a whore,” Mary says, ashamed of having given up her body. “I’ll never wash the sin away,” she adds, but Dabby responds by outlining the unromantic approach that seemingly everyone around Mary takes when it comes to sex—namely, that God “shouldn’t have created men who pay for” sex if He “didn’t want women to be whores.” By saying this, Dabby not only embraces the idea of selling oneself, but suggests that this transactional spirit is part of the very nature of human sexuality. As such, she destigmatizes the practice of trading sex for various perks, ultimately encouraging Mary to consider the fact that her own sexuality is a way of seizing a modicum of power in a situation in which she’s otherwise powerless. Nevertheless, this doesn’t change Mary’s feeling that she’ll “never wash the sin away”—an indication that engaging in transactional sexual affairs is more emotionally complex than Dabby suggests.
While the guards who have sex with female convicts are able to do so because they’re in a position of power, they can find themselves at a certain disadvantage in these relationships. This is because some become actually interested in the prisoners, whereas the prisoners only have sex with them to get something. This dynamic especially bothers Harry Brewer, who is tormented by the idea that Duckling might not love him exclusively. Working himself into fits of jealousy, he worries constantly that Duckling—who lives with him in his tent—likes other men better than him. In a conversation with Ralph, he complains that she has “gone silent” on him because he facilitated the execution of her other lover, Handy Baker. This enrages Harry, as he feels frustrated that his willingness to help her in exchange for sex hasn’t led to a stable romantic relationship. “Do you know I saved her life?” he asks Ralph. “She was sentenced to be hanged at Newgate for stealing two candlesticks but I got her name put on the transport lists. But when I remind her of that she says she wouldn’t have cared.” What upsets Harry the most, it seems, is that nothing he can do will solidify Duckling’s love for him. Of course, this is because he and she both treat their relationship like a transaction, each one wanting something different from the other. As such, it’s unlikely that their feelings will ever perfectly align.
Though it’s true that Duckling has her own reasons for getting involved with Harry, it’s worth mentioning that she does seem to harbor affection for him. Just before he dies, she pleads with him to stay alive, saying, “If you live, I will love you.” At the same time, though, there’s no changing the fact that she sees him as an oppressive force, since she makes it clear earlier in the play that she’s fed up with his possessiveness, saying, “I wish I were dead. At least when you’re dead, you’re free.” With the contrast between her resentment of Harry and her eventual declaration of love, Wertenbaker conveys just how emotionally fraught relationships can become when both parties must overcome a significant power imbalance.
Unlike the other guards, Ralph makes a point of not having a “she-lag,” or a female prisoner with whom he has sex. This, at least, is the case until he falls in love with Mary while rehearsing The Recruiting Officer. However, the nature of their relationship is much different than that of Duckling and Harry’s, since Ralph and Mary develop a shared affinity for one another—an affinity that grows naturally as they rehearse the play. Over the course of the rehearsals, Ralph admires Mary’s talent and her hardworking nature, and she comes to appreciate his encouragement. Then, when he himself portrays her character’s lover during a one-on-one rehearsal on the beach, it becomes clear that there’s an emotional connection between them, and their fake embrace turns into a real-life expression of their feelings. The play allows them to gradually cultivate a genuine relationship, and since neither of them wants anything from the other, their attraction is organic and uncomplicated by the messy interpersonal dynamics that come along with transactional or power-oriented sexual affairs. As a result, Ralph and Mary exemplify the play’s belief that the most successful and healthy relationships are those that are free of ulterior motives and based solely on sincere romantic sentiments.
Love, Sex, and Power ThemeTracker
Love, Sex, and Power Quotes in Our Country’s Good
At night? The sea cracks against the ship. Fear whispers, screams, falls silent, hushed. Spewed from our country, forgotten, bound to the dark edge of the earth, at night what is there to do but seek English cunt, warm, moist, soft, oh the comfort, the comfort of the lick, the thrust into the nooks, the crannies of the crooks of England. Alone, frightened, nameless in this stinking hole of hell, take me, take me inside you, whoever you are. Take me, my comfort and we’ll remember England together.
Duckling’s gone silent on me again. I know it’s because of Handy Baker. I saw him as well as I see you. Duckling wants me, he said, even if you’ve hanged me. At least your poker’s danced its last shindy, I said. At least it’s young and straight, he said, she likes that. I went for him but he was gone. But he’s going to come back, I know it. I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t.
Do you know I saved her life? She was sentenced to be hanged at Newgate for stealing two candlesticks but I got her name put on the transport lists. But when I remind her of that she says she wouldn’t have cared.
In my own small way, in just a few hours, I have seen something change. I asked some of the convict women to read me some lines, these women who behave often no better than animals. And it seemed to me, as one or two—I’m not saying all of them, not at all—but one or two, saying those well-balanced lines […], they seemed to acquire a dignity, they seemed—they seemed to lose some of their corruption. There was one, Mary Brenham, she read so well, perhaps this play will keep her from selling herself to the first marine who offers her bread—
HARRY. […] I’m sorry, Duckling, please. Why can’t you? —can’t you just be with me? Don’t be angry. I’ll do anything for you, you know that. What do you want, Duckling?
DUCKLING. I don’t want to be watched all the time. I wake up in the middle of the night and you’re watching me. What do you think I’m going to do in my sleep, Harry? Watching, watching, watching. JUST STOP WATCHING ME.
HARRY. You want to leave me. All right, go and live in the women’s camp, sell yourself to a convict for a biscuit. Leave if you want to. You’re filthy, filthy, opening your legs to the first marine —
DUCKLING. Why are you so angry with your Duckling, Harry? Don’t you like it when I open my legs wide to you?
DUCKLING. I need freedom sometimes, Harry.
HARRY. You have to earn your freedom with good behaviour.
DUCKLING. Why didn’t you let them hang me and take my corpse with you, Harry? You could have kept that in chains. I wish I was dead. At least when you’re dead, you’re free.
DABBY. You’re wasting time, girl, he’s ripe for the plucking. You can always tell with men, they begin to walk sideways. And if you don’t—
MARY. Don’t start. I listened to you once before.
DABBY. What would you have done without that lanky sailor drooling over you?
MARY. I would have been less of a whore.
DABBY. Listen, my darling, you’re only a virgin once. You can’t go to a man and say, I’m a virgin except for this one lover I had. After that, it doesn’t matter how many men go through you.
MARY. I’ll never wash the sin away.
DABBY. If God didn’t want women to be whores he shouldn’t have created men who pay for their bodies.
MARY. Liz, we’ve come to rehearse the play.
WISEHAMMER. Rehearse the play?
DUCKLING. The Lieutenant has gone to talk to the Governor. Harry said we could come see you.
MARY. The Lieutenant has asked me to stand in his place so we don’t lose time. We’ll start with the first scene between Melinda and Brazen.
WISEHAMMER. How can I play Captain Brazen in chains?
MARY. This is the theatre. We will believe you.
DABBY. When dealing with men, always have a contract.
MARY. Love is a contract.
DABBY. Love is the barter of perishable goods. A man’s word for a woman’s body.
If you live, I will never again punish you with my silence. If you live, I will never again turn away from you. If you live, I will never again imagine another man when you make love to me. If you live, I will never tell you I want to leave you. If you live, I will speak to you. If you live, I will be tender with you. If you live, I will look after you. If you live, I will stay with you. If you live, I will be wet and open to your touch. If you live, I will answer all your questions. If you live, I will look at you. If you live, I will love you.