In Our Country’s Good, a play about convicts and their military guards, Timberlake Wertenbaker challenges the value of straightforward criminal punishment. As Arthur Phillip attempts to govern the first Australian penal colony in 1787, he finds himself at odds with people like Captain Tench, who believe the convicts should be exposed to nothing but punishment and hard labor. Phillip, on the other hand, stresses the importance of exposing the prisoners to culture, asserting that criminals can be “reformed” if only they’re given the chance to grow. By outlining Phillip and Tench’s disagreement regarding the efficacy of conventional punishment, Wertenbaker raises questions about the human capacity to change, ultimately suggesting that rehabilitation is possible when criminals are treated not as lost causes, but as regular humans who are capable of improvement.
Arthur Phillip—who has been chosen to govern Australia’s first British penal colony—is an empathetic man who wants to give exiled convicts the opportunity to change, but some of his military associates strongly disagree with his viewpoint. In particular, Captain Tench promotes the theory that criminals are incapable of rehabilitation, suggesting that wrongdoing is an “innate tendency,” something that the convicts of the penal colony can’t resist because such debauchery is “in their nature.” He uses this notion to advocate for the merciless punishment of criminals, justifying the practice of publicly hanging convicts for rather petty infractions. Phillip questions this merciless method, saying, “It is the spectacle of hanging I object to. The convicts will feel nothing has changed and will go back to their old ways.” When he says this, he draws attention to the fact that he and his colleagues are supposed to be encouraging the convicts to reform themselves, but Tench has lost sight of this goal, saying, “The convicts never left their old ways, Governor, nor do they intend to.” Tench has rejected the idea that criminals can change, which effectively makes it easier for him to treat them without even the slightest sense of empathy. After all, if he tells himself that the convicts are only capable of immorality, then he has no reason to help them reach a point of rehabilitation.
Despite the resistance he encounters from his associates, Phillip decides to help the convicts change by encouraging them to stage a play. Part of his decision to use theater as a means of influencing these people has to do with Tench’s insistence that the colony’s public hangings are the most captivating thing the prisoners witness. “It’s their favourite form of entertainment, I should say,” he notes after Harry—another military officer—points out that “the convicts laugh at the hangings.” In response, Phillip suggests that the convicts find entertainment in such a gruesome act simply because they haven’t been exposed to more wholesome forms of amusement. “We learned to love such things because they were offered to us when we were children or young men,” he says. “Surely no one is born naturally cultured?” This is an important moment, since this idea challenges Tench’s belief that criminals can’t change their ways. Interestingly enough, Phillip doesn’t refute the idea that the convicts are naturally prone to “vice,” but rather that respected individuals like himself are innately cultured and refined. In turn, he suggests that even he and Tench had to learn to be respectable people. It therefore follows that the convicts merely need to learn to improve themselves in the same regard, and the only way to make this happen is to teach them to value what society values instead of debauched spectacles like public hangings.
Phillip instructs Lieutenant Ralph Clark to direct the play despite Tench’s reservations. Shortly after rehearsals begin, Tench remains unconvinced that this is a good idea, but Ralph maintains that even the initial phases of rehearsal have already had a profound effect on the prisoners. “In my own small way, in just a few hours, I have seen something change,” he says. “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 […] they seemed to acquire a dignity, they seemed—they seemed to lose some of their corruption.” Already, the play has begun to have a lasting effect on the convicts, as it provides them with a release, something to distract them from their otherwise bleak existences. More importantly, though, the convicts respond favorably to the play because it shows them that the guards actually respect them as humans.
This sentiment is made clear later in the play, when Ralph becomes discouraged because of Tench’s continued skepticism. In response, Phillip emboldens Ralph by referencing the Socratic dialogue Meno, in which Socrates proves the intelligence of an uneducated slave by kindly walking him through several geometrical problems. “When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician,” Phillip says, urging Ralph to “see [his] actors in that light.” As such, Phillip advocates for kindness, insisting that empathetic instruction can lead to legitimate rehabilitation in ways that brute punishment simply cannot. Furthermore, Phillip’s successful attempt to change the convicts ultimately sets a positive “example” for the rest of the colony, showing the prisoners that self-improvement is possible. In this sense, then, Wertenbaker illustrates why it’s important for people like Tench to reevaluate standard forms of punishment, which often fail to do anything but subject prisoners to pointless agony.
Punishment and Rehabilitation ThemeTracker
Punishment and Rehabilitation 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.
COLLINS. […] You have been made Governor-in-Chief of a paradise of birds, Arthur.
PHILLIP. And I hope not of a human hell, Davey. Don’t shoot yet, Watkin, let’s observe them. Could we not be more humane?
TENCH. Justice and humaneness have never gone hand in hand. The law is not a sentimental comedy.
PHILLIP. I am not suggesting they go without punishment. It is the spectacle of hanging I object to. The convicts will feel nothing has changed and will go back to their old ways.
TENCH. The convicts never left their old ways, Governor, nor do they intend to.
I commend your endeavour to oppose the baneful influence of vice with the harmonising acts of civilisation, Governor, but I suspect your edifice will collapse without the mortar of fear.
TENCH. It’s their favourite form of entertainment, I should say.
PHILLIP. Perhaps because they’ve never been offered anything else.
TENCH. Perhaps we should build an opera house for the convicts.
PHILLIP. We learned to love such things because they were offered to us when we were children or young men. Surely no one is born naturally cultured?
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.
PHILLIP. We are indeed here to supervise the convicts who are already being punished by their long exile. Surely they can also be reformed?
TENCH. We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Habits are difficult to break. And it can be more than habit, an innate tendency. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.
A crime is a crime. You commit a crime or you don’t. If you commit a crime, you are a criminal. Surely that is logical? It’s like the savages here. A savage is a savage because he behaves in a savage manner. To expect anything else is foolish. They can’t even build a proper canoe.
PHILLIP. Some of these men will have finished their sentence in a few years. They will become members of society again, and help create a new society in this colony. Should we not encourage them now to think in a free and responsible manner?
TENCH. I don’t see how a comedy about two lovers will do that, Arthur.
PHILLIP. The theatre is an expression of civilisation. […] The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to. It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment. And we, this colony of a few hundred will be watching this together, for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers. We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little.
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—
When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt. How can I be sure God is forgiving me? What if he will forgive me, but hasn’t forgiven me yet? That’s why I don’t want to die, Sir. That’s why I can’t die. Not until I am sure. Are you sure?
WISEHAMMER. I am innocent. I didn’t do it and I’ll keep saying I didn’t.
LIZ. It doesn’t matter what you say. If they say you’re a thief, you’re a thief.
WISEHAMMER. I am not a thief. I’ll go back to England to the snuff shop of Rickett and Loads and say, see, I’m back, I’m innocent.
LIZ. They won’t listen.
WISEHAMMER. You can’t live if you think that way.
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.
When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician. A little more encouragement and he might become an extraordinary mathematician. Who knows? You must see your actors in that light.
PHILLIP. Liz Morden—(He pauses.) I had a reason for asking you to cast her as Melinda. Morden is one of the most difficult women in the colony.
RALPH. She is indeed, Sir.
PHILLIP. Lower than a slave, full of loathing, foul mouthed, desperate.
RALPH. Exactly, Sir. And violent.
PHILLIP. Quite. To be made an example of.
RALPH. By hanging?
PHILLIP. No, Lieutenant, by redemption.
What is a statesman’s responsibility? To ensure the rule of law. But the citizens must be taught to obey that law of their own will. I want to rule over responsible human beings, not tyrannise over a group of animals. I want there to be a contract between us, not a whip on my side, terror and hatred on theirs.
I have seen the white of this animal’s bones, his wretched blood and reeky convict urine have spilled on my boots and he’s feeling modest? Are you feeling modest, Sideway?
(He shoves SIDEWAY aside.)
(DABBY comes forward.)
On all fours.
(DABBY goes down on all fours.)
Now wag your tail and bark, and I’ll throw you a biscuit. What? You’ve forgotten? Isn’t that how you begged for your food on the ship? Wag your tail, Bryant, bark! We’ll wait.
COLLINS. My only fear, Your Excellency, is that she may have refused to speak because she no longer believes in the process of justice. If that is so, the courts here will become travesties. I do not want that.
PHILLIP. But if she won’t speak, there is nothing more we can do. You cannot get at the truth through silence.
From distant climes o’er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all; for be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good;
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urg’d our travels was our country’s weal,
And none will doubt but that our emigration
Has prov’d most useful to the British nation.