Above all, Our Country’s Good is a play about the power of art to unite and liberate people. Although the convicts in the penal colony often behave like “animals” who are at odds with one another, the artistic process eventually brings them together, as their commitment to rehearsing The Recruiting Officer overshadows their tendencies to quarrel. What’s more, the play gives the prisoners an escape from their everyday lives, which are unrewarding and bleak. Because of this, the characters come to cherish their involvement in the theater, enjoying the emotional freedom that comes along with artistic expression. In turn, this makes their lives more bearable, meaning that they’re less likely to misbehave and thus more likely to peacefully finish their prison sentences and become productive members of society. Putting the positive effects of theater on display, Wertenbaker highlights the therapeutic and restorative nature of the artistic process, suggesting that this kind of endeavor is more valuable than many people think, since art is not only a source of personal expression, but also of unity.
When Phillip debates Tench about the merits of staging a play with the convicts, he suggests that theater is a way of coaxing the prisoners into inhabiting a new way of life. This idea implies that Phillip understands the transformative effects of the artistic process, which gives people the opportunity to step outside themselves and gain new perspectives. “The theatre is an expression of civilisation,” he says. “[…] The convicts will be speaking a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to.” Saying this, Phillip underscores the benefits of leaving behind one’s own outlook via artistic expression. Rather than continuing to speak crudely about sex and thieving—common topics in the penal colony—the prisoners will experience a new and more wholesome way of behaving, one the Governor believes will help them transition into a more “civilis[ed]” lifestyle. In turn, Wertenbaker accentuates the ways in which art can have a profound effect on the way a person moves through the world.
Encouraging the convicts to achieve personal growth isn’t the only reason Phillip wants to stage a play. He also believes that doing so will promote a certain kind of harmony in the penal colony, which is otherwise a divided place. “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,” he tells Tench. “We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little.” It’s important to note Phillip’s use of the first-person plural pronoun “we,” since it draws attention to the idea that the theater is capable of unifying the guards and the prisoners. In this moment, Phillip urges his colleagues to see this artistic experience as a chance to do some substantial community building.
However, Captain Tench and Major Ross aren’t easily convinced that staging a play is worthwhile. This is because they clearly don’t believe in the transformative powers of art, instead thinking of creative endeavors as nothing more than silly distractions from more practical activities. “I would simply say that if you want to build a civilisation there are more important things than a play,” Tench upholds, suggesting that teaching the convicts to “farm” or “build houses” would be a better use of time. At the heart of this sentiment is the belief that art isn’t capable of affecting the prisoners as profoundly as Phillip claims. However, Wertenbaker later suggests that Phillip is right to invest himself in the positive qualities of theatrical expression, as Arscott—a prisoner who recently tried to run away—waxes poetic about how much he likes acting. “When I say Kite’s lines I forget everything else,” he says, referring to the character he’s playing. “I forget the judge said I’m going to have to spend the rest of my natural life in this place getting beaten and working like a slave. […] I don’t have to remember the things I’ve done, when I speak Kite’s lines I don’t hate anymore.” The artistic process has thoroughly influenced Arscott, an otherwise hardened criminal, to the point that acting gives him an escape from his own life, enabling him to leave behind “hate” and hopelessness. As a result, it’s less likely that he’ll try to run away again, since acting has given him a way to cope with his otherwise dismal existence in the penal colony.
Similarly, the other actors dissuade Dabby from running away during the commotion of the play’s final scene, since this would surely make the guards forbid them from staging another production in the future. The fact that Dabby listens to them underlines the extent to which the theatrical process of collaboration has brought the prisoners together. Furthermore, their collective decision not to use this opportunity to escape suggests that they’re happier with their current existences than they were before, since they have at least gained an outlet to express themselves—in a way, the theater has liberated them to a degree that they’re no longer so desperate to physically free themselves from their situation. This benefits the guards, too, since it means they don’t have to track down more escaped convicts. As a result, the audience sees that art provides the prisoners with a valuable outlet for self-expression while also aligning their interests with those of the guards, therefore emerging as a unifying force.
Theater, Liberation, and Unity ThemeTracker
Theater, Liberation, and Unity Quotes in Our Country’s Good
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?
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—
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.
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.
When I say Kite’s lines I forget everything else. I forget the judge said I’m going to have to spend the rest of my natural life in this place getting beaten and working like a slave. I can forget that out there it’s trees and burnt grass, spiders that kill you in four hours and snakes. I don’t have to think about what happened to Kable, I don’t have to remember the things I’ve done, when I speak Kite’s lines I don’t hate anymore.