Contextualising Our Country’s Good Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 13 July 2017

Contextualising Our Country’s Good

The historical context of this play is most key, in that the play it’s self is based on the past. In mid seventeenth century there was a fear within the middle and upper classes of the raising crime rate, largely due to an increasing population and high unemployment figures. The chosen solution to this problem was the transportation of convicts to Australia, where they could be used as slaves to build a naval outpost. The writer Timberlake Wertenbaker was born in the United States, and also lived in France.

Shortly after moving to London she became a play write, and is said to have produced her best work, including Our Country’s Good, during the 1980’s. She wrote the play after she had read up on the history of the transportation of convicts from England to Australia. To do so she used resources such as the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally, and journals of marines sent to Australia. Through these journals she could get a useful insight into what life for convict was really like.

She could learn of the marine’s frustration that they had been sent to do just a job, in such a place, and the way in which they took out these frustrations on the convicts. Her knowledge of such wrong doings comes through very clearly in the text in scenes, and also through characters such as Sergeant Robbie Ross. Through these marine’s journals historians were also able to discover that in 1789 several convicts, and one officer put on a play for the whole colony. Through this they were able to teach themselves and their observers of compassion, co-operation and creativity. This is the key story in Our Country’s Good.

In keeping with this realistic approach Timberlake Wertenbaker based her characters on real convicts of the first ship to Australia. From what little we know of the characters and their lives after Australia we can see Timberlake’s influence for their personalities and traits which we can recognise: Timberlake’s key character, Ralph Clark, was a real person. The journal he talks of in the play is a genuine historical item on which his character is based. After his time in Australia he is moved to a new post, and makes sure Mary Brenham, another key character in the play whom he falls in love with, is also transferred.

Form this we can see parallels between life and the play in his apparent devotion for Mary that we as audience grow to love. The character Liz Morden is based on a convict called Nancy Turner. She lived to be pardoned and had a large family with a rich thief. This may be the life we would expect for Liz. Through the play she has restored her faith in humanity and has the confidence and love to build a family, but at the same time she will not turn on her own kind and chooses a thief as a lover. John Wisehammer began farming and became a respectable merchant.

Just as we would expect of his character who always claimed to be innocent. John Freeman was exempted from hanging, just as his character had always waned. In the play we learn of his hate for the job. Dabby Bryant did escape, as we knew her character in the play would, she eventually ended up back home in Devon. From the above we can see to what extent Wertenbaker was true to the real story of the convicts in Australia. There is also a strong cultural significance to the play. It was written in 1988 for the Royal Court Theatre in London.

It came at the end of an extremist period, Thatherite Britain, in which an ‘us and them’ attitude was strong. And the fact that it was a strong capitalist party in power was evident. One of Thatcher’s most famous comments was “there is no such thing as society, just individuals and their families. ” Wertenbaker was making a stand against such attitudes and showing we should take the time to think about each other and grow as people in community which can be formed, as the convicts show, in any group of people, however they are originally regarded.

Wertenbaker used the play to portray a message that like sending the convokes away, or punishing them with floggings, Michael Howard’s short sharp shock tactics of the time would not work, but the key was reform, and giving the prisoners something more, by believing they could be more. The play was revived in 1997, as New Labour was coming into power. One of Labours visions is that people can change, it’s within them. Just as Phillip and Ralph believed the convicts could, and just as Liz Morden proved was true, as both her and Mary found themselves in different ways through the play.

There are parallels present between this aspect of the play, and schemes for young offenders today. Young people use art such as graffiti to find themselves through something positive, constructive, enjoyable and rewarding, in much the same way the convicts used The Recruiting Officer. In reviving the play it became recognised again and The Recruiting Officer has been performed in prisons quite recently, as have other plays with the intention of doing what Ralph did for the convicts in Our Country’s Good, restoring their faith in humanity and humanity’s faith in them.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

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