by Helen Dallas
Our Country's Good
Timberlake Wertenbaker, 1988
Thomas Keneally, Hodder & Stoughton, 1987
In 1789, convicts in the Sydney penal colony staged a play. The actors had all, for various crimes, been sentenced to transportation to the first European settlement in Australia. This punishment both exiled them from British society and provided a labouring colonial population. The prisoners were at the mercy of the military who controlled the penal colony. Food was often in short supply, and the climate challenged the ill-prepared colonists. Even when the convicts had served their sentences, most were never able to return to Britain, lacking the money to buy passage.
Surrounded by whippings, public hangings and death, the idea to put on a play did not come from the convicts themselves, but the colony’s governor, Arthur Phillip. To the great benefit of historians and writers of historical fiction, the man he put in charge, Lieutenant Ralph Clark, kept extensive diaries, which give a sustained, detailed and personal account of the British colonisation of Australia. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that following the publication of Clark’s journals and letters in an edition edited by Paul G Fidlon and R J Ryan in 1981, two fictionalised versions of the convicts’ play emerged: a 1987 novel called The Playmaker by Australian writer Thomas Keneally, and a 1988 play by American-born, British-based playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker. The multi-award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, is in part based on The Playmaker. Acknowledging it was not a faithful adaptation, as she was looking to do something quite different with the story, Wertenbaker returned to the primary sources herself.
The very titles are suggestive. The Playmaker emphasises Ralph Clark, the director of the convict cast. Through third-person limited narration, Keneally shapes Ralph into a fascinating crowbar of a character, cracking open the imperial foundations of Sydney from a complex and fascinatingly flawed human perspective. Our Country’s Good, meanwhile, takes its name from a line in the epilogue that Wertenbaker has one of the convicts compose, but which was actually taken from a poem of uncertain authorship originally published in London in 1802: ‘True patriots all; for be it understood, / We left our country for our country’s good’. The meaning of the repurposed line is loaded: the convicts, as undesirable, criminal elements, have left Britain for the good of the country. But the phrase ‘our country’s good’ contains an ambiguity that is exploited for ironic purposes: it can mean both ‘for the good of our country’ and ‘because our country is good’. This second reading begs the question: can a country that exiles its own citizens and seeks to violently expand its borders be called good?
One of the enduring strengths of Our Country’s Good is how Wertenbaker refuses to set up an easy victim-perpetrator narrative. The convicts are, of course, criminals, but the cruelty of their exile and the brutality they suffer at the whims of officers hardly look like justice. Wertenbaker repeatedly challenges the notion of innate criminality, and uses the historical fact of the 1789 theatrical performance in Sydney to consider an alternative, less punitive system.
Rehabilitative rather than retributive justice is one of the playwright's longstanding interests. Years before the play premiered, she wrote an article about Clean Break Theatre Company, a women’s theatre group working in prisons, which emphasised the benefits of theatre for inmates’ rehabilitation. When the Royal Court commissioned Our Country’s Good, off the back of Wertenbaker’s work as writer in residence from 1984 to 1985, the development of the play included interviewing current and ex-prisoners, and Wertenbaker corresponded with several inmates interested in prison theatre programmes. Some letters from these exchanges were originally published (with permission) in the play’s programme, and are now often included at the start of published editions of the play. Our Country’s Good is, in some ways, an extended and historicised argument for the importance of a rehabilitative justice system, one with a focus on artistic outlets. As the governor, Arthur Phillip, says in proposition of having the convicts put on a play: ‘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?’
This line points to something else about the convicts’ conflicted position. They are, on the one hand, victims of empire, cast out of ‘civilised’ society to suffer harsh punishments on the other side of the world. But at the same time, they are empire’s agents, there to colonise stolen land. Their casual racism and imperialist attitudes, in fact, are presented in many instances as not so starkly different from the military officers’.
The final scene of the play begins with an acknowledgement that the camp is surrounded by Indigenous people dying of smallpox brought by the British. Sideway, one of the convicts who is a generally likeable comic character, says, ‘I hope they won’t upset the audience.’ Sideway has been a kind of lovable rogue prior to this, standing up for his fellow convicts with both courage and humour. His lack of human feeling for the Aboriginal people is chilling. Later in the same scene, Caesar, a convict originally captured from Madagascar and enslaved, is distressed about being in the play and begs not to be made to participate because he does not want to anger his ancestors by being laughed at by the audience. One cast member hits him, and another threatens him with a graphic hanging to coerce him to go onstage. When he was an obedient member of their company, they offered him what protection from the officers they could; but as soon as he exerts a desire contrary to their own, his very life is under threat. The convicts, Wertenbaker shows us in her nuanced presentation, are both suffering in their transportation and, with various degrees of self-awareness, inflicting suffering too.
There is one event depicted in The Playmaker, however, that is troublingly absent from Our Country’s Good: the kidnapping and death of an Aboriginal man named Arabanoo. Like most of the characters of The Playmaker and Our Country’s Good, Arabanoo was a real historical figure. It was felt that New South Wales needed an ambassador to communicate between the British colonists and the Indigenous people, and so governor Arthur Phillip came up with a proposed solution: kidnap Aboriginal men, hold them captive, make them learn English, and they will realise the benefits that Britain brings and act as mediators. Arabanoo was the first person thus kidnapped, and was a prisoner in the colony — able to move around, but always manacled and never free to leave — for six months, before he died of smallpox. Keneally’s dedication to The Playmaker is ‘To Arabanoo and his brethren, still dispossessed.’
Wertenbaker gives much less attention to the tangible harms of British colonialism in Australia than Keneally does. Our Country’s Good includes an Aboriginal character whose lines are adapted from actual accounts of the arrival of the First Fleet by Indigenous Australians, but he is in many ways separate to the story: he only ever appears onstage alone. Wertenbaker may have intended the parallel narrative of the Aboriginal experience to be in dialectic with the main plot. But in reality, as the horrific experiences of the Indigenous Australians attest, such a separation did not exist.
What's more, from its first performance, Our Country’s Good has often made use of doubling roles, with the same actor playing the Aboriginal Australian and Caesar. The two characters thus risk being conflated into a ‘non-whiteness’ that both others and homogenises them, denying their distinct racial identities. This feels in some way emblematic of Our Country’s Good’s engagement with colonialism: it is acknowledged, but too much is left out for it to be truly engaged with.
The Playmaker uses the same sources quite differently. The records show that the historical Ralph Clark objected to kidnapping Aboriginal Australians because it would mean their children would starve, which was unconscionable to him. This is rather less radical opposition than we might want from a hero — it doesn’t suggest that he truly viewed the Indigenous people as humans entitled to liberty and freedom from imperial control — and so Keneally includes this, but adjusts it. Hence the Ralph in The Playmaker, in addition to his concern for Aboriginal children, makes more firm statements that it was wrong to kidnap Arabanoo, expressing concern for his welfare, even as he feels unable to challenge the governor’s orders. Ralph’s discomfort in the historical record indicates that far from being an unquestioned state of affairs, the violence of British colonisation was being challenged even by those complicit in it. Keneally draws on and expands that to examine the ambivalent nature of the morally-minded agent of empire: Ralph does not agree with the kidnapping, but his concern doesn't go far towards changing his actions.
It would be fair, in a sense, to say that Keneally makes the character of Ralph more likeable than his historical counterpart. He makes his opposition to violence against the Indigenous population more explicit, and he also leaves out the evidence from the real Ralph’s diary that he delighted in seeing convicts punished (something Wertenbaker does include in Our Country’s Good). But it feels a flattening of nuance to call Ralph likeable. Whether or not we like him is not the point. He certainly thinks and does things that we as readers are implicitly expected to dislike, including his role in Arabanoo’s kidnap, however internally he may oppose it on moral grounds. He can be selfish. He is prone to biases and prejudices. He can be uncaring towards the plight of the convicts, and his increasing camaraderie with his cast is a kind of journey for him. But The Playmaker is less concerned with us liking him than it is with how we understand him.
Even where Ralph exhibits unpleasant and offensive attitudes, we are encouraged to understand how such views were formed. This is the crux of what Keneally is doing in The Playmaker. As is made clear in the book’s dedication, he is interested in the colonial origins of Australia as it exists today. Ralph, as a British officer both morally conflicted and actively complicit, encapsulates this history.
Wertenbaker, too, is interested in the conflict between morality and action. Discussing Jefferson’s Garden, a play that grapples with the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson, Wertenbaker said: ‘A playwright doesn't like nice people. We like complicated people, their abilities and failures.’ But this is part of what is frustrating about the erasure of Arabanoo from Our Country’s Good. Not only does his story deserve to be told in any history of British colonisation of Australia, the absence of this historical fact also warps Wertenbaker’s version of Arthur Phillip.
Phillip is the closest thing Our Country’s Good has to a mouthpiece for Wertenbaker’s ideas on rehabilitation and the value of art. Yet that sits uneasily with many of his other attitudes, and his position as governor. There is a latent paternalism in his desire to have the convicts put on a play: ‘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.’ Acting might offer the convicts a therapeutic reprieve from their own lives — a view expressed by the character Arscott in the play, who finds joy in being able to ‘forget’ everything awful happening around him whilst he is in character — but Phillip’s attitude also reflects an unshaken commitment to bourgeois social values. In redeeming the convicts, he also hopes to make them more 'refined'. This 'civilising' urge (though Wertenbaker does not address this directly) was also central to the colonial attitude towards Indigenous peoples in Australia.
Phillip acknowledges the lack of access to culture faced by the convicts in their former lives in Britain, but glosses over the wider issues of poverty and disenfranchisement which shaped their criminality, and which would require much more systemic change to solve — change which, as the governor, he is the single person best-placed to implement.
Phillip, for all his liberal-mindedness, runs a penal colony on stolen land; he is culpable in the violence that he seems, in the play, to find so distasteful. Early in Our Country’s Good, Phillip and the other officers are out shooting birds and debating how to manage the convicts, what punishments are appropriate and whether entertainment might reduce criminal activity in the settlement. In a nod to present-day Australia, Captain Tench makes a snide comment: ‘Perhaps we should build an opera house for the convicts.’ Phillip responds: ‘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? I’ll have the gun now.’ This acute observation does not take Phillip away from his shooting. And it is significant that shooting is the sport taking place: it encapsulates the pleasure in violence and the environmental destruction which Phillip, for all his philosophy, is still a part of.
Phillip is certainly the kind of complicated character Wertenbaker loves to write. But here, as with the Aboriginal character only ever appearing in monologues, the complexity of colonialism appears frustratingly abstracted.
The Playmaker, with its distinct use of the same source material — and, significantly, with its differing selection of details from those same documents — allows us to rethink the more widely known play. Wertenbaker is interested in the transformative power of art and in complicating rigid ideas of justice and redemption, and she stages these in engaging ways.
Keneally, however, placing himself in historical context in his dedication to Arabanoo, creates a kind of origin story for modern Australia as a post-colonial nation.
The discomfort Keneally’s Ralph feels at his society’s treatment of Indigenous peoples, and his simultaneous lack of interest in deconstructing that society, is a mindset with considerable modern resonance. Many things occupy Ralph’s mind throughout the novel: his feelings for the convict Mary Brenham; his friend Harry’s erratic behaviour; his separation from his family and friends in Britain; his chances of promotion. That his disapproval of the kidnap of Arabanoo tussles with more everyday concerns is the great strength of the novel. Without minimising them, Keneally emphasises how violence and oppression can themselves become quotidian.
HELEN DALLAS is a DPhil candidate at Trinity College. She is not a vampire (probably).
Art by Izzy Fergusson.