Whitfield, Jonathan Palmer, Bonita
Hanson, Patricia Cullen, and Lisa
Our Country's Good
by Timberlake Wertenbaker
is based upon the novel
The Playmaker by
look upon their lives as a re-enactment of the journeys and quests taken
by ancestor heroes in the Tjukurapa - the Dreamtime - before which
the earth did not exist. It took less than 75 years of white settlement
to wipe out most of the people who had occupied the Australian continent
for over 40,000 years. The hardships faced by their ancestors could not
have prepared them for the boatloads of disease and destruction that landed
at Botany Bay in 1788.
(Sources: The Fatal
Shore by Robert Hughes,
In the twenty-eighth year
of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to
colonize Australia. Eleven ships, carrying supplies and almost 1,500 officers,
seamen, marines, and convicts, traveled for eight months before reaching
New South Wales. Few of the convicts on board were dangerous criminals.
Contrary to popular belief, of the 736 convicts shipped out in 1787, not
one was convicted of murder or rape, although more than a hundred had been
convicted of thefts in which violence or threat had played some part. No
woman on the First Fleet, legend to the contrary, had been transported
for prostitution, as it was not a transportable offense. Over half the
women were domestic servants by trade. The vast majority had been convicted
of a minor theft. The penalties were severe - generally death by public
hanging. Most of the First Fleet convicts had been found guilty of stealing,
been sentenced to hang, and then had their sentence commuted to seven years
transportation, with the understanding that this was essentially exile
The basis for Ms. Wertenbaker's
play is the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler's
List). The source for both play and novel are the letters and journals
of Ralph Clark, Watkin Tench, David Collins, and other First Fleet officers.
The characters in this play - convict and officer alike - did indeed exist.
The 1789 convict production of Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer,
directed by 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is a matter of historical record.
But it is more than that. By the accounts of these First Fleet officers,
it is also a remarkable tale of the power that theatre has to transform
and humanize - even those whom society considers unredeemable.
The severe adversity Ralph and his players overcame to realize the first
Australian production of a play is a fascinating chapter in the history
of this dawning nation.
The subsequent history of
the convicts depicted in Our Country's Good is no less interesting.
When Ralph Clark was
assigned to the Norfolk Island convict camp, he ensured that Mary Brenham
one of the convicts transferred to that outstation. She bore him a daughter
in 1791. When Ralph set sail for England at the completion of his commission,
Mary and her child were shipped to a convict outpost north of Sydney and
then disappeared from the public record.
Nancy Turner, the convict
on whom the character of Liz Morden is predominantly based, lived
to be pardoned and have a large family by a watch thief named Stokes.
Duckling Smith was shipped
to the penal colony at nearby Norfolk Island. The reason was not punishment,
but Governor Phillip's decision to shift a number of convicts elsewhere
as the famine in Sydney worsened.
John Wisehammer, thwarted
in his love of Mary Brenham, began farming and trading at the end
of his sentence, married a convict woman, and grew to be a respected merchant
James Freeman was finally
exempted from further hangings, found a convict wife, had seven children
with her, and lived into his sixties.
John Arscott was shipped
out with Ralph and Mary to Norfolk Island. It is recorded that he behaved
bravely when their ship ran up on the rocks there, and helped extinguish
the fires which had started in the galley. Eventually pardoned, he married
a friend of Dabby's, and accumulated enough wealth through his carpentry
skill to return to England.
Dabby Bryant did indeed
escape by boat with her family and sailed all the way to Kupang, in the
Dutch East Indies. There she was re-captured and returned to England to
stand trial for escape. Through the generous efforts of James Boswell,
she was eventually pardoned, and returned at last to her beloved Devon.
And seven years after his performance
in The Recruiting Officer, Robert Sideway opened his own
As for Ralph Clark, the
playmaker, he was fatally wounded by gunshot in 1794 while serving on a
military vessel in the West Indies. His advice to the convicts-players
after a particularly savage beating, as recorded in his journal, will serve
as the final word: "I ask you to keep in mind the play, to cling
to the play as the thing which will give you your spirit back."
The Playmaker by
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