‘I want to rule over responsible human beings, not tyrannise over a group of animals… help me, Ralph’. This quote is taken from Captain Arthur Phillip’s words and portrays how some of the characters can be errant and so are treated accordingly, or vice versa. Phillip makes a request ‘I want’, and being the kind hearted, noble and forgiving gentleman he is, it is sure enough expected he gets what he wants. Throughout the course of the play we, the audience, can see his wish being fulfilled in spite of some of the other officers’ pessimism.
It is their pessimistic and military nature that causes them to inhibit the production of the play ‘The Recruiting Officer’. The characters’ attitudes and treatment of others is very hierarchical, with the exception of Phillip and Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark. The characters in particular, that portray this hierarchical tendency, are Major Robbie Ross and Captain Watkin Tench. Tench is more concerned with teaching the convicts practical skills about life ‘teach them to work’, rather than the theoretical option, through a play- as the famous quote says: ‘give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day.
Give the man a net and he can feed his family for a lifetime’. Another opposing force, one that carries more weight, is that of Major Ross’s. He makes his view very clear on the idea of a play, that the convicts don’t deserve to have the slightest bit of fun, and refers to them as ‘vice-ridden vermin’. Wertenbaker’s use of alliteration here emphasises to the audience, Ross’s high status and how strongly he opposes this idea. Wertenbaker presents the poor treatment of the convicts, as black people were during slavery.
They aren’t treated or even considered to be human. Although, it is the appalling treatment of women that is most noticeable to the audience. This could be because the play is set in 1787, when women had very little or no power at all. Or, perhaps it is because only twenty five per cent of the convicts were female, so were taken advantage of. Therefore, it has become normal for women especially, to be treated with extreme brutality and second nature for them to feel insecure and vulnerable ‘alone, frightened, nameless’.
The convicts have been demotivated to such an extent, that characters are becoming stereotypical of themselves. A classic example of this in the play is that of Black Caesar offering to play a servant’s role simply because he is black. Presumably, he got his name by the colour of his skin, and doesn’t take an active part in the production because he feels he will be criticised and humiliated. However, he does offer to be in the play, showing his eagerness to raise his status.
The convicts are often humiliated but the worst scenario can be seen in Act two, Scene five, during the second rehearsal, whereby Ross demands Mary lift her skirt and makes Dabby bark like a dog. During the course of the play it becomes apparent to the audience the dislike among the convicts ‘Screw jaws… salt bitch! ‘ However, gradually they begin to sympathise and act civilised to one another. The amount of effort each of them put into the production is reflected in how their friendships progress.
The most pre- Nilkanth Patel eminent change can be seen in Liz’s character in Act two, Scene ten. To the shock of the audience, Liz comes clean in a confident speech ‘Your Excellency, I will endeavour to speak… ‘ showing the development her character has experienced, as a direct result of the play. Liz and Dabby were constantly at each other’s throats, but surprisingly unite and turn on Ketch, again illustrating how they are coming together as a team, or more importantly a society!
The Recruiting Officer’ provides the convicts with the inspiration they require to get through the ordeal and regain their memberships to society. Wertenbaker’s use of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ mimics their real situations and reproduces life, a prime example being the love scene. This allows the convicts to reflect this in their own characters and so, the production is transformed into a social activity. As Irving Wardle said, drama can be seen as a ‘civilising force’, and this is illustrated extremely well in ‘Our Country’s Good’.
Stafford Clark’s idea closely relates to Wardle’s, and points out ‘the theatre’s potential to change lives’. Wertenbaker’s use of ‘The Recruiting Officer’ and the effect it has on the convicts directly involves the audience because they too would be at a theatre watching this play. This fascinating and exhilarating play liberates the convicts and also Ralph to some extent, because he only agreed to direct the play in return for some recognition, but ended up getting caught up in the moment. The progression of the play depicts the convicts’ increasing commitment to life in general.
Their hopes that were dashed by the likes of Major Ross have been revived and are now full of aspirations. The production is like a metaphor for the path the convicts took to reveal their true identities, not as ‘whores’ or ‘slaves’, but humans living as a part of a community. The articulate manner in which Arscott delivers his speech, at the end of the play, represents his and his fellow convicts’ promotion in the hierarchical system. Finally, the audience learn the importance of the title ‘Our Country’s Good’ and the fact that the English migrated to Australia who then begun civilisation.
All of these aspects incorporated in the play help us to understand the whole concept of the play. The inspiration the convicts obtained from participating in the play, ensures that the civilisation will spread and more people will learn to appreciate the meritocracy of the theatre. Lieutenant Ralph Clark is enraptured when he realises what he has achieved in these unhopefuls, how he has raised their nobility and transformed them into patriots, as Wisehammer picks up on: ‘True patriots all, for be it understood, We left our country for our country’s good’.