Our Country's Good
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A Level Paper 2, Section B The Language of Poetry and Plays
Component 02 is entitled The Language of Poetry and Plays. It is assessed by a closed text, two hour written examination which represents 32% of the qualification. The first section deals with poetry, the second with drama. Learners divide their time equally between the two sections.
The drama question asks learners to analyse the use and impact of dramatic and stylistic techniques, demonstrating how meaning and effects are created in the play they have studied. They are given a short extract from the play which is printed in the exam paper. Learners must draw on their knowledge of dramatic and stylistic techniques to show knowledge and understanding of the ways in which the playwright presents a theme, idea, character or other aspect of the drama in the extract.
Learners are expected to:
- Show knowledge and understanding of the play they have studied.
- Use linguistic and stylistic approaches and an understanding of dramatic techniques to develop an analysis of the text.
- Apply relevant methods for text analysis, drawing on linguistic and literary approaches.
- Explore contexts and connections between the scene and the play as a whole, as well as literary and generic contexts.
Tackling the question will involve:
- Exploration of dramatic effect, most significantly the structure of dramatic dialogue but also on-stage and off-stage action, paralinguistic features (gesture, manner of speech, facial expression), soliloquy, asides, dramatic irony.
- Analysis of the structure of the play (opening and closure, use of repetition, pattern making and breaking, parallel and contrasting characters and action, cause and effect narrative vs episodic structure).
- Identification and description of the ways meanings and effects are conveyed through language; here you will very probably be drawing on learners’ knowledge of linguistic, literary and stylistic approaches but adding or developing material on spoken language.
- Consideration of the significance of relevant dramatic or other contexts; this is especially important with Our Country’s Good which makes use of many techniques associated with the theatre of Bertolt Brecht.
It is likely that the drama text will be one of the last components of the A-Level course to be studied so your learners will come to Our Country’s Good with a confident working knowledge of the analysis of lexico-grammatical features, semantics and pragmatics, denotation and connotation, discourse and genre from their study of the non-fiction anthology, the poetry, and the novel. They will also be aware from the transcripts in the non-fiction anthology of some of the features of spoken language and its differences from the written. However, it may be a good idea to begin their study of Our Country’s Good with an activity that contrasts the differences between spoken language and dramatic dialogue.
You could start with this observation from Mick Short:
If dramatic dialogue is both like and unlike ordinary conversation, it is important for us to see where the similarities and dissimilarities lie. We can only apply conversational analysis to drama in relation to those areas where conversation and plays are similar.
Mick Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (London: Longman, 1995), p.174.
Get the group to discuss in pairs what they think the similarities and differences may be. Give as a stimulus a short transcript and a different example of dramatic dialogue to each pairing (e.g. extracts from Shakespeare, EastEnders, Murder in the Cathedral, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Caretaker, Top Girls all work well). Learners may come up with some of the following things which Mick Short identifies in chapter 6 of Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (indispensable reading for material of this kind).
Short argues that dramatic dialogue is like conversation because:
- Both feature turn-taking.
- Speech acts in both are context dependent.
- We use schemas to make sense of conversations in drama and real life.
- Dramatic characters often say one thing and mean another and this is true of life as well.
Short argues that dramatic dialogue is not like conversation because:
- Dramatic dialogue is written to be spoken whereas casual conversation is unprepared and unrehearsed.
- Drama has a ‘double-discourse’ structure: the overarching level of discourse is that between the playwright and the audience. Talk between characters is embedded in that higher discourse, allowing the audience to ‘listen in’ to what the characters say.
- Non-fluency features do not occur in dramatic or fictional dialogue (even though it is written to be spoken). If features from normal non-fluency do occur, they are perceived by readers and audience as having a meaningful function precisely because we know that the dramatist must have included them on purpose.
- In well-constructed dramatic dialogue, everything is meant by the playwright, even when it is apparently unintended by the character. The more realistic the dialogue, the more it should seem to be ‘unaimed’, unrelated to some obvious strategic or thematic purpose of the author’s design.
- Back-channel behaviour does not occur as frequently in scripted speech as it does in real life.
Short proposes a scale of realism for dramatic texts and suggests consideration of the following questions when discussing how realistic a text is:
- Is the lexis formal or informal?
- How complex is the grammatical structure of sentences? Is the dominant syntactic pattern for complex sentences anticipatory or trailing?
- To what extent are there graphological contractions (e.g. I’ll, you’d)?
- What features associated with normal non-fluency are present? How are they to be interpreted in context?
Once the first few scenes of Our Country’s Good have been covered, returning to Short’s scale of realism may be an interesting activity as different scenes offer different degrees of conversational realism.
It is also a good idea to get learners thinking about the ways in which studying a drama text is different to studying prose fiction and poetry. There is an excellent activity exploring this in the English and Media Centre’s book to accompany this course.
Our Country’s Good is ‘based’ on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and has at the centre of its narrative the production of a fairly obscure post-Restoration comedy, The Recruiting Officer. It also seems to demand some knowledge of the historical events surrounding the British penal colony in Australia and the transportation of criminals. It’s therefore understandable if learners worry about the amount of contextual material needed to make sense of the play.
You can point out that knowing the Keneally novel isn’t all that important; indeed Wertenbaker admitted in a lecture given at the University of East Anglia in 2012 that she read it only once while writing the play. Likewise, everything you need to know about The Recruiting Officer is explained in Our Country’s Good itself.
There is plenty of information available about the founding of the penal colony and transportation, including some in this guide. Robert Hughes’ monumental history, The Fatal Shore, is the most erudite and wide-ranging place to start. Though it’s over 600 pages long, it does have a very good index. Otherwise, the Australian Government website has some excellent material.
It’s important to emphasize to learners that, however engaging the historical material may be (and Dabby Bryant’s story is particularly compelling), they are dealing with Wertenbaker’s dramatic characters in their study and not the historical figures - it would not be difficult to get a top mark on the exam question without mentioning them at all.
Here are some key things you need to know:
The play is an adaptation of a novel by the Australian writer Thomas Keneally called The Playmaker (1986) which itself is based on actual historical events: there was a production of The Recruiting Officer performed by a convict cast in the Australian penal colony in 1789.
It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in London in September 1988 and was presented in repertory with a production of The Recruiting Officer with some extremely well-known actors in the cast: Jim Broadbent, Lesley Sharp, and David Haig. The Royal Court is known mainly as a theatre for new writing but it also stages classics, treating them often as if they were new plays. It has a reputation for challenging, political, and radical theatre, providing a voice for left-leaning playwrights.
The play was developed from workshops attended by the cast, director (Max Stafford-Clark) and Timberlake Wertenbaker. This method of working started with Joint Stock Theatre Company in the 1970s, with the intention of making theatre which was collaborative and democratic. In the case of Our Country’s Good, the workshop process included reading and discussion of Robert Hughes’ history of the Australian penal colony, The Fatal Shore, attending a performance of Howard Barker’s The Love of a Good Man by inmates at Wormwood Scrubs prison, and interviewing people about military and prison life, the criminal mind and the experience of extreme oppression. There’s useful material on this in Max Stafford-Clark’s Letters to George (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), which also contains much material on The Recruiting Officer. This is significant because it reflects a move away from the notion of the writer with an individual vision, expressing personal views; the creative process is much more about collaboration.
Our Country’s Good can be partly understood as a response to the arts policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which, as Alwyn W. Turner notes, ‘had firmly set its face against the subsidizing of the arts.’ Thatcher herself wrote in her memoirs: ‘Artistic talent […] is unplanned, unpredictable, eccentrically individual. Regimented, subsidised, owned and determined by the state, it withers. Moreover, ‘the state’ in these cases comes to mean the vested interested of the arts lobby. I wanted to see the private sector raising more money and bringing business acumen and efficiency to bear on the administration of cultural institutions.’ However, she also claims that she ‘certainly did not regret – though from the chorus of complaints about ‘cuts’ you would not have known it – that central government spending on the arts rose sharply in real terms while [she] was in Downing Street.’
Many arts organisations which relied on state support had grants cut during the 1980s as the government argued that the market should dictate the shape of arts activities. If a theatre or cinema or art gallery couldn’t generate sufficient revenues to survive, irrespective of the quality of the work, there was no point in looking to the state for subsidy. Government policy encouraged the arts to gain sponsorship from the private sector which would almost certainly determine what got produced. Popular West End theatre – ‘the most vibrant commercial theatre in the world’, according to Thatcher - thrived in this period; as Eric J. Evans writes, ‘Tourism boomed in Thatcher’s Britain and The Phantom of the Opera was one of the things they came to see.’
Evans also points out that ‘Arguably state parsimony stimulated artistic creativity. Much high quality art and theatre was fuelled by political anger and frustration.’ Nonetheless, a conference held in 1988 debated ‘The Theatre in Crisis’ and concluded that ‘a free market economy and private sponsorship cannot guarantee the necessary conditions for theatre to fulfil its many functions.’ Therefore a play like Our Country’s Good which celebrates the way theatre gives a voice to those marginalised by the powerful was bound to go down well with the disenfranchised liberal left who saw it at the Royal Court. Max Stafford-Clark argued that: ‘A play that proclaimed the power and enduring worth of the theatre, and that celebrated its centrality to our lives, was of importance in the third term of a government who deemed subsidy a dirty word.’ Wertenbaker herself has said that Our Country’s Good ‘is a modern play. I’m trying to write about how people are treated, what it means to be brutalised, what it means to live without hope, and how theatre can be a humanising force.’
The Conservatives’ policies on criminal justice are also relevant to Our Country’s Good. The Home Secretary in the first Thatcher government, Willie Whitelaw, introduced the ‘short, sharp shock’ for young criminals, a tough regime of ‘early wake up calls, military drill and manual labour over a three month period would shock young offenders out of a life of crime’, as Tony McMahon explains. Margaret Thatcher was a proponent of corporal punishment and voted for the return of capital punishment whenever the House of Commons debated the matter. As Stephen Farrall explains, ‘Within the dominant logic of 1980s New Right thinking, “toughness”, not liberalism was the order of the day, and levels of imprisonment rose with many facing longer sentences.’ John Major, who succeeded Thatcher as Prime Minister, told the Mail on Sunday in 1993 that ‘Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.’ In the same year, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, insisted to the Conservative Party conference that ‘Prison works. It ensures that we are protected from murderers, muggers and rapists - and it makes many who are tempted to commit crime think twice ... This may mean that more people will go to prison. I do not flinch from that. We shall no longer judge the success of our system of justice by a fall in our prison population.’
[References: Eric J. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism, third edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), pp.40-44; Alwyn W. Turner, Rejoice! Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s (London: Aurum Press, 2010), pp.68-70; Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (London: Harper, 2011), pp.632-634; Tony McMahon, http://thatchercrisisyears.com; Stephen Farrall, ‘Making Sense of Thatcherism and Crime' .]
The Australian Penal Colony - a (very) brief history:
1770 Captain James Cook arrives at what became known as Botany Bay.
1784 Transportation Act is passed by the British Parliament.
1786 The cabinet decide to establish a convict colony at Botany Bay.
1787 In January, King George III announces to parliament that plans have been made ‘to remove the inconvenience which arose from the crowded state of the gaols in the different parts of the kingdom.’ In May, the British settlement fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, departs from Portsmouth. The fleet comprised eleven ships which carried 1487 people: 759 convicts (the majority of whom were thieves), 13 children of convicts, 252 marines, wives and children, 20 officials, 210 Royal Navy seamen and 233 merchantmen.
1788 In January, the fleet arrive in Botany Bay after a sea voyage of over 15,000 miles and 252 days. ‘I cannot say,’ wrote Ralph Clark in his diary, ‘from the appearance of the shore that I will like it.’ Although only 48 people had died on the crossing, the first, most serious, challenge facing the colony was, as Robert Hughes writes in The Fatal Shore, ‘hunger. The first democratic experience in Australia spared no one. It made most of the colonists stupid and some crazy, playing havoc with morale and producing endless displays of petty tyranny.’
1789 George Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer is performed by an all-convict cast. In May, a disease similar to smallpox sweeps through the Aboriginal population. In November, Ann Davis is hanged for stealing goods and clothing from Robert Sideway.
1790 In March, Major Robert Ross is appointed Commandant of Norfolk Island, a satellite colony 930 miles north of Sydney. It is widely seen as an effort by Governor Phillip to avoid an open quarrel with a man described by Ralph Clark as ‘without exception the most disagreeable commanding officer I have ever known.’ In September, Governor Phillip is severely wounded by a spear thrown by an Aborigine.
1792 Phillip leaves the colony and returns to England. Ralph Clark goes home too and is reunited with Betsey Alicia in June.
1793 James Boswell wins a pardon for Mary (Dabby) Bryant. She escaped from the colony and returned to England via Timor, surviving hostile Aborigines, storms, the death of her husband and two children, and a further trial and imprisonment in England.
1794 Betsey Alicia Clark dies in childbirth and her child is still born. A few months later, Ralph Clark is killed on board ship in the Caribbean during a fight with a French ship. Bizarrely, his son, aged nine, and a midshipman on the same vessel, died on the same day of yellow fever. This, Robert Hughes reports, ‘was not quite the end of Clark’s line, for at the time of death he had a three-year-old daughter, whom he scarcely knew. She had been born to a convict woman, Mary Branham, on Norfolk Island in 1791. At Clark’s insistence, she had been christened Alicia. There is no reference to her mother in his journal.’
Learners can feel disorientated by the first few scenes of Our Country’s Good. Each takes place in a different location, involves a different set of characters, and the time lapse between them isn’t always clear.
The best way to demonstrate how the scenes work, learner co-operation and space permitting, is to get them on their feet. Divide the group appropriately; there are nine speakers in the first three scenes plus a flogged but non-speaking Sideway (he probably does a bit of screaming though). Bear in mind that most productions use the doubling of actors (see the original cast list) and others can be involved in announcing the scenes. Ask the group to perform the scenes as well as they can, trying to make the narrative as coherent as possible for the audience. You’ll probably need to issue a health warning about taboo language in the first scene.
Once performed, ask learners to say what they found difficult or confusing about the opening and how they addressed these challenges. Then work on the following questions in groups:
- Why do you think Wertenbaker opens the play with such a graphic act of violence?
- What do the initial speeches of Wisehammer, Arscott and Mary tell us about them?
- Wisehammer’s speech in particular is full of foregrounding devices. Identify three and explain what they contribute to the dramatic effect of the first scene.
- How is the dramatic method used in Scene Two different from the first scene? Why do you think Wertenbaker uses this apparent discontinuity?
- Scene Three is also very different in tone and style from the first two; identify three important differences and comment on them.
- What do you notice about the speech patterns of the officer characters? Identify the type of lexis they tend to use and the typical sentence structures which characterise their talk. Is there one of the four who speaks slightly differently? If so, who, how and why?
- How much time has elapsed between Scenes Two and Three? Find an exact line to support your answer.
- What events have taken place between Scenes Two and Three?
- Scene Three is in effect a debate about nature and nurture and which is more significant in influencing human behaviour. Identify which characters represent the two sides of the debate and find two quotations to support your view.
- What is the significance of Phillip shooting the bird?
Here are twelve lines from the first four scenes. Without using their books, ask learners working in pairs to identify the speaker, the narrative context in which the line is spoken, and its significance to the play’s ideas and characters. For each line they should make a comment on language. Get them to see what connections they can make between the lines too.
- I commend your endeavour to oppose the baneful influence of vice with the harmonising arts of civilisation but I suspect your edifice will collapse without the mortar of fear.
- I voted with the rest of the court those men should be hanged. I didn’t know His Excellency would be against it.
- I would say that somewhere between 250 and 500 lashes you are probably sentencing a man to death anyway.
- She hanged herself this morning.
- But when I remind her of that she says she wouldn’t have cared. Eighteen years old, and she didn’t care if she was turned off.
- A giant canoe drifts onto the sea, clouds billowing from upright oars. This is a dream which has lost its way. Best to leave it alone.
- No doubt Garrick would relish the prospect of eight months at sea for the pleasure of entertaining a group of criminals and the odd savage.
- But how could a whore play Lady Jane?
- […] oh the comfort, the comfort of the lick, the thrust into the nook, the crannies of the crooks of England. Alone, frightened, nameless in this stinking hole of hell, take me, take me inside you, whoever you are. Take me, my comfort and we’ll remember England together.
- Major Ross ordered one of the Corporals to flog with a rope Elizabeth Morden for being impertinent to Captain Campbell – the Corporal did not play with her but laid it home which I was very glad to see – she has long been fishing for it.
- Surely no one is born naturally cultured.
- The officers may look down on me now, but what if they found out I used to be an embezzler?
It’s likely that learners will have encountered Grice’s maxims in their study of the spoken language texts in the Component I anthology but here’s a brief reminder.
The cooperative principle is a principle of conversation that was proposed by H.P. Grice, stating that participants expect that each will make a ‘conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange.’ In other words, we abide by certain rules when we have conversations.
Grice proposed four rules or maxims for conversation. A speaker is assumed to make a contribution that:
- is adequately but not overly informative (quantity maxim)
- the speaker does not believe to be false and for which adequate evidence is had (quality maxim)
- is relevant (maxim of relation or relevance), and
- is clear, unambiguous, brief, and orderly (maxim of manner).
Grice uses the term ‘violate’ when speakers accidentally fail to comply with his conversational maxims; if there are deliberate violations, the maxims are ‘flouted’.
H.P. Grice, ‘Logic and Conversation’ in P. Cole and J. Morgan (eds.), Syntax and Semantics III: Speech Acts (New York: Academic Press, 1975), pp.41-58.
Read Act 1, Scene 5 aloud, then ask learners working in groups of 2-3 to identify moments when Grice’s maxims are observed or flouted/violated. You could allocate different sections: Meg, Sideway, Dabby/Mary/Liz.
Here are some things which students might identify:
- Meg flouts the maxim of manner (she is often ambiguous) and the maxim of relevance (she deliberately misunderstands Ralph’s words, making a number of obscene puns in order to embarrass and unsettle him).
- Ralph violates (or perhaps flouts) the maxim of quantity, often speaking to the convicts in a curt, brusque way (‘I’ve seen you on the ship.’) which shows that at this point in the play he is unable to see them as equals.
- Sideway violates the maxim of quantity and relevance by speaking too much; this shows his enthusiasm for the theatre and establishes him as a voluble and loquacious character over whom Ralph has seemingly little control.
- Mary also violates the maxim of quantity because her nervousness in front of an officer overcomes her. It shows her lack of confidence at this point in the play and should be contrasted with later scenes where she takes a much more active role.
- Like Sideway, Dabby flouts the maxim of quantity and relevance through her constant interruptions and inclusion of extraneous information (‘Doesn’t she have a sweetheart?’, ‘This is a good play, I can tell.’) Is this because she’s enthusiastic about the play or because she enjoys a chance to irritate Ralph? As with Meg, Ralph’s inability to deal with her refusal to participate co-operatively in the conversation shows his alienation from the convicts but also his lack of authority over them.
Sara Thorne proposes that in analysing any spoken discourse the following questions should be asked:
- Who are the participants and what are their roles?
- Do the participants have equal status?
- What is the purpose of the exchange?
- How is the discourse affected by the context?
Sara Thorne, Mastering Advanced English Language (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), p.194.
These are useful questions for exploring Act 1 Scene 6 which provides an excellent opportunity for discussing the role of turn-taking and exchange structures in dramatic dialogue. Thorne’s questions can be supplemented by some more specific questions from Mick Short’s Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose:
- Who has most turns?
- Who has the least?
- Who has the longest turns?
- Who has the shortest?
- Who initiates conversational exchanges?
- Who responds?
- Who controls the conversational topic?
- Who follows the topics of others?
- Who interrupts?
- Who is interrupted?
- Who uses terms of address not marked for respect (e.g. first name only)?
- Who uses terms of address marked for respect (e.g. title + last name)?
- Who allocates turns to others?
Mick Short, Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (Longman: London, 1995), p.206.
Read the scene in its entirety. Allocate a section of a page or so to small groups so the whole scene is covered. Having given each group a copy of Thorne and Short’s questions, ask the learners to explore the structure of the scene and its representation of turn-taking. What does this sort of analysis tell us about the relationships between characters? How is status and hierarchy important to meaning-making in the scene? A number of characters appear only in this scene; how are they important? How does Wertenbaker characterise them?
This activity would also work well for Act 1, Scene 11 and Act 2, Scene 10.
Use the following activities to explore the scene.
- petty thief
- a good looking woman
- a gentleman
- to run away
- to get out of the way
- a nice person
- to rob the rich
- to be hanged (2 possible)
- a judge
- a night constable
- to prostitute oneself
- to give the alarm
2. Remember that in Act 1, Scene 10, Wisehammer mentions that he has read the first volume of Dr Johnson’s dictionary. In it, Johnson defines the word dictionary as follows: ‘A dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained and its duration lengthened.’ With this in mind, how much of Liz’s canting slang do you think Johnson included in his dictionary? What is the dramatic effect of this lexis? How does it contribute to ideas of power in the play?
3. Explain the irony of Liz’s line ‘Speak in English, Wisehammer.’
4. What does it mean to ‘think English’?
5. How does Wertenbaker use Arscott to reinforce the importance of literacy?
6. How do the final lines of the scene show an increased unity among those involved in the play?
Note: Tony Coult’s essay ‘Our Country’s Good: From “canting” slang to “refined, literate language”’ (English Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, September 1996, pp.18-20) would be a helpful critical source for this activity.
A significant feature of Our Country’s Good is the number of times characters are given the opportunity to tell their life story. One way of approaching this is to use Labov’s theory of oral narratives to explore the structure of these moments.
Give the learners the following summary of Labov’s ideas.
A linguist called William Labov developed his theory of narrative structure (1972) during a study of oral story telling in New York in the 1970s. Labov was exploring the effects on language of social deprivation. He sees narrative (which includes everything from oral history to telling jokes) as central to all forms of written and spoken language. He focused particularly on the structure of story-telling and decided there were six stages in its development:
- Abstract - What is the story about? A summary.
- Orientation - What? Who took part? Where and when did it happen?
- Complicating Action - Then what happened?
- Resolution - What was the final outcome?
- Coda - The story is over and I'm returning to the present.
- Evaluation - What is the point of the story? Why have you been telling me this? This feature can occur throughout the narrative, not only at the end.
Susan Cockcroft argues that ‘what is useful about narrative structure theory is that it recognises story telling as a discrete part of everyday spoken interaction with a unique capacity to hold the hearer’s (or, in another context, the reader’s) attention. Labov’s identification of a story’s structural features (some of which can be optional, some obligatory) and the differentiation between them reconfirms the integral nature of the relationship between form and function in spoken language.’
Susan Cockcroft, Investigating Talk (London: Hodder Murray, 1999), p.27.
Other characteristics of oral narrative include:
- Co-ordinating conjunctions: Labov also asserts that oral narratives are usually told in the same order in which the events happened (chronologically) so it is probable that speakers will use a high proportion of co-ordinating conjunctions, such as ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘so’ etc.
- Tense: Storytellers are most likely to use the simple past tense. However, there is a tendency to move into the present tense at the most crucial part of the story to create a sense of immediacy and involvement with the story e.g. ‘so he drove all the way to see her and then she says …’.
- Demonstratives: Story-tellers tend to use singular and plural forms that denote nearness rather than remoteness from themselves as grammatical determiners. For example: ‘there was this woman’ (not ‘there was that woman’) ‘so these monkeys…’ (not ‘so those monkeys’).
- Hyperbole: Hyperbole, or exaggeration for effect is common in natural speech e.g. ‘it was so awful’; ‘horrifying story’ etc.
- Liz’s speech at the start of Act I2, Scene 1.
- Sideway’s description of London in Act 1, Scene 5.
- Ketch’s visit to Ralph’s tent in Act 1, Scene 9.
Ask learners to identify as many of Labov’s stages of oral narrative as they can, commenting on which are present, which absent, and what the structure of the story-telling reveals about character.
Other, slightly more complex, extracts which might work well include:
- Wisehammer’s conversation with Mary in Act 1, Scene 10.
- Ralph’s diary entries in Act 1, Scenes 4 and 5.
- Harry’s life-story in Act 1 Scene 4.
- Mary and Dabby’s conversation about events on the convict ship in Act 1, Scene 8.
Ask learners to:
1. Write a sentence to describe how each of the following characters in Our Country’s Good begins the play and how each ends it.
- The Aborigine
What do you notice? How is this important to the theme of identity and the theatre?
2. Which characters are not present in the final scene of Our Country’s Good? Why is this important?
3. Critics often suggest that if we want to know what a text is saying, the ending is the best place to look. To what extent do you agree? What do you think the final message of the play is?
Follow the Resources link to a list of the conventions of Epic Theatre. It’s pretty long so you may want to edit it down to 20 or so key features.
Divide learners up into groups of 2-3 and give them the list, asking them to find as many aspects of Epic Theatre as they can in Our Country’s Good.
Here are some things they might identify:
- No fourth-wall realism, separate aspects of the performance are made clear.
- Didacticism: Our Country’s Good aims to teach its audience; as Wisehammer argues, ‘A play should make you understand something new. If it tells you what you already know, you leave it as ignorant as you went in.’ (Act 2, Scene 7)
- Episodic structure, little sense of cause and effect.
- Juxtaposition of scenes employing multiple locations and time frames, giving a montage effect. First four scenes are an excellent example.
- (If pointed towards the original cast list) doubling/trebling of actors which means the actor never ‘becomes’ the character.
- Meta-theatricality draws attention to the act of making theatre.
- The function of the emboldened scene titles (e.g. Scene 1 The Voyage Out); are these used in production? if so, they announce narrative events in advance.
- Minimal props and setting.
- Spectators are supposed to remain detached and critical.
- Direct address to audience by the Aborigine.
- Slightly simplified and archetypal characterisation (Ross, Campbell, Tench, Reverend Johnson) while others are more complex (Ralph, Mary, Liz, Harry).
- ‘Historification’ enables spectators to view the play with detachment, garner a thinking response and draw parallels with current events; Wisehammer is helpful again: ‘It’s better if [a play] is set in the past, it’s clearer. It’s easier to understand Plume and Brazen than some of the officers we know here.’ (Act 2, Scene 7) This may be the opportunity to talk about the political situation in Britain at the time the play was first produced (see p.x).
This would work well as a round-up activity when the entire play has been covered. What follows are twenty five quotations from the play dealing with ideas about the theatre. Put these on cards and distribute a card or two to each member of the group. (If you want to use this exercise for revision, you could delete the character names and scene references and ask learners to identify both.) Then, either in groups of 5-6 or with the whole class, go round each member of the group who reads their line(s) out. The others effectively play ‘Snap’, making and explaining connections to their own lines. Distil the key ideas on the board.
- Tench: No doubt Garrick would relish the prospect of eight months at sea for the pleasure of entertaining a group of criminals and the odd savage. (1, 3)
- Tench: There is much excitement in the colony about the hangings. It’s their theatre, Governor, you cannot change that. (1, 3)
- Sideway: […] the pinnacle, the glory of the day: Drury Lane. The coaches, the actors scuttling, the gentleman watching, the ladies tittering, the perfumes, the clothes, the handkerchiefs. […] Ah, Mr Clark, I beg you, I entreat you, to let me perform on your stage, to let me feel once again the thrill of a play about to begin. (1, 4)
- Revd. Johnson: Christ never proposed putting on plays to his disciples. However, he didn’t forbid it either. It must depend on the play. (1, 6)
- Tench: A bunch of convicts making fools of themselves, mouthing words written no doubt by some London ass, will hardly change our society. (1, 6)
- Phillip: The theatre is an expression of civilisation. We belong to a great country which has spawned great playwrights: Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson, and even in our own time, Sheridan. […] 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. Can you suggest something else which will provide such an evening? (1, 6)
- Revd. Johnson: I hear many plays are about rakes and encourage loose morals in women. (1, 6)
- Phillip: The Greeks believed that it was a citizen’s duty to watch a play. It was a kind of work in that it required attention, judgement, patience, all social virtues. (1, 6)
- Ross: I know this play – this play – order will become disorder. The theatre leads to threatening theory. (1, 6)
- Ralph: 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 of Mr Farquhar, they seemed to acquire a dignity, they seemed – they seemed to lose some of their corruption. (1, 6)
- Tench: The content of a play is irrelevant. (1, 6)
- Mary: How can I play Silvia? She’s brave and strong. She could not have done what I’ve done. (1, 8)
- Ketch: Some players came into our village once. They were loved like the angels, Lieutenant, like the angels. And the way the women watched them – the light of a spring dawn in their eyes.
I want to be an actor. (1, 9)
- Ralph: Sideway – it’s a very good attempt. It’s very theatrical. But you could try to be a little more – euh – natural.
Sideway: Natural! On the stage! But Mr Clark! (1, 11)
- Wisehammer: How can I play Captain Brazen in chains?
Mary: This is the theatre. We will believe you. (2, 1)
- Phillip: A play is a world in itself, a tiny colony we could almost say. (2, 2)
- But Sideway turns to Liz and starts acting, boldly, across the room, across everyone. (2, 5)
- Ketch: That was a terrible mess, Mr Brewer, don’t you remember. It took twenty minutes and even then he wasn’t dead. Remember how he danced and everyone laughed. I don’t want to repreat something like that. (2, 6)
- Ralph: It’s completely wrong.
Wisehammer: It’s right for the character of Brazen.
Ralph: No it isn’t. I’m the director, Wisehammer.
Wisehammer: Yes, but I have to play the part. (2, 7)
- Ralph: People who can’t pay attention should not go to the theatre. (2, 7)
- Arscott: 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 don’t have to remember the things I’ve done, when I speak Kite’s lines I don’t hate any more. I’m Kite. I’m in Shrewsbury. (2, 7)
- Wisehammer: A play should make you understand something new. If it tells you what you already know, you leave it as ignorant as you went in. (2, 7)
- Ross: It’s that play, it makes fun of officers, it shows an officer lying and cheating. (2, 10)
- Liz: Your Excellency, I will endeavour to speak Mr Farquhar’s lines with the elegance and clarity their own worth commands. (2, 10)
- Ralph: The theatre is like a small republic, it requires private sacrifices for the good of the whole. (2, 11)
Here are some extracts from articles and reviews of the play and other material relevant to it. Get learners working in groups on the quotations, deciding whether or not they agree with the views expressed and finding evidence from the play to support their opinions.
I’m afraid the play as a whole panders to one of the profession’s fondest myths: the power of the theatre to transform the world. At any rate, the evidence is stacked much too warmly: almost every character is very nice. The authorities are extremely indulgent. The convicts all have hearts of gold. The only real barrier to a triumphant resolution if the cruel Major, who’s not much more than a comic villain.
Tom Lubbock, review of the 1999 revival in the Independent, accessed on-line 9 April 2015.
Our Country’s Good’s epic form actually problematises the liberal categories on which the humanistic reading is based. In other words, the way they play constantly invites the audience to reflect on the fundamental social and political issues of authority, justice, class, gender and race – rather than encouraging uncritical emotional identification with the characters – asks us to consider carefully the notion of the superiority of an ‘educated’ class. We are asked to consider whether this class really is more ‘civilised’ than its so-called inferiors, then and now.
Sean McEvoy, ‘Our Country’s Good as epic theatre’, English Review, Vol. 9, No.1, September 1999, pp.15-17.
The convicts’ acquisition of personal dignity isn’t made on their own terms; they have to conform to the cultural standards of the ruling class. Governor Phillip explains he would prefer them to see ‘real plays: fine language, sentiment’, and later he tells Ralph that he wants ‘to rule over responsible human beings, not tyrannise over a group of animals.’ It’s possible to argue that, by performing a ‘real play’ and speaking ‘fine language’, the convicts have the chance to demonstrate their social responsibility and become acceptable to their rulers; the creative opportunity offered by The Recruiting Officer is nothing more than a hegemonic concession used to coerce the disruptive into capitulation to the governing elite.
George Norton, ‘‘‘Unused to Happy Endings’: Closure in Contemporary Drama’, E-Magazine, No.62, December 2013, pp.9-12.
[…] so as Ralph’s version of The Recruiting Officer neared its end, as all characters grew not only redeemable but worthy of congratulation, the players and the playmaker Ralph himself were left with the sense that life could be easily amended, that love was an easy ploy, and that everyone really intended the best. Ralph considered that in the real world it might also be the case except that there was always too much hidden, and too much to take into account. It was only within the circumference of a play, and particularly of a comedy, that all characters could be so deftly delivered from their meanness. […] though art perpetually improved itself, society went its reckless and complicated way.
Thomas Keneally, The Playmaker (London: Sceptre, 1987), p.302-3
The liberal critic may like to see the theatre, like Arscott, as a form of escape, as means of forgetting the awfulness of his or her situation. But it was Arscott who, when he tried to escape, found himself going round in circles. He was seeking a China which wasn’t there and guided by a preposterous ‘compass’ sold to him by someone in authority. If there is a way out, we need to stand back, connect, understand and judge, not retreat into an escapist fantasy world. I think Our Country’s Good encourages us to do this.
Sean McEvoy, ‘Our Country’s Good as epic theatre’, English Review, Vol. 9, No.1, September 1999, pp.15-17.
Most professional humanists […] are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of such practices as slavery, colonialist and racial oppression on the one hand, and the poetry, fiction, and philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1993), p.xiv.
Even as the audience cheers at these moments [from the last three scenes], we would be well advised not to forget that Phillip’s idea of mounting the play does not clearly place the interests of the convicts before those of the colony, that the production of The Recruiting Officer amounts to the adoption of cultural values of the dominant community an hence is a means of colonisation.
Ann Wilson, ‘Our Country’s Good: Theatre, Colony and Nation in Wertenbaker’s Adaptation of 'The Play-Maker’, Modern Drama, Vol. 34, 1991, p.31.
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