‘The more strongly the presence of the Aborigine is felt in the production, the more the play can be seen to be concerned with colonisation’ discuss?
‘Our Country’s Good’ is based on events that occurred in the first penal colony to be set up in Australia in 1789. The play deals with the prisoners in the colony, who were imprisoned for minor infractions, while still in Britain. It tells of the abuse they endured at the hands of their officers, in the world’s most remote outpost. Some British convicts were dragged over from Britain for petty crimes such as stealing a morsel of food. After a horrendously severe voyage at sea, and with rations becoming dangerously low, the Governor of the colony, Captain Arthur Phillip realizes that morale is at an all time low. In an effort to uplift the spirits of the convicts and officers, he suggests a stage play be presented. The convicts would take the parts in this comedy; ‘The Recruiting Officer’.
‘Our Country’s Good’ is a play primarily concerned with theatre’s influence in changing people’s lives rather than with the British colonisation of Australia. The arrival of the transported victims in Australia, allows the writer to dramatise how they will rebuild their shattered lives through their involvement in theatre and how it will result ultimately in their transformation.
In Act One Scene Two. The Aborigine sees the whites as ancestral ghosts who have returned to the land. His sensibility is thus distinguished from a European one. Through metaphor, he defamiliarises the ship; “a giant canoe drifts into the sea” suggesting how alien and magical the first sighting of the Sirius must have been for the simplistic Aborigine race. Sails are compared to billowing clouds; this reveals a symbolic and mythic cast of mind. The arrival of the white man is not seen in historical terms but in metaphysical ones. The pale-faces are recast as the hero ancestors of Aborigine origin myth.
Enshrined in valley, rock, and hill, the spirits of the ancestors are living presences for successive generations as they follow the ancestral pathways. To carve up the land with fences and barriers is too cut off the indigenous people from their past and culture. To deprive the Aborigines of their territory was to condemn them to spiritual death – a destruction of their past. Their future and their opportunities of transcendence. Their displacement, both metaphysical and physical, is foreshadowed in the Aborigine’s words: “this is a dream which has lost its way. Best to leave it alone”. The Aborigine speaks only four times throughout the whole book, but his haunting words give a native Australian reaction to the bewildering events of 1788.
In Act One, Scene Three: Punishment the Europeans’ response to this utterly alien natural habitat is to destroy it. The paradise of birds will soon be eradicated and replaced by the old world, signified by Tyburn, Phillip does not want this, he criticises the idea of travelling fifteen thousand miles of ocean “to erect another Tyburn”. The shooting of the birds also expresses how the whites have no appreciation of the indigenous culture. The aborigines worshipped nature, believing as they did that the spirits of their ancestors inhered in the living, incarnate cosmos. In contrast, the Europeans see nature as something that needs to be tamed and are destructive towards it. For them, civilisation involves the imposition of human order and systems on the natural living world.
Act One, Scene Six: the authorities discuss the merits of Theatre
The aborigines are viewed as genuine anarchists: a people who can dispense with prisons and laws because they have no sense of what constitutes private property: In Aboriginal thought, territory was the property of mythic ancestors. The colonisers simply declared their land to be crow land and stripped them of all the territorial rights. “It’s like the savages here. A savage is a savage because he behaves in a savage manner. To expect anything else is foolish. They can’t even a build a proper canoe”
In Act One, Scene Seven: Harry and Duckling Go Rowing. Harry’s desperate attempts to interest Duckling in the building work on shore enable Wertenbaker to depict the process of colonisation and to draw the reader’s attention to the settlements. The captain’s house, Ralph’s attempts at cultivating crops, the newly built courthouse, Dawes observatory- all these would constitute civilisation in Tench’ and Ross’ book. The white man builds cities and tames nature.
In Act Two, Scene Four: The Aborigine Muses on the Nature of Dreams. This scene focuses on the consequences of the Europeans riding roughshod over the Aborigine’s worship of nature. We saw earlier how the Aborigine had initially seen the coming of the White man as a dream, which would eventually disappear if left alone. In this second speech, the dream is mutating into a nightmare as it refuses to go away “this is a dream no one wants”. Crowded, hungry and disturbed, the ancestral spirits have been conflated with the convicts in the mind of the Aborigine. It is as though the colonisation of Australia is not just a territorial invasion but also a metaphysical appropriation. Aborigine myth-making about their origins and ancestors has become contaminated. The register used is the Aborigine interpretation of reality. The Aborigine in the play acts like a touchstone and a criterion, he reflects not just the Aborigines and their culture but the Australian land mass as a whole “How can we befriend this crowded, hungry and disturbed dream?”
In the last scene, this spiritual exploitation expresses itself in physiological terms: the Aborigine turns up at the camp, dying of smallpox contracted from the white man. Displaying symptoms of the disease, the Aborigine conceded that perhaps it is not a dream after all. Thus historical reality hits home with a vengeance. The lonely death of the Aborigine- he drifts off stage at the end, shunned and ignored by the convicts- enacts the larger death of the indigenous people, it is a microcosm.
In Act Two, Scene Eleven: Backstage. The aborigine’s vision at the beginning of Act Two, Scene Seven has now come to pass. Earlier he had envisioned a “swarm of ancestors”, invading the land like an advancing cloud of locusts. Now he suffers a “plague” in the form of smallpox, a disease contracted from the white man. The “oozing pustules” and soaring temperatures are the outward symptoms of colonisation. The Aborigine cuts an abject figure as he “drifts off” as the convicts take centre-stage and prepare for their opening night performance. For them, the process of transportation has opened new horizons, both an individual and social level. For the Aborigine, the arrival of the white man means the departure of the black man. This colonial situation is enacted out in terms of simple physical action: the whites enter as a cohesive and supportive group; the black man leaves the stage ill and alone.
The convicts’ callous disregard of the dying Aborigines (“I hope they won’t upset the audience”) contrasts strikingly with the caring attitude they now demonstrate towards each other, “I’ve brought you an orange from lieutenant”. This split emphasises the fact the convicts have now formed an ‘ensemble’ among themselves- a theatrical group in which individual egos are subsumed in a larger enterprise, that of the production. In the stage directions, Mary, Dabby, Sideways et al are now known collectively as the “actors”, emphasising their social, moral and spiritual transformation.
Despite this Mary still deems the Aborigines to be “savages”. Tench originally applied this term to the Aborigines in Act One, Scene Six when he was defending the proposition that criminals are born not made: Wertenbaker shows how Eurocentric attitudes and beliefs will persist in Australia in Australia the post-penal period. It is Aborigines, therefore, who are the ultimate victims in the play.
Acting in the eighteenth century was taken very seriously. There were two schools: Garrick was renowned for his ‘naturalness’; and John Kemble and Sarah Siddons for their ‘classicism’. The physicality of the actors was of the utmost importance to both ‘styles’. Each gesture had a universally understood meaning and was seen as the visual expression or spirit of an actor’s passion. Great importance was attached to clarity, nobility and ceremony and the techniques were designed so that an actor always looked ‘interesting’ and ‘beautiful’ even in death.
There is much conflict within the play between the acting theories of Brecht and Stanislayski, whether the actor should be detached or identify (engagement) from the character they are playing. Brecht began to develop his so-called epic theatre, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. In order to give the audience a more objective perspective on the action, Brecht promoted a style of acting and staging that created a distancing effect (Verfremdung). Instead of identifying with their roles, actors were instructed merely to demonstrate the actions of the characters they portraying.
Stanislayski, on the other hand believed to reach ’emotional truth’, methods such as ’emotional memory’ must be employed. To prepare for a role that involves fear, the actor must remember something frightening, and attempt to act the part in the emotional space of that fear they once felt, the actor must draw from their own experiences to transform and empathise with the character. Stanislavsky believed that an actor needed to take his or her own personality onto the stage when they began to play a character. This was a clear break from Brecht’s mode of acting that held that the actor’s job was to become the character and leave their own emotions behind.
The play allows the actors to transform from a group of convicts into an ensemble; we now see them in theatrical terms. Mary appears as an unconfident character at the beginning of the play; she is described as being ‘inaudible’. Mary is ashamed of her tattoo because of its connotations; it brands her a ‘whore’. By the end of the play her intellect emerges and develops, Mary embodies the Stanislayski view of acting. “No. I have to be her” she becomes more assertive.
Ralph, conversely, originally decided to mount the play with ulterior motives; he wanted promotion. He is patronising, condescending and overtly sarcastic towards the convicts at the audition towards the other actors. Quite absurdly Ralph has very little authority at the rehearsals. In Scene six, however he speaks up for the play, saying that the actors “seemed to acquire a dignity” and they seemed “to lose some of their corruption”. By the end of the play Ralph and Mary’s attraction towards each other is finally confirmed, and Ralph is reformed in that he stops dichotomising women, and can view Mary as a women rather then having to pigeon-hole her either a virgin or a whore.
Dabby, on the other hand at the beginning of the play is domineering; her motivation when she’s showing off Mary, is primarily to sell her. She sees women as a ‘commodity’; Dabby acts as a ‘pimp’ for the female convicts. Hard-bitten and cynical, she dominates the shy and retiring Mary. Her opinion on lose is that it is “more of contract to marriage”, her theatrical importance is she counterpoints Mary. Dabby is a feminist who sees the injustice of the world. She sees how male domination means Women are viewed as little more than property. She is concerned about how women can get power. Dabby evidently has a limited view of the play; she cannot distinguish between theatre and reality. She learns about social responsibility when she delays her escape.