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Our Country's Good is a 1988 play written by British playwright, Timberlake Wertenbaker, adapted from the Thomas Keneally novel The Playmaker. First staged at the Royal Court Theatremarker, Londonmarker on 10 September 1988, directed by Max Stafford-Clark.

Plot synopsis

Our Country's Good is the story of convicts and Royal Marines sent to Australia in the late 1780s as part of the first penal colony there. It follows Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark's attempts to put on a production of George Farquhar's restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer with a cast of male and female convicts. The play shows the class system in the convict camp and discusses themes such as sexuality, punishment, the Georgian judicial system, and the idea that art can act as an ennobling force.

As part of their research, Stafford-Clark and Wertenbaker went to see a play performed by convicts at Wormwood Scrubsmarker, which proved very inspiring: "…in prison conditions, theatre can be hugely heartening and influential and indeed in prison your options are so limited you can become a born-again Christian, a gym-queen constantly working out, a bird watcher or you become passionate about theatre.”

The convicts were, at least momentarily, civilized human beings, and they had taken their work very seriously: The convicts knew their lines absolutely because they had nothing else to do and they didn't want to waste time with pleasantries as soon as you came into the room they started rehearsing. The two hours were very intense because the time was so valuable and we saw immediately how doing a play could become absolutely absorbing if you were incarcerated.

Most of the characters in the play are based on real people who sailed with the First Fleet, though some have had their names changed. Wertenbaker was able to read the journals of First Fleet members in order to portray them accurately.


  • Captain Arthur Phillip, RN
  • Major Robbie Ross, RM
  • Captain David Collins, RM (Advocate General)
  • Captain Watkin Tench, RM
  • Captain Jemmy Campbell, RM
  • Reverend Johnson
  • Lieutenant George Johnston, RM
  • Lieutenant Will Dawes, RM
  • Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, RM
  • Second Lieutenant William Faddy, RM
  • Midshipman Harry Brewer, RN (Provost Marshal)

  • An Aboriginal Australian
  • John Arscott
  • Black Caesar
  • Ketch Freeman
  • Robert Sideway
  • John Wisehammer
  • Mary Brenham
  • Dabby Bryant
  • Liz Morden
  • Duckling Smith
  • Meg Long

Overview of Characters

  • Governor Arthur Phillip: The real Arthur Phillip had been called out of retirement to take on the position of Governor of the first fleet to Australia. He is a calm and controlled leader, contrasting Major Robbie Ross's leadership. He shows an obvious patience and understanding towards the convicts, especially Liz Morden. Throughout the play he refers to historical people and situations, such as famous thespians Garrick and Kemble. He is intellectual, understanding, and authoritative.
  • Major Robbie Ross: The real Major Robbie Ross had previously been on the losing side of the American War of Independence. In the play, Ross makes a reference to this, 'This is a profligate prison for us all, it's a hellish hole we soldiers have been hauled to because they blame us for losing the war in America.' The fact he feels he is being blamed may account for some of his bitterness. He is a vile, power obsessed man, who intimidates the convicts and believes that the convicts' punishment should be severe. He is completely against the play 'The Recruiting Officer' being put on, and constantly ridicules Ralph Clark for it.
  • Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark: Ralph is struggling as a lower officer. He deperately wants promotion, and when he hears through Harry Brewer that Arthur Phillip has suggested a play be put on by the convicts, he jumps to set about doing it. You see his transformation in the play as he turns from a man who is extremely nervous and uneasy around women, even ridiculed for not having a women convict for himself on the voyage to Australia, to a man in love with the convict Mary Brenham. He is influenced, to changing his feelings towards the convicts, by Arthur Phillip, giving them respect in the end, apologising to Liz Morden for interrupting her line in a rehearsal.
  • Harry Brewer: Not as low as a convict, not as high as an officer, Midshipman Harry Brewer struggles to find his place. Tormented by the apparent ghost of Handy Baker, a man who he had hanged, and other ghosts, he seeks reassurance in Ralph. Since in Australia, he and convict Duckling Smith have been together. He is a very jealous man, and is always keeping a watchful eye on Duckling, much to her dismay. He dies, with Duckling at his side in despair.
  • John Arscott: John Arscott's hopelessness as a convict becomes apparent in Act Two, Scene One. He says, 'There's no escape I tell you.' His utter hopelessness becomes more apparent when it is revealed that his compass he bought from a sailor is actually a piece of paper with 'North' written on it. Depending upon the delivery, this line can be full of humour or full of pathos.
  • Ketch Freeman: Transported to Australia for the killing of a sailor who broke a strike, Freeman is made the hangman of the colony when he is told 'hang or be hanged'. Despised by many of the other convicts for being a hangman, in particular Liz Morden, Ketch struggles to be accepted. He exchanges words with Ralph in Act One, Scene nine. He explains how he came to be in his situation, blaming a mix of reasons including leaving Ireland where his guardian angel was. You see also in this scene his desperation to be an actor in the play.
  • Captain Jemmy Campbell a follower of Ross. He is drunk and only shows various views. He copies Ross's views on everything, and is drunk most of the time. He is scottish and amused by the idea of the convicts performing a play.


In England, the play is used by the exam board AQA and Edexcel as a set text for Advanced Level Theatre Studies and as a set text to use in comparison essays for GCE. It has also been used in universities' performing arts and English departments. It has been performed across Europe as part of GCE candidates' final performances. Its also used at AS level


Our Country's Good premiered on Broadwaymarker at the Nederlander Theatre on April 29, 1991 and closed on June 8, 1991 after 12 previews and 48 performances. Directed by Mark Lamos, the cast featured Cherry Jones (Reverend Johnson), Peter Frechette (2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark), Tracey Ellis (Lieutenant George Johnston), Amelia Campbell (Lieutenant Will Dawes, Duckling Smith, Meg Long) and J. Smith-Cameron (2nd Lieutenant William Faddy).

The play was performed in the Liverpool Playhousemarker in 2007: amongst the cast members was Charlie Brooks, also known as Janine from EastEnders. The actors also had to provide a workshop for real life convicts in Walton Prisonmarker.

Awards and nominations

1988 Laurence Olivier Award
  • BBC Award for the Play of the Year (Winner)
  • Director of the Year (nominee)
  • Actor of the Year in a New Play (David Haig (Winner))

1991 Tony Award
  • Best Play (nominee)
  • Best Actor in Play (Peter Frechette) (nominee)
  • Best Actress in a Play (Cherry Jones) (nominee)
  • Best Featured Actress in a Play
  • : Amelia Campbell (nominee)
  • : J. Smith-Cameron (nominee)
  • Best Direction of a Play (nominee)

Drama Desk Award
  • Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Tracey Ellis) (nominee)


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