OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD
at Bailiwick Repertory
The Corn Is Green with whips. Up the Down Staircase with dysentery. Welcome Back, Kotter with kangaroos. That’s Our Country’s Good. Set in early colonial Australia and centered on a British junior officer’s efforts to stage a comedy using convict talent, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 drama pursues your basic dignity-through-learning scenario.
You got your quietly courageous pedagogue; your motley bunch of uneducables; your repressive pecking order, enforced by bullies and prigs. You got your tortuous climb toward self-respect. At the end, you got your glimpse of new horizons for the uneducables, your gestures of love and gratitude for the teacher, your fits of apoplexy for the prigs. Gabe Kaplan would recognize the pattern immediately.
If the piece doesn’t come across like “The Sweathogs Meet Mr. Chips Down Under,” it’s mostly because Wertenbaker’s done her best to render her scenario in the grittiest possible terms. Our Country’s Good opens with a flogging, followed by a grim fuck between two convicts in a ship’s hold. From there it’s on to more sex and torture–as well as alcohol and madness, death, hunger, humiliation, loneliness, exploitation, constant filth, and even anti-Semitism–as Wertenbaker tells her tale of life and art among the unwilling pioneers of Australia: several hundred English convicts and their keepers, sent in 1787 around the cape and across the Indian Ocean to found the settlement that became Sydney.
Wertenbaker’s Kotter is Ralph Clark, a young second lieutenant of somewhat more refined sensibility–not to say more pronounced uptightness–than his fellow officers. Where others go whoring among the female convicts, drink themselves into psychosis, or commit acts of systematic brutality they call discipline, Clark quietly masturbates over a portrait of his beloved wife once a week.
Encouraged by his captain–a Rousseau-spouting believer in rehabilitation and the dignity of men–Clark undertakes to mount a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, featuring such local personalities as Sideway the pickpocket, Dabby the deal maker, Ketch the hangman, Liz the hangman’s client, and Wisehammer the Jew. Also Mary Brenham: an earnest young woman with pretensions to virginity, whose own finer sensibility finds a sympathetic echo in Clark. Everybody gets ennobled here, but Mary goes for extra credit.
Our Country’s Good works the Sweathog scenario rather nicely, all in all–offering a little originality, a little melodrama, a little inspiration, a bracing spritz of mud and blood and semen. But the play gets really interesting only when it rises above the Kotter association and hooks up instead with the genre represented by Athol Fugard’s The Island and Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. That is, when it stops being a play about the benefits of dramatic studies and becomes one about the politics of the theater itself.
It happens along about act two, after the would-be actors have developed some sense of unity. Simply, smartly, Wertenbaker shows how Clark’s production assumes a different meaning for each faction in settlement society. How what starts out as a classically bourgeois reformist gesture–the enlightened captain’s attempt to acculturate and co-opt (i.e., “rehabilitate”) his prisoners by exposing them to art–reads as a threat to those charged with keeping the prisoners in line, and as an opportunity for resistance to the prisoners themselves. In Marat/Sade, the good directors of the Charenton mental hospital try to showcase their progressive approach to madness, only to find themselves subverted by their madmen. Something similar happens in Our Country’s Good.
But not too similar. For all her great wit, Wertenbaker’s ultimately more comfortable with the Sweathog scenario than with Sade’s provocation. Clark’s students don’t take over the school and they don’t drop out. They graduate in good order, essentially accepting the notion of rehabilitation as defined for them by the powers that be.
That’s the way it goes in the new Remains Theatre production anyway. A stronger version might suggest a more complex set of motives and reactions among the convicts. But this isn’t a very strong version, mainly because Amy Morton’s direction does such a peculiarly effective job of defeating itself. On the one hand you’ve got a pronounced tendency to drain the show of its emotional reality: good actors like Lucy Childs, Holly Fulger, and Si Osborne evincing no internal life at all. On the other, an even more pronounced tendency to gorge on visual literalism: Osborne’s Clark sticking his hand in his pants so we’ll get the idea he’s sexually frustrated; Fulger’s Mary exposing her breasts so we don’t miss her loving submission; and everybody getting slathered with mud–I guess so we’ll understand things were messy in 18th-century Australia. Morton gives us exclamation points where ellipses would’ve worked, empty parentheses where we need hard information.
Still, the production’s not so weak that it doesn’t work at all. I came out of Our Country’s Good feeling good. Lieutenant Clark’s show had gone on. The convicts had been vindicated. Even, maybe, ennobled. Wertenbaker’s language was witty; her meditations on the theater were intriguing, if not fully realized. Fulger’s breasts were pleasant to look at, if not dramatically justified. All in all, it was enough. It just wasn’t what it might’ve been.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steve Leonard.