Our Country’s Good, by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is a play that begins in the hold of the vessel Sirius, a convict ship. The ship is on its way to Australia, where the British Empire notoriously shipped criminals to get them away from the British Isles. At the start of the play, convicts aboard the Sirius witness a flogging and speak fearfully about what lies ahead. In Australia, in Sydney Cove, an Aboriginal Australian comments on the arrival of the first fleet and the British Empire’s presence in Australia. At first, he is curious, but that curiosity soon turns to confusion and fear.
The play then focuses on four British men who have just arrived in Sydney. Their ranks and names are Governor Arthur Philip, Captain Watkin Tench, Captain David Collins, and Midshipman Harry Brewer. They are engaged in a debate about the purpose of imprisonment. On one side of the debate is the idea that it is to punish criminals—on the other side, that it exists to rehabilitate them. They also debate whether or not criminals are born as such, or whether crime is a learned behavior. Tench tells the others that the convicts are entertained by hangings, so the governor orders the midshipman to find a hangman. There are three criminals who have been found guilty of stealing food, and they will be hanged. But the governor also wants the convicts to put on a play, as less violent entertainment.
Our Country’s Good features a play within a play. Other dramatic works that do this include A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare and Noises Off by Michael Frayn, among many others.
Harry has two of the three thieves hanged, but then is filled with guilt. One of the thieves, whose name was Handy Baker, was after the adoration of a woman Harry also pursues. Her name was Duckling Smith, and she was a convict. Harry shares the governor’s plan to put on a play with Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark. Ralph decides he will lead the convicts in performing the play. He thinks if he does this, the governor will notice him and perhaps grant him favor. For the play, Ralph selects The Recruiting Officer, a comedy written by George Farquhar during the Restoration period in England, which took place during the latter half of the seventeenth century.
As Ralph casts convicts in the play, officers continue to debate criminality and punishment. Some of them oppose the performance of a play, while others support it. They vote as to whether or not the play should continue, and a majority vote in favor of it, so Ralph is allowed to continue his work and to plan the rehearsals.
Duckling gets a part in the play by complaining about Harry’s attentions. Several of the other female characters argue. One of them cannot read; another feels unequal to playing the part she’s been given. The hangman, whose name is James “Ketch” Freeman, tells Ralph that he’s innocent of the charges that landed him Australia. He doesn’t want to be a hangman, but when he was convicted he was told he had to hang or be hanged. One thing after another goes wrong, and the first rehearsal is a complete mess that leads to many of the convicts being imprisoned. Because of this, Ralph wants to put a stop to the play. He tells Philip this, but Philip insists he continues the play. He wants to prove that incarceration can have a rehabilitating effect on convicts and believes the play will serve that purpose.
Meanwhile, Harry is visited by the ghosts of the two men he had hanged. Ralph begins a second rehearsal, during which some of the convicts show improvement in their roles while Ross humiliates some of the others, forcing them to show off their scars from being flogged. Harry and Freeman prepare for the third hanging. A woman named Liz is to be executed for stealing food, but she insists she is innocent of the charge. Harry is continuously visited by ghosts and he collapses. When Ketch returns to the play, the other convicts refuse to act with him because he’s the hangman. The rehearsal ends.
As is common with plays within plays, the characters also discuss the purpose of a play. Is it to entertain? Instruct? Satirize? Each of the officers has his own ideas of what a play’s purpose should be.
Duckling swears to love Harry, but when he collapses, he dies. Ralph and a convict, Mary, rehearse privately, which leads to their confessions of mutual love. The officers discuss Liz’s fate, and allow her one more opportunity to speak up and defend herself. Collins insists they have a retrial but Liz delays with a promise to perform in the play anyway. Before the play begins, the convicts discuss their plans for afterward. Some want to try to escape. Others plan futures together. The play begins and, from the start, receives uproarious applause.