Our Country’s Good
I personally have found the social, historical and political context of ‘Our Country’s Good’ fascinating. The way it manages to take an issue from many years ago, the treatment of prisoners and system of punishment, and relate it to similar issues today is very interesting. It makes us question important political and social issues today at the same time as entertaining us by allowing the characters to tell us their story. In the particular scene that I have chosen to write about we find Mary Brenham copying out ‘The Recruiting Officer’ (the play she and other convicts have been chosen to act out).
She attracts the attention of John Wisehammer, another convict, who we learn has a love for words. This leads them to exchange on the sound and meaning of the words which are poignantly linked to their situation. If I was to play the part of Mary Brenham in this named scene, my interpretation would need to take into account the historical, social and political context of ‘Our Country’s Good’. In historical terms I would need to remember that although this play deals with issues found in today’s society, the actual text is set in 1787.
Therefore, the way people would go about their daily lives would be very different to the present day. I would need to insure that my interpretation of Mary kept a sense of this different society within her. Despite being on a convict ship I would keep my costume reasonably concealing and modest. My interpretation of Mary would also have her showing some unease at being approached by Wisehammer, a man who is disturbing her from her work when no one else is around. This intimate conversation would not have been so acceptable back home in England.
Similarly, my interpretation of Mary would need to take into account the social context of the text. John Wisehammer explains to Mary how he came to love words so much despite coming from such a difficult background where education would have been unimportant for young men. This includes some historical context as Wisehammer’s knowledge would have been very surprising to people at the time. It was very unusual for a person of lower class to have such understanding of the English language. Therefore, my interpretation of Mary would be to be slightly shocked and surprised when he is speaking to her about the words in the play.
However I would also be grateful for his help, as Mary clearly lacks this extensive knowledge when she asks ‘What does indulgent mean? ‘ John then helps her with the word and I would show a certain amount of admiration for him in my interpretation of Mary as she is clearly so keen to perform this part to her best ability, unlike Dabby who doesn’t know her lines! Language and identity are clearly linked throughout ‘Our Country’s Good’. In this scene we see how the words are movingly linked to the two characters rather desperate circumstances.
The play which is giving them some expressive freedom also highlights the lack of true freedom in their own lives. Some of Mary’s lines I would need to make a real feature of in order to show clearly to the audience the underlying meaning found in their conversation. For instance ‘Love is a good word’ is a key line as it reminds us of Mary earlier when she says ‘I don’t know why I did it. Love, I suppose’ In a rather Brechtian style I would look at the audience here, directing my line at them, challenging them directly and the breaking the symmetry of the two characters’ discussion.
The whole beauty of this scene is that it makes a strong political comment as it challenges Governer Phillip’s comment from earlier in the play: that by speaking Farquhar’s language ‘the convicts will be speaking in a refined, literate language and expressing sentiments of a delicacy they are not used to’. Of course, scene 10 contradicts this statement entirely, and by interpreting the character of Mary in a way that shows how much these lines and words relate to her and her past, the political comment that criminals are humans too and perfectly capable of expressing sentiments no matter how refined their language will be clearly made.