Our Country’s Good imagines a purpose for the Theater that is not often discussed, even among “theater people.” Going to the theater for an evening’s entertainment, or to experience the language of Shakespeare, or to consider a social, political, or artistic agenda, these are purposes with which we are the most familiar. We don’t often question the purpose of the Royal Shakespeare Company, or what experience we might expect in a Broadway house, or even wonder about the purpose of a student production at the Clarence Brown. But we are surprised from time to time, occasionally offended, transformed possibly. Good.
I am asked on occasion about the purpose of unpleasant material – theater that invites an audience into a world that, however truthfully it might try to represent it, is not a pleasant place to be. Our Country’s Good invites an audience into such a world. In this inhuman society, Timberlake Wertenbaker champions the theater as an important agent in the process of forging a civil society. As the convicts rehearse their play, and as their gaolers wrestle with its effect upon the life of the colony, we are reminded of the fact that from these origins a nation is built. And we are also reminded that in that first wretched year, someone thought it a good idea to “pass the time” by putting on a play – something to divert, to entertain, and as the play suggests, to prompt change. It is a bit startling to imagine the possibility, as Ms. Wertenbaker does, that Sydney’s glorious Opera House might have been built on the very bluff where Watkin Tench ridicules Arthur Philip’s notion that the act of putting on a play might be beneficial for them all.
Our Country’s Good is not satisfied, however, with merely suggesting that the act of theater played a role in the transformation of Botany Bay, it also argues that the transformation of individual lives, of the hearts and minds of audiences, and even of the attitudes of entire societies, is at the center of the Theater’s power and purpose.