Aboriginal Australians look upon their lives as a re-enactment of the journeys and quests taken by ancestor heroes in the Tjukurapa – the Dreamtime – before which the earth did not exist. It took less than 75 years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied the Australian continent for over 40,000 years. The hardships faced by their ancestors could not have prepared them for the boatloads of disease and destruction that landed at Botany Bay in 1788.
In the twenty-eighth year of the reign of King George III, the British Government sent a fleet to colonize Australia. Eleven ships, carrying supplies and almost 1,500 officers, seamen, marines, and convicts, traveled for eight months before reaching New South Wales. Few of the convicts on board were dangerous criminals. Contrary to popular belief, of the 736 convicts shipped out in 1787, not one was convicted of murder or rape, although more than a hundred had been convicted of thefts in which violence or threat had played some part. No woman on the First Fleet, legend to the contrary, had been transported for prostitution, as it was not a transportable offense. Over half the women were domestic servants by trade. The vast majority had been convicted of a minor theft. The penalties were severe – generally death by public hanging. Most of the First Fleet convicts had been found guilty of stealing, been sentenced to hang, and then had their sentence commuted to seven years transportation, with the understanding that this was essentially exile for life.
The basis for Ms. Wertenbaker’s play is the novel The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally (author of Schindler’s List). The source for both play and novel are the letters and journals of Ralph Clark, Watkin Tench, David Collins, and other First Fleet officers. The characters in this play – convict and officer alike – did indeed exist. The 1789 convict production of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, directed by 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is a matter of historical record. But it is more than that. By the accounts of these First Fleet officers, it is also a remarkable tale of the power that theatre has to transform and humanize – even those whom society considers unredeemable. The severe adversity Ralph and his players overcame to realize the first Australian production of a play is a fascinating chapter in the history of this dawning nation.
The Clarence Brown Theatre production will feature a number of MFA graduate students and is directed by CBT Artistic Producing Director, Cal MacLean
David Rose, Director of Colony Theatre’s Production of Our Country’s Good