On the 10th September 1988 “Our Country`s Good” opened at the Royal Court Theatre. The play was set in a penal colony in Australia and featured the first wave of British convicts. Many of these criminals were convicted of minor or petty crimes, and were just considered a nuisance by the British state and shipped precisely for “our country`s good”.
Wertenbaker was intrigued by the notion that theatre, and creative expression in general can help to rehabilitate and to improve those who are otherwise considered irredeemable and of malign character. Her play focuses upon an amateur dramatic society where the stage is the penal colony and the acting roles are played by the convicts. It is a slow and agonising process but the drama helps to humanise and redeem the incarcerated and institutionalised. The belief that exposure to literature can be beneficial was revived in a recent court case.
The outcry that followed the Judge`s decision in the Ben John case seemed to me excessive as literary education is the best route to enlightenment. It is particularly helpful in illuminating different human experiences and it allows the reader to empathise. John is a young man of just 21, an age when many of us can develop very peculiar ideas.
John`s only crime appears to be his rather limited collection of reading materials, with very little refinement or delicacy. Nazism is an ideology that is immune to critical thought, it maintains a rather rigid view of humanity and its progress. In contrast literature helps to open hearts and minds and therefore improve human societies.
Theatre is still the greatest forum for exploring the darkest elements to human society, a concept that was clear to the dramatist Antonin Artaud. Artaud was the chief proponent and founder of the “ Theatre of Cruelty” movement. Artaud`s philosophy was that theatre should reflect all kinds of human physical experience, even in its rawest manifestations.
In 1938 he published a series of essays called “The Theatre and its Double”. He was reportedly inspired by Balinese street performance and was moved by the truths that were contained in the art that he witnessed. Most of us are not expert Theatre Practitioners but nonetheless understand instinctively the power that drama can have over us, it is almost like being put under a magic spell.
Drama when performed correctly and intuitively can lead to revelation. It is indeed a strange trick to create solid meaning from artifice. This is the concept of the “Double” that is at the centre of Artaud`s book. However he conceded that modern societies have been divested of meaning due to the decline in spiritual belief.
The situation has worsened in our contemporary world, hastened by the advent of technology which has largely replaced the wisdom of scribes. Traditional writers like Austen and Dickens may lack the political sophistication of today but they compensate with a genuine insight into human character. Both of these authors were motivated by an authentic belief in human decency, albeit in different ways. Good art can civilise us, but the remote nature of the internet can only degrade us further. We should always remember the morally transformative effects of literature.