Timberlake Wertenbaker on love, death, trash romances and the inspirations for Our Country’s Good
Plays have strange and complex ways of getting written, that often only become clear much later. It was interesting for me to go back to the time I wrote Our Country’s Good as Max Stafford-Clark and I were auditioning recently for his new production. I found myself remembering why some things had gone into the play and even into specific lines.
In the autumn of 1987, Max asked me if I would read Thomas Keneally’s The Playmaker. He thought it could make an interesting play. I’d had some interest in prisoners – I’d seen and loved an early production by the Clean Break Theatre Company. I’d met with them and written an article for a magazine (which then refused to publish the article because it was “too political.”) I was angry at the time and also felt I owed Clean Break something for their honesty and generosity, so there was some unfinished business there. I also knew something about the 18th century from writing The Grace of Mary Traverse for the Royal Court.
In October 1987, not long after I read The Playmaker, my partner, the actor John Price, died. He had a stroke and a week later, he was dead. I didn’t think I could write, and my mind was barely working anyway: I’d gone into shock.
I told Max I loved the book but I didn’t think I could write a play at this time, and I knew too little about Australia. He led me to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, a detailed history of the country. It was there I found the title for Our Country’s Good.
To mourn someone, one has to internalise their life. I began to feel I wanted to write something that celebrated acting in some way. The theatre had been John’s passion and made him what he was. John loved the very process of acting and felt he was always learning and exploring. (He sometimes joked that if he hadn’t become an actor he might have accepted a career advisor’s suggestion that he become a policeman.) Acting had taken him all over the world and into great emotional depths.
In his last year, John toured with the English Shakespeare Company in Henry IV 1&2. Sometimes I found myself in the men’s dressing room, watching the actors rush in and out to fetch something, or quickly mention an incident that had happened on stage. I used some of that for the last scene of Our Country’s Good. And because John and I had met in rehearsals (with Shared Experience, and with my translations of Marivaux) I wanted to write about the strong emotional undercurrents that can occur during that process when life and a play become enmeshed. I was also by then watching Max’s rehearsals of the Recruiting Officer. All this fed into the play.
It was a difficult time. I was living with memories. The reason that Dabby, in Our Country’s Good, remembers Bigbury Bay and not Cornwall (where the “real” Dabby came from) is because that is where I had spent some very happy times during the ESC tour. I had walked along the estuary and the beach and I felt I knew it well. In such a way, one transforms one’s longing for a time that will never come again into someone’s homesickness and a character based on someone from Cornwall into a character from Devon.John died from a stroke. Harry Brewer has a stroke in Keneally’s novel. I had to write about it. And I knew about what it means to try to keep someone alive by talking to them when they’re in a coma: the search for a flicker of response. It’s often dangerous to say “this directly inspired that”: Needless to say, I’m not Duckling, and John (who was very beautiful) wasn’t Harry but that story in the play was influenced by my own experience. I knew that one could be loving and yet very angry with a person who was dying – and I was obsessed with what it meant to have a stroke. “First fear, then a pain at the back of the neck. Then nothing. It’s dark. It’s dark,” says Harry, himself remembering the death of Thomas Barrett. Writing can be a dialogue with one’s ghosts.
The death of a partner has a strange way of annihilating one’s own identity. A planned future is brutally taken away. I felt an empathy with the convicts’ own sense of annihilation as they were transported to a different life. Again, it’s a subterranean pull, a mixing of very different experiences that meet at one point.
It’s not all darkness of course. I remembered recently that my familiarity with criminal slang didn’t come from meticulous research, but because as an adolescent (and even later) I was an avid reader of Georgette Heyer. She wrote quite silly historical romances about handsome Byronic lords and feisty maidens, but she was phenomenally accurate with her 18th century research, including thieves’ cant. In all her stories there were highwaymen or thieves or lords pretending to be highwaymen. Having read almost every book she wrote, I knew the lingo.
The workshops for Our Country’s Good were in April 1988. I could just about function by then although I found it difficult to get to the workshops without getting lost. These workshops would provide masses more information and inspiration as well as emotional support. I’ll never forget Fred Molina, who was in the April workshops, offering me parsley because he thought I looked anaemic.
When I began to write the play in May, everything went in: personal memories, things said and done in the workshops by Max and the actors, research and even current events. We were in the Thatcher era: educational activities for prisoners were being cut, and there was a lot of talk about innate criminality. I think this process is the same for every writer. Personal memories tangle with research and fact in ways that are not immediately clear. But perhaps because it was such a turbulent time for me personally, I find I can now remember it well and for some reason, talk about it for the first time.