First produced in 1706 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, The Recruiting Officer is a popular Restoration comedy by Irish writer George Farquhar. The play is set in the town of Shrewsbury and follows the exploits of Captains Plume and Brazen (army recruiting officers) as they romantically pursue Sylvia and Melinda.

The Recruiting Officer in 18th-century Australia

In 1789, The Recruiting Officer became the first play to be staged in the colony of New South Wales (Australia), where it was performed by prisoners of the First Fleet. Instead of facing execution, these convicts had been transported to Britain’s penal colony as punishment for their crimes.

This event inspired Australian author Thomas Keneally to write the 1987 novel, The Playmaker. Soon after publication, Max Stafford-Clark (the Royal Court’s Artistic Director from 1979 to 1992) had the idea of producing The Recruiting Officer – a classic play – alongside a new work adapted from The Playmaker. The result was Our Country’s Good by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, a work that celebrates the redemptive and humanising power of theatre, and asks us to consider the role of the art form within society. Our Country’s Good and The Recruiting Officer premiered together as ‘companion pieces’ at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988. Both plays starred the same cast of 11 actors who were required to play multiple roles.

In Our Country’s Good, Wertenbaker depicts the origin of the idea to stage The Recruiting Officer and the rehearsals that follow – up to the point that the prisoners begin to stage their first performance. The convicts rehearse the first act, digitised here.