A PLAY FOR ENGLAND The Royal Court adapts The Play maker
Thomas Keneally dedicated The Playmaker 'to Arabanoo and his brethren, still dispossessed'.! The novel is constructed around the first production of a European play in Australia, George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer, performed by convicts in Sydney in 1789, which becomes a catalyst for the exploration of possession and dispossession, themes that reverberate throughout the narrative. At the heart of the novel are the aboriginal people, eventually to be dispossessed of their land, their gods, their culture; in turn we have the British, both officers and convicts, displaced from their native land and from European so-called 'civilization'. The British settlers, possessing and colonizing a new land, are in themselves 'possessed' - by strange dreams, strange passions, strange gods and, perhaps strangest of all, by playmaking. The theatre's ability to 'possess' becomes one of the novel's central metaphors; for, just as colonization can mean the imposition of alien cultures and new order on a subject people, so the play itself is something that colonizes life, imposing an order, a pattern, a structure on intractable material. 'A play', says Governor Phillip in the second act of Our Country's Good,2 'is a world in itself, a tiny colony we could almost say' (p. 25). Playmaking is a form both of possession and of possessing. It is paradigmatic of the attempt made by Governor Phillip to impose European notions of culture, civilization and social organization, on both the convicts and the aboriginal, Arabanoo. High culture imposes itself on presumed 'low' culture, on the assumption that its redemptive and transforming potential can only be for the good.