The Recruiting Officer – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on The Recruiting Officer include observations on the multiple meanings of its title and the extraordinary story of its first production in Australia in 1789.
The Recruiting Game
There is at the very least a twin meaning in the title of The Recruiting Officer. We first assume that it refers literally to Captain Plume, or perhaps also collectively to Kite and Brazen, as the officers who have arrived in town to recruit local men for the army. Of course the officers are also open to recruiting women for their pleasure, if not to marry. In fact as Plume confesses, he often achieves both goals by targeting the women to get through them to their male acquaintances, as he does with Rose in pursuit of Bulloch and Cartwright.
It is also true that the women in the play are out to recruit, in their case long-term romantic or economic partners. Silvia’s mission is to recruit Plume; Lucy seeks to enlist Brazen; Rose will be happy to snare either Plume or Jack Wilful. The parallels between the recruitment games of the sexes come together of course in the figure of Jack Wilful himself, or herself. Plume believes that he is recruiting another man for his army, while also inadvertently advancing his and Silvia’s matrimonial negotiations.
And the twin meanings of the recruitment game are further articulated in the use of military language to describe the campaigns of love: Melinda is likened to Helen of Troy, requiring a ten-year siege to win, and when Worthy laments that he was “forced to blockade” when his “general advance” on her was repulsed, Plume urges him to “redouble his advance”. The reciprocal metaphors are also used: Plume is “married” to the regiment, and finally of course Plume settles down to marry Sylvia and to “raise recruits” of his own – their children – who will perhaps become another generation of ‘recruiting officers’ as the cycle continues.
Nancy Carroll and Ffion Edwards in The Recruiting Officer
Donmar Theatre 2012.
Photograph: Johan Persson
The First Fleet’s production of the play
One of the extraordinary stories in the history of The Recruiting Officer is that of its being performed by a group of convicts in the newly-founded settlement in New South Wales in 1789. The ‘First Fleet’ carrying 1,400 people on eleven ships set sail in 1787 to establish the penal colony at Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Philip. As the Governor in Chief of the new colony Philip was an unusually enlightened leader, for he saw that in the future the convicts would have to be constructively assimilated into the new settlement. Perhaps this vision inspired his initiative to stage their unlikely dramatic production. The performance was timed to honour King George III on his birthday on 4th June 1789.
The choice of The Recruiting Officer as the play for the convicts to perform seems appropriate to the circumstances of the colony. The Royal Marines sent with the convicts to establish the outpost colony were themselves recruited to this challenging mission, and the convicts were of course selected for their part in the venture in the same way that petty criminals were often impressed into the army.
The story of the convict production of the play was re-told in Thomas Keneally’s novel of 1987 The Playmaker. The Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre in London at the time, Max Stafford-Clark, was planning a new production of The Recruiting Officer when he came across Keneally’s novel. He was inspired to commission playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker to adapt the story into a new play that could run alongside their revival of The Recruiting Officer. Wertenbaker’s wonderful play Our Country’s Good premiered at the Royal Court in 1988, almost exactly 200 years after the extraordinary original performance.
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