Prisons and progenitors

Russell Baker

May 28, 1991|By Russell Baker

MAYBE the most exciting play on Broadway just now is about a nation obsessed with locking people up and throwing away the key. It opens with a lashing: 50 strokes across a bare back. At first we seem to be in one of the deeper pits of hell, and metaphorically speaking, that is indeed the setting for the entire play, "Our Country's Good."

The country of this bitterly ironic title is not modern America, but the England that has just lost its American colonies and, with them, a conveniently remote continent to provide a cheap solution to its prison problem. Australia, empty, unknown and incredibly far away, must do instead. We see the arrival of the first shipload of convicts and their keepers, who would be amazed to realize they are founding a new nation.

This is not a message play about modern America with its angry faith in punishment and its everlasting quarrel between children of the original imprisoning classes and children of those imported in chains.

At its plainest, like most popular entertainment nowadays, it's an entertainment about sex, violence, hatred and love, and it has the virtue of a good historical novel, which is that you learn a little about time past even while tightly laced bosoms are heaving. If there is a sermon embedded in the play, it is not about America at all, but about the humanizing power of art.

What makes it exciting, though, at least for an American, is the sense of looking with total detachment, from a remote distance in the future, at our own 20th-century society.

Like England 200 years ago, America is so devoted to the notion of prison as a means of social uplift that we now have more people imprisoned per capita than any other country. Politicians keep demanding we imprison even more and for longer terms. For our country's good, of course.

Eighteenth-century English law provided dreadful sentences for minor offenses -- seven years for stealing a handkerchief -- and casually hanged women and children for trivial crimes. England's prisons inevitably filled, as have American prisons thanks to the political narcotics hysteria which produces brutal sentences for people convicted on trivial drug-possession charges.

Robert Hughes' splendid book "The Fatal Shore" tells this as a horror story, England's imprisoning classes storing the excess prison population in rotting ship hulks in English rivers until they too overflowed and the squalor and disease became insufferable to good people.

Therefore, Australia. It was the ultimate in prison for the 18th century, as the moon would be for our own time if only it weren't so expensive to dump our miscreants on the lunar plains. Australia was more remote 200 years ago than the moon today. An Australia-bound prison ship needed eight months to make the trip; the moon journey now takes a few days.

"Our Country's Good" focuses on the relationship between convicts and guards in this prison so remote that the guards were as imprisoned and, so, as pathetic as the convicts. With the luxury of audience detachment, we can watch the viciousness between them with bemused detachment because we know the history they cannot know: that they are the progenitors of families that will someday become a great nation.

At the heart of the play, though, is the matter that had begun to torment America almost two centuries before the first Englishmen were exported in chains to Australia; that is, the relationship between humans chained and humans licensed to be their keepers.

The play centers on a quarrel among the keepers. The governor, who would be a "bleeding heart" in today's political discourse, believes both keepers and convicts will become depraved if the law of lash and gallows prevails.

Over military opposition he decides to try humanizing, instead of hanging, his convicts. He assigns a young lieutenant to produce a play, using a convict cast, for convicts and keepers alike. The drama concerns the lieutenant's struggle to stage the play under bizarre circumstances and the effect on him and his convict actors.

One leaves the theater with long thoughts. Modern Australia was born out of that unspeakable brutality and hatred 200 years ago. In the long run, the better angels of our nature can prevail, even here where all of us have been brutalized by chains of race.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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