"A group of young convicts in a remote penal station stage the first play ever to be performed in that part of the universe. Is this science fiction? No. On the contrary, for his enthralling new novel, Booker prizewinner Thomas Keneally returns to his native Australia 200 years ago.
"Lieutenant Ralph Clark's production of The Recruiting Officer started life under handicaps less often encountered in professional theatrical circles. With only two copies of the play, and a cast of convicted criminals, many of whom are illiterate, Clark had also to rehearse in the open air or at best in a tattered marquee.
"Never before, he believed, had a play been performed at so southerly a lattitude, and he could speak with absolute certainty that this was the first theatrical venture in the penal colony of New South Wales. Clark, an officer in the Royal Marines, had a year before accompanied the convicts transported to this new land from England following the reports of Captain Cook.
"Clark has been a troubled man. With his wife remaining at home in Devon, he suffers nightmares of doubt about their relationship and argues passionately with the only man of the cloth in the party about the desirability of 'second marriages' under the southern cross.
"Thomas Keneally's magical new novel celebrates the bi-centenary of the first fleet that set out from England in 1787, through the thoughts and deeds of the convicts and their captors forced to make a way of life in unchartered and often frightening territory. The production of The Recruiting Officer is an historical fact, so too are Keneally's characters - villians many of them may have been in England, but the unknown continent breeds new alliances and attitudes, not least for Ralph Clark and a pretty young convict, Mary Brenham.
"Keneally, adept at writing novels with a strong factual background as he showed with his Booker prizewinner, Schindler's Ark, brings this unusual community to life with as many twists and turns of fate and fortune off the stage of The Recruiting Officer as on."
He began hearing for the parts in the play early in April, the day after the hanging of Private Handy Baker and the five other marines. His purpose was to find fourteen convicts for the chief speaking parts. Much later he could find and begin rehearsing the lesser actors in their movements about a stage which he could only dimly envisage as yet, and amongst leading players he would somehow have to perfect in the coming two and a little months.
H.E. had given him that span of time in which to bring about the very first presentation of this or any other play ever performed on this new penal planet, which so far as anyone knew had gone from the beginning of time till now absolutely play-less and theatre-less.
From the Hodder & Stoughton hardback edition, 1987.
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Last modified: March 26, 2001.