Catholic Herald, 12 September 1987
Review: The Playmaker by Thomas Keneally (Hodder and Stoughton, £10.95)
You may recall that this Australian writer won the 1982 Booker Prize for Schindler’s Ark, like this a novel based on historical fact. The Playmaker celebrates the bi-centenary of the departure of the first convict transport for Australia, the so-called first fleet.
Accompanied by a commander and marines, the transport arrived 200 years ago in what was to become Sydney, in the new continent discovered by Captain Cook.
This strange and hostile land was settled initially by a motley crowd of murderers, swindlers, prostitutes, and thieves who vastly outnumbered their captors and “gaolers”. The penal colony, “eight moons away” comes vividly to life in this book.
The unusual choice of subject may deter an unadventurous readers but the victories and defeats, the morals and the hardships make for absorbing reading and rapid involvement in the life histories and fate of the characters.
The play of the title George Farquar’s The Recruiting Officer, first performed in Drury Lane in 1706.The playmaker is Lt. Ralph Clark, a young marine familiar with the convicts (from whose number the actors will be drawn) after the long voyage out. What a delightful hero Ralph turns out to be! Brave, honourable, fallible and humane, he faces temptation squarely in the face and though we may tut-tut when he finds it irresistable, we haven’t the heart to blame him.
The sheer distance between England and Australia in those days must have seemed immense. What a journey it was in a small wooden sailing ship with few landfalls. The conditions below-decks must have been cramped and disgusting with little fresh food or water; where babies were born (and died) and where every vice flourished in stormy, tempestuous or becalming weather.
The “scum” of the English criminal classes swilled round the hold to be spewed out thousands of miles away from the restraining influences of church, state and family. The source of crimes and punishments lay far behind over treacherous seas.
And to welcome them? An upside-down climate, unfamiliar foods and natives, the “aborigine, those who had been there from the beginning”.
In this strange new place, the playmaker assembles his cast from the unpromising bunch of felons. He has only two copies of the play, no stage, no costumes, no scenery, and not much co-operation from his fellow marines. It is the Commander who has ordered the play to be put on to celebrate the King’s birthday.
The reader follows Lt. Clark’s creative efforts with an interest and enthusiasm very like his own. Mr. Keneally wields a large cast of characters at times a little difficult to keep track of, for as well as their own names they bear their criminal nicknames and those of the roles they are performing.
It’s an informative book. The coarse language and violent lives ring true of nineteenth century London. If, like me, you have Australian cousins whose ancestors were deported for sheep-stealing inter-alia, you’ll enjoy this re-creation of the hard times and dramatic events that went into the making of the Australian nation.