Whilst rehearsing for a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s ‘Our Country’s Good’ we have become aware of an ambiguity that has led to a somewhat strange question: how many hangmen are there in the play?
On the face of it the answer should be simple; we have James Freeman, given the nickname by his fellow convicts of ‘Ketch’, the traditional epithet of the time for a hangman, and a label that Freeman hates,
Ralph: Get back to the camp immediately, I’ll see you in the morning Ketch.
Ketch: Don’t call me that Sir, I beg you, don’t call me by that name.
There are many other references to Freeman as the colony’s hangman, for example:
Ketch: Shhh, you’re interrupting the director
Dabby: So we are Mr Hangman!
But what then are we to make of various lines of Harry Brewer, such as, when speaking of Handy Baker, a marine hanged for stealing food?:
Harry: I didn’t want to hang him, Ralph, I didn’t.
Harry: She thinks I hanged him to get rid of him, but I didn’t Ralph.
And Harry’s descent in to madness seems to a large extent to be driven by his guilt over his involvement with the deaths of Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett; Act 1:4, Act 2:3, Act 2:6.
So was Harry Brewer a hangman too, handing over the role to James Freeman later, or was his involvement something else, that he nevertheless identified closely with the actual act of hanging the men?
My belief is that there is only one hangman in the story, James ‘Ketch’ Freeman, and that despite Harry’s words about hanging Handy Baker, these should be taken as metaphorical and that Brewer’s role was something different. So what is the evidence for this?
1. James Freeman’s survival
In Act 1:3 we learn that three men have been sentenced to hang for stealing from the colony’s stores, just about the most serious crime possible in a community on the brink of starvation, (e.g. Act 1:6). These men are Thomas Barrett, James Freeman and a marine, Handy Baker. The colony at this point does not have a designated hangman and Governor Phillip tasks Harry Brewer with finding someone to take on the role:
Collins: I’m a Kemble man myself. We will need a hangman.
Phillip: Harry, you will have to organise the hanging and eventually find someone who agrees to fill the hideous role.
It is perhaps at this point that the ambiguity first appears: ‘and eventually find someone….’. Should we take this to mean that initially Harry is to assume the role and then hand it over to someone else?
However, the custom of the day was to recruit hangmen from the amongst convicted. Since no one usually wanted to take on the hated role the easiest way was to coerce a person already sentenced to hang by offering them a reprieve if they became the executioner. They were not pardoned but merely had their own death sentence suspended for as long as they usefully served in the role.
James Freeman had been sentenced to hang with Handy Baker and Tom Barratt but somehow he survives and they die. What other way could this have happened except for him to have been the one who agreed to put the noose around their necks and knock away the block they were stood on?
2. Freeman’s own story
In Act 1:9 Freeman is trying to convince Ralph that he is a victim of his own circumstances; the man always in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is also a man so scared of dying that he will do almost anything to save his own life.
Ketch: That’s why I don’t want to die Sir. That’s why I can’t die.
Ketch: And when it happened again here, and I had hopes of making a good life here. It’s because I’m so friendly, see, so I go along, and then I’m the one who gets caught. That theft, I didn’t do it. I was just there, keeping a look out, just to help some friends you know. But when they say to you ‘hang or be hanged’ what do you do?
The answer for Ketch is that you hang.
Ketch: Someone has to do it. I try to do it well.
And in Act 2:6 we see him trying to do it well. More importantly we see him and Brewer talking about the hanging of Thomas Barrett, and it seems clear that both of them were involved, but it was Freeman who did the hanging.
Harry: …You’ve hung a boy.
Ketch: That was a terrible mess, Mr Brewer, don’t you remember…. I don’t want to repeat something like that.
3. Harry’s own words
Although on a number of occasions Harry seems to claim he hanged Handy Baker and Thomas Barrett, on other occasions he seems to recognise that this isn’t literally true, but rather that, in the case of Handy Baker at least, Harry was not sorry to see him die. In Act 2:3 Harry is delusional and arguing with the dead Handy Baker.
Harry: I didn’t hang you. ‘You wanted me dead.’ I didn’t. ‘You wanted me hanged.’ All right, I wanted you hanged.
And in Act 1:4
Harry: You don’t think I killed him then?
Harry: Handy Baker.
Ralph: No, Harry. You did not kill Handy Baker.
Harry: Thank you Ralph.
4. Harry’s position in the colony
In the cast list three characters have additional information indicating their official roles within the colony. Harry Brewer’s is given as Provost Marshal.
Provost Marshal: An officer charged with the apprehension, custody and punishment of offenders – 1873
The reason that Governor Phillip tasks Harry with organising the hanging and why it is Harry who has all the information about the convicted men to hand is because it is Harry’s job to handle these affairs (Act 1:3).
So, to conclude, although Harry sometimes, but not always, speaks as though he hanged Handy Baker, and although his guilt concerning Baker and Barrett’s deaths seems to be a significant factor in his growing mental instability and eventual fatal stroke, I would suggest that the bulk of the evidence points to his role being limited to that of Provost Marshal. It was Harry’s job to organise the hanging but it was Freeman, as ever bargaining for his life until he can be sure God has forgiven him, who put the noose around their necks.