It seems to me that Timberlake Wertenbaker in ‘Our Country’s Good’ named her convict hangman James Freeman with a strong sense of irony. Freeman is a person trapped by his religion, his complicated relationship with women, (not least his late mother), and ultimately by the compromises these other entrapments lead him in to.
Freeman, it seems, received his Catholic faith at his mother’s knee, and we may suspect it came well laced with fear:
“…my mother…, may God give peace to her soul and breath pity in to the hearts of hard women…”
and it has left him with a mortal fear of death:
“When I say my prayers I have a terrible doubt. How can I be sure God is forgiving me? What if he will forgive me but hasn’t forgiven me yet? That’s why I don’t want to die Sir! That’s why I can’t die. Not until I’m sure.”
But it is not just God that Freeman seeks the approval, and forgiveness, of but women, especially his fellow convicts.
“But it’s God’s judgment I’m frightened of…and the women’s. They’re so hard. Why is that?
“…it’s the women. They’re without mercy.”
The reason that Freeman is hated by especially the women convicts is that he has agreed to become the hangman for the colony, as a way of saving his own life. It is not the first compromise he has had to make to save himself; in England he informed on his fellow coal heavers on Shadwell Dock who had rioted as part of a pay dispute in which a sailor was killed. He blames, at least in part, his mother for his predicament as it was her that brought the family to London, away from his beloved Ireland.
“If only we hadn’t left then I wouldn’t have been there. Then nothing would have happened.”
So is Freeman just a man trapped by circumstances? It isn’t quite that simple. As he recounts the story of that day on Shadwell Dock it seems he was indeed at the centre of the action and we can’t be too sure how innocent he really is. It is interesting to note, and easy to miss, how his descriptions of his involvement shift as he talks:
“I wasn’t even near the sailor who was killed.”
“But I didn’t kill him….maybe one blow, not to look stupid you know, just to show I was with the lads, even if I wasn’t, but I didn’t kill him.”
“And they found the cudgel, but I just had that to look good, that’s all!”
At best perhaps we can say that he is a man easily led, who thinks that going along with the crowd will lead to an easy life, but who is always sadly disappointed.
“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.”
Once again he finds himself forced in to a vicious choice between dying uncertain of forgiveness or living damned by his fellow convicts. A choice that drives him to the edge of desperation:
“But when they say to you hang or be hanged, what do you do? God had mercy on the whore, the thief, the lame…surely he’ll forgive the hang….!”
But what I think Freeman dreams of most is of being accepted and indeed loved by the women, or perhaps finding one who will love him uniquely. He thinks he has seen a way that might happen, remembering a time when some traveling actors came to his village in Ireland:
“They were loved like the angels Lieutenant, like the angels. And the way the women watched them, the light of a spring dawn in their eyes”
Perhaps if he can be an actor they will love him like the angels too.
There are little in the way of final answers in ‘Our Country’s Good’, but we have plenty of provisional ones. It seems that perhaps Freeman might be saved through his role in the convicts’ play, or set on the path to salvation, but perhaps not exactly as he expected. The convicts experience that effect central to many who collaborate to create plays; the joy of the shared enterprise and the sense of being part of something greater than oneself. When he is faced with the crisis of being called on to hang his fellow actor, Liz Morden, he finds the choice unbearable. The clash of brutality and intimacy when he has to measure Liz for her sentence is unresolvable.
“…I need to lift her. You don’t mind do you Liz? …. She’s so light. I’ll need a very long rope.”
“Goodbye Liz…..You were a very good Melinda…..No one will be as good as you.”
Freeman is desperate for some sign from Liz that she understands his predicament and perhaps even forgives him for what he feels he has no choice but to do. There is no such forgiveness on offer, but the wall between them is instead broken down by the shared horror of seeing Harry Brewer’s final collapse. I don’t think it is lost on Freeman that Harry’s illness seems closely related to his (Harry’s) own guilt about previous hangings.
In the final scene Freeman makes a bold claim to Liz:
“I couldn’t have hanged you”
But is this a line he can hold? The consequences of refusing to hang Liz, for a man who has taken on the role of hangman in return for a stay of his own execution, would be fatal. Does he finally understand the reality of his compromises when faced with the person of Liz Morden who he has come to know and respect through the shared experience of the play? Does he perhaps believe that by refusing to hang Liz he would have found the goodness and forgiveness he so desperately seeks? Of course the fact that Liz has been reprieved means that, at least for now, Freeman’s claim remains untested.
In my as yet relatively short acting career every play has been a teacher with a unique lesson to impart. For me playing Freeman has been about realising that it is not my role to try to influence the audience’s opinion of James Daniel Patrick in any particular direction, or even indeed to judge him myself. Freeman is a paradoxically complex yet open character. My job is to tell his story faithfully in his own words and from his point of view.
My job is to believe him.