The Recruiting Officer

The aims of this first company of players were modest. They professed no higher aim than humbly to excite a smile, and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.  Colonel David Collins, Deputy-Judge Advocate of the colony.

On 4 June 1789, little over a year after settlement, a “party of convicts” presented the lively comedy, The Recruiting Officer, to celebrate the birthday of King George III.  The play, a favourite of the time, was performed in “a convict-built hut” and honoured by the presence of his Excellency the Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip and an invited audience of 60 officers and their wives.  Some forethought must have been required to bring the two scripts of the play to the infant colony: it is possible Captain Hunter (later Governor) supplied the scripts as he had contemplated a career in music before joining the Navy and received tuition from Charles Burney, well known for his Drury Lane Theatre productions.  Another candidate for supplying the script is Lieutenant Ralph Clark who spent much time reading while on the voyage out and is known to have a copy of the play Lady Jane Grey by Nicolas Rowe, (1715) in his possession.

Associated with the play was this tune and a dance.  Here’s a snippet of the tune – more on the dance to follow.

Performed by Phillip’s Dog and the Whoots. Arr. Roland Clarke

Written by George Farquhar, The Recruiting Officer was first performed in Drury Lane in 1706 and enjoyed long term success. The plot, based on observations during his service as a recruiting officer in Shrewsbury, is the story of a recruiting officer’s visit to a country town, and the machinations involved: Captain makes love to the women in order to secure their followers as recruits and outdo his rival, Captain Brazen, while Sergeant Kite poses as an astrologer for the same purpose.  It “involves witty repartee, cross-dressing, music, dance, swordplay, sexual double entendre, a fortune-telling scam and a biting critique of army recruiting practices in the reign of Queen Anne”.

Scene from the Recruiting Officer. After Phillipe Mercier (1739) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Performed in contemporary dress, the few military costumes would have been borrowed from the garrison with the convicts themselves providing the costumes for the ladies and civilian gentlemen. Most convicts had brought clothes with them, some fashionable – convict women parading in their finery were a subject of early comment.  Scenes in the play where an actress assumed a male costume were tantalising for the audience, providing the opportunity to view a female calf, and if the breeches were  tighter, the thigh.

Sydney Cove, Port Jackson. 1788 from William Bradley’s journal A Voyage to New South Wales, ca. 1802. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Governor Phillip both permitted and attended this performance, yet he made no mention of it in his report to Lord Sydney the following day. A.J. Gray is probably right when he suggests that Phillip most likely considered it wiser not to mention the convicts’ play-acting: he knew it was not quite what the British Government had in mind for the convict colony. (Karskens, 2009, p. 70)

Dances were commonly performed within plays especially in the finale to symbolise an harmonious conclusion.  These dances were rarely described or included in the text, however, the script for The Recruiting Officer does include an explicit slot for a dance. The associated dance was published in at least nine collections of country dances between 1710 and 1736; it may have been created as part of the play, or otherwise devised to capitalise on play’s great popularity.

Thomas Keneally’s adaptation in the novel The Playmaker presents the marine officer Ralph Clark initiating and directing the play, however, Robert Jordan in The Convict Theatres of Early Australia states “the humbler sections of British society contained plenty of men and women with the cultural capital and the self-confidence to undertake such a project, and the form of words used by Colonel Collins – some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy – suggests a convict initiative, and not something conceived and guided from above.”  Recent historical research on the backgrounds of convicts shows that, far from being wholly unskilled, illiterate and unhealthy, many brought useful skill with them and three-quarters could read and/or write, a higher proportion than among English workers.

Richardson’s theatre booth at Greenwich Fair, London. Thomas Rowlandson (1811)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The theatre was central to contemporary culture, it was massively influential with the music, songs, and dances entering into everyday life. Theatres in London, where many convicts originated, were regularly packed to capacity as audiences thronged to see the newest productions, or to see repeat performances.  The most successful plays, such as the Recruiting Officer, became so well known that audiences would respond with outrage if the actors deviated from the script.  Plays were also performed at fairs, and in provincial locations – often with itinerant strolling players.  They were so integral to the popular culture that people everywhere enjoyed taking part in private performances – even on the First Fleet ship Scarborough the convicts were noted acting a play.  The convicts performing the Recruiting Officer in 1789 may well have known the play from memory. The Recruiting Officer remained a favourite for the Australian stage, as this playbill for the Sydney Theatre in March 1800 demonstrates.

By permission of His Excellency, at the Theatre, Sydney, on Saturday March 8, 1800, will be presented the comedy of The recruiting officer
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

Music and dance instructions

Performed by Phillip’s Dog and the Whoots. Arr. Roland Clarke

Download the pdf

Longways Country Dance: duple minor
32 bars AABB

A1 1-4 1st man, followed by his partner, casts off below 2nd couple. Finish in the middle of the set, facing up. 2nd couple leads up and casts out to face down on bars 3 & 4.
5-8 Turn on the sides (1st lady & 2nd man left; 1st man & 2nd lady right).
A2 1-8 1st couple with the 2nd couple below, dance a double figure of eight (1s cross down while the 2nd couple dances up the outside to begin). Finish with 1st couple dancing up the outside to original 1st place improper.
B1 1-4 1st couple cross and cast one place, as the 2nd couple moves up.
5-8 1st and 2nd couples right hand star.
B2 1-4 Turn single away by the left, all set.
5-8 1st and 2nd couples left hand star.

Twenty Four New Country Dances for the year 1710 by Mr. Kynaston

Another dance mentioned in the play of the Recruiting Officer is the Cheshire Round – a traditional dance reported at a wedding in the Rocks, Sydney in 1803.

In scene III, Kite sings Over the Hills and Far Away, a song that remained in the popular culture and known to be sung by convicts.

 Our ‘prentice Tom may now refuse
To wipe his scoundrel master’s shoes,
For now he’s free to sing and play
Over the hills and far away.

[The Mob sing the Chorus.] Over the hills and over the main,
To Flanders, Portugal, or Spain;
The king commands and we’ll obey,
Over the hills and far away.

We shall lead more happy lives
By getting rid of brats and wives,
That scold and brawl both night and day,
Over the hills and far away.
Over, &c.   [The Mob sing the Chorus.]

Enter Plume, singing.

Over the hills, and far away.
Courage, boys, it’s one to ten
But we return all gentlemen;
While conq’ring colours we display,
Over the hills, and far away



Australian Drama Studies; accessed 14/12/2011

Collins, David. An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, ed. By B. Fletcher, Sydney, A.H. & A. W. Reed, 1975.

Farquhar, George. The Recruiting Officer.

Hall and Cripps, Romance of the Sydney Stage (1996), p.4

Jordan, Robert. Convict Theatres of Early Australia 1788-1840. Currency House, Sydney. 2002.

Karskens, Grace. The Colony. A History of Early Sydney. Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2006.

Leon, Mechele. (ed). A cultural history of theatre in the age of enlightenment. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019

Parker, Derek.  Arthur Phillip.  Australia’s First Governor.  Woodslane Press, Sydney, 2009.

Tench, Watkin. Sydney’s First Four Years.  A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales, 1793. Edited by L.F. Fitzhardinge, 1961.

A version of this article was published in the performing arts magazine Stage Whispers  (July 2021) and online  Sydney’s First Play


The information on this website may be copied for personal use only, and must be acknowledged as from this website. It may not be reproduced for publication without prior permission from Dr Heather Blasdale-Clarke

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