Synopsis - Act I - England in the 18th Century
Scene 1: Garden of Trulove’s house in the countryside
It is Spring and the lovers Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove are together, carefully watched over by her father, Trulove. He is worried by Tom’s feckless and carefree nature. Sending Anne into the house, he offers Tom employment in the London counting-house owned by a friend of his, but Tom refuses. Left alone, Tom scorns the idea of steady employment and entrusts his fate to blind Fortune. Aloud, he wishes that he had money. Suddenly a stranger appears, calling himself Nick Shadow and bearing news of the death of an uncle, unknown to Tom, who has bequeathed him an immense fortune.
He urges that they leave at once for London to settle Tom’s affairs and Tom bids a sad and tender farewell to Anne and her father. When asked what wages he requires for his service, Nick replies that in a year and a day he will name his price. Tom accepts the bargain and prepares to leave. Shadow turns sardonically to the audience with the words, ‘The Progress of a Rake begins!’
Scene 2: Mother Goose’s Brothel in London
Nick introduces his protégé to the delights of London’s underworld. Tom’s education under Shadow includes new definitions of the ideas of Beauty and Pleasure in terms that are wholly centred on the gratification of his desires. But when asked to define Love, Tom falters, remembering the selfless love of Anne. He tries to run away but Shadow magically turns the hands of the Brothel’s clock backwards to buy Tom one more hour of reckless pleasure. Invited to sing to the company, Tom’s thoughts return to Anne and the theme of Love betrayed, and he begins to weep. Mother Goose waves aside the sympathetic attentions of her girls and claims Tom as her prize for the night.
Scene 3: Trulove’s garden at night
Anne has heard nothing from Tom for several months and means to set out for London to find him. She understands the weakness of his character and knows that she alone may have the means to save him, if he has gone astray.
Scene 1: Morning room of Tom’s house in London
Already sated and bored by the excesses of his life, Tom makes another wish, this time for happiness. As before, Nick immediately appears. He has in his hands a broadsheet advertising Baba the Turk, a bearded lady currently the sensation of the freak show at St Giles’ Fair. To Tom’s astonishment, Shadow urges him to take Baba as his wife. His reasoning is that only the man free of the desire for pleasure or the compulsion of duty can be truly happy. A marriage based on neither passion nor reason will detach Tom fully from the ties of his jaded existence. Bursting into laughter, Tom agrees and dresses himself to go and woo Baba.
Scene 2: Street outside Tom’s house
It is now Autumn and Anne has reached London. She hesitates at Tom’s door, uncertain if he will remember her. At that moment a procession bearing a sedan chair and led by Tom in all his finery arrives at the house. Appalled to see Anne, Tom begs her to forget him, to leave London at once and to go home. Their conversation is
interrupted by the voice of Baba from within the sedan chair. Tom is forced to confess that he is now a married man. Heartbroken, Anne runs away. Tom helps his bride from her chair. A crowd gathers, acclaiming Baba, and as she enters her new home she turns to them and unveils herself.
Scene 3: Morning room
The souvenirs of Baba’s life on the road now crowd every spare inch of Tom’s elegant home and she prattles on to him at breakfast, describing the provenance of each exotic object. Sullen and dying of boredom, Tom’s temper snaps, provoking an almighty tantrum from Baba. He manages to silence her and steals a few minutes of sleep. As he dreams, Shadow enters, wheeling before him a curious machine that, apparently, can turn stones to bread. Tom, in his sleep, wishes again; this time that his pleasant dream might come true. Tom wakes to describe to Nick that he dreamed he was the inventor of a miraculous machine that would end starvation forever, redeem him in the eyes of his fellow man and even maybe in the eyes of Anne.
Nick unveils the very machine and an awestruck Tom blesses his good fortune. They set out for the Stock Exchange to find investors to back Tom’s ‘invention’.
Scene 1: Morning room, months later
The fraud of the machine has been discovered and has bankrupted Tom and his many investors. A crowd has gathered at Tom’s house for the auction of his possessions, and Tom himself, hunted by creditors, has vanished. Anne has heard of Tom’s ruin and has once more travelled to London. She arrives in time to witness the auctioneer, Sellem, begin proceedings. The final lot he offers the public turns out to be, in fact, Baba herself, who has remained the while in the house with all her belongings. Another tantrum ensues, cut short when her eyes fall on Anne. Tom and Nick’s voices are suddenly heard singing raucously in the street below. Admitting defeat, Baba renounces her claim on Tom and urges Anne to find and save him. She herself will return to her stage career and she sweeps imperiously out of everyone’s lives.
Scene 2: Graveyard in London, at night
A year and a day are up and Nick has led a destitute and ruined Tom to a deserted churchyard to ask for his wages. He demands Tom’s soul. A terrified Tom finally realises the true nature of the bargain he has struck. Nick shows him a waiting, freshly dug grave and offers him a choice of weapons to end his time on earth. As the church clock begins to strike twelve and Tom begs for mercy, Nick appears to have a sudden change of heart and suggests a game of cards for Tom’s soul; if Tom can correctly guess three cards each time Nick cuts the deck, he can go free.
Twice, Tom is lucky, naming the Queen of Hearts and the Two of Spades, but before the third card is cut he covers his eyes, weeping in despair. Shadow takes this opportunity to cheat; he slips the Queen back into the deck, cuts the same card and offers the pack again for Tom to choose. Tom is confounded and dares not name the card, noticing with horror that Nick’s footprints leave a track of cloven hooves on the ground. Nick jokes that the goats have returned to graze on the new grass of Spring. The word and idea of ‘return’ strike into Tom’s soul and he longs once again for Anne. Just then, both of them hear her voice floating through the night air, as she searches London for Tom. He makes his final wish; for nothing else. Returning to Anne’s constant love, he chooses, again, the Queen of Hearts and collapses in a faint. Nick is defeated but as he descends into hell he uses what power he still has over Tom to render him insane.
Scene 3: Bedlam
Tom has been imprisoned in the lunatic asylum. He hallucinates that he is Adonis, the legendary mortal lover of the goddess Venus. Anne and her father come to see him. Tom believes that she is Venus and begs her forgiveness. He falls asleep in her arms as she sings him a lullaby.
Trulove persuades Anne to end the story of her love for Tom and to come home with him. She bids Tom farewell while he still sleeps and leaves. He awakes to find her gone and angrily demands of the other inmates where his goddess has vanished to. They reply that there has been no visitor and that he is simply a madman. Tom’s heart breaks and he dies, alone.
The cast perform an epilogue.
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