The Rake’s Progress synopsis
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman after the series of paintings by William Hogarth
First performed: 1951 Act One opens with a short theatrical fanfare and the stage is set.
Tom Rakewell and Anne Trulove celebrate the spring and their love in Arcadian language, under the watchful eye of Anne’s father. He is worried that they are too naïve to marry and presses Tom to take a job in the city. Tom reveals that he has other plans for making his fortune. At Tom’s words ‘I wish I had money’, Nick Shadow enters unexpectedly with the extraordinary news that Tom has just inherited a fortune. Tom agrees to go to the city and investigate his inheritance with the efficient Shadow as his servant and guide. Anne feels uneasy, although she is delighted by Tom’s good fortune. The lovers bid a tender but brief farewell as Tom’s thoughts turn to the metropolitan excitements which lie ahead.
Mother Goose’s Brothel A motley crowd at Mother Goose’s establishment swing into action and toast amorality and pleasure as ‘followers of Venus and Mars, Citizens of the temple of delight’. Tom is prompted in the catechism of vice by Shadow, Mother Goose and a silent collaborator in their intentions (later revealed as the auctioneer Sellem). Only when asked to define love does Tom falter and beg to be released. Shadow tightens his hold by miraculously turning the clock back an hour. Tom is now presented to the company as a would-be initiate and sings of his regret at betraying true love as he slides inexorably towards a night with Mother Goose. As he is taken to bed, the crowd sings the haunting Lanterloo chorus.
Anne is alone with no news from Tom. She decides that she must find him and leave her father. She is inspired by an absolute belief that her love for Tom will sustain them both whatever he might have become. She hurries to the city.
Tom’s house, early morning
Tom is already bored and disillusioned with high living. Shadow enters with a newspaper report about the bearded lady Baba the Turk, whom he proposes Tom should marry in order to demonstrate his freedom ‘from those twin Tyrants of appetite and conscience’. Nick’s manipulation is impeccable, Tom is persuaded and, roaring with laughter, the pair look forward to the fun of being notorious.
The street in front of Tom’s house
Anne has found Tom’s house but is overcome with dread. A crowd of revellers surrounds Tom and a strange conveyance. Tom, shocked to see Anne, urges her to go home and leave him to his ruined life. A voice emerges from the mystery object: it is Baba demanding that Tom help her to alight. Tom has to confess to Anne that Baba is his wife; there follows a trio in which the Tom’s and Anne’s desolation is set against Baba’s mounting frustration and isolation. Baba finally emerges and reassures herself that her new husband has not deserted her. She playfully reveals her glamorous black beard to her adoring fans. She and Tom enter the house pursued by the crowd.
Tom’s house is now dominated by Baba’s eccentric collection of objects. Baba chatters to Tom about her treasures and colourful past, but he is morose. She appeals to his affections, is rebuffed and flies into a theatrical rage. Unmoved, Tom silences her by dropping the bedclothes on her head. Utterly miserable, he falls asleep. Enter Shadow with a ‘bread-making machine’, which he demonstrates to the audience. Tom wakes up having dreamed of just such a machine which he imagines will abolish human poverty. If only he could manufacture and distribute the machine, he could feel worthy of Anne and redeem himself. Shadow colludes in this fantasy and together they go off to promote the machine in the next ruinous stage of Tom’s progress.
The house is overrun by a gloating crowd who have come to the auction of all Tom’s property. Baba remains immobile, exactly where she was left. Anne arrives looking for Tom. Sellem, the mysterious metaphysical auctioneer, begins the grand sale which culminates in the auctioning of Baba herself. As the bedclothes covering her are removed, she continues to rage from exactly the point that she left off. Offstage, Tom and Nick sing a sinister ballad. Anne and Baba instinctively draw together, and Anne finds an ally. The auction grinds to a halt as Baba restores Anne’s hopes, urging her to find Tom quickly before it is too late.
Mother Goose’s brothel, now deserted
Shadow claims Tom’s soul as his wages and, assisted by Mother Goose and Sellem, proposes a ritual of suicide at midnight. The clock strikes; Shadow hesitates on the ninth stroke and suggests a game of cards to decide Tom’s fate instead. Unexpectedly, Tom wins by clinging to the memory of Anne, twice choosing the Queen of Hearts as his card. Tom’s helpless repetition of the only thing he can think of saves his life; but as Shadow departs in fury, he curses Tom with madness.
Tom, now insane, believes himself to be Adonis soon to be visited by Venus, but the other inmates refuse to participate in his delusion and warn him ‘leave all love and hope behind’: no one can escape this asylum: Anne and her father are ushered in by the doctor, who seems to be a replica of Shadow. Anne claims Tom as Adonis and they complete the vows they almost made in the Arcadian garden: the wheel has turned full circle. Anne sings Tom to sleep, bringing him and the other madmen peace. She and the doctor remain to witness Tom’s awakening. As he wakes, he believes the madmen who insist that Anne was never there, and he seems to die of grief.
The Epilogue returns us to the theatre and the ensemble announces the moral of the story.
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