THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 24th November 1956

Tags: Review

The bay tree is not especially noted for withering. Nor is the miserableness of sinners any measure of their sinfulness. Only the naïvest and ineptest devil would tempt his victim with ruin and disappointment—in this world: the agonies are reserved for Act II. I imagine it is self-satisfaction, wealth, power, success and even conjugal felicity that most effectively tempt a man to his ultimate destruction.

Many American space-films miss this point and consequently stimulate one’s strongest disbelief. Mysterious (always malevolent) invaders from another planet seek to conquer our population by surreptitious subversion. Vegetable-pods vampirise human souls from the nearest sleeping bodies (Jack becomes his beanstalk); miraculous automata (impelled by a master-mind sitting in a saucer) kidnap people and with incredibly bloodless surgery insert a diminutive radio-set in the base of their skull, so that they may henceforth act, like taxis, by remote control. But the common symptom of persons thus subverted—the symptom which of course arouses everyone-else’s suspicion—is the sudden absence of human qualities such as compassion (especially for domestic animals), amorousness and humour. Jolly men become glum, and randy men lose interest.

With but a moment’s thought these super-intelligent invaders would perceive the incomparable advantages of leaving no trace, of working like a cancer unsuspected and unnoticed till it is too late. The victim, Uncle Tom, instead of appearing at breakfast with staring eyes and haggard face, should be jollier and gayer than ever before.

For Nick Shadow to tempt Tom Rakewell to his eternal damnation through a series of very ordinary wenchings and drinkings, none of which Tom appears to enjoy—followed by a number of financial indiscretions and their quite unenjoyable consequences—this sort of temptation is as ridiculous as Martian subversion.

The Rake’s Progress is in conception a Morality of the same otiosity and effeteness as Pilgrim’s Progress. Christian has a first-class berth ready-booked through to the Celestial City, and we know from the start that no harm will come to him, be there never so many devils in his road. He lacks weakness (Cardboard ass!). The Rake dogged by a series of failures and hangovers merely blubbers his way to the grave. He lacks strength (Dummy of Straw!). For sheer joie-de-vivre without the continual doubts of a frightened child, or the bible-punching of a religious maniac, give me Don Juan! He at least is fully alive, however reprehensibly.

It seemed to me therefore that with a basis so far past credence, Messrs Auden, Kallman and Stravinsky have attempted a dramatic impasse, and the pleasure of witnessing a performance will derive not from any quality latent in their plot, verbiage or music, but from those visual appurtenances of staging which make the ear deaf to such things, and from the vocal performances which, if good, may do the same. A lovely voice like Kenneth Bowen’s (in the part of Tom Rakewell) may act like a golden carrier-wave and obliterate the pedestrianism of the leaden signals which it carries. And leaden I fear they are. The deft touch with which the two poets have contrived to nullify every poetic moment with solecism or slang would flatten an anvil. Two ladies behind me agreed between them that the libretto must be a translation from the French.

And as to the staging—of whatever standard—it is but gilding a cowpad, which remains essentially a cowpad.

So it is with some reason that I award a whole bush of laurels to the Cambridge University Opera Group for their production. To me it was astounding that the piece should be chosen at all, that the principal singers should be singing every night of the week, apparently without understudies, and that a performance should go from beginning to end, without a major disaster, maintaining the while such a high standard.

Of points of production, of tempi, of lighting, and of characterization, many minor criticisms might be made. Two larger points of complaint do arise: Firstly, when the music is a constant fidget of syncopation, those on stage should try to avoid conducting themselves as they sing. The twitching of hands wherever one looked made it no surprise to find that in the last scene the whole chorus had landed up in Bedlam—wearing ill-fitting bald-head wigs in the manner of casually-donned bathing-caps. Secondly, the insanification of Tom in the graveyard is deprived of all its eeriness by the excessive balletics of Nick Shadow (excellently sung by Raymond Hayter). The subsequent “black-out” was no substitute for good old-fashioned darkness. A curtain should be dropped to prevent the audience at this critical moment from having to pretend they have not seen Nick creep out of the grave into which he has just sunk, and Tom re-arranging himself all over the stage.

The setting designed by Lionel March is absolutely first-class, and the producer Brian Trowell makes excellent use of it. To call the character of Ann Truelove milk-and-water would be well nigh gluttonous, but Anne Abbott gives a deal of life to the part, with some radiant singing. Barbara Hicks wears a most convincing beard. She managed to break quite a lot of crockery in the breakfast scene without doing any other damage, and gave a masterly performance of her hideously difficult aria. Nancy Talbot as Mother Goose and Alan Mayall as the Auctioneer were vocally beyond criticism. I was enthralled to hear so much good enunciation. Lists and lists of persons deserve praise for this show. Perhaps most deserving of all is Leon Lovett, the conductor, for steering the cast and orchestra through one of the most miasmic scores in existence, and making such good sense out of it.

Peter Tranchell