A Penny for a Song Essay - Critical Essays

John Whiting

Critical Context

Although A Penny for a Song is John Whiting’s only comedy, the play conforms to the pattern of his other works. Like Saint’s Day (pr. 1951, pb. 1952), Marching Song (pr., pb. 1954), and The Gates of Summer (pr. 1956, pb. 1969), it features an isolated house beset by the threat or imagined threat of invasion and inhabited by a group of eccentric recluses who plan an attack to defend themselves. They see themselves as heroic figures but are actually childish and often cranky people, careless of anyone and anything but their mission. Their mostly preemptive attack, however, tends to collapse as soon as they put it into action, and they continue to hide in their isolated fortress-nursery. Ensconced in domesticity, they still harbor dreams of aggression, fears of invasion, and, ultimately, a desire for death. Whiting’s other plays present this condition in all of its violence, moodiness, and incoherence; early critics were baffled and sometimes infuriated. A Penny for a Song takes up the same themes, but subdues and controls them by the comic action, to which they serve to lend depth.

In 1962 a revised version of A Penny for a Song appeared; in this version Whiting altered the character of Edward, making him into a revolutionary who constantly spouts radical philosophy and quotes from The Rights of Man (1791-1792). He is no longer blind, nor is he in love with Dorcas, whom he leaves without pain. This revision is inferior to the original, for it replaces scenes of poignant comedy and lyrical charm with heavy didacticism. The 1951 A Penny for a Song, however, succeeds completely as a whimsical comedy, frantic yet lyrical, one of the “finer lunacies” of the English comic spirit.