First produced: 1641
First published: 1652
Type of work: Drama
Type of plot: Farce
Time of work: Seventeenth century
Oldrents, a country squire
Springlove, his steward
Rachel, Oldrents' older daughter
Meriel, his younger daughter
Vincent, Rachel's lover
Hilliard, Meriel's lover
Master Clack, a justice
Amie, the justice's niece
A JOVIAL CREW; OR, THE MERRY BEGGARS is a good-natured, unpretentious comedy. It presents a world filled with pleasantly unreal problems that permit equally unreal solutions, a world populated with eccentric gentry and philosophic beggars. Light, gay entertainment was the author's goal, and he attained it.
Squire Oldrents had ample reason to be happy: he owned a large estate from which he received a good income; he was beloved by the rich for his warm hospitality and by the poor for his generosity; he had two lovely daughters who were being courted by two very presentable young gentlemen. But the joy that he derived from these blessings was suddenly destroyed by a fortune-teller's prediction that Oldrents' daughters would become beggars. Oldrents' friend Hearty, a gentleman who had seen better days but who always looked on the bright side of things, tried to cheer up the old man. As a result of his persuasiveness, Oldrents resolved to put on, at least, an outward show of good spirits.
A second source of worry for the squire was his steward, Springlove. As a youth Springlove had been a beggar, until Oldrents took him in and schooled him. During winters, Springlove had always been very diligent in his work. But with the arrival of May, every year he found some pretext to leave home. One year Oldrents met Springlove begging on the highway and thus discovered how his summers were spent. To break the young man of his wanderings, Oldrents had made him his steward, a position in which Springlove had done well. But now it was nearly May again, and Springlove announced that the call of nature was too insistent, and he must go a-begging.
One of Oldrents' charities was the maintenance of an old barn as a guest house for wandering beggars. Rachel and Meriel, his daughters, had long watched these beggars and envied them their complete freedom. The girls were bored with their home life and further depressed by the low spirits of their father. Thus developed their plan for going with the beggars. Their two lovers, Vincent and Hilliard, who were afraid of losing the girls, agreed to accompany them. When they announced their intention to Springlove, he revealed the prophecy Oldrents had received. Now the girls felt that a brief sojourn with the beggars would have the additional advantage of bringing peace of mind to their father. In a letter to the old man they disclosed their project, but he, fearing that its contents might destroy his resolution to be happy, refused to open it.
The first night on the road dispelled any romantic notions that the four amateur beggars had about their new life. The two men, having spent an uneasy and sleepless night, would have gladly returned home, but they did not wish to give the appearance of softness. The girls, having been housed in a pigsty, were equally disillusioned, but they resolved not to be the first to show signs of weakening.
Despite Springlove's instructions, the amateurs had little success in their first attempts at begging because they lacked the requisite humility. Approaching two gentlemen, Vincent, after first being tongue-tied, asked for such a large sum that they drove him off with their...
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swords. Hilliard, also asking for a large sum, was switched; thereupon, in very unbeggarly manner, he demanded satisfaction of his chastiser, a man named Oliver. This same Oliver had noticed the two girls and had been filled with lust. Finding them alone, he gave them money, kissed them, and then tried to drag Rachel behind some bushes. But his intentions were frustrated by the arrival of the men in response to her screams. After he had restrained Vincent and Hilliard, Springlove, knowing that Oliver would be too ashamed to do so, suggested that he get a beadle to punish the girls.
The next travelers the beggars encountered were Martin and Amie. Amie had left home to escape marriage with Master Talboy, a marriage that her uncle, Master Clack, had tried to force upon her. Martin, the justice's clerk, seeing a chance to advance his own position, had agreed to run away with her. Now that she had had a better opportunity to observe Martin, she had begun to doubt the wisdom of her action. When they encountered the beggars, they were hungry and unhappy. Springlove gave them food and offered to get a curate to marry them. Amie, impressed by his solicitude, decided to remain temporarily with the beggars.
Meanwhile, a search for the runaways was in progress. Among the searchers was Oliver and the rejected lover, Talboy. Their pursuit brought them to the home of Oldrents. The squire, still doggedly attempting to banish sorrow from his life, despite the loss of his daughters, welcomed them with song and drink. But Talboy, with his incessant weeping and sighing, disturbed the old man. On a sudden whim, Oldrents decided to visit Master Clack, who he had heard was an odd character.
Officials, in the meantime, stopped and questioned the beggars on suspicion of harboring the fugitives. This trouble with the law was the final blow to the four amateurs, who now gave up any further pretense of liking this kind of life. When the constable threatened to beat Springlove until he disclosed Amie's whereabouts, she, having fallen in love with him, revealed herself. Amie was then returned home, and the beggars were arrested.
When the beggars were brought to Master Clack's home, Oldrents was there. The justice at first contemplated dire punishment for the vagrants; but, when he heard that they could present a drama, he saw a chance to entertain Oldrents without expense. In a play concerning two lost daughters and a vagrant steward, Rachel, Meriel, and Springlove played the leading roles. Oldrents was ecstatic at being reunited with his daughters, and his joy was increased by the revelation that Springlove was, in reality, his illegitimate son. Springlove, because of this disclosure and because of his intention of marrying Amie, announced that he would beg no more. Thus, the last of Oldrents' worries was over, and the old man again had his full measure of contentment.
Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:
"You are a jovial crew," says Springlove to the beggars, "the only people whose happiness I admire." Springlove was not alone. When this play was produced, England was on the threshold of one of the darkest periods in its history, and the gathering storm (that was to lead to civil war, regicide, and finally military dictatorship under Cromwell) was already shaking the nation to its foundations. Little wonder that the carefree and rancorless life of the beggars was a pleasant and soothing spectacle to contemporary audiences, or that the escapist romances that Brome laments in his prologue (and to which this play is a mirthful alternative) were the vogue in "these sad and tragic days."
The motif of the jolly beggars is an enduring one in English literature. Taking dramatic hints from plays such as Fletcher's THE BEGGAR'S BUSH and Middleton and Rowley's THE SPANISH GYPSY, Brome worked a rich comic mine that was to be rediscovered by writers like Gay, in THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, and Burns, in his dramatic poem, "The Jolly Beggars." A JOVIAL CREW was Brome's most popular play, being frequently revived in the Restoration period (Pepys saw it three times in one year) and in the eighteenth century. The underlying thesis of this and other such works, of course, is that the freedom, mirth, fellowship, and nobility of the beggar makes for a far happier life than the commercial accounts, debts, responsibilities, of the respectable gentleman. A corollary of this romantic idea is that there is, after all, a striking similarity between the "statute beggar" and the "courtier beggar"; indeed, the fact that the former is motivated by need and hunger, rather than pride or ambition, makes him a figure of greater sympathy and dignity.
Unlike some of Brome's earlier plays, A JOVIAL CREW is not overloaded with plot values, but owes its success, rather, to an appealing group of characters, especially the two sets of lovers, who develop, through lively dialogue, a warm rapport with one another. Their essential humanity is not obscured by battles of wit, but comically revealed as they earnestly try to assume new social roles to which they are not at all suited. In addition, the aura of benevolence that surrounds the faithful steward, part-time beggar-king, and long-lost son, Springlove, and the generous openhearted landlord Oldrents—along with the utmost utopian community he governs—augment the nostalgic sense of good feeling and social stability that had vanished from the outside world.
The play for years has been received as gay and lighthearted; but recent critics have noted that the grim realities beneath the pleasant fun are constantly showing through the surface. The commonwealth of beggars is, after all, an escape from the world of cares and anxieties that is faced even by the utopian Oldrents, and outside his sheltered domains is a virtually unchecked reign among thieves, cheats, usurers, corrupt justices, and bloodsucking landlords. It is also plain to see that beneath the lighthearted comic treatment of Justice Clack is a picture of a petty and egocentric tyrant whose self-confessed philosophy is "punish 'em first and be compassionate afterwards." Nor is the traditionally romanticized portrait of the jolly beggars unshaded by darker hues. The lovers soon discover to their discomfort that the beggar's lot is not as carefree as they had imagined, and added to the natural hazards of the profession are constant dangers of arrest and persecution by the authorities.
The mirthful and pleasant nature of the outward action and the happy ending gave audiences some of the last fragments of good feeling of the era. The following year, the theaters were closed by the Puritans, not to reopen for another eighteen years. Meanwhile, the nation underwent a course of events remarkably paralleled by the prediction of the poet-beggar in A JOVIAL CREW: "I would have the country, the city, and the court, be at great variance for superiority. Then I would have Divinity and Law stretch their wide throats to appease and reconcile them; then would I have the soldier cudgel them all together and overtop them all."