Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 686
“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.”
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