Themes and Meanings
Inspired in 1940, when England was under another threat of invasion, but written at a time of “great personal happiness” for playwright John Whiting, A Penny for a Song combines a dark vision of the violence and futility of life with gentle and forgiving comedy. Like all Whiting’s other works, it is set in a time of war and pours scorn on elaborate schemes for outfoxing the enemy. The play stands apart from Whiting’s others, however, in that it depicts the human quest for grandeur not only as destructive, deluded, and vain but also as somehow endearing. As a result, the mood is one of wistful humor tinged with melancholy, rather than of anger and despair. Even the most obsessive eccentrics in the play, Timothy and Lamprett, can stand back at times to reflect on the futility of their efforts. Hallam, the Byronic outsider without commitments of his own, comments throughout on human folly but never loses his compassion, being well aware of the vulnerability that underlies each person’s posturing: “We never give up our rattles: our thumbs will go to our mouths on our death-beds.” He knows that everyone plays the clown because he seeks to escape an unbearable reality and an intolerable self.
The main spokesman, however, is not the disillusioned and rhetorical Hallam but Edward, blind and alone, dedicated to the hopeless mission of stopping men from waging war. Edward falls in love with Dorcas, but despite his present happiness, despite their laughter and tenderness, he feels compelled to continue his journey. Trying to explain the urgency of his quest to Dorcas, he says, “You see, my life-loving darling, the dark journey to the dark home is sometimes sweeter than the summer’s day.” Many Whiting characters share this longing for “the dark home,” which really is the other side of their juvenile idealism. The inevitable failure of their monumental yet childish schemes leaves them nothing but death. It is the only home they can hope to reach.
Despite such somber musings, however, A Penny for a Song succeeds as a boisterous farce of mix-ups and misunderstandings, all of which are happily resolved in friendship and love. The audience is assured that on this sunny day in a far distant time the heavens are not about to fall. “All [the play] states, in very simple terms, is the idea of Christian charity,” according to Whiting. Still, a full thematic analysis must take account of the characters’ violent delusions and their loneliness, frustration, and desire for death. The dual genesis of the play is reflected in the interplay between the older and younger groups of characters, so that comedy, despair, and love are intertwined.