A Penny for a Song

by John Whiting
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The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067

A Penny for a Song, set in 1804, illustrates “the finer lunacies of the English at war” in a typically English mixture of farce and romantic comedy. The setting is a sheltered garden on the Dorset coast, bounded by orchard, sea, and sky, with an elegant eighteenth century house in the background. In the foreground stands a tree with a man crouched on top, who is oddly attired in scraps of old uniforms and holds a telescope as well as green and red wooden signals. This is Humpage, the lookout, ordered by the two eccentric brothers Timothy and Lamprett Bellboys to maintain his precarious position day and night. Timothy wants Humpage to report on any sign of Napoleon Bonaparte on British shores, for he is determined to defeat the Beast of the Apocalypse single-handedly. Lamprett, obsessed with using an old fire engine—so much that he himself starts fires so that he can extinguish them—insists that Humpage pay attention only to fires. Meek in anything that does not concern fire fighting, Lamprett is married to an imposing and bossy woman, Hester. Although Hester enjoins her daughter Dorcas, who is seventeen, to put off her childish ways, none of the older people has done so yet; they all behave like unruly children. The Bellboys family is joined by Hallam Matthews, a dandy from London who is determined to take a holiday from life in this idyllic setting. In fact, however, Hallam, who becomes everyone’s confidant, not only is implicated in the farcical confusions but compounds them.

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While Dorcas, not quite ready to follow her mother’s advice, turns somersaults, she is suddenly confronted by a young man and a boy who ask for refreshments on their journey. Edward, blinded in the French war, is traveling to London to show his blindness to the mad king George III, to persuade him to stop the war. The boy, who met Edward on a battlefield, is an orphan who cherishes his own romantic mission. Hearing the Christmas story, he recognized Jesus as his lost brother and now is determined to go to Bethlehem in search of him, for the storyteller had forgotten to mention that it all happened centuries ago. These young people for a moment inject the reality of war into the sunny Dorset garden, although their quests are no less fantastic than those of the older farcical eccentrics.

Timothy next explains to Hallam why he had asked him to bring a wardrobe from a London theater. Though his countrymen are doing nothing to defend their nation against the French threat, and even have denied him leadership of his own volunteer corps, the Bellboys Fencibles, Timothy has conceived a charmingly simple rescue. Taking advantage of what he considers his remarkable resemblance to Napoleon, he will don a French National Guard uniform and appear from a tunnel at the rear of the French army. Then, with words borrowed from a French phrasebook, he will order the men to retreat, saying that all is lost.

Timothy departs, but Hallam’s rest is again interrupted by George Selincourt, who has been put in charge of the local volunteers instead of Timothy. Selincourt explains that the forces under his command are going to stage a mock battle and leaves him with posters bearing the single word “INVASION,” suggesting that Hallam purchase at least one hundred of them at a bargain price. When Timothy discovers a poster, he is galvanized into action. He dons his disguise (in which his brother mistakes him for Lord Nelson) and, clutching the French phrasebook, prepares to descend the well which leads to the tunnel. Before he can finish his farewell speech, which is incomprehensible to all but Hallam, the rope gives, and he disappears with a bump.

Act 2 opens with a picnic during the mock battle, which Hester and Lamprett assume to be real. “There is great comfort, I find, in resorting to good food during a crisis,” says Hester and commands her husband to shut the gate after a second cannonball has come bouncing into the garden. Lamprett feels frustrated by the lack of fires, although he has moved his fire engine into the garden, ready for action. Hallam remains aloof, enjoying the commotion, even when Selincourt returns to inform him that what was intended as a maneuver has become a war in earnest: One of the volunteers has spotted Napoleon.

Selincourt proves himself no less idiosyncratic than Timothy in his attempt to defeat the enemy. Believing that Napoleon’s men are hiding in a tunnel under the sea while their emperor is on shore spying, Selincourt resolves to capture Napoleon. As soon as Selincourt leaves, Timothy appears overhead in a balloon which he captured from the volunteers, having mistaken them for the French. He is gleefully munching biscuits when the balloon descends; protesting, Timothy once again goes down into the well. The moment he is out of sight, Selincourt reappears in a fury, complaining that some fool is putting out all of his warning fires. Nevertheless, he is confident that Napoleon cannot elude his forces, for the volunteers are sealing the entrance to the tunnel with a ton of explosives. Hearing this, Hallam loses all ironic detachment, fearing that he has allowed the joke to be carried too far. He even wonders whether the real Napoleon has not landed after all.

Selincourt’s men, however, use an excessive amount of explosives, so that the false Napoleon is propelled through the air and lands safely beyond the cordon of volunteers. A dirty, tattered, but invincible Timothy establishes his identity by his knowledge of cricket, and the warring parties are reunited in characteristic English manner by the planning of a game, volunteers included, for the next day. The men then retire into the house for a candlelight dinner. Only Hallam and Dorcas remain outside. Edward has left to continue the quest that he knows to be hopeless; Dorcas, who has found and lost her love in one day, has indeed grown up, so that together with the disillusioned dandy she can appreciate a song about life’s brevity and illusions. Humpage’s bell sounds softly as he stirs in his sleep, and from the house can be heard the sound of the men’s voices singing “gay and gentle.” Hallam takes up the melody on his flute “with an infinite tenderness. . . . A single star stands in the sky.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

A Penny for a Song is a play in two acts, each of which alternates scenes of frantic action, involving the eccentric older characters, with contemplative exchanges between the young lovers, while Hallam serves as a link between the two groups. The play takes place on one day, beginning with Timothy tearing apart his bedroom curtains, throwing open the window, and shouting at Humpage. Act 1 ends with his abrupt disappearance down the well, which unleashes the madcap action of the second act. The play ends in a quiet, thoughtful mood, with Hallam and Dorcas’s ruminations on the transitoriness of life and with a series of solicitous good-nights. This ending corresponds to the title, derived from a William Butler Yeats poem, which reflects on the passing of youth. Whiting is said, however, to have preferred the title of the German translation of his play, Wo wir fröhlich gewesen sind (where we were happy), which makes a similar statement without literary reference.

A Penny for a Song uses many of the traditional devices of farce: precisely timed entrances and exits, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and acceleration (act 2 moves at a faster pace than act 1). Costumes and props add to the comic effect. Humpage wears an odd military get-up, including satin knee-breeches and worsted stockings. In act 2 he is ordered to put a saucepan on his head as protection in his exposed position on the tree. Timothy appears dressed as Napoleon, and Hester takes leave of her family in what appears to be a suit of golden armor as she sets forth to join Lady Jerningham’s corps of British amazons, accompanied by her diminutive maid Pippin. Props, such as the colorful balloon and the fantastic fire engine, contribute visual comic effects.

The chief source of the humor, however, is the language. The eccentrics reveal their idiosyncrasies through their speech. Lamprett, for example, is exasperated at the subordination of the fire brigade to “ephemeral activities such as agriculture.” Timothy sums up his position by telling Hallam, “The situation is roughly this: myself, versus one hundred and seventy-five thousand Frenchmen.” While Timothy and Lamprett are mainly unconscious of the effect of their words, Hallam uses language self-consciously. He is elegant with words, believing in “the music of civilised conversation,” especially “the fugue of argument” and “the bravura passage.” Such fugues and bravura passages occur in A Penny for a Song and indeed in all Whiting’s plays. Hallam, for example, discoursing on youth and age, applies metaphors such as “the morning, sweet as a nut” and “the early evening, sad as a mustard pot.” Edward’s language is poetic rather than rhetorical, in keeping with his romantic vision of homelessness and death.

Although in the mid-1950’s, a few years after A Penny for a Song, Whiting claimed that his early work suffered from his “hangover from the English lyric tradition,” he never abandoned his heightened use of language. The rhythm of his plays is controlled by the alternation of fast-moving dialogues and extended monologues, which often serve as dramatic climaxes.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51

Sources for Further Study

Hayman, Ronald. John Whiting. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Robinson, Gabrielle. A Private Mythology: The Manuscripts and Plays of John Whiting. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1988.

Salmon, Eric. The Dark Journey: John Whiting as Dramatist. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1979.

Trussler, Simon. The Plays of John Whiting: An Assessment. London: Gollancz, 1972.

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Critical Essays