The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.