At a Chicago exhibition in 1947, Igor Stravinsky stopped before eight pictures by 18th century British painter William Hogarth, which tell the story of a young man in the country who unexpectedly inherited a large fortune. He travelled to London, where he soon lost his way and ended up in a lunatic asylum. This is the theme of Stravinsky's last neo-classical opera, which became a 20th century paraphrase of Faust, a parable, in which our 'hero' finds a diabolic attendant. 'For idle hands and hearts and minds the Devil finds a work to do; a work, dear Sir, fair Madam, for you - and you.'
Trulove's garden. Bucolic idyll. May. Tom Rakewell and his girlfriend, Anne, are enjoying the romance of springtime. Father Trulove does not approve of the fact that his future son-in-law is a layabout. He's ready to find work for Tom in the city, but the young man, who has no appetite for slaving away to the benefit of others, rejects his offer. Tom believes in predestination and trusts in Fortune. “I wish I had money.” - he says. At this moment, a figure appears. He is searching for Tom Rakewell in order to let him know that his hitherto unknown uncle has passed away, leaving him with an enormous fortune. The strange character, Nick Shadow, who had been the filthy-rich uncle's employee until his death, now offers his services to Tom, requesting that they settle his wages a year and a day later. Shadow urges his new master to go to London as soon as possible to handle the probate proceedings. The pleased Anne and Trulove also encourage him to go. Tom promises to send for them when the affairs are settled.
“The Progress of a Rake begins.”
London. Mother Goose's brothel. Whores and roaring boys. Shadow proudly shows off all the doctrines he has succeeded in instilling in his master's head regarding the pursuit of pleasure and beauty and the sole human duty: “to follow Nature”. Tom, however, finds himself seeking an answer to one of the questions: “Love is... what?” He thinks of Anne, and as the cuckoo clock strikes one, attempts to flee. At Shadow's signal, the clock resets itself to 12 o'clock. In a sad song, Tom asks Love, whom he has betrayed for easy desire, to not abandon him. The whores are enraptured by the sorrowful man's song, but Mother Goose pushes them aside, and, exercising her right as the eldest, takes Tom by the hand and leads him to her bed.
Trulove's garden. An autumn night. Full moon. There is no news of Tom. Anne senses that her love needs her. She decides to run off to London.
“An ever-loving heart.”
Tom's living room. London. Tom is disillusioned. He's had enough of the big city, the shady dealings and the cheap pleasures “I wish I were happy,” he says. Shadow tells him about Baba the Turk, the famous bearded lady. He says there is one way for a person to gain happiness: by abandoning Passion and Reason. For this reason, he recommends that his master marry Baba the Turk. Tom laughingly consents.
“To Hymen's Altar.”
In front of Tom's house. Autumn. Anne has arrived. Servants take her baggage into Tom's house. Finally, Tom himself arrives; Anne rushes to him. Deeming himself unworthy of the girl's love, he asks her to return home. Baba the Turk impatiently calls for her husband. Anne is astonished that Tom has married, and departs in despair. The mesmerised people marvel at Baba the Turk as Tom goes into the house.
“Baba the Turk is here!”
Tom's living room. Full of Baba's belongings. Baba chatters about her cherished possessions and memories. Tom listens in a sullen mood; he can't bear his wife's familiarity – and finally pushes her away. Hurt, Baba flies into a rage and reproaches Tom: she knows that he loves that other girl, but they will never have each other. Tom silences her and goes to sleep. Nick enters with a machine that gives the appearance of turning stones into bread. In his sleep, Tom cries out the words: “I wish it were true.” Shortly afterwards, he wakes up and is surprised to recognise the machine: he had been dreaming that he himself had invented the contraption which put an end to need and turned the world into a paradise. Tom hopes that the good deed might allow him to win Anne's pardon. Shadow convinces his master to seek investors to manufacture the device.
“For, so it please, there's no fantastic lie you cannot make men swallow if you try.”
Tom's dust-covered living room. Auction. Spring. Tom Rakewell is ruined: deep in debt, he has disappeared. In search of her beloved, Anne shows up at his house, which is up for auction: first Baba's belongings are sold with the other items, followed by the bearded lady herself. From outside, the mocking voices of Tom and Shadow are heard: “Old wives for sale!” Baba informs Anne that Tom still loves her, and that it might not be too late to save him. The bearded lady departs. Anne sets off to find Tom.
“You love him, seek to set him right.”
A starless night. A cemetery. Before midnight. A year and a day have passed since Tom and Shadow first met. The moment of reckoning has arrived. Shadow, however, does not seek money from Tom, but his soul... his life. Suddenly, Shadow stops time again, and, as a “gentleman”, offers Tom a game of cards. He will pick out three cards from the pack, and if Tom guesses them correctly – he will go free. Tom is guided by Fortune and his love for Anne. From the distance, he hears the girl's voice, and finds himself longing for it: “I wish for nothing else.” The contest is won by Tom, whom the enraged Shadow curses:
“Henceforth be you insane!”
Bedlam, the madhouse. “Banker, beggar whore and wit... In a common darkness sit.” Tom fancies himself as the love-struck Adonis, waiting for a visit from his beautiful mate, Venus. Anne arrives, accompanied by her father. “Adonis” repents of his sin against “Venus”: “In a foolish dream, in a gloomy labyrinth... I hunted shadows, disdaining thy true love; Forgive thy servant, who repents his madness.” Anne quiets the exhausted Tom, and singing him a lullaby, finds that all of the lunatics have grown calm. Trulove tearfully takes his daughter home, at which point Tom awakens to find Venus gone without a trace. Adonis's heart is broken, and Tom sinks lifelessly back into his bed.
“My dear, the tale is ended now.”
from which the moral can be drawn:
“For idle hands; and hearts and minds; the Devil finds; a work to do; a work dear Sir, fair Madam; for you and you.”