20 Apr 2015

The Rake’s Progress Synopsis

by Judy Vander Heide

Act 1

The scene is set in 18th century England in the garden of the country estate of the Truelove family. Anne Truelove and her fiancée, Tom Rakewell, are enjoying the spring air when Anne’s father sends her into the house so that he can counsel Tom about a prospective position as an accountant. Tom, however, has no interest in work, although he does yearn for money. Upon the withdrawal of Truelove, sly Nick Shadow, a Mephistophelean character, approaches Tom and entices him with the welcome news that the young man is the heir to a fortune. Father Truelove exhorts him to claim his inheritance so Tom and Nick Shadow depart for London with Tom promising to write to Anne.

In a brothel in the city, Tom is introduced to and seduced by a life of hedonism and debauchery. Upon encouragement by Shadow, Tom recites a catechism extolling pleasure for Mother Goose, the madam who subsequently beds him and along with Shadow instructs him in the arts of vice.

Having heard nothing from Tom, Anne departs for London to rescue him.

Act 2

Tom is finding life in London to be tiresome, wishes he were happy and feels unworthy of Anne. Shadow appears and encourages Tom to marry Baba the Turk, who is a bearded lady, for only by this action, Shadow asserts, will Tom be truly free. Anne arrives but Tom bids her to leave since he is already married. With her incessant babble, Baba is proving to be very irritating so Tom silences her by cramming a wig on her face, rendering her motionless.

He falls asleep and has a strange and realistic dream about a machine that is capable of turning rocks to bread, an act which would change the world. Tom is delighted when, upon awakening, Shadow brings him the exact gadget he has imagined so Tom now plans to market the machine—not knowing that it is a fake.

Act 3

A few months have passed and Tom’s ventures, including the stones to bread machine, have failed. Everything is up for sale in an auction, including Baba; Anne arrives having heard of Tom’s ruin. Baba pushes her aside from the pandemonium of the auction telling her of Tom’s misfortunes and of Tom’s love for her, bidding her to beware of the nefarious Nick Shadow.

Leading Tim to a graveyard Shadow demands Tom’s soul in payment of his wages, demanding that Tom end his life by midnight; then suddenly the devil reverses himself and offers to wager for Tom’s soul in a game of cards. Tom selects the Queen of Hearts and cries out to Anne who has followed him. Shadow realizes he has lost the game, but out of spite, condemns Tom to eternal madness.

Now a resident of Bedlam, Tom, who believes that he is Adonis, is mocked by fellow inmates for his insistence that Venus will visit him. It is Anne who comes, and for a few moments Tom and Anne are once again true lovers. At Tom’s request and to the joy of the inmates, she sings him to sleep before departing with her father. Awaking to find her gone, Tom calls out in despair and dies of grief.


The moral of the story is told as it pertains to Tom, Anne, Shadow, Truelove and Baba. All agree that the devil will find work for idle hands.