The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal by Aaron Skirboll. It's a really fun read, about Jonathan Wild, real-life model for Jonathan Peachum in Threepenny; Capt. Jack Sheppard, real-life model for Capt. Macheath; Prime Minister Jonathan Walpole, who apparently is satirized through both characters; and some other real people who may be the models for Tiger Brown and Mrs. Peachum.
It's fascinating to see how these real people became characters in The Beggar's Opera, then characters in Threepenny, and also to see what elements of character and story come from real life.
Two quotes from the book really struck me, in terms of understanding the world and culture of Threepenny. Skirboll writes, “Whatever the people of London thought of crime, they all shared an unquenchable longing for news in general, and specifically for stories about the lives of criminals.” That sort of makes The Beggar's Opera and Threepenny thematic companion pieces to Chicago and Natural Born Killers. Skirboll also writes, “Men and women went to jail for being poor and came out criminals.”
Exactly what's happening right now with nonviolent drug offenders.
Skirboll describes Wild/Peachum and Shepard/Macheath this way: “An eighteenth-century Al Capone, Jonathan Wild was the first man to organize crime for profit and the first criminal whose name everyone in the city knew. A burglar and a prison breaker, Jack Sheppard had much in common with John Dillinger. In late 1724, a manhunt for him grabbed the city's attention like no other story and drove newspaper sales skyward. Sheppard the housebreaker ran, and thief-taker Wild chased him.”
A thief-taker in the early 1700s, when The Beggar's Opera opened, was essentially what we now call a bounty hunter. Wild would track down criminals and bring them in for the reward money.
Skirboll writes, “In short time, Wild made himself useful to many different bands of thieves, and he did so ingeniously, without ever partaking in the thievery himself. He became a manager of sorts, and as he'd promised himself, he learned to make a profit with his head and not his hands. He used the information presented to him and advised and directed individual gang members into paths of profit. Various gangs depended on him to plan their schemes.”
It's amazing how close Peachum is to Wild, in so many details:
“With his crew on board, Wild began keeping track of all the illicit action going on in the city. In essence, he was sharpening a tactic he had learned while roaming the streets with [Charles] Hitchen [a possible model for Tiger Brown], who always made sure to query his mathematicians as to where they'd been so as to know the corners where each set of rogues normally worked. Wild took this technique further, religiously recording every detail in a logbook: name, inventory, location, etc. By observing Hitchen, Wild also learned about the art of patience when negotiating. He saw that Hitchen lacked that skill, and when the marshal couldn't agree to terms with a client, he looked to unload the goods some other way. Wild, on the other hand, stayed the course when looking to strike a deal. In fact, he often compelled the client to wait under the pretense that he was running himself ragged over the ordeal, thus driving up the price.”
So how did the real Peachum become who he became? He met Mary Milliner, who may be the model for Mrs. Peachum:
“In The Tyburn Chronicle, Mary Milliner is described as ‘a common streetwalker’ who had ‘run the whole circle of vice, knew all the ways of the town, and most of its felonious inhabitants.’ But Milliner was more than a whore. She knew how to earn money from an array of shady activities. Both well versed and well connected, she usually didn't stay locked up for long. She was too smart for that. Milliner was the wife of a Thames waterman, but the underworld knew her as a ‘buttock and file’ as well – a prostitute and a pickpocket. Skilled at her work, she often pursued both functions simultaneously, robbing some poor sot while she had sex with him.
“Before meeting Milliner, Wild had been stockpiling knowledge of the underworld. Now he realized how little he knew. She revealed a whole new world to the young debtor. Milliner's domain consisted predominantly of thieves and whores. She introduced her new beau around, and soon he was learning myriad new techniques for making money.
“Under Milliner's tutelage, Wild made numerous friends and associates. His aptitude concerning thievery had grown to the point where other inmates often called on him for advice, telling him the particulars of their plans. Wild's counsel often proved beneficial to the thieves, and like an ace handicapper, he became the man to see. One contemporary account referred to him in his new Compter role as ‘a kind of Oracle amongst the Thieves.’”. . .
. . . “Wild's pardon was announced in the London Gazette on November 4, 1712. Come December, he was a free man again. He and Milliner moved in together, shacking up in Lewkenor's Lane, Covent Garden. Both were already married, but the two lived together as a married couple, Milliner the second of six Mrs. Wilds. The new lovers opened a brothel, and Wild officially began his life as a career criminal.”
As you might expect if you know Threepenny, Wild and Milliner's marriage didn't last very long...
“By the end of 1714, Wild's relationship with Milliner had run its course. The pair split just before the New Year. Some accounts say little to nothing before moving on to Wild's next wife; other accounts speak of a violent parting, such as the 1768 The Tyburn Chronicle: Or, The Villainy Display'd in All Its Branches, which says of Milliner: "She had some time so provoked him to wrath, that he swore he would mark her for a bitch, and thereupon drawing his sword, he cut off one of her ears. This occasioned a divorce." The author then stated that Wild gave Milliner a weekly pension after their parting, "in a grateful consideration of the service she had done him, by bringing him into so large an acquaintance.”
In The Partnership, Pamela Katz writes, “Pointedly, the play does not judge the individually corrupt natures of Peachum, Tiger Brown, and Macheath; it instead provokes the audience to judge the structures of power. And once corruption is exposed, the audience can yearn for change. A central element of the dramatic experience, Brecht realized, was to reveal a world that was not only imperfect but also changeable. The ability to recognize the flaws of society offered the possibility for improvement. Only plays that delivered the harshest critique could inspire the spectator's hope for the future.” And this was one hell of a harsh critique. Katz writes, “The power of the play was in the impossibility of figuring out who is good and who is bad.” Just like real life.
Even if we adopt these real-world events as our Threepenny backstory, we know the audience won't get much of that. That's not really the point of backstory. The point is that the richer and realer the actors can make the world of the story for themselves, the more they can fully and credibly live in that world, the more honest their performances will be, and the more powerfully they'll connect to the audience.
Like the great American acting teachers (Meisner, Hagen, et al.) taught, acting really boils down to one thing: fully understanding an imaginary world and living naturally within it. In other words, pretending.
The more we know about this particular imaginary world, the better we'll pretend for you.
We open this week!
Long Live the Musical!