Fidelity Be Hanged; or, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Moll Flanders?

Now there’s a dame with a past—so much of one that it is difficult to imagine a future for her. Moll Flanders, I mean. The question of her past, path, and purpose was raised anew last night by Keiron Self’s stage adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 narrative (now touring Wales as a co-production of Mappa Mundi, Theatr Mwldan, and Creu Cymru). Adultery, bigamy, incest, theft. What could possibly be next? Hold on! Theft? That’s already somewhat of an anticlimax, isn’t it? How about a happy ending?

In his anticipation of censure, Defoe insisted that “[n]one can, without being guilty of manifest Injustice, cast any Reproach upon [Moll Flanders], or upon our Design in publishing it.” Positioning himself within the tradition of storytelling for moral uplift, he continued his defense by stating that the “Advocates for the Stage have in all Ages made this the great Argument to persuade People that their Plays are useful, and that they ought to be allow’d in the most civiliz’d, and the most religious Government”; that they are “applied to virtuous Purposes, and that by the most lively Representations, they fail not to recommend Virtue and generous Principles, and to discourage all sorts of Vice and Corruption of Manners [. . .].”

“To give the History of a wicked Life repented of,” Defoe remarked, “necessarily requires that the wicked Part should be made as wicked as the real History of it will bear, to illustrate and give a Beauty to the Penitent part, which is certainly the best and brightest, if related with equal Spirit and Life.” Is Moll being made a spectacle and example of for the sole purpose of our edification? Or is penitence thrust upon her to justify the sensational come hither that draws us in?

Moll’s moral lapses are cumulative; but instead of suffocating her under piled-up offenses, Defoe determined to put her to the test by having her locked up at last. He threatens Moll with execution to play out what he promised his audience all along: a final act of repentance and virtue rewarded. About whether she is deserving of forgiveness, Defoe’s portrait does not leave much doubt; but is someone like Moll still capable of atonement after a life of debauchery?

Mappa Mundi’s stage adaptation departs from Defoe’s “blueprint” (as Self calls his literary source) by avoiding the contemplation of Moll’s life after crime, let alone her afterlife. She does not get to reap the rewards either of her none-too-good deeds or her subsequent atonement. Whereas Defoe has her telling us of establishing a future for herself and a loving husband in penal-colonial Virginia, Self’s Moll wanders in ever seedier circles and dies where her flashback-dramatized life story began: Newgate prison, in whose confines the play is set.

“How do you reconcile the happy ending of Moll Flanders after such a life of sin and wickedness?” novelist Katherine Anne Porter was asked in a literary panel discussion broadcast on CBS radio in the early 1940s, a time when a dramatization of Defoe’s story was not to be thought of. “How do you reconcile that happy ending with the morality he is preaching in the book?” To which Porter replied: “She repented, don’t you see? That her past weighs more heavily on than against Moll becomes even more difficult to “see” once the criminality of her acts is called into question.

According to Self’s revision of Defoe’s story, Moll is wronged by the society that criminalized her existence. This Newgate Calendar Girl has done no harm not already inflicted upon her: meeting the challenge of securing a husband, trying to make a living, and holding on to her livelihood in old age (that is, turning to thievery when her body is robbed of its attractions). In such a social reading of her life, there is no point in—no need for—penitence. The penitentiary takes its place.

In the stage bill for the Mappa Mundi production, Self expressed his hope of having given Moll a “voice” of which Defoe might approve. Instead, he makes us question the veracity of her words by suggesting her insanity (in a psychedelic finale) and then shuts her up by condemning her to be hanged, however loudly he condemns those who hang her. After all, there is no spectacle in quiet remorse.

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