• Iain Bell
  • A Harlot's Progress (2011)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)

Commissioned by Theater an der Wien

  • 2+pic.2.2.2+cbn/2222/timp.2perc/hp/str(
  • SATB (32+ preferable)
  • Baritone, Bass, 2 Mezzo Sopranos, Soprano, Tenor
  • 2 hr 10 min
  • Peter Ackroyd
  • English

Programme Note

Faithfully adhering to the six original pictures of 1732, this opera in six scenes tells the story of the precipitous downfall of Moll Hackabout. The title role was created by renowned coloratura soprano Diana Damrau in a tour-de-force role that calls upon the full vocal and dramatic resources of this astonishingly gifted performer portraying Moll’s journey from naïve to courtesan to syphilitic Drury Lane prostitute.


MOLL HACKABOUT, a harlot Coloratura Soprano
‘MOTHER’ NEEDHAM, a procuress Mezzo-Soprano
KITTY, Moll’s maid Mezzo-Soprano
JAMES DALTON, a highwayman Baritone
Mister LOVELACE, Moll’s first ‘keeper’ Tenor
Market traders and those buying their wares;
Prisoners; Prostitutes and other unsavoury London-types
Place: London
Time: 1730

SCENE I. Cheapside
SCENE II. The house of Lovelace, Leadenhall St
SCENE III. A garret in Drury Lane
SCENE IV. Bridewell Prison
SCENE V. The garret
SCENE VI. Moll’s wake, the garret


SCENE I. Amid the early morning bustle of the market at Cheapside - London, Moll Hackabout steps down from a carriage having travelled from York in search of work as a seamstress. Awestruck yet daunted by the flurry about her, she is soon accosted by ‘Mother’ Needham, a procuress feigning to be Moll’s cousin, who quickly latches onto Moll’s naivety and material ambition promising her a life of wealth and luxury. Flattered, Moll leaves with her.

SCENE II. The scene begins in the Leadenhall Street home of Moll's elderly but wealthy keeper, St. John Lovelace who bids Moll farewell as he leaves for work. Moll, who is now attended by Kitty upon Mother Needham's request, asks her maid to fetch her lover, the noted highwayman James Dalton who is waiting for her word nearby. Kitty departs, though not without imparting a few words of caution to Moll about the precariousness of her behaviour. Dalton soon enters, and words of love and devotion are soon declared between them. As things become more physical, a noise is heard outside signalling the premature return of Lovelace and in haste Dalton leaves. Upon entering the room, Lovelace notices Moll’s disheveled appearance but is soon distracted when Moll suggests they make love. When the deed is done, upon congratulating himself on his efforts Lovelace discovers Dalton’s stocking tucked under the pillow. Refusing to hear any explanation he throws Moll and Kitty out onto the streets. Dalton chances upon them and vows to provide for them both.

SCENE III. a) From a squalid garret in Drury Lane Moll is working as a prostitute. When alone with Kitty she shares her neuroses about Dalton’s whereabouts as he has been missing a long while. Kitty pleads with her to end such dependence on men and proceeds to ready her for further work that evening.
b) The scene cuts to an open road where Lovelace is awaiting Dalton. In an apparent attempt to win Moll back, Lovelace plans to intercept him and learn where she’s residing. Despite Lovelace pleading, Dalton refuses to relinquish Moll. He strikes the old man in a fit of rage, steals his coin-purse and flees. He is followed.
a) The scene returns to Drury Lane, whereupon Moll notices a blemish on her face. Kitty reassures her that it is no cause for concern. Moll speaks in shame of her pregnancy and dreams of a new life with Dalton and their child in the country. Dalton returns and swiftly dashes any such hopes. Humiliated, Moll attempts but fails to resist his subsequent sexual advances. Lovelace and several officers briskly enter and arrest Moll, Kitty and Dalton. Lovelace frames Dalton, claiming his stolen coin-purse to be payment made to Dalton for leading him to her. What had appeared to be Lovelace’s desire to win Moll back was in fact a plan for vengeance. They are all led away riotously.

SCENE IV. In Bridewell Prison, Moll’s pregnancy is nearing full-term and she is seen beating rope, still hanging onto her dreams of a new life with Dalton and their child; her prior neuroses have since escalated into fits of clouded lucidity – a progression of the syphilis now betrayed by the marks on her face. Outside, a coach waits to take Moll back to Yorkshire – at her family’s expense – but she refuses to leave until she is reunited with Dalton. Kitty and Needham begin fighting following Needham’s repeated claims of being owed money. When the violence is at its peak, Needham reveals that Dalton has been hanged. This news sets Moll into labour, at which point she is ejected from the prison with Kitty in tow; raving to herself that Dalton must still live and surely waits for her.

SCENE V. Back at the garret in Drury Lane, Moll’s sanity and health are now at their most fragile and Kitty is in sole care of Moll’s newborn daughter, Emily. Moll fantasises to the point of hysteria about their future life in the country, to such a degree that she hallucinates Dalton’s return. After ‘Dalton’ says everything to Moll she had been waiting to hear, he swiftly and cruelly rejects her and the child amid a torrent of abuse and vanishes as briskly as he appeared. This sets Moll into a violent, deranged frenzy. To protect the child Kitty leaves with Emily in her arms, locking Moll in the room. After prolonged outbursts of rage, terror, profanity and defiance, Moll exhausts herself and takes to a chair. Wrapping herself up in a blanket she sings herself to sleep. Kitty returns soon after to find her dead and cold.

SCENE VI. Moll’s wake takes place in the garret in which she died. It is attended by a drunken coterie of prostitutes gaggled around Needham, who is in denial of any part she played in Moll’s demise. Lovelace also makes an appearance to gloat over the proceedings. Presided over by a minister who himself is being pleasured by one of the prostitutes, the only honest grief can be seen on Kitty’s face. She can but watch in disgust as Needham speaks of her plans for Emily.

The cycle continues…


Act II


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