The Thief and His Thief-Taker General

The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”

Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.

This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.

As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.

She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.

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Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.

Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.

After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”

A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.

If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.

A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.

Jonathan_Wild

A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.

Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.

By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.

Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.

Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.

Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.

Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.

CRIME/JACK SHEPPARD

“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.

In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.

And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.

The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.

Macheath and Peachum

Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.

The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.

In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”

1928 poster

Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.

Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.

If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.

 

Celluloid Dreams

An in-depth convo with Straz Center Senior Director of Marketing, Summer Bohnenkamp, who directs her fifth production with Jobsite Theater – this season’s opener, The Flick.

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Summer Bohnenkamp directs Jobsite Theater’s season opener, The Flick. (Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Jobsite Theater, almost 19 years into its illustrious reputation as one of the strongest regional theater companies in Florida and beginning their 13th as resident theater company of the Straz Center, earned their reputation by putting up challenging, edgy, sometimes cerebral, often hysterical, intermittently campy theater works designed to be politically and socially relevant. The company keeps the definitions of “political” and “social” loose on purpose: Jobsite prides itself on its blue-collar work ethic while keeping a watchful eye on the systems of power and relationships, always ready to mount the kind of winning assessment of both that good theater dramatizes.

This season opens with Annie Baker’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Flick, a play that captures quintessential Jobsite at its best: a simple set, a small cast of exquisitely drawn workaday characters, and a tiny little premise that symbolizes the entire degradation of moral authenticity that has become our modern life. It’s a play about people cleaning an old movie house.

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A peek at the set for The Flick during tech rehearsal.

“The story is about three people who are lost,” says The Flick’s director, Summer Bohnenkamp. “They work in the last indie movie house in Massachusetts that plays real film, not digital. It has a projector you have to load and everything. All the action takes place either before or after a film, and there they are in the theater talking, cleaning the theater, figuring out who they are. In a way, it reminds me of [the movie] Empire Records. It’s the same kind of idea.”

Bohnenkamp herself started similarly, selling tickets in the ticket office at The Straz, then working her way to senior management in marketing. By day, she handles the massive needs of overseeing the marketing of hundreds of performances – everything from networking and buying media to writing institutional marketing plans and providing voice-overs for television ads. Her abiding love of theater keeps her with one foot in the show, one foot in the business as she balances her life between the corporate pressures of arts marketing and the creative outlet of bringing excellent scripts to life as an actor and a director.

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy, who plays the projectionist Rose in The Flick, posing with the projector used in the play.

“It’s cool to make something,” she says. “When I direct or act, I get to make something, and I don’t really ‘make’ other things. I don’t cook well; I’m not crafty. But, theater is something I can make that is good. It’s lasting. Hopefully, the audience and actors get something out of it, too. There are elements of trust and family that get created through the process of making a play that are very rewarding. Theater is a living, breathing thing that is never the same twice. It’s better than any therapy or exercise I can think of.”

Bohnenkamp’s other directorial achievements with Jobsite most recently includes their award-winning production of Time Stands Still. Prior to that she co-directed Annapurna and served as an associate director for reasons to be pretty and All New People. With The Flick, Bohnenkamp returns to her favorite style of script, a stripped-down, dialogue-driven, naturalistic look at people and motivations in situations we can all recognize.

reel cases from Tampa Theatre

These reel cases used in the show were lent to us by Tampa Theatre.

“I like plays that are real people talking. We’ve heard these people, we’ve eavesdropped on people just like the characters in this play. We know them. All the shows I’ve done have been about regular, recognizable people, and it’s interesting to delve into that level of realness when, in actuality, you’re creating something totally false. The three characters in The Flick have some very interesting quirks,” she says. “The dialogue reveals all the major surprises. These people who seem obvious have secrets and important stories. It’s very funny.”

From auditions, Bohnenkamp pulled three actors who can capture the subtle depth of the characters and deliver the complexity of the subtext in Baker’s script. “Brian Shea plays ‘Sam,’ the manager, and he killed it right off the page. He does neuroses so well, which is required for Sam. ‘Rose,’ the projectionist, is played by Georgia Mallory Guy, who can do anything. She came into the audition and gave off exactly what I was envisioning for Rose. We have Thomas Morgan playing ‘Avery,’ the young one of the bunch and the central character. Thomas knows who Avery is, and he had a well-defined character even in the auditions. It’s a good room,” she says, referring to a well-known theater term for having a cast that is positive and hard-working. “This is going to be a fantastic show.”

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Actor Georgia Mallory Guy pictured with director Summer Bohnenkamp (top left), stage manager Vivian Rodriguez (top right), actor Thomas Morgan (bottom left), and actor Brian Shea (bottom right).

The Flick runs in the Shimberg Playhouse from Aug. 30 until Sept. 24. Get your tickets at strazcenter.org.

Gender Bender

By David Jenkins, guest blogger

Roxanne Fay (Feste) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Roxanne Fay (Feste) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Part of life in the performing arts includes the many international scholars who study theater, music and dance, writing on these topics and delving into impressive intellectual inquiry into the art forms and why they matter. One area of interest naturally includes the examination of sexuality and gender identity in many famous plays. In fact, one of the most well-known playwrights to consistently incorporate switched gender roles was William Shakespeare, particularly in his comedies. Jobsite Theater, our resident theater company, opened Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night this week, which includes the character Viola, a woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-who-is-in-love-with-a-man-while-a-woman-who-believes-she-is-a-man-loves-her. Typical Shakespeare! To discuss the context of these gender switcheroos, Caught in the Act enlisted the help of David Jenkins, Jobsite’s Artistic Director and PhD candidate in Communication, specializing in performance studies.

When originally staged, Twelfth Night might have been more believable to a general audience than it is today in terms of all the characters on stage believing that female Viola was male Cesario, the young man she pretends to be. In Shakespeare’s day, women were not allowed on stage, so those famous female roles, from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, would have been played by boys.

So, follow me here: we would have had a boy actor playing a woman who was pretending to be a young man. Not too hard to buy, right?

But, we might also take this circumstance a step further in terms of gender confusion in that the male actor playing Orsino, the object of Viola’s affection, is in love with Olivia, who would have been played by a boy, and the boy-acting-like-the-girl-pretending-to-be-the-boy in Viola. Then we have a boy playing Olivia who is also in love with boy/girl/boy Viola.

Whew.

Katrina Stevenson (Olivia) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario) in a rehearsal for Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Katrina Stevenson as Olivia and Maggie Mularz as Viola, a woman-pretending-to-be-a-man-who-is-in-love-with-a-man-while-a-woman-who-believes-she-is-a-man-loves-her, in Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Twelfth Night becomes a fascinating site of study when we consider both the fluidity of gender as a social construction and the continuum of human sexuality.

I should offer a few definitions so we’re on the same page:

Sex refers to the parts a person is born with and though most people are born with male or female genitals around 10% of the human population is somewhere between these poles, not to mention those who surgically alter themselves, and so we should view biological sex not in terms of two or even three positions but as a whole continuum (Fausto-Sterling 2000).

Gender is social construction, something we (individuals and/or society) place on a body. Judith Butler (1988) offers that gender is “a stylized repetition of acts through time” making it a performance unto itself. Simone de Beauvoir is often quoted as saying that one is not born but rather becomes a woman. Gender has historically been used as a way to set the norms of behavior for men and women in any moment in time as a method of social control.

Sexuality then refers to whom any of us are attracted to. These three concepts are mutually exclusive of one another. Gayle Rubin (1984) argues that we must separate them when we discuss human behavior to gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Roxanne Fay plays the role of Feste, a man, in Jobsite Theater's production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Roxanne Fay plays the role of Feste, a man, in Jobsite Theater’s production of Twelfth Night. Photo by Crawford Long.

Drawing these definitions back to Twelfth Night, we can see how the confusion in terms of who is actually what and who is really into whom might provoke thought and discussion among audience members. What is “normal” for a man or woman, what really defines masculine or feminine, what do these designations even mean and who do they serve? Can we control how or why we fall in love with another, and what is it that drives us to even love at all?

Shakespeare in performance has the opportunity to reinforce gender roles, as we can do with Lady Macbeth’s femme fatale machinations to the virginal and helpless Ophelia who Hamlet casts aside. But, in a case like Twelfth Night, it can challenge and subvert those same roles. I try to avoid what Penny Gay (1993) calls “radical chic” in making choices on stage that are done just in the name of being non-traditional (“Oooh, let’s do Troilus and Cressida dressed as panda bears!”), but, in our production, I’ve cast the part of Olivia’s fool Feste as a woman dressed as a man. I purposefully left all references to Feste as “he,” “him,” and “sir” specifically to the end of creating an ambiguous space that destabilizes what terms like man or woman really even mean. It has also given us a really interesting moment to play on stage as Feste, at one point, is able to show the audience (and Viola) that s/he sees through “Cesario’s” disguise. That moment is not set in Shakespeare’s text, but is possible for us to communicate through the actors’ delivery and interaction.

Chris Holcom as Orsino and and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario). Photo by Crawford Long.

Chris Holcom (Orsino, the object of Viola’s affection) and Maggie Mularz (Viola, as Cesario). Photo by Crawford Long.

When presented with two options: male or female, gay or straight, masculine or feminine, we cannot but help uphold that very binary which always privileges one term over the other. In fact “male” is only truly defined by what it is not: “female.” We can similarly apply that to any binary: the one thing only has meaning in that it is not the other. When we begin to look for those third terms such as androgynous, bisexual, intersex we disrupt binary and place things in continuum which is necessarily ambiguous terrain. Kenneth Burke (1945) notes that in this ambiguous territory, true transformation takes place. And, yes, it’s also what often freaks people out about someone who defies categorization or passes as one thing when they are in fact another. It freaks us out because in that moment we’re forced to reckon with what we think we know.

Judith Butler (2004) observed we need to resist the urge to resolve those tensions that create these kinds of spaces. I’ve tried to do that with Twelfth Night. Perhaps people will get it, and if they don’t, to be perfectly honest, it won’t get in the way of them simply enjoying themselves in the theater for a few hours with a first-rate performance.

As a director, I believe what we do on stage is part of a conversation, a dialogue, even if the audience doesn’t always speak back. It’s an exchange: as artists we get immediate feedback from what we’re offering them which can come in the shape of anything from laughter and sighs to bored shuffling of feet and people uncomfortably leaving the theater. In my belief that ambiguous spaces can often be transformative, I try to “resist conclusions” as Dwight Conquergood (1985) says so that the conversations can continue among people or even just in the individual mind as people go back to their lives outside of the Shimberg Playhouse.

In other words, I don’t need to put a pretty bow on the end all the time. Let the work speak for itself and let people think.

When presented with questions by students (even audiences or critics) as to why Shakespeare matters, Twelfth Night’s tensions about gender, sexuality, and our ability and urge to love is one of the first things I point to. We still struggle with these concepts. I can point to teenagers committing suicide over not being understood, people of all ages facing violence over how they choose to live their life, even our own state and local governments fighting the people over who gets to count when it comes to marriage.

— David M. Jenkins is the Producing Artistic Director of Jobsite Theater. He is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida, where he also teaches as an instructor in the Department of Theater.

Find this stuff interesting? You might like these books:

As She Likes It: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women, Penny Gay

Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as if Gender and Race Matter, Ellen Donkin and Susan Clement

Theatre and Sexuality, Jill Dolan

The History of Sexuality pt. I, Michel Foucault

Undoing Gender, Judith Butler

Sexing the Body, Anne Fausto-Sterling

 

Works referenced:

Burke, K. (1945). A Grammar of Motives. London, University of California Press.

Cima, G. G. (1993). Strategies for Subverting the Canon. Upstaging Big Daddy: directing theater as if gender and race matter. E. Donkin and S. Clement. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press: 91-105.

Conquergood, D. (1985). “Performing as a Moral Act: Ethical Dimensions of the Ethnography of Performance.” Literature in Performance 5: 1-13.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the Body. New York, NY, Basic Books.

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality. PLEASURE and DANGER: exploring female sexuality. C. S. Vance. London, Pandora.