Jack the Gyant-Killer is a traditional English folk tale which was a popular subject for chapbooks in the 17th and 18th centuries. It tells of Jack, a boy living in Cornwall in the time of King Arthur, who kills a selection of brutal giants. He uses trickery to beat them, and is rewarded with wealth, status and a wealthy wife.
The play shown here is very different from the folk tale. ‘A comi-tragical farce’ presented on the London stage in 1730, it makes use of the rough outline of the traditional story to poke fun at the superficiality of courtiers. Two poets, Plotless and Scenewell, have arrived to see what happens at the royal court. They find that the ‘Monarch Reason’ has been deposed by ‘Princess Folly’ who is carried everywhere by four giants. The court is dazzled by the new queen, but a messenger arrives to say that Jack, a supporter of the deposed Monarch Reason, has brought an army. Since the story of Jack the Gyant-Killer would have been well known to the play’s audience – adults rather than children – they would easily have been able to anticipate the outcome, and indeed, the court of Folly is duly defeated. Initially, Jack’s followers also fall under the spell of Folly, leaving Jack to deal with the giants alone. He is more than capable of doing so, and it only takes four lines of the play for them to die. Folly is revealed to be a hideous monster in disguise and is dispatched underground for ever.
The play formed part of a vogue for dramas based on folk tales. Henry Fielding’s successful play Tom Thumb was presented on stage for the first time in 1730 too. Contemporary audiences would have understood these plays as partly moral and partly satirical, as well as being an entertaining element of the very varied set of performances that comprised a night at the 18th-century theatre.
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