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Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Cutpurse Lives

This, from today's New York Times: a story about "Lush Workers," as they're called in our day and age, who slice open the pants pockets of drunken subway riders to steal their wallets.

I'm posting it here because it's such a nice revision of a canonical historical oddity -- The Cutpurse -- that sits so prominently in the ways we think about theatrical culture in Tudor and Stuart London. All of the familiar features are here: the unsuspecting, overly confident mark, slumped over and drunk in a public place; the constable, rolling his eyes both at the naivete of the victims and the intractable practices of petty thieves; and the purse-cutter -- now a pocket-slicer -- knowing precisely who to rob and how to do it without attracting notice. Admittedly, there's something a bit inelegant about robbing a corpse-like drunk, and I have a hard time imagining my favorite Jacobean cutpurse, Edgworth, from Bartholomew Fair, bragging about robbing a catatonic Cokes. But there is something to be learned about the contrast set up here in any case.

Here and now, in 21st century New York, a cutpurse -- not a pickpocket, mind you, but an actual cutpurse -- works on anesthetized victims. Men (at least, those of us who still prefer the front-pocket spot) hold their wallets very close to their bodies, and it's a very delicate operation to get in there unnoticed. Says Officer Rudolph of the NYPD: “It’s unbelievable they don’t cut the person’s leg wide open. They’re like surgeons with a razor blade, for God’s sake.” ("Leg" seems like a bit of a euphemism here to me, but that's more my problem than Officer Rudolph's.)

In 1607, owing in part to a different kind of wallet technology, men lost purses in broad daylight when they were wide awake. The enabling element for the cutpurse wasn't alcohol, but sheer distraction. And while there were many, many, many ways to keep someone's attention long enough to permit a quick cut, one of them could have been a performance of, say, Titus Andronicus. The absorption of an audience member into the action on stage would have been thought of -- by thieves, by aldermen, by playwrights, by playgoers -- in the same way we think about falling asleep dead drunk on a train. A particularly good play would leave people open to attack and loss. And, like subway riders who wake up walletless and fuzzy-mouthed six stops past their own, those robbed, distracted audience members would have been embarrassed by their misfortune. They all have no one but themselves to blame.