Scene 1 | In the country, at the home of the Truloves
Young Tom Rakewell and his betrothed Anne Trulove declare their love for one another. Anne’s father is anxious about the young couple’s future. Tom is not worried, and instead relies on the good will of fortune. Upon uttering the wish to become rich, Nick Shadow, previously unknown to him, appears and announces to Tom that he has been chosen as his uncle’s heir. He offers Tom his services, and urges him to rush into the city to take care of formalities. He is willing to wait a year before receiving his salary. Tom and Nick depart. Anne and her father are worried, for they know all too well of Tom’s carelessness.
Scene 2 | At Mother Goose’s brothel
Men and women are loudly indulging in their pleasures. Under Nick’s supervision, Tom is to be introduced to a life where the only duty is to pursue the pleasures of the moment. As a test, Tom has to provide definitions of nature, beauty, and pleasure. But when he begins to speak of love, he falters, thinking of Anne and the “injured love” that binds him to her. But Nick is able to distract Nick’s Tom’s thoughts, and he spends the night with Mother Goose.
Scene 3 | In front of the Trulove’s home
After no word has been heard from Tom since his departure, Anne decides to follow him and stand by him.
Scene 1 | In Tom’s house
Tom has become bored with the pleasures of the city, but cannot force himself to return to Anne. Nick appears on the scene and challenges Tom to marry Baba the Turk, a subject of gossip all over town. By this act, Tom is to prove to the world that he can make decisions free of love and conventions. By doing this, Nick assures him that he will achieve fame.
Scene 2 | In front of Tom’s house
Anne has found Tom’s house, but hesitates from entering. Then Tom appears, who seems embarrassed and touched, but still demands that she leave the city as soon as possible, saying that she is no match for the dangers that await her here. Baba the Turk, who in the meantime has married Tom, appears and the truth comes to light. Despairing, Anne
departs, and the crowd that has collected around Baba cheers.
Scene 3 | At the home of Tom and Baba
Baba talks non-stop, while Tom remains silent and does not react to her declarations of love. Enraged, she insults him and accuses him of still being in love with Anne. Tom retreats to the realm of sleep, and dreams – in a dream that has been fabricated by Nick – of a machine that can create bread from nothing. Waking up, he wishes that the dream were real. Nick appears and tells Tom that he invented just this machine. Tom sees himself in the role of freeing the world of hunger. Nick encourages him to have the machine made many times over with money from investors.
Scene 1 | At Tom’s house
The bread machine is revealed to be a sham. Tom is now revealed to be a fraud and in debt; his remaining possessions are to be auctioned off. In the turmoil of the auction, Anne looks in vain for Tom. The auctioneer Sellem quickly rushes through the task at hand. A veiled object proves to be Baba, who is then cursed by the crowd. Anne now has recognized Tom’s voice: he is on the street with Nick mocking Baba. Baba, in turn, insures Anne that Tom still loves her, and implores that she save him.
Scene 2 | At a cemetery
Now a year has past since their first encounter, and Nick now demands Tom’s soul as payment. But he offers him a way out: a card game. If he can guess three cards, he is free. Against all logic and although Nick plays with a false deck, Tom guesses all three cards. But before Nick himself has to descend into hell, he damns Tom to madness.
Scene 3 | In the madhouse
Tom, who thinks he is Adonis, awaits his Venus. He is mocked by the other inmates. Anne appears accompanied by her father. He sees her as his Venus, and regrets ever having left her. Anne comforts him and rocks him to sleep, placating the other inmates before leaving the asylum. When Tom/Adonis awakes, he mourns the final loss of Venus.