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The Audience Screamed with Delight

The MHS Review 238 Vol. 3, No. 4 • April 16, 1979

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David M. Greene

John Rich produced The Beggar's Opera at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theater on Jan. 29, 1729. The audience screamed with delight, and the piece ran an unprecedented ninety nights and (according to the old wheeze) "made Rich gay and Gay rich." It did not kill Italian opera, but it dealt it a crippling blow.


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Napoleon Buonaparte is supposed to have sneered that England was a nation of shopkeepers. What he meant was that culturally the English were bourgeois, not to mention insular. And, indeed, for a people on whose Empire the sun never used to set, they have, at least until recently, appeared remarkably narrow and provincial when it came to culture, particularly the imported kind. Even today "Anglo-Saxon attitudes" conveys something more than just the curious behavior of Haigha and Hatta in Alice in Wonderland.

The explanation, I suspect, lies fairly deeply rooted in their history. During the so-called Dark Ages, the British Isles, protected by the Channel, were the last outpost of western civilization, otherwise overrun by "barbarians." Then followed the invasions of the Northmen, first from Scandinavia, then from their outpost in Normandy, whose deleterious impact on things cultural was felt for some four centuries. Then came the upheavals of the Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses, and the Reformation, which effectively blocked out, until very late, the develop­ments of the Renaissance. When, after the defeat of the Armada by God and man, the new literature really began to develop and the new music made a promising start, the Revolution and the Puritan Commonwealth pulled the shades down again. These last events particularly affected musical pro­gress, since Cromwell tolerated only psalm-singing by way of public music­-making. Thus, it was not really until the Restoration in 1600 that the radical developments that had been taking place in European music had a real chance to be explored on British soil.

One of those developments was opera, created in Florence in an attempt to re-create the kind of Total Theater that Aristotle's Poetics depicted Greek drama as being.

Italian in origin, opera, which spread across the face of western Europe during the seventeenth century, remained largely Italian in both form and language save in France and England. The French took an uncomprehending look at the imported product, and invented one of their own, based on the native court ballet. (The inventor, in case you've forgotten, was Jean-Baptiste Lully, who, ironically, had also been imported--from Florence.) The English, out of touch, devised what they supposed opera to be, which was a sort of extravaganza interspersed with hearty English songs in the yo-heave-ho and Phyllis-was-a-buxom-wench traditions of a merry evening in the tavern. (I do the native songs an injustice here, but I am trying to give a sense of what the English thought of as music. Purcell, of course, contributed to such "operas.")

Perhaps because of the conditions noted above, the English, right down to my day, if not to yours, have been xenophobes. Masking a sneaking suspicion of their own inferiority with a superior stance, they find the curious ways of out-landers, and their even curiouser attempts to speak the language, deliriously funny. But about Italy, in the time we are dealing with, they were curiously ambivalent. Italy was the place that had produced the models for the great upsurge of poetry and prose and, to some degree, drama in Elizabethan times. Italy was the site of Roman civilization, which had provided the fine patriotic, stiff-upper-lip, rules-of-the-game code by which Englishmen were supposed to live. Italy, through Baldassare Castiglione, had set the ideal of the perfect courtier which underlies the notion of the English Gentleman. At the same time it was the land of the Pope (the age's bogey-man), of Machiavelli, of dissolutes, swindlers, thieves, and murder­ers. And the Italians who fell between these extremes demonstrably looked, dressed, talked, and gestured very funny indeed. So every ambitious young Englishman was sent off on a mandatory cultural tour of Italy with a warning not to take any wooden ducats, and with high hopes of at last encountering Real Sin on the hoof.

As I have noted, by 1700, Italian opera was all the rage in those European countries with whom the British were on friendly terms. But in London (the only place in England considered exciting), there was an operatic vacuum. Nature and some canny entrepre­neurs moved to fill it. The first effort produced in a heavily doctored form by a German-Italian immigrant, Niccolo Haym, in 1706, was Camilla, apparently based on Antonio Bononcini's Il Trionfo di Camilla. The cast was made up of both Italian and English singers, and each faction sang in its own language. This mongrel arrangement persisted until 1710 when Almahide, thought to have been by the other Bononcini, Giovanni, was successfully produced in Italian. Shortly afterward, along came Handel, whose Rinaldo (whipped up in two weeks) initiated the Italian opera madness.

Italian opera was espoused by the culture-vultures of the upper crust, who were convinced it was de rigeur to do so, and one guesses that the Maggies of the day dragged their protesting Jiggses away from Dinty Moore's to partake. At the time, Italian opera was opera seria which had to do with protagonists and scenes from classical and biblical story and Italian epic. The plots {like those of the "heroic" tragedies of such as Dryden and Otway) dealt with a virtually actionless struggle between Love and Honour (or Duty); they often ended with a volcanic eruption or earthquake or a bolt of lightning--well worth waiting for. For three hours, until such a point, a half dozen castrati and prime donne and a basso vied with each other in singing arias. The castrati strutted and posed, the ladies got into fights, and political factions in the audience took sides.

It was more than satirist John Gay could resist. Born in the same year as Bach and Handel, Gay was one of the first writers to live by his pen alone. He had already lampooned the idiocies of Otway's plays and the vacuities of Ambrose Philips' pastoral poetry. With his friends Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, he took a dim Tory view of Whig Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and his corrupt opera-going cronies. And here was one more thing inviting his wit. He decided to load his gun for bear. So he wrote a play with songs and a real "action" plot. The characters were the whores and thieves and pickpockets and bums of the London underworld--the kind of people nice dramas were not written about. But their language and behavior were impeccable in Gay's work, and so the audience recognized the intended kinship between high life and low life. The highwayman Macheath was supposed to be Sir Robert himself, the rivals Polly and Lucy were Handel's hair-pulling prime donne, Cuzzoni and Bordoni. For his musical collaborator, Gay chose, with exquisite comic sense, Dr. John Christopher Pepusch. A refugee from the violent ways of Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, Pepusch, now sixty, was a profoundly learned man, especially about the musical theories of the Greeks and Romans. Co-founder of the Academy of Ancient Music and holder of an honorary doctorate from Oxford, he marked his admission to the Royal Academy with a paper so esoteric that no one there had any idea what it was about: Charles Burney, the music-historian, remarked of another com­poser that he had more system and less originality than anyone he had ever met, "always excepting Dr. Pepusch." Pepusch's function apropos The Beggar's Opera was not, however, to write a new score, but to arrange accompaniments to the tunes Gay had chosen for his lyrics--which were the pop tunes of the day. Pepusch also devised a Lullian overture on such tunes, one of them being Walpole the Happy Clown. Walpole banned Polly, Gay's sequel.

John Rich produced The Beggar's Opera at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theater on Jan. 29, 1729. The audience screamed with delight, and the piece ran an unprecedented ninety nights and (according to the old wheeze) "made Rich gay and Gay rich." It did not kill Italian opera, but it dealt it a crippling blow. It was revised over and over, well into the last century. After a hiatus, the baritone Frederick Austin re-set the tunes in 1920 and his production, in which he played a leading role, ran until 1923. Twenty-five years later, Benjamin Britten made a fascinating, very Britenish version, which seems never to have been recorded. A.P. Herbert, in the Heritage Club edition of the text, speaks of a "queer twisted" German adaptation; he has in mind, of course, the Brecht-Weill Dreigroschenoper, really a spinoff.

It is fun to use operatic voices for the work, but it is also fun not to. The first microphoned recording had Michael Red­grave as Macheath, and the 1953 film (score arranged by Sir Arthur Bliss) used Laurence Olivier. In our version, Denis Stevens has chosen a cast of those remarkable British singers (headed by Nigel Rogers) who seem to have mastered all styles of all times. The performance is in every respect as "authentic" as you'll ever hear. The spoken dialogue has been omitted.

Review of John Gay & John Pepusch the Beggar's Opera

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