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The Beggar's Opera--First of It's Kind

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

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Denis Stevens

And in spite of all attempts to crush The Beggar's Opera by blaming it for a sudden increase of crime. or preaching against it as did the court chaplain Dr. Herring, its reputation and popularity constantly in­creased until other playwrights began to put it into the mouths of their own characters.


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The Beggar's Opera, a satirical play with lyrics written (and in some cases borrowed) by John Gay, was first produced by John Rich at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, on Jan. 29, 1728. It enjoyed instant success. running for 62 nights, of which 32 were in succession; and according to a popular wit of the day, it 'made Gay rich, and Rich gay.' Apart from its financial triumph, this novel entertainment inaugurated a fashion that lasted for the next seven years initially and then, following a lull, until the end of the 18th century: the ballad opera.

This new fashion came into being almost by accident, for Gay (who was not a musician) had given little thought to the way in which his lyrics might be presented. To have music specially composed was out of the question, for time and money were lacking. So he and his friends borrowed tunes by Purcell, Handel, Jeremiah Clarke, John Eccles, Henry Carey and a handful of lesser lights, adding to them a generous selection of folk-songs, popular ditties of the day, and dances taken from Henry Playford's best seller, Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy, issued in four editions from 1699 until 1720, and much enlarged by the songs and poems of Thomas Durfey, the dramatist.

Thrown together just in time for the first performance, this motley mixture of melo­dies surprised everyone by serving its humble purpose to perfection. Sitting in the next box to Gay and his friends, the Duke of Argyll encouraged them by exclaiming: 'It will do--it must do!--1 see it in the eyes of them.' Not only the eyes but also the ears of the audience followed every word of the play, and if at first there may have been a slight coldness due to the unfamiliarity of the new idiom, the entire house--led by the Duke of Bolton's applause--was won over by Polly's little song 'O ponder well! be not severe.'

Yet the music on this noteworthy occasion must have been in a rough-and-ready state, for there had been no time to write any accompaniments, and some of the actors were far from being expert singers. It was not long. however. before the public began to clamour for the songs in printed form so that they could be performed and enjoyed at home. John Christopher Pepusch, who (like Handel) was of German extraction but British nationality, was called in to compose an overture and add basses to the melodies, and before the end of the year 1728 John Watts issued the text of the play with its Overture and 69 songs inserted at the end. It was the first of many editions of a work that has never lost its popularity and appeal, though it has appeared in many different guises, most recently as a film (music arranged by Arthur Bliss), and as a chamber opera by Benjamin Britten.

The genesis of The Beggar's Opera is a strange one, and has been explained in various ways. John Gay, who lived from 1685 until 1732, enjoyed a modest success as a poet and playwright, Pope and Swift being among his closest friends, and the Duchess of Queensberry his great patroness. But the accession of King George II and the corrupt power of Sir Robert Walpole's Liberal government barred Gay to high office, so he turned against the royal party and thought of writing a satire that would sting both court and politicians.

It is sometimes said that the idea for The Beggar's Opera came from Dean Swift, who in 1716 suggested to Pope that he might persuade Gay to write 'a set of quaker pastorals ...or what think you of a Newgate pastoral?' Since Newgate was London's grimmest prison. the oxymoron did not pass unnoticed. Nine years later, Gay wrote a ballad ('to be sung to the tune of The Cut-purse') called 'Newgate' s Garland,' which could have been his tardy response to Swift· s suggestion. On a visit to Scotland, Gay met Allan Ramsay, author of a pastoral--The Gentle Shepherd. Ramsay explained his pastoral to Gay so that he· in turn could tell Pope about it, and although at that time the play was not strictly speaking a ballad opera since tunes were lacking, its novelty may have made an impression on the visiting Englishman. Indeed, the memory of the Newgate pastoral and the appearance of the Scottish one could have helped to inspire Gay. who was still anxious to satirize his adversaries.

The opportunity came suddenly. Handel was at that time in London. writing operas to Italian libretti for an audience largely made up of royalty. the nobility, and · the upper classes. But the bitter rivalry between Handel's two leading Italian sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordini, and the ensuing squabbles of his opera directors resulted in a wave of unpopularity followed by dwindling audiences. Mrs. Pendarves, writing from Somerset House on November 25, 1727, to her · sister Ann Granville, deplored the whole situation: 'I wonder they have not broke up before; Senesino goes away next winter, and I believe Faustina, so you see harmony is almost out of fashion.'

Into this musical gap walked Gay and Rich, not intending to satirize Italian opera as such (for this had been done before on many occasions. and wou Id be done again) but rather to provide a new kind of entertainment for all, not excluding the middle classes, who understood neither Italian libretti nor serious music. It was these same middle classes who were being beggared by the graft and corruption of Walpole's government: what better than to give them a chance to laugh at their oppressors and enjoy songs that they knew? Gay had no use for recitative and da capo arias, but he welcomed with open arms the opportunity to make use of Durfey's collection of popular tunes. The satire in The Beggar's Opera is not so much a criticism of the Handelian vein as a castigation of the affairs of state· and the Queen's influence upon the King. As Swift wrote to Gay (Nov. 27, 1727) 'To expose vice, and make people laugh with innocence. does more public service than all the ministers of state from Adam to Walpole.'

If. in addition to his thinly-disguised political attack, Gay had wished to make fun of Italian operatic traditions. he could have achieved this by literary rather than musical means. And this is precisely what took place. for the Beggar. speaking to the Player in a brief prologue. admits to having 'introduced the Similes that are in all your celebrated Operas: The Swallow. the Moth. the Bee, the Ship, the Flower. &c. Besides, I have a Prison-Scene, which the Ladies always reckon charmingly pat he tick.' These commonplace images of hurriedly-written libretti became the butt of Gay's satirical pen in such lyrics as--'Thus when the Swallow, seeking Prey' (34): · If Love the Virgin's Heart invade,/How, like a Moth, the simple Maid/Still plays, about the Flame!' (4); 'My Heart was so free /It rov'd like the Bee' (15); 'I. like a Ship in Storms. was tost' (10); 'Virgins are like the fair Flower' {6). As for the prison scene. this frequently recurred in libretti of a tragic cast ever since the success of Giovanni Faustini's moving denouement in Cavalli' s L 'Ormindo. first produced in Venice in 1644.

The Beggar's Opera amounted to a dangerously explosive mixture of political satire. singable tunes, cut-and-thrust lyrics. and an outrageous plot. No wonder its success was immediate and lasting! Shortly after attending the rehearsal of Handel's Si roe. completed on Feb. 5 1728, Mrs. Pendarves wrote: 'I like it extremely, but the taste of the town is so depraved. that nothing will be approved of but the burlesque. The Beggar's Opera entirely triumphs over the Italian one. I have not yet seen it, but everybody says it is very comical and full of humour: The songs will soon be published.' A month later, The London Journal printed a long letter (unsigned, but thought to be by Dr. Arbuthnot. court physician to Queen Anne) commenting upon the decline of opera and the reasons for that decline; not surprisingly, Gay's new invention was held responsible: 'The Beggar's Opera. I take to be a touchstone to try British taste on; and it has accordingly proved effectual in discover­ing our true inclinations; which, how artfully soever they may have been disguised for a while. will one time or another start up and disclose themselves.

That Polly Peachum was the popular heroine of the day emerges from the songs and ballads written about her during the first wildly successful run of the opera. On April 13, 1728, The Country Journal published a new ballad, to the tune 'Of all the Girls that are so smart' (Henry Carey's Sally in our Alley):

Of all the Belles that tread the Stage.

There's none like pretty Polly.

And all the Musick of the Age.

Except her Voice is Folly.

Com par· d with her. now flat appears

Cuzzoni or Faustina?

And when she sings. I shut my Ears

To warbling Senesino.

Carey. not to be outdone. thereupon wrote a poem of his own to be sung to the music he had made famous:

Of all the toasts that Britain boasts.

The gin. the gent. the jolly.

The brown. the fair. the debonaire.

There's none cried up like Polly.

She's fired the town. has quite cut down

The Opera of Rolli:

Go where you will. the subject still

ls pretty. pretty Polly.

And in spite of all attempts to crush The Beggar's Opera by blaming it for a sudden increase of crime. or preaching against it as did the court chaplain Dr. Herring, its reputation and popularity constantly in­creased until other playwrights began to put it into the mouths of their own characters. James Ralph. an American by birth but at that time a resident of Hammersmith. wrote a burlesque in 1730 entitled The Fashionable Lady. or Harlequin's Opera in which a character named Ballad tells of · a certain English opera that shall be nameless ... a masterpiece of art. the glory of its author. the delight of a whole nation. It ravished the nobility. men. women. and children. enchanted the city. and strolled all over the country.

Perhaps the best summing-up is by Dr. Johnson in his Lives of the Poets. where it is made abundantly clear that in writing what he did. Gay achieved something greater than the annihilation of a rival art-form--the Italian opera--he invented a new one: 'We owe to Gay the Ballad Opera: a mode of comedy which at first was supposed to delight only by its novelty. but has now by the experience of half a century been found so well accommodated to the disposition of the stage. Whether this new drama was the product of judgment or luck, the praise of it must be given to the inventor: and there are many writers read with more reverence to whom such-merit of originality cannot be attributed.

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