By Hal Gladfelder
The opening-night audience at John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera—first performed on 29 January 1728 at the Theatre Royal, Lincoln’s Inn Fields—can’t fully have known what sort of theatrical experience awaited them. The play’s title, for a start, must have struck them as nonsensical. What could a beggar have to do with an opera? To London audiences of the time, opera was a form of entertainment for the elite: prohibitively expensive to attend; composed and performed by foreign artists in a language, Italian, which few understood; musically and dramatically over-sophisticated and abstruse. Meanwhile, far from the heroic and mythic realms in which operas of the time were set, beggars belonged to the squalid realm of the modern city—especially, the megalopolis of London, with its poverty, violence, hubbub, and filth. To bring those realms together was absurd. Even Gay’s close friends Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and William Congreve were unsure what he was up to, and uneasy as to how this “odd thing” The Beggar’s Opera would be received.
As things turned out, they needn’t have worried: Gay’s odd, hybrid work was to prove the hit not just of the year but of the century, running for a record-breaking sixty-two performances in its first season, and revived countless times since, including performances by a troupe of child actors, “The Lilliputians,” in season two. What drew audiences may at first have been the mere novelty of the piece, its incongruous mix of elements from disparate pre-existing forms, which is reflected in the name of the genre Gay had invented: the ballad opera. As Gay conceived it, the ballad opera alternates spoken dialogue with songs set to familiar tunes, chiefly folk tunes or street ballads, but also songs stolen or parodied from other, current plays and operas. In formal terms, the ballad opera was the model for all those later works that combined spoken and sung elements: the German Singspiel, the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, and the Broadway musical. But one of Gay’s cheekiest, and most commercially astute, moves was to use melodies his audience already knew and loved. Doing so not only saved him the expense of hiring a new composer but allowed playgoers the pleasures of the familiar. The music offset the harshness of the play’s satirical equation of high and low life, whereby the underworld of thieves and whores is just a mirror image of the elite world of politicians and courtiers, both of them run according to a system of mercenary betrayal. Building his story around some of the most popular tunes of the day, Gay created not only the first musical but the first jukebox musical: precursor, unlikely as it may seem, to such theatrical hits as Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, and such television and film works as Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven and the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen classic, Singin’ in the Rain, all of which reused songs that were already well known in other contexts.The crucial difference between these later works and The Beggar’s Opera, however, is that Gay wrote new words to all the old tunes, and so radically transformed them. To take one example, in a key scene late in the play, when the criminal anti-hero, Macheath, is waiting to be hanged, Gay gives him a song set to the minor-key (or Dorian-mode) Tudor ballad “Greensleeves,” first noted in 1580. In its most familiar version, the song begins, “Alas, my love, you do me wrong,” and the chorus stays with the theme of love: “Greensleeves was all my joy, / Greensleeves was my delight: / Greensleeves was my heart of gold, / And who but Lady Greensleeves.” Macheath turns this ancient air into a vehicle of political critique, singing, to the tune of the chorus, “But Gold from Law can take out the Sting; / And if rich Men like us were to swing, / ’Twould thin the Land, such Numbers to string / Upon Tyburn Tree!” The original “heart of gold” becomes the gold coin that allows the rich to buy their way out of legal trouble, so that none but the poor swing from the gallows (the “tree”) at Tyburn. Singing one of the old familiar English melodies, Macheath offers a bitter reflection on the corrupt state of contemporary society, one which still rings true in 2013.
In such moments of cynicism and disquiet, The Beggar’s Opera exhibits affinities not only with the satire of Gay’s cronies Pope and Swift, but with the seeming misanthropic darkness of such later musicals as Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (unsurprising, as this is an update of Gay’s work to reflect the social conditions of 1920s Berlin) and Stephen Sondheim’s bloody horror show Sweeney Todd. Sondheim’s musical might seem an extreme case of late twentieth-century angst, with its homicidal mayhem and cannibalism, and its vision of London as a hellish city of night. As he puts it in one number, “There’s a hole in the world / Like a great black pit / And the vermin of the world / Inhabit it, / And its morals aren’t worth / What a pig could spit, / And it goes by the name of London.” But these darker elements were already vividly present in The Beggar’s Opera, set in the shadow of Newgate Prison. Gay, too, sees cannibalistic predation as integral to modern urban life: in the words of Lockit, Newgate’s jailor, “Lions, Wolves, and Vulturs don’t live together in Herds, Droves or Flocks. —Of all Animals of Prey, Man is the only sociable one. Every one of us preys upon his Neighbour, and yet we herd together.” But it is not all darkness: in both plays, humor and especially music are sources of pleasure, by turns touching and exuberant. Sondheim has called Sweeney Todd a “love letter to London,” and Gay could have said the same of The Beggar’s Opera, with its comic vitality and anarchic spirit of fun.
Hal Gladfelder is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. His books include Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (2001) and Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (2012), as well as the Broadview edition of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Coxcomb (2005) and the Oxford World’s Classics edition of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Polly (2013).
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Image credit: A scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.