History of the Beggars Opera and John Gay's Ballad Operas

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First shown on 29th January 1728, The Beggar’s Opera was a revolution for its time. Today we are spoilt by a plethora of witty, satirical shows written in English shown throughout the West End and all over the world. However, in the early 18th century, the vogue performance was opera seria; a flamboyant, exclusive, Italian opera that was expensive and reserved solely for the upper classes of society. This all changed in 1728 when John Gay wrote the first ever ballad opera satirizing opera seria and the corrupt society of the time. This opera was much more accessible as it was written in English, followed a much less regimented structure, included recognisable tunes and had a humorous storyline which was relevant to the audience.

Briefly outlining the plot, Polly Peachum is the daughter of a leader of thief-takers, people who rob the carriages of the rich, who marries Macheath, a highwayman. Polly’s parents are against the marriage and plot to turn Macheath in to the authorities, hoping to collect a reward and see him hung. Polly, upon discovering her parents’ plans, helps Macheath to escape, only to be betrayed by whores in the pay of Polly’s father. He is taken to Newgate prison (an actual London prison) but soon escapes again, helped by Lucy Lockit, the prison-keeper’s daughter, who is pregnant with his child and also claims to be engaged to him. Polly and Lucy fight over Macheath and Lucy tries to poison Polly. Subsequently, Lockit and Peachum re-catch Macheath and he is sent back to prison to be hanged for his crimes. Polly and Lucy plead for his life, as do four other women who all claim to be married to him and carrying his children. Macheath expresses a preference to die but is saved at the last minute.[1] [2] Gay mocks the traditional elements of opera seria throughout his play. Every work of opera seria contains a prison scene so John Gay opens his opera with the beggar explaining, ‘Besides, I have a Prison Scene which the Ladies always reckon charmingly pathetick.’ [3] Furthermore, in opera seria, superfluous similes are used extensively such as how love is like a ship that sails on the sea. Gay’s beggar introduces the opera saying, ‘I have introduced the Similes that are in all your celebrated Operas, The Swallow, the Moth, the Bee, the Ship, the Flower’.[4]

Opera seria always told the tales of poetical heroes or ancient royalty (as in the story of Rinaldo by Handel). However, Gay’s opera tells the stories of women, beggars and thieves and is set in London’s underworld[5], which was a lot more relevant to the urban London audience. Previously, opera had had a noble and upper-class following, but now it could appeal to all classes. The Londoners loved the realism that they saw and could relate to the witty characters[6] which soon became beloved household names. Gay’s opera portrays an amoral world ruled by survival, self-interest and duplicity, which the audience found daring and thrilling.[7] Not only was The Beggar’s Opera written about commoners, but the story line was also based around two women and their love lives, completely unheard of for opera where the main characters had been dashing demi-Gods or noble kings. For the first time, an opera focused on women and their weaknesses in love.[8] Polly, for example, showed loyalty amidst corruption and maintained a fragile innocence.[9] Lucy, on the other hand, showed a devious mind and was enormously jealous. Such emotions in females had never been explored before and would have shocked the London audiences.

The ending of the opera is another example of Gay’s use of satire. Gay wrote this particular ending because, traditionally, opera seria was written for special occasions such as weddings or royal births, so by default they had to have a happy ending. This characteristic of opera seria amused Gay. At the end of this opera, the beggar says that Macheath should be hung for the sake of ‘doing strict poetical justice’[10], as Macheath is a thief and adulterer, but the player disagrees, saying that hanging Macheath would make the opera ‘a down-right deep tragedy’[11] and that this ending would be inappropriate and ‘manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily’[12].

The beggar readily accepts this and orders Macheath’s life to be spared, saying ‘in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about … All this we must do, to comply with the Taste of the Town’[13]. Gay’s improbable happy ending shows exactly how he mocks the lieto fine of opera seria[14]. As opera seria had always had unrealistic plot lines, starring mythical or long dead protagonists, it had never been possible to address modern day politics. However, The Beggar’s Opera was an important mouthpiece for government criticism. In it, John Gay attacked the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, his government and court politics[15]. The character of Peachum was seen as a portrayal of both the corrupt City Marshal, Jonathon Wild, and Sir Robert Walpole.

Peachum is portrayed as a robber, womanizer, and double-dealer. Wild was well known for convicting large numbers of criminals at once and encouraging criminals to inform against each other, thereby controlling gangs.[16] Walpole was widely known as a corrupt leader as well as an adulterer. Not surprisingly, when Sir Robert Walpole went to see The Beggar’s Opera he hated it. However, when The Beggar’s Opera was first premiered, the most controversial and well-known newspaper of the time, ‘The Craftsman,’ published many reviews elevating Gay’s opera and raving about its success. In John Gay’s sequel, Polly, the Prime Minister was impersonated as a pirate who dies a nasty and deserved death.[17] In December 1728, before this opera was released, the Prime Minister and Lord Chamberlain banned Polly from the opera houses and theatres.[18] However, it was published and widely sold in the bookshops, making Gay a small fortune.[19] One of the main differences between John Gay’s opera and opera seria is the lack of recitatives and ternary form arias. Many of the English believed that recitatives seemed artificial and unnatural[20], so John Gay replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue. Dialogue framed the overall structure of the opera which was a lot more theatrical than audiences were used to. This argument is supported by the beggar’s opening line, ‘I hope I may be forgiven, that I have not made my Opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue; for I have no Recitative; excepting this, as I have consented to have neither Prologue nor Epilogue, it must be allowed an Opera in all its Forms’.[21] At the time that John Gay was writing his opera, opera seria was still the most in vogue form of opera, especially in Italy. It had originally been at times comic or risqué but, not wishing to jeopardise a successful formula, the themes were becoming a lot more regulated and serious. The operas included an increasing number of very structured, ternary arias with lavish, virtuosic flourishes and long, emotional recitatives. Gay, in contrast, chose popular, simpler tunes to mock what many British believed to be the overly virtuosic and unnatural snobbery of Italian opera.[22] The opera’s 69 short songs were just short interludes that rarely separated any more than a page of spoken dialogue.[23] To an audience, it felt like the characters were speaking directly to them. This broke down ‘the wall’ between the characters and the audience, meaning that the audience could partake in the character’s emotions. This was a light relief to audiences who were tiring of having to endure grave performances of opera seria, just because this was meant to be serious opera. Gay’s use of music was innovative and extremely cleaver. His musical arranger, Johann Christoph Pepusch, took some of the most famous songs of the time and remade them into satirical songs which would be performed by London’s thieves, pimps and prostitutes.[24]

The opera contained 69 songs, 28 of which have been traced to English ballads and 23 to popular European tunes. The remaining 18 are drawn from composers like Purcell, Handel and Henry Carey. The vast majority of the tunes were extremely familiar to the audience, and Gay was clever at creating ironic undertones and extra- textual references between the music and his new lyrics. This would made possible because the audience would be very familiar with the original lyrics,[25] to the extent that they could be recalled by title only.[26] This meant that they knew the meaning of the original song, but when the words were replaced for the opera, they had a new, more complex meaning and[27] could enhance the dramatic impact of a situation or, more often, make it a lot more amusing.[28] For example, the heroic tone of the original words for Purcell’s melody resounds bizarrely against the very distasteful sexual tones of Polly’s ‘Virgins are like the fair Flower’.[29] Or, in Act 1 scene 9, Peachum’s ‘A fox may steal your hens, sir’, was set to Eccles’s ‘A soldier and a sailor’ whose infamously rude original lyrics would have added an unspoken dig to Gay’s message. Gay often chose similarly sentimental music for sensitive scenes.

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The use of these songs made the audience leave the theater singing the familiar tunes, providing free publicity for the opera. Furthermore, native music gained a revived popularity.[30]

 The actors chosen to perform in the opera largely contributed to its success. Firstly, there was no sign of a castrato as that was seen to be unnatural and Italian. The actress who premiered the lead female role of Polly, Lavinia Fenton, had a popularity which, according to John Gay ‘outstripped that of the play itself’. During the first season, the Duke of Bolton fell instantly in love with the actress and whisked her off the stage to make her his mistress. The adoration for Lavinia Fenton generated much memorabilia, as well as people writing poetry and memoirs about her, which was unheard of for a female actress at the time.[31] She received such fame because the English were starting to dislike and resent the overpaid, uncivil Italian stars.[32] At the start of The Beggar’s Opera, the Beggar says that, when choosing the roles[33], he has ‘observed such a nice Impartiality to our two Ladies that it is impossible for either of them to take Offence’[34]. This is a clear dig at the rivalry between the sopranos Faustina and Cuzzoni[35], two Italian prima donnas who performed in London[36], for whom Handel, in Alessandro (1726), had to write equally weighted parts so to not upset either of them the year before Gay’s premiere[37].

Their hatred for each other was so strong that in 1727, their rivalry escalated to the extent that they had a fight on stage – the two prima donnas scratched and pulled out each other’s hair! Their rivalry inspired Gay’s leading female characters, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, especially their quarreling and plotting scenes[38].  

One of the most important features of The Beggar’s Opera was that it was performed in English. The use of English meant that opera was now able to cater for a new, mixed, urban society. The lower-class English had often found the language barrier that opera seria created frustrating, but now it was accessible and fun for all who could afford it.[39] This massively contributed to the ever-growing audiences which included a wider range of social classes. In turn, the bigger audiences created a higher demand for theater houses in Haymarket and Goodman’s Fields and lead to the building of Covent Garden in 1732.[40]  

The Beggar’s Opera premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and was performed an unprecedented, record-breaking 62 times during its first season, and continued to be revived until the 1880’s. The opera was performed in London every season for the rest of the century and productions continued in the 18th century throughout the English-speaking world[41], performances including Dublin, Jamaica, New York, Boston and Philadelphia[42]. As proof of its phenomenal success, it was pirated at the Little Theatre, Haymarket, in June 1728, a first for London’s theatrical scene.[43] The Beggar’s Opera stimulated the first ever marketing craze for an operatic work. Merchandise included portrayals of the lead singers in portraits, engravings, playing cards and porcelain figures, the most well-known maker being Hogarth.[44] The availability of merchandise meant that members of the public who couldn’t afford to see the opera were able to read the libretto, and those who couldn’t read would be able to enjoy the tale through portraits.[45]  

After the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera, many other composers were inspired by this daring and exciting work, and a new genre of music was formed, called the ballad opera. This is defined as ‘A distinctively English form in which spoken dialogue alternates with songs set to traditional or popular melodies and sung by the actors themselves.’[46] Even though this craze faded out by the mid-1730s, over 80 works were written during this time, and even today, Gay’s opera is said to have inspired light opera and is sometimes said to be the first ever form of musical theatre. The Royal Academy of Music, largely influenced by Handel, was in financial trouble of its own making. There was much speculation, though no concrete evidence, that the success of The Beggar’s Opera played a significant part in the Academy’s collapse.[47] Certainly, Gay satirized many of the conventions of opera seria and its petty performers, but he was not at all hostile to Handel, having previously written the libretto for Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea in 1718.[48] Gay’s opera was by no means an attack on Italian opera or a defense of British opera, just a satirical comedy.  

Nevertheless, Gay’s wicked sense of humour mischief tickled opera fanciers and no doubt negatively influenced their appetite for conventional opera.[49] By comparing opera seria and The Beggar’s Opera, we can see that even though Gay satirized opera seria and its performers, he also drew inspiration from these works. Without the likes of Monteverdi and Handel, Gay would not have been able to produce such provocative works. He recognized that in order to truly appreciate his satire, the audience would themselves would have had to attend opera seria and understand its model, something restricted to the upper classes. However, through his use of the various methods discussed above, we have seen how Gay broke the mould and radicalized opera, making it accessible to all.   

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History of the Beggars Opera and John Gay’s Ballad Operas [Internet]. WritingBros. 2020 Dec 01 [cited 2021 Nov 28]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/history-of-the-beggars-opera-and-john-gays-ballad-operas/
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