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Cultural Satire in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera

The Beggar’s Opera is the first of a new form of opera that was developed by John Gay in the early 1700s as a reaction against the superficiality of the popular Italian opera and its effects upon his culture. This form of entertainment came to be known as the ballad opera and The Beggar’s Opera is the epitome of the art form. Ballad operas are characterized by their highly satirical and ‘common usage of the English language, short songs in place of lengthy arias and subjects that focused on the lower elements of society. Mark Lubbock has labeled them the “eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene” (1962: 467).

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There seems little doubt that the degeneration of English culture as a result of a popular and relatively unjustified fixation upon the Italian opera was a prime concern in the mind of playwright John Gay when he wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1798. Being intimately familiar with the upper-class culture of England at the time, Gay was attempting through this piece to sound alarm bells for his fellow countrymen, waking them up to the vacuous nature that had over-run the Italian operas. By examining numerous elements of Gay’s play such as dialogue, music, and subject material, one can begin to extrapolate those elements of Italian-influenced British culture that Gay was protesting against as well as discover how he attempted to introduce a new cultural focus that would bring English artists back into the public eye.

To understand Gay’s purposes in writing this play, it is perhaps necessary to understand something of his biographical background. This understanding enables one to extrapolate how much of the outcome of the play might have been the result of conscious design rather than a happy accident. Gay was born in Devon in 1685 to their parents who died while he was still very young (Miller, 2005). While living with an uncle, he attended Barnstable Grammar School and then was apprenticed to a silk merchant in London. In 1708, he published his first poem, “Wine” (Gassner, 1967: 848). This little poem about the necessity of wine to the craft of writing gained him the friendship of important men in the literary field including Lord Bolinbroke and Alexander Pope. It also gained him employment as a secretary in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth in 1712 and 1713 while he perfected his craft (Gassner, 1967: 848). Beginning in 1714, Gay had fully launched his career as an author with the publication of a long poem, “Rural Sports”, and his work as a journalist for the Guardian. Gay’s work is continuously characterized by his biting wit regarding the cultural and political values of his period.

The Beggar’s Opera was written in 1728 when Gay was 43 years old and taking refuge from financial disaster following a series of losses in various capital ventures. This was approximately four years before he died (in 1732) and only a few years after he had published several other works that attempted to call attention to the vacuous nature of cultural values improperly placed on trivial things. “The piece … satirizes both societies as well as politics. Gay’s newfound friend [Jonathan] Swift can be credited for the idea behind The Beggar’s Opera; through his explanation that the lives of imprisoned people, where Gay had worked for a brief period, could be just as moral as those lived by the upper-class” (Miller, 2005). Gay’s opera, then, is an attempt to determine to just what extent the lower classes mirrored the activities of the upper classes and what effect Italian culture, brought in through the popular operas of the day, was having on these elements. In addition, “dozens of quotations can be produced to show that in the eighteenth and indeed the nineteenth centuries it was widely believed that foreigners by their very nature were better at music than Britons (Fiske, 1975: 51). Thus, the opera was also Gay’s means of proving that Britain had plenty of ‘home’ talent.

The most popular form of entertainment available in high-class London society was the Italian opera. The Italian opera was introduced to the London stage in 1705 with the performance of Arsinoe, Queen of Cypress with music by Thomas Clayton (Armstrong, 1918: 51). Although it was a big success on the English stage, performed in front of people with a sketchy understanding of Italian at best, “a better judge (the translator, Abbe Raguenet’s Parallel) pronounces it with the exception of Rosamond the most execrable performance that ever disgraced the stage” (Armstrong, 1918: 51).

Despite this, the novelty of the art form, the exotic thrill involved with its foreign flavor, and the degree of respect one could gain socially as a result of being familiar with this new form quickly elevated Italian opera to the forefront of England’s elite attention. “The swankest of the arts in 18th-century London was Italian opera. Periwigged courtiers, who could not understand a word of it, raised their lace cuffs to applaud the ornate trilling of swivel-voiced prima donnas” (“Beggar’s Opera”, 1939). As much as the elite class understood these operas, the common people understood even less yet we’re encouraged to learn to value these new, superficial ideals. The series of popular Italian stories presented before English audiences tended to idealize the concepts of romance, revealing true heroes disguised in villain’s clothes and feature sometimes last-minute victories for the romantic couple, leading to an inevitable happy ending (Armstrong, 1918). However, by the time Gay wrote his opera, numerous educated individuals were beginning to openly denounce the value of this form of entertainment.

Clues appear throughout the opera, beginning in the opening lines, that Gay’s intention in writing this opera was to serve as an alarm clock to his society on all levels regarding the need for more meaningful productions based on English, rather than foreign, culture. His portrayal of the opera’s creator as a lowly beggar highlights how his culture had turned a blind eye to the artistic values of their own culture in their blind attempts to mimic Italian formats. He introduces himself by claiming, “If poverty be a title to poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine. I own myself of the Company of Beggars; and I make one at their Weekly Festivals at St. Giles. I have a small yearly salary for my catches, and am welcome to a dinner there whenever I please, which is more than most poets can say” (Gay, Introduction: 850). This speech speaks eloquently about the state of true English art.

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Although English composers and playwrights were participating in the creation of Italian operas, they were borrowing an art form of which they had little understanding. Worse, it was an art form of which their audiences frequently had less understanding. As a result, the serious means by which the music was treated did not match up to the meaningless or shallow literary content. At the same time, this shallow literary content tended to provoke already shallow and frivolous attitudes within the culture of the country, on all levels of society. This concept feeds into the sardonic wit of the beggar’s statements as he illustrates his esteemed credentials in presenting the opera. At the same time, his position as a beggar is a perfect metaphor for the position of English art as it was devalued, looked over, trampled upon, or, rarely, thrown a coin or two. Despite his very poor and isolated position, the beggar claims he is better off than most English poets, making a very obvious plea to the audience to begin supporting English arts as a potentially more fulfilling and equally technical entertainment.

Gay accomplishes this by presenting his opera in a distinctly English style but utilizing the fundamental Italian format as a skeleton for his work. This link with traditional operas is created through Gay’s decision to follow the Italian three-act opera structure rather than keeping the traditional prologue and epilogue which was more common in British tragedies. Lewis points out that Gay’s “actual layout of the airs corresponds to that of arias in an Italian opera. The sudden switching from speech to song and back again without any attempt to justify the interpolation of an air on realistic grounds, as is often done in orthodox drama, recalls the alternation of recitatives and arias in opera” (Lewis 85).

Structurally, it might be argued that the brief introduction to the opera stands as a sort of prologue to the play, thus decreasing the opera’s relationship with the Italian opera, but Lewis suggests that the purpose and development of this prologue are quite different from the traditional approach. This is first because the prologue was written by Gay himself rather than by an outside party. It is also evident, according to Lewis, that the playwright used the beggar as his foil. In the introduction, Gay’s beggar apologizes for the farce he’s about to make of the traditional operatic form as it was known at the time: “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” (Gay Introduction: 850). This role is brought out to much greater effect at the end of the play as the beggar/writer is appealed to make the ending happy: “The catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an opera must end happily” (Gay, III, 16). To bring about this happy ending, the beggar simply announces to the players a change in plans and returns Macheath to his wives.

In presenting the major characters of the play, Gay chooses to focus on the lower classes of society, demonstrating how they mimic the upper classes in their various cycles. For example, Peachum begins speaking to the audience indicating his role in life, “’tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage Cheats, since we live by them” (Gay, I, 1). His role as a professional criminal establishes the entire social context of the play, constantly calling into question the romanticism of the law-breaking class that was idealized by the Italian performances. He also serves to demonstrate for the audience that although he is a rather obvious crook, other men perform his same sort of duties on the upper end of the social scale as well even if they are more commonly referred to as lawyers or bankers or something else ‘respectable’.

Gay continues to criticize the decline of culture in several different areas, including highlighting the moral breakdown of society, presumably as a result of a breakdown in understanding. Mrs. Peacham illustrates this breakdown when she confronts her daughter about her ‘romantic’ marriage: “Can you support the expense of a husband, Hussy, in gaming, drinking and whoring? Have you money enough to carry on the daily quarrels of man and wife about who shall squander most?” (Gay, I, 8). In Mrs. Peachum’s outburst, Gay reveals the reality of his culture again on all levels of society. The greatest gentleman was the man who could afford to idle away his time inexpensive hobbies while rarely attending to business while the lowest knave was the man who managed to get others to pay his way for him. Women, who weren’t generally able to hold professional paid positions, were nevertheless often the ones to suffer as a result of this spending or lack of earning. Although all this was known and generally accepted without question, it wasn’t often discussed in public and had an obvious self-destructive quality about it.

In addition to phrasing the dialogue in English rather than Italian and addressing the realities of city life rather than pastoral, Gay brought the opera back into English artists’ hands by focusing on including only English music to frame his opera. “The opera was comprised of ballads and tunes from popular music. Gay’s main source for the 69 songs … in his opera was Thomas D’Urfey’s collection of verses written mostly to folksongs and favorite melodies published in 1700 in a songbook entitled Wit and Mirth or Pills to Purge Melancholy” (Bareket, Eisendrath & Selig, 2002).

Using these popular tunes, Gay wrote lyrics that would easily stick in the minds of his audience at the same time that they imparted some form of significance. An example of this comes in the air in Act I, scene 9: “A fox may steal your hens, sir / A whore your health and pence, sir / Your daughter rob your chest, sir / Your wife may steal your rest, sir / A thief your goods and plate / But this is all but picking; / With rest, pence, chest, and chicken / It ever was decreed, sir / If lawyer’s hand is fee’d, sir / He steals your whole estate.” This is a warning against the corrupt elements of English law during the time as well as aesthetically pleasing to the ear and intellectually pleasing to the mind. “In working toward a stage didactic that proffers something other than pap, Gay is unique among his contemporaries” (McIntosh, 1988: 80), both demonstrating and proving that the English are equally as capable as any foreigner of producing quality art full of interpretive possibilities.

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Through his careful use of format, his intelligent use of prose, and his lively use of music, John Gay successfully woke his audience up to the prospect that English artists working in the English language with English traditions could produce entertainment material that was at least as good as, if not better than, the Italian operas that had been degrading English society during the previous decade. Examination of his background, as well as the major characteristics of English culture at the time, reveals that the Italian opera had not contributed anything significantly meaningful to the English theater. In developing his parody of this art form and placing it completely within an English mindset, Gay refutes the claims of the Italian opera while still demonstrating that English art can be as technically sound. He does this by placing his content within a low-class cast of characters who nevertheless seem to mimic the actions of upper-class counterparts and phrasing the music in traditional English tunes. However, he uses the music with the same technical achievement discovered in the Italian opera and employs the same symbolism and other techniques English audiences had learned to look for in a ‘traditional’, artistic opera. Finally, his use of the beggar as playwright and metaphor brilliantly suggests to his audience the current state of English art and the need for audiences to once again look to English traditions as a way of finding meaning in art and culture again.

Bibliography

Armstrong, A. Joseph. Operatic Performances in England Before Handel. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 1918. Web.

Bareket, Donna; Anne Eisendrath & Deborah Selig. “The Beggar’s Opera.” Eighteenth Century England. University of Michigan, 2002. Web.

“Beggar’s Opera.” Time Magazine. (1939). Web.

Fiske, Roger. “From the English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera. Yvonne Noble, Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1975: 49-55.

Gassner, John. A Treasury of the Theatre: Volume One, World Drama from Aeschylus to Ostrovsky. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. (Risa S. Bear). Portland, OR: University of Oregon, 1921 (1995). Web.

Lewis, Peter. “The Beggar’s Opera as Opera and Anti-Opera.” Modern Critical Interpretations: The Beggar’s Opera. Harold Bloom, Ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988: 81-97.

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Lubbock, Mark. The Complete Book of Light Opera. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962.

McIntosh, William A. “Handel, Walpole, and Gay: The Aims of The Beggar’s Opera.” Modern Critical Interpretations: The Beggar’s Opera. Harold Bloom, Ed. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988: 65-80.

Miller, Abbe. “John Gay and The Beggar’s Opera.” Associated Content. (2005). Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Cultural Satire in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera." November 24, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/cultural-satire-in-john-gays-beggars-opera/.

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