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Peter Lewis on the Beggar’s Opera

In his article “The Beggar’s Opera as Opera and Anti-Opera,” critic Peter Lewis first analyzes the title of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera as something that was not originally intended to be an actual opera in the traditional sense of the word. In making this claim, Lewis is largely in agreement with modern critics regarding the role of the play but provides a more complete explanation of what Gay accomplished. He points out how one of Gay’s closest friends, Alexander Pope, intentionally named his pieces with names that would suggest to an educated public content that would be almost exactly opposite of what was presented. Because the word opera was being used in England to refer almost exclusively to Italian opera, which had a heavy, serious tone to it, Lewis argues Gay’s use of the word opera in his title is intended to tell his potential audience that he is about to make fun of the Italian traditions. This assumption is supported by a brief history of the opera in England, illustrating how in the period immediately before Gay produced this work, the entertainment scene in England was just emerging from a period of confinement within the private home and restrictions in that it had to constantly include music. The tendency was to shift to the Italianate opera as a public event, but some writers, such as Gay, were becoming concerned about the loss of the English voice in the public world. Because most of the people couldn’t understand Italian, the entertainment was delightful to the ears, but not stimulating to the mind at the same time that the antics of the singers off stage were detracting from the seriousness of the music. Gay, and many others, felt the time had come to introduce a bit of English humor and artistic voice. Much of Lewis’ article therefore focuses on the various ways in which the Beggar’s Opera differs from the traditional forms of Italian opera, proving it as both opera and the opposite of opera at one and the same time.

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There are a number of differences Lewis points out between The Beggar’s Opera and the traditional Italian opera. One of these differences was the presence of music. According to Lewis, Italian opera was largely characterized by all of the words in the opera being sung while many of the words in Gay’s opera are actually delivered in the form of dramatic dialogue. If this isn’t made clear in the opening introduction, it is definitely so as the first act begins and Peachum begins speaking to the audience indicating his personal role in life, “’tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage Cheats, since we live by them” (Gay, I, 1). While the Italian operas focused a great deal of attention on the original music produced for the performance, Gay’s work is unique in that he ‘borrows’ music from other venues and sometimes even other operas and re-words them so they fit with what he wanted to say. Because the music he borrowed was already largely popular in the mainstream, his plan to add words that the English contemporary audience could understand almost guaranteed him an immediate success. “This gamble might have failed disastrously, but Gay did it so well that in no time at all dramatic hacks were churning out inferior imitations” (Lewis 84). Thus, while he included music in his opera as was customary and expected, he changed the tone of this music to the more commonplace sounds of the English streets, filling it with words understandable to the English public and thus capable of pushing the action along.

Despite the differences in approach, though, Lewis indicates the work still qualifies as opera because of the central importance of the music to the overall storyline. This link with traditional operas is made stronger by Gay’s decision to follow the Italian three-act opera structure rather than keeping the traditional prologue and epilogue common to British tragedies. In addition, 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 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 as was often the case in the style of tragedy or comedy. It is also evident, according to Lewis, that the playwright used the beggar as his own 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). 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). In order to bring about this happy ending, the beggar simply announces to the players a change in plans and returns Macheath to his wives.

In proving that the opera is both opera and satire at the same time, Lewis moves forward to a side by side comparison with the important elements of Italian opera and their appearance within the Beggar’s Opera. The Beggar overtly lists the various ‘requisite’ similes present in all Italian operas to the point of insensibility in the introduction: “I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas; the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower” (Gay, Introduction). By providing a roadmap to where these similes appear in the play, Lewis allows his reader to determine for themselves whether Gay was successful in redefining and reintroducing meaning in their use. For example, while the Italian opera focused on the fawning symbolism of the moth fluttering about the moon of his adoration, Gay uses this figure to symbolize the virgin maid who remains beating about the issue of sex until she is either married or dishonored into the ranks of the prostitutes in Air 4: “If love the virgin’s heart invade, / How, like a moth, the simple maid / still plays about the flame! / If seen she be not made a wife, / her honor’s sing’d, and then for life / she’s – what I dare not name” (Gay, I, 4). While the prison scene was an equally important part of the Italian opera, providing the impetus for the dramatic and overly emotional revelations of love and desperation, Gay fills his play with the images of the prison, repeatedly returning to the ugly and well-known image of Newgate Prison while also acknowledging that his character deserves no happy ending but for the common expectation of the audience that all operas must end happily. While Gay includes the important elements and structure of opera throughout the play, he also satirizes it at the same time – turning the songs into something common and popular and the elements into something with more general meaning to the common audience.

Finally, Lewis points out how Gay’s opera pokes fun at the established traditions of the Italian opera form in that it completely resets the scene and ridicules those elements that should be ridiculed. He doesn’t set the scene with the well-born aristocrats of the Italian scene but instead introduces a cast of characters at the bottom end of humanity. This is made clear as the ‘middle-class’ characters of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum make their stance known to their daughter. Mr. Peachum asks her, “Do you think your mother and I should have liv’d comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married?” (Gay, I, 8). Mrs. Peachum confirms the suggested illicit relationship between her and Mr. Peachum when she lists the problems of married women as compared to herself, “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). These reactions are the exact opposite of what one might expect to find in the idealized romantic love stories of the well-to-do, in which marriage is the end-goal. Also, rather than holding the divas of the Italian opera in high esteem, as everyone in society was expected to do, Gay openly ridicules their constant fighting in his overly careful treatment of the roles of Polly and Lucy. Lewis points out that “Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni tended to treat an opera in which they appeared together as a singing contest, vying with each other vocally instead of working as part of a team” (Lewis 87), necessitating great care in ensuring both singers were given equal lines to sing.

While Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” may be of a somewhat ambiguous form, Peter Lewis does a good job arguing that the play is indeed an opera, but one intended to be satiric regarding the classic opera form. Throughout his analysis, he illustrates how Gay’s opera meets the necessary criteria in organization and underlying structure even if there have been some modifications. He proves that these modifications, such as the addition of dialogue rather than recitative, are intended as a means of poking fun at the unnatural elements of opera while the play itself brings the important elements of opera – the focus on music, the involvement of the intellect – back to center stage. This is also done through the use of traditional elements of the opera, such as overused similes and dramatic ploys, in new and thought-provoking ways. Through his systematic progression of thought, Lewis clearly illustrates how John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was at once opera and not-opera, serious and humorous.

Works Cited

  1. Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. (Risa S. Bear). Portland, OR: University of Oregon, 1921 (1995).
  2. 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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