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It is beyond doubt that "The Beggar's Opera" characterizes John Gay's greatest literary achievement. To comprehend Gay's work, it is imperative to examine the resources that were available to him, and then to understand the reasons why they influenced him at the time. We will look at how Gay utilized these resources to create a dramatic masterpiece filled with practicality, romanticism, and sentimentalism.
Early in John Gay's life, he expressed interest in the pastoral genre, which is a literary work that often romanticizes rural people and features their lifestyle in the countryside in a highly unrealistic manner. In 1714, he wrote a very successful pastoral called "The Shepherd's Week." Soon after it was published, he was introduced to Alexander Pope, who persuaded him to pursue writing more pastorals. During the early 1700s, the English theater had been pushed to the back of the world's stage with the emergence of the Italian opera. Pope hypothesized that Gay's expertise on the pastoral genre could bring the English theater back to prominence. Gay had previously dabbled in the theater, but had never had much success. He finally struck a chord with the English public after the publishing of his successful poem: "Trivia, Or Walking the Streets of London." Right then and there, it became known that Gay not only could write realistic themes, but he could connect because of his deep feelings for the people of London.
In 1716, Jonathan Swift (noted for authoring the classic "Gulliver's Travels") corresponded with Alexander asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Newgate was a street in west London filled with low-life's and was
also the site for the famous Newgate prison which housed felons and debtors. Gay took hold of this concept, and immediately saw that the idea would best be received by the public as a satire or comedy rather than a pastoral. It is presumed that Gay felt this particular subject was extremely dramatic, and that a drama would offer him a wide range of presentation of a work that had many volatile ideas.
As stated before, when writing "The Beggar's Opera" , John Gay aspired to bring English theater back to the forefront of the world's stage. Because of the popularity of the Italian Opera, English drama was forced to the background. John Gay uses "The Beggar's Opera" to ridicule society's enthrallment with the Italian Opera. In "The Beggar's Opera", the "beggar" explains the main premise to the audience when he tells us that "he has introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas" and that he wishes he "[has] not made [his] opera throughout unnatural", a criticism often made of Italian operas, who shaped fantasy worlds using myth and legend. Their stories rarely bore likeness to the real world. Even the title of the work, "The Beggar's Opera", is an incongruity, because operas mostly portrayed the upper echelon.
In 1728, John Gay's ballad opera, "The Beggar's Opera", took the city of London by storm. "The Beggar's Opera" was unprecedented in that it did not deal with the characters of Antiquity, nor did it portray the upper crust of society. Gay chose to satirize the upper class by including them in the crime and transgressions of the day. He, of course, wanted the audience to have a pleasing experience at the theater, but at the same time he wanted to prod them and
wake them up from their slumber and to enlighten them on what was happening around them every day.
In one aspect, "The Beggar's Opera" could be seen as an inspection of the evil in humans; however, it could also be a peak into the court life and London society of the eighteenth century. Gay attempts to use "The Beggar's Opera" to bond actual events of contemporary London and make associations between his characters and well known people such as George I and Robert Walpole.
John Gay uses Peachum to inform the audience at the start of the play. The third scene perfectly displays the corruption caused by the love of money when Peachum is observed contemplating whether which criminal is more valuable to him dead or alive. He actually treats these people like important business decisions, always weighing the pros and cons of each choice and how that will affect his "business." When Peachum goes into his explanation of his career, he intertwines the criminal world with the legal world. Peachum comments on the hypocrisy of lawyers who act "in a double capacity, both against rogues and for 'em." Peachum believes that it is "fitting that [they] should protect and encourage cheats, since [they] live by them." The audience has instantly been informed of Gay's contention, that underneath the decency of London society, a common evil, that of money and corruption, prowls through the streets. (1, iii)
His ballad opera also satirized Robert Walpole and the English government. The main characters, Captain Macheath and Peachum, are both representations of popular eighteenth century criminals John Sheppard and Jonathon Wild, an informer executed in 1725. The
treacherous way of the criminal was a dominant attraction for eighteenth century London. Peachum was also intended to represent Sir Robert Walpole. The behavior of Peachum, to include thief, womanizer, and double-dealer, pins Walpole who was identified as a dishonest
leader as well as an adulterer. Walpole even tried to eradicate free press many times through "spies, bribery, imprisonment, and the buying up of journalists and newspapers."
However, the noteworthy point is that after their executions, these men became martyrs for the lower class members, while remaining interesting and thrilling to the wealthy and decadent upper class. However, while he happily indulged in satire, he was also extremely worried with popular appeal and innovation. It appears then that Gay, understanding his purpose of illuminating the similarity of all men while keeping his audiences entertained, determined that his play must be built so that if one aspect of his play failed, such as the political satire, then something else could hold the interest of the people. Therefore, intermingled within the dialogue of characters, he added a copious amount of popular street ballad songs. This explains why there are numerous songs about the king, happiness, anxiety, and most often parody, when compared to the original lyrics of the songs. Gay believed that the English ballad would display his thesis in a way that the people would accept it and understand the truth, which is the whole purpose of the play.
Moreover, to express his thesis even further, he would include music that interested and belonged to all the people. These included the old ballads which seems to have given birth to the first ballad opera in history.
Gay believed the music was necessary just for the sake of its beauty. However, the music does add more than just the beautification project. It adds another aspect through the connection of Gay's lyrics and the original lyrics from the airs he chose.
In the Introduction of the play, the Beggar (representing Gay) states that the story was actually composed to celebrate two ballad singers' marriage, James Chanter and Moll Lay. Thus, the liberal use of ballads is defensible. Nevertheless, the Beggar also makes his relationship very transparent with these particular ballad singers when he exclaims: "I own myself of the company of beggars; and I make one at their weekly festivals at St. Giles's. 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." The indictment is understood here that poets, in the current time period, have been reduced "to beggars." Thus the title becomes very apparent.
Also, Gay was angry with the state of politics in England. So what better way to criticize it, than through song? It's a no-brainer then that Gay would choose to fill his most influential composition to date with ballads to popular songs.
Once again in the Introduction to "The Beggar's Opera", the Beggar articulates: "As to the parts, I have observed such a nice impartiality to our two ladies that it is impossible for either of them to take offense." As Professor Schultz indicates in his exceptional survey of the play, the reference does not mean the two women in the play, however it refers to a well know clash between the two Italian singers, Cuzzoni and Faustina. Everyone in London would have known about the celebrities squabble, because while on stage, they actually attacked each other! This makes the contention between Lucy and Polly one of the funnier aspects of the
play. Handel, in 1726, wrote his "Alessandro" opera exclusively for those two Italian singers. He tried to give both ladies a shot to perform in the same opera, with the music split equally between them. The interesting thing about this particular opera is that the story revolves around the two women fighting for the love of Alexander, who appears to love whoever to nearest to him at the particular time. The parallels are very clear when we look at what Macheath sings in Air XXXV: "How happy could I be with either, / Were t'other dear charmer away." It is not implausible that Gay was thinking about this exact opera while he wrote "The Beggar's Opera", though the majority of Handel's operas could be seen as a resource for circumstances parodied by Gay.
A great deal of Gay's lyrics indicates topics and themes of the original ballads. For example in his Air XXXIII, "If you at an Office Solicit your Due", which yields use of the old air, "London Ladies" which appeared in Thomas D'Urfey's "Pills to Purge Melancholy", reads as follows:
Ladies of London, both Wealthy and Fair,
Whom every Town Fop is pursuing;
Still of your Purses
and Persons take care, ,
The greatest Deceit lies in Wooing.
In both versions worldly advice is being given.
Additionally, as Macheath's impending doom draws near, Polly and Lucy go to see him on death row. The atmosphere is somewhat of a mock tragedy. Gay skillfully uses a ballad found in "Pills to Purge Melancholy" to convey this, entitled, "A Hymn upon the Execution of Two criminals, by Mr. Ramondon":
All you that must take
a leap in the dark,
Pity the Fate of
Lawson and Clark;
Cheated by Hope, by Mercy amus'd,
Betray'd by the sinful ways we us'd:
Cropp'd in our Prime
of Strength and Youth,
Who can but weep at
This somber ballad was originally written about two real criminals who confessed publicly before their deaths. Gay's parody of the original, Air LXVIII, is split between the three characters. Thus he tries to create an atmosphere of mock tragedy around Macheath, while still maintaining the comedy aspect of the play with the introduction of "strong waters" as a source of courage.
All during the play it is seen that the songs are fitted to the particular people who sing them. For example, Air V, "Of all the Simple Things We Do", the metaphors of love and money, are sung by Mrs. Peachum for whom the two are one and the same.
In such variety of experiences and emot~ons musically expressed, lies part of the "charm" and success of the play, and Profe~sor Bronson has correctly summed up this element in the following lines:
In approaching this aspect of the play, we move at once from the ephemeral causes of its popularity to grounds which have permanent validity. Gay's easy grace, his power of being witty whilst remaining fluent and singable, have never been touched unless by poets who have written with a tune in mind. In mere singing quality, few English lyric
poets have surpassed Gay at any time since Elizabethan days, and probably none save Burns since his own day.
Through this analysis, it was illustrated that the achievement of "The Beggar's Opera", an unmatched work of art even today, was the consequence of planned and skillful artistry. As was mentioned, Gay had two major points: to maintain an entertaining environment, and to exhibit of his outlook of life. From this analysis, it is obvious that the meticulous procedural structure of the play was a major factor in the achievement of the play. The interest of the audience never died down, not just because of the tight control, temperament, and management of the scenes, but because of the storyline, its comedy and absurdness, and its romantic plea. There was a rhyme and a reason why for all of the preposterous and profligate action. Furthermore, we saw that the English audience was ready to return to realism in literature after the reign of the Heros and sentimentalism of the Italian opera. Yet these audiences did not wish to entirely forget the romance aspect. For that reason, we found Gay complied not only in his choice of story, but by his lyrics, most of which tended towards the amorous, and in the sentimental cast of several of his characters. The story and the songs owned great popular appeal.