John Gay (1728) John Gay found phenomenal success with the production of his ballad opera The Beg gar's Opera. The idea for the play, written partially to lampoon serious-minded Italian opera, was apparently suggested to Gay by his friend the Irish poet JoNATHAN Swift. Samuel Johnson later described the interchange as follows: "Dr. Swift had been observing once to Mr. Gay what an odd pretty sort of a thing a Newgate Pastoral might make. Gay was inclined to try at such a thing for some time; but afterwards thought it would be better to write a comedy on the same plan." Newgate was an infamous London prison, well known to the public. Because Gay reveled in parody, the idea of applying the gentle pastoral form to a story about common thieves and murderers stimulated his imagination.
Part of the mythology that arose around the play's development and presentation included the "fact" that Gay's financial supporter, the duchess of Queensbury, at the last moment suggested the addition of music to Gay's satire, although no evidence supports that idea. Gay wrote lyrics, while music was arranged by John Christopher Pepusch, also the composer of the opera's overture. Staged at Lincoln's Inn Fields by its manager, John Rich, The Beggar's Opera proved an immediate success, with an unprecedented run of 62 performances.
To summarize the play's action: Peachum, father to Polly, receives stolen goods. Supposedly based on the real thief Jonathan Wild, made popular through fiction as well, Peachum proves a disreputable scoundrel. However, even his sense of justice is insulted by the marriage of Polly to the highwayman Macheath, with whom Peachum has conducted nefarious dealings. Pea-chum turns informer against Macheath, who ends up in Newgate sentenced to death. Macheath remains irresistible to women, as illustrated when the warden's attractive daughter, Lucy Lockit, becomes Polly's rival for Macheath's affection. Her feelings for the scoundrel cause her to secure his freedom. When Macheath is recaptured at a brothel, an actor, supposedly representing the audience, demands his release. Much of the action reflected the corruption of leading figures in government and society, including Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, although the references were not stressed. However, in one reference by Pea-chum to members of his gang, he recites of one member that his name is "Robin of Bagshot, alias Gorgon, alias Bluff Bob, alias Carbuncle, alias Bob Booty." Wal-
pole had gained a reputation for gaining personal wealth at the country's expense, and the nickname "Bob Booty" stuck with him for the remainder of his career.
Because Gay wrote a ballad opera, most of its songs were set to popular tunes. The audience's recognition of the tunes made it a simple matter for them later to sing the songs as well. In addition the simplicity of the sentiments allowed further audience recognition and identification with the themes. For instance in the first act Macheath accompanies Polly in singing a song, "Were I Laid on Greenland's Coast" to the familiar tune "Over the Hills and Far Away." All the characters imagine themselves in different circumstances as they wait, newly married, in a tavern for whores to arrive. While Macheath imagines himself on the coast of Greenland, "Warm amidst eternal frost" in the arms of his "lass," Polly imagines herself "sold on Indian soil," where as soon "as the burning day was closed," she would plan to "mock the sultry toil, / When on my charmer's breast reposed." Their light repartee continues as each speaks every other one of the final four lines:
Macheath. And I would love you all the day,
Polly. Every night would kiss and play,
Macheath. If with me you'd fondly stray
Gay's biographer David Nokes notes the irony in Gay's choice of the tune for "Over the Hills and Far Away" as the one in which Macheath pledges his loyalty to Polly, an empty pledge indeed. Titled "Jockey's Lamentation," the original version protested female infidelity.
Additional song titles included "If the Heart of a Man Is Depressed with Cares," set to the air "Would you Have a Young Virgin," and "Since Laws Were Made for Every Degree," set to the extremely popular tune "Green Sleeves." In the latter Macheath wonders why, with "laws made for every degree," meaning every social rank, "to curb vice in others, as well as me," he and his fellow criminals lack "better company / upon Tyburn tree!" Tyburn tree references the gibbet on which executions took place. He continues by noting,
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 sting upon Tyburn tree!
He clearly insinuates that criminals of means can bribe crooked wardens, barristers, and judges to pardon them. If the number of the well-to-do suffered their proper sentences, England's population would drop precipitously.
In addition to popular ballads Gay included a serious anthem written by Handel and clearly recognizable by his audience. As explained by Nokes, the juxtaposition of music from low culture with that of high culture, of street music with that of music from religious worship, was to reveal the sharing of "vanities, affectations, and vulnerabilities" by individuals of every social strataum. Gay's aim was not to elevate ballads or invalidate Handel, but rather to emphasize the irony of the presence of "parallel and symbiotic motifs" at all levels of human life.
Gay's opera would influence others, including Bertold Brecht, who wrote The Threepenny Opera in 1928 with music composed by Kurt Weill. The song named for his main character, "Mack the Knife," was recorded by notable singers such as Bobby Darin and remains popular into the 21st century.
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