This was written on John Gay’s tomb, a mocking couplet by him, showing his sense of humour, something he kept until the end of his life.
John Gay was an English poet and playwright and was born on 30th June 1685 in Barnstaple, where he was raised and educated. He passed away at the age of 47 in 17321. John Gay came from an old Devonshire family. He is known to be as one of the greatest Augustan writers. However, his notableness to the history of opera lies in his creation of the ballad opera. He redefined opera and permanently affected its artistic growth2. This new genre appeared in 1728 with The Beggar’s opera.3 He was a friend of two 18th century English authors of satiric style, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.4
John Gay’s The beggar’s opera was firstly staged and performed in 1728 in London. The opera was arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. Due to its success it was performed 62 times during the first year. The play met a huge success from the audience, so it was later performed in Dublin, Glasgow, New York and Jamaica.
John Gay, firstly, offered his play, The Beggar’s opera, to the manager of a very successful theatre in Drury Lane, Colley Cibber in 1727.5 It was, however, rejected, probably because of the way it satirised the current government or because he considered it as a personal attack on the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. The play’s first performance took place in the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, something achieved with the help of John Rich, the manager of the theatre. 6
The Beggar’s opera starts with the Beggar and the Player, who had speaking roles, introducing the opera and what is going to follow. The Beggar here, speaks for John Gay, expressing his ideas about the opera seria and the Italian opera in general, as well as his views on politics.
John Gay wrote the libretto for 69 songs. 28 of them were taken from English ballads and 23 from Irish Scottish and French tunes. The rest of them were taken from many remarkable composers such as: Handel, Purcell, Henry Carey etc.7
The Beggar’s opera was not an opera buffa (comic opera), it was considered a ballad opera. John Gay created a knew genre, the ballad opera. A ballad opera is an English form of opera in which spoken dialogues, usually of humorous or satirical content, alternate with parody songs, sung by the actors themselves. Songs are based on pre-existing melodies. To some degree an opera like a pasticcio were pre-existing material is put into one play. However, this genre is supposed to satirise politics such as Robert Walpole’s government, who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time (also the First Prime Minister of Great Britain)8. A ballad opera would also mock the upper class as well as the Italian opera seria in general.
The Beggar’s opera is considered to be a reaction to the conventions of opera seria. Opera seria is a term used for the Italian opera of the 18th and 19th centuries based on heroic subjects. Tragedy was the basic element of an opera seria. It is usually called ‘dramma per musica’9. The Beggar’s opera was an innovation for the opera standards and more of a reaction to the Italian opera seria. In ‘dramma per musica’ the characters appeared heroic and sometimes divine, trying to make the upper class relate and empathise with the protagonists, something that was satisfying for them to watch since they could recognize themselves through such elegant personas. On the contrary, in the case of The Beggar’s opera, the characters have to do with highwayman, criminals and women with low morals.
John Gay uses Macheath, in order, to mock the heroic characters of opera seria. Macheath is an irremediable ladies’ man. However, this charming captain, the protagonist, is a highwayman who fools his lovers with his lies, sangfroid and his generous spirit. Presenting the main hero of the play as a statesman as well as a criminal, John Gay makes the audience believe that he is trying to satirise the current government10. In the opera, Lockit, the jailer, calls bribery ‘civility’ while Filch believes that ‘penitence’ is a weakness. Macheath says that robbery has done him ‘justice’. Peachum, a criminal highwaymen syndicate, in Act I says to his wife:
Walpole was often accused that he used his position for his own favor and fortune. He was also accused that he treated bribery as a government instrument.11 The above behaviors imply that Walpole was no different12.
This is spoken by the Beggar during the introduction of the play trying to ridicule Italian operas calling them ‘unnatural’ and ‘those in vogue’. Some may say that in his opera he is trying to mock George Frideric Handel since he was known for his use of recitatives. This could be however, because Handel was one of the most important opera composers, therefore, it would be easy to attack his way of writing but actually referring to opera seria in general. In this opera there are no castrati, a type of male singer with high range.13 Something that was common in Italian operas.
As mentioned earlier, John Gay wrote the libretto of 69 songs, airs taken from the music of other opera composers. Air is a genre of a solo song, also known as ayre. An air is usually accompanied by a lute and became popular in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.14 He used Handel’s music as well as Purcell’s a lot. It is believed that the Bagger’s opera has several obvious similarities to Purcell’s spoken dramas. An example is Air VI sung by Polly : ‘What Shall I Do to Show How Much I Love Her’, music written by Henry Purcell for one of his most famous operas, ‘Dido and Aeneas’. Another example is Air XX: ‘March in Rinaldo, with Drums and Trumpets’, from Rinaldo. Handel’s opera.
The Beggar’s opera drew the attention of the public, since John Gay saterises not only the politics and the Italian opera, but also because he mocks current affairs. One could say that the two ladies, Polly and Lucy, fighting over a man, Macheath, could be representing the two prima donnas of opera, Francsesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni15. The two prima donnas had a much-publicised enmity for each other16. Their feud came at its peak when they fought on stage in front of an audience. The scandal on stage created a stir in the audience. Many believed that the opera star singers were overpaid and uncivil. Therefore, the prima donnas’ passion and jealousy, was represented through the two characters John Gay created. His reference to the two prima donnas however, was more obvious during the introduction of the opera:
Making it clear for the audience to understand that the opera that follows was a parody. This was a way to mock not only the content of an Italian opera and its creators, but also the actors that took part.
The taste of the audience started to change from the Italian opera. Handel stopped composing operas after 1741. This could be taken as evidence that the popularity of opera seria was declining. The recitative that was used in Italian operas a lot, was artificial and the storylines were unrealistic. The rise of the ballad opera therefore, offered an attractive alternative genre.
Moreover, The Beggar’s opera was successful because the tunes were familiar to the audience since they were already known. One of the most famous tunes during that time in England was: ‘One evening having lost my way’ or sometimes called ‘Walpole the happy clown’. A traditional air about the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. This popular tune was used by john Gay in Act III, air XLVII. The air was sung by Lucy showing her jealousy towards Polly ang how she wants revenge:
This would never happen in an opera seria. Italian operas would flatter the government instead of mocking it.
Something that is clearly obvious and really makes an impression is the language John Gay used. In Italian operas, the language used was considered a frustrating barrier. In Gay’s opera, the language is much simpler than what someone would await from a ‘dramma per musica’. It is much more informal than what an opera audience would expect. Additionally, in an Italian opera, swearing was not probable. In The Beggar’s opera however, most of the characters are using cursing words and insulting language. For example:
In an Italian opera, it is evidently rare for the characters to speak like this. For example, parents to think of their daughter this way:
In opera seria protagonists are usually proper and upright. Whilst in a ballad opera, reality takes place. The characters of The Beggar’s opera speak and act like normal people in their everyday life17.
The Beggar’s opera however, does intentionally preserve most of the essential characteristics of Italian opera (without the recitative), which is the Beggar’s little joke. An example of this is the ending of the opera, when the Beggar and the Player come back again and start a discussion on whether the protagonist should get killed in order, to face his penalty or not, since it was an opera. Opera seria’s endings always have a happy and optimistic ending. The Beggar, in this case, intends to execute Macheath in order to “make the piece perfect” since he “was doing strict poetical justice”. However, the Player believes that this is “a downright deep tragedy”.
And this is the way it happened. Macheath survives at the end since the beggar agreed to “let the prisoner be brought back to his wives in triumph”18. This showed how much of a parody this opera was.
One could find John Gay’s language insulting as well and his views are rather male chauvinistic. In The Beggar’s opera represents two women very dependant to their lover. Showing no dignity and being fooled by their significant other, while he is obviously a ladies’ man with more than one or two lovers. The two ladies make fool of themselves while begging him to be theirs. In Act II, in Newgate, Macheath belittles Polly in front of Lucy just because he wants to take advantage of Lucy and have her in his favor19. The way Gay represents women is offensive towards the female gender. In opera seria women are usually represented as beautiful, elegant princesses or loving wives, mothers and lovers. They sometimes appear divine. In The Beggar’s opera they appear ‘available’ and ‘easy’ for a charming man. During Act II, Macheath refers to the ladies, who happen to be his companions as: ‘artful hypocrites’, ‘plaguy wives’, ‘sluts’, ‘drunk’, ‘hassies’20 etc. In an Italian opera words like that would be avoided. Moreover, that kind of views were not really being tackled in opera seria.
There is no doubt that John Gay’s The Beggar’s opera is a reaction and a rival against the opera seria or ‘dramma per musica’. Even if the play deliberately has most of the characteristics of an Italian opera, it is done with comedy and acts as a parody. John Gay wrote it as a burlesque to opera seria, mocking politics and representing topics and situations that are usually avoided in the Italian opera. In this ballad opera, he ridicules not only Handel but the whole genre in general. Even the actors who took part as well as the production. The Beggar’s opera is considered the first musical by some, since the spoken dialogues take over the airs (taha en parapano p ta traguthkia). It is considered a reaction to the conventions of the Italian opera for its simpler language and voices. In this opera the main voices are: soprano, bass and tenor/baritone. There are no castrati like in an Italian opera, which was popular. This opera was the beginning of the new genre, a play that redefined opera. An opera that went against to the established Italian opera seria.
1 J.V Guerinot and Rodney D. Jilg, Contexts 1 The Beggar’s opera, Edited by Maynard Mack (United States of America, Archon Books, 1976), 1
2 Hume, R. (2001). Gay, John. Grove Music Online.
3 Price, C., & Hume, R. (2001). Ballad opera. Grove Music Online.
4 Szwec, J. J. (2011). “Satire in 18th Century British Society: Alexander Pope’s, The Rape of the Lock and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 3(06).
5 Oliver and Boyd, The Beggar’s opera, edited by Peter Elfed Lewis (Edinburgh, 1973), 2
6 Hume, R. (2001). Gay, John. Grove Music Online.
7 Hume, R. (2002). Beggar’s Opera, The. Grove Music Online.
8 Porter, S., & Keller, K. (2013-02-11). Ballad opera in the United States. Grove Music Online
9 McClymonds, M., & Heartz, D. (2001). Opera seria. Grove Music Online.
10 J.V Guerinot and Rodney D. Jilg, Contexts 1 The Beggar’s opera, 69
11 Oliver and Boyd, The Beggar’s opera, 16
12 John Gay, The beggar’s opera, edited by Vivien Jones and David Lindley (London: Methuen Drama, 2010),xiv-xv
13 Rosselli, J. (2001). Castrato. Grove Music Online
14 The Editors of Encyclopeadia Britannica, Ayre, Encyclopædia Britannica (2012-11-21).
15 Pat Rogers, “Gay and the World of Opera,” in John Gay and the Scriblerians, eds. Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood (London: Vison Press, 1988), 159
16J.V Guerinot and Rodney D. Jilg, Contexts 1 The Beggar’s opera, 96
17 “The Rise of the Italian Comic Opera Style,” in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin eds., Music in the Western World. A History in Documents (Australia; Belmont, CA: Thomson/Schirmer, 2008, second ed.), 231
18 John Gay, The Beggar’s opera, edited by Edgar V. Roberts and Edward Smith (Great Britain, Edward Arnold, 1973) pg 82
19 John Gay, The Beggar’s opera, 54-53
20 John Gay, The Beggar’s opera, 36