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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Class 19

Nov. 3: John Gay, Beggar's Opera


Reading Assignment:

John Gay, Beggar's Opera(2605-2652)
Recommended: Browse the section of Norton Topics Online : A Day in Eighteenth Century London for illustrations and background information on the theatre.

    Due: Post #9 Group A


Gay's Beggar's Opera is a multi-media event, and I hope to use the text as an opportunity to learn something more about eighteenth-century leisure, theatre and taste. To that end, I would like you to examine the illustrations of the theatre and the background information on a Day in Eighteenth-century London from the Norton Topics Online . Also evaluate Hogarth's illustration of scene 3 act 11 from the Beggar's Opera in the illustration in NAEL and listen to the recordings of the three arias from the play on the media companion.

We will be discussing this work over two classes, but I have included the notes for the entire work here. Please read it in full.



Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


1. Opera

Alexander Pope describes the vogue for opera in the following lines of his satire The Dunciad

    When lo! A harlot form soft sliding by,
    With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye;
    Foreign her air, her robe's discordant pride
    In patchwork fluttering, and her head aside.
    By singing peers upheld on either hand,
    She tripped and laughed, too pretty much to stand;
    Cast on the prostrate Nine a scornful look,
    Then thus in quaint recitativo spoke:
    "O Cara! Cara! Silence all that train:
    Joy to great Chaos! Let Division reign:
    Chromatic tortures soon shall drive them hence,
    Break all their nerves, and fritter all their sense:
    One trill shall harmonize joy, grief, and rage,
    Wake the dull Church, and lull the ranting stage:
    To the same notes thy sons shall hum, or snore,
    And all they yawning daughters cry, encore...."
        Alexander Pope, The Dunciad IV.40-60
What do Pope's and Gay's representation of opera have in common and what might they suggest about the fashion for opera at that time?

Note the following conventions of opera that Gay adopts and changes in his mock-opera:

    The use of foreign language;
    lavish, pretentious spectacle;
    subjects of myth, legend or ancient history;
    themes of heroic love and villainy;
    high-born heroes and heroines;
    the recitative (lack of dialogue);
    conventional, quaint similes;
    a stock prison scene;
    division of leading roles for ladies;
    the castrato;
    a poisoning attempt;
    an unjustified happy ending
In each case, what does Gay's replacement suggest about operatic taste? How does the replacement create humor?

Besides humor, what other implications arise from Gay's choice of subject, theme, scenery, plot, dramatic form, etc.?

In light of this, evaluate the main characters: Peachum, Mrs. Peachum, Polly, MacHeath, Lockitt, and Lucy.


2. Arias

Martin Price writes about the remarkably innovative use of air/arias in Gay's work: "A whole satiric dimension can be invoked by playing the new words off against the audience's sense of the traditional ones.... For example, the stirring "Let us take to the road" (Air XX) was sung to a march from Handel's opera 'Rinaldo' (1711) whose plot and grand Italianate operatic manner were the antithesis of Gay's underworld and simple song style. Air XlIV 'The modes of the courts so common are grown' is sung to the tune of 'Lillibullero' a famous late seventeenth-century political song, anit-Irish, anti-Catholic, used by the political enemies of James II" (The Restoration and Eighteenth Century Oxford Anthology of Literature, 1973).

What role do the airs/arias play in Gay's innovation? How do they forward the satire? (We will listen to two or three of them in class, but if you have the media companion, you can hear them on your own.)


3. Satire/Themes

What is the significance of the play's title? In what sense is this a beggar's opera?

How does the play reflect the conditions of the theatre world? See Norton Topics Online "A Day in Eighteenth-century London" for more details. Also refer to the discussions between the beggar and the player in the Introduction and before the final scene. How do their exchanges reflect drama as a commodity? What role does the public play in the formation of the play?

The opening act focuses on the "ruin" of Polly who has married Macheath in secret. In what sense is she "ruined"? Mrs. Peachum is given some excellent one-liners in a satire on marriage. What does "marriage" represent in the play? Given that marriage was the bedrock of civil society (see Addison and Steel on this), what does Gay's satire suggest about the current state of affairs?

How does this compare with representations of courtship and marriage in other works we have read, such as Pope's Rape of the Lock? What is the point of the satire?

What is Lucy's role in this depiction of marriage?

The social satire of the play also targets self-interest in staged parallels between high and low society. What are the implications of the use of formal language among the confederates, who call themselves gentleman or fine ladies? Examine especially the opening scenes of Act 2.

What does the list of stolen objects (throughout the play) tell us about the society?

Throughout the play Gay draws explicit parallels between leaders and the gangs of thieves and leaders and the gangs of courtiers or politicians. From the opening Air, where Peachum compares his employment with that of lawyer and a Statesman, through the constant references to Macheath as the Great Man, a common name for Walpole, Gay targeted political corruption in his play. This political satire is most explicit in the relationship between Lockit and Peachum, for example in their initial scene together 2.10. What is the point of these political comparison?

What is the meaning of Air 67? How does this serve as a central theme of the play? What does the play say about criminal justice?


4. Implications

How does Hogarth's illustration of the final prison scene (3.11) comment on the staging of the play? On the moral of the play?

Finally, what does Gay's Beggar's Opera, a phenomenally successful stage event throughout the century, tell you about the taste of the theatre-going public of the eighteenth century?


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