Remediating the Early Modern Ballad Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728)
John Gay (1685-1732) Invents a Generic HybridThe Beggar’s Opera opens 29 Jan 1728 • A member with Swift and Pope of the Scriblerius Club offering an “ancient” critique of “modern” corruption • Challenged confronted by these highly educated authors: does the market in printed works destroy, or could it support, great literature? • Gay’s generic invention: Opera + Ballads 1st Musical Comedy • Satire through an elaborate political allegory
A Generic Hybrid of Two Traditions Features of Italian Opera • Songs scattered throughout • Spectacular special effects • All dialogue is sung as “recitative” • Celebrity singers with big voices (including castrate) with stagey big moments • Plots are implausible and end happily • Expresses a taste for foreign extravagance Features of English drama • Music and song draws upon English and Irish ballads • Staging offers simulations of ‘real’ places (e.g. home, tavern, Newgate prison) • Dialogue is in English and realistic—what you might hear in street or court or home • Plots must be plausible and may end tragically • English plays from English subjects
Gay’s primary source for 41 out of 69 airs in the ballad opera: the collection of Thomas D’Urfey
Gay’s Big Idea: remediating the English ballad Traditional English Ballad (1470) in modern performance by Melissa Girard (Birmingham, Alabama): “Alas! My love you do me wrong, To cast me off discourteously, And I have loved you so long, Delighting in your company. I have been ready at your hand To grant whatever you would crave I have brought weight and life and land Your love and good will for to have Greensleeves was all my joy, Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleaves my heart of gold And who but my Lady Greensleeves.” McHeath awaiting execution uses the melody of “Greensleeves” to sing these words: “Since laws were made for ev’ry degree To curb vice in others, as well as me, I wonder we haven’t better company Upon Tyburn tree! 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 string Upon Tyburn tree!” (BO, 118) What is the effect of this remediation? What is the effect of fusing together the pastoral past with the tawdry urban present?
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air III Mrs. Peachum consoles herself for MacHeath’s likely execution: If any Wench Venus's Girdle wear, Though she be never so ugly; Lilies and Roses will quickly appear, And her Face look wond'rously smugly. Beneath the left Ear so fit but a Cord, (A Rope so charming a Zone is!) The Youth in his Cart hath the Air of a Lord, And we cry, There goes an Adonis!
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air IV Mrs. Peachem sings of the danger of Polly’s love for MacHeath: If Love the Virgin's Heart invade, How, like a Moth, the simple Maid Still plays about the Flame! If soon she be not made a Wife, Her Honour's sing'd, and then for Life She's -- what I dare not name.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air VI Polly explains her desire for MacHeath to her father Peachum: Virgins are like the fair Flower in its Lustre, Which in the Garden enamels the Ground; Near it the Bees in play flutter and cluster, And gaudy Butterflies frolick around. But, when once pluck'd, 'tis no longer alluring, To Covent-Garden 'tis sent (as yet sweet), There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air IX Mother and Daughter Duet Mrs. Peachum: O Polly, you might have toy'd and kist. By keeping Men off, you keep them on. POLLY But he so teaz'd me, And he so pleas'd me, What I did, you must have done.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air XXI MacHeath justifies his infidelity’s likely execution : “I love the Sex. And a Man who loves Money, might as well be contented with one Guinea, as I with one Woman.” If the Heart of a Man is deprest with Cares, The Mist is dispell'd when a Woman appears; Like the Notes of a Fiddle, she sweetly, sweetly Raises the Spirits, and charms our Ears, Roses and Lilies her Cheeks disclose, But her ripe Lips are more sweet than those. Press her, Caress her, With Blisses, Her Kisses Dissolve us in Pleasure, and soft Repose.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air LXIX MacHeath, saved from execution, takes Polly as his own and gives his other women to others. The rake is beleaguered and reformed. Thus I stand like the Turk, with his Doxies around; From all Sides their Glances his Passion confound; For Black, Brown, and Fair, his Inconstancy burns, And different Beauties subdue him by turns: Each calls forth her Charms, to provoke his Desires; Though willing to all, with but one he retires. But think of this Maxim, and put off your Sorrow, The Wretch of To-day, may be happy To-morrow.
Some general questions • How would you characterize Gay’s ballad writing? • How is he different (or the same as) the earlier ballad writers? • How literary? How modernizing? • How has he exploited the residual memory and intertextual context of the familiar ballad (from tune ballad and most popular recent versions that use the tune) in the new context of the musical? • Has Gay enlightened/improved the ballad, or spoiled and commercialized it?
If, “Enlightenment is an Event in the History of Mediation,” how is The Beggar’s Opera an expression of Enlightenment? Cardinal Mediations: • Infrastructure of post, public spaces, highways • Generic invention: newspapers, systematic scholarly collections, critical essays, musical comedy • Associational practices: clubs, secret and professional societies library, museum, university • Protocols: open access, challenging instituted authorities (here Italian Opera), critique (here as part of the public sphere where opinion is formed), free speech (as an unlicensed press), public credit, etc. The Beggar’s Opera • Newspaper ads and critical response helps create a ‘media event’ around Gay’s play • Thomas D’Urfey’s 6 volume collection and criticism (like Addison’s Spectator series on Chevy Chase) help to make ballads available to Gay as components of theater entertainment • Gay in Scriblerius Club, professional theater networks • Gay’s Beggar’s Opera • Ballads are now integral to a new genre (in a different and more fundamental way than with earlier theater?) • Which stages an allegory of the times with new literary and intellectual heft • The ballad is brought off the street and made part the critical public sphere: for example, Peachum is a figure for Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister • Printed publication of the play further expands the reach of the ballad opera Critical questions: Is Gay’s opera a way to remediate the ballad so that culture is improved and enlightened? By making art more like nature? by making it more native, more popular and more English? Does this revaluing the ballad save and transmit it?