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Theatre in Eighteenth Century England was full of excitement, controversy, and fashion. In order to fully appreciate this flourishing time of theatre entertainment, one must understand the context from which this century comes.
The Restoration of the theatre was established with the arrival of George II to the throne of England. The Puritans had issued a decree outlawing all theatrical spectacle in 1642; "actors were to be punished as rogues." The fun-loving King George countered this action by issuing patents to two companies that would later become the famous Drury Lane and Covent Garden Theatres in London.32
Drawing of the Drury Lane Theatre
Playwrights during the Restoration catered to King George's love of wit and comedy. A new genre was established: The Comedy of Manners. These plays focused on truthful presentation of human flaws and weaknesses displayed through wit and satire.33 In contrast to pre-restoration drama, productions featured realistic, moveable scenery, music and spectacle, and female actresses.34
As a result of the Restoration, audiences were growing, new patents were issued to theatres, and smaller "little theatres" came into existence.35 However, by the turn of the century, the popularity began to dwindle. Moral prejudice against the stage was still prevalent; Jeremy Collier and his many publications preached against the profaneness of theatre. Collier used mostly moral arguments, but he also judged theatre from a critic's perspective. His powerful statements discouraged many people from attending the theatre in the early years of the Eighteenth century.36
New dramatic works were few in the first decades of the eighteenth century. While new works were encouraged in Restoration times, theatre managers at this time were more concerned with new methods of acting and staging.37 Managers also preferred dead writers, not only for the timeless reputations and guaranteed success of their works, but also because living writers required more expense and accountability during production.38
This dry spell set the stage for the unveiling of Gay's creation; the eighteenth-century audience was ready for something new, fresh, and exciting.
In the early summer of 1727 Gay began working seriously on The Beggar's Opera. Music had always been important to Gay; he was a serious student of Handel. Gay's musical tendencies were evident in his early plays; he often included music in some shape or form.39
In 1724, his Pantomime/Ballad Newgate's Garland met with much success; some say this was Gay's first step to The Beggar's Opera.40
In October, the opera was finished and Gay was ready to begin production. Because of the popularity of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres, it was difficult even for a seasoned playwright to produce a play at these theatres. Nevertheless, Gay approached Drury Lane about producing The Beggar's Opera. Colley Cibber turned down the work, (a fatal move for Drury Lane) as a result of the experimental nature of the opera.41
Catherine and Charles Douglas came to the financial assistance of the opera, along with John Rich, from Lincoln's Inn Field Theatre, who agreed to produce the work. On Monday, January 29, 1928 London experienced for the first time ever the work that would take eighteenth-century entertainment to a new level.42
With The Beggar's Opera, John Gay had created a new theatre genre that is still in existence today. The novelty of the opera is what paved the way for its success. Gay combined popular tunes of the day, witty text, and political, social, and cultural satire -- a combination that was unlike anything else that had been experienced before.43
Most exciting and shocking to the audience was the "discrepancy between words and music." Gay would take an erotic or sleazy tune of the day and place it with sweet and docile lyrics.44 This same shock would be experienced by a contemporary audiences if hymn lyrics were placed in a song by Snoop Doggy Dogg or Madonna. Gay also contrasted a serious plot with an exaggerated and silly tone. The character Macheath is condemned to die for his life of crime, yet throughout the play, the audience laughs at his actions, his womanizing, his drinking, and his folly of character.
The ballad opera was also a comment on the "intelligent" and "cultured" art form of Italian Opera. The Beggar's Opera shifted the focus from foreign influence and brought back a sense of national art. The lofty and expensive Italian opera had new, "cheaper" competition.45
In addition to the novelty of form, the underlying themes of the story had a large revolutionary impact. Gay's opera was set in contemporary times with roguish vagabonds as characters. His work was a stark contrast to the antiquity and fairies, lovers, and artisans of Shakespearian comedy.46
His characters included thieves, prostitutes, corrupt managers and justice figures living and ruling as if they were elite. "The basic structure of The Beggar's Opera is a transvaluation of values and an audacious transition from low-life to high life."47 Because many considered Gay's opera a direct attack against corruption in the government, especially such men as Robert Walpole, The Beggar's Opera caused a whirlwind of controversy.
From the onset, The Beggar's Opera was received with enormous success and acclaim. The opera ran 32 nights, and enjoyed over sixty performances in its first season. Audience members were made up of several different ranks and classes; The Beggar's Opera was popular with all. On February 1, 1728, The Daily Journal reported "No theatrical performance for many years has met with so much applause."48
Not all of the response to the opera was positive. After The Beggar's Opera had become a success, critics began pointing out specific political propaganda. Some believed that every character in the opera represented a political message. Though the opera contains a direct reference to Walpole when the Peachums are discussing "Bob Booty," there is doubt regarding whether or not Gay intended for the opera to be a direct attack against the government.49 Regardless, the opera was met with controversy, and the success of the opera opened the door for more political satire in the theatre.50
Backlash from the Opera
The Beggar's Opera was the first example of political satire that led to the Licensing Act of 1737. The success of the opera encouraged new writers such as Henry Fielding to begin political drama works. As a result, the theatre enjoyed a few years of political satirical works, until the Licensing Act discouraged political writing.
Political propaganda within the opera was only one issue that met the objection of the public. Dr. Thomas Herring argued that the "favorable presentation of criminals" was morally unacceptable. Critics also argued that the opera was "a debased form of entertainment," a representation of "the declining taste" of the public. The critics were correct; theatre as entertainment was changing. A venue once distinguished as a high-brow, was drawing new audience members from lower classes.51 Critics claim that this melting pot of the middle and upper classes paved the way for a decline in the integrity of art and a growing movement called Sentimentalism.
A sentimental dramatic work was often referred to as a "tragi-comedy;" works that contained comedy, but also excessive melodrama. Virtue and deliverance were often themes. In contrast to the low and foolish characters in The Beggar's Opera, characters in sentimental pieces were inherently good, always making the ideal choices. Sentimental works met with great opposition to many writers of the day, who believed that truth was the best way to display morality. Nevertheless, sentimentalism reigned with the public's approval for the second half of the eighteenth century.52