February 21, 2018
John Gay's MacHeath
On this day in 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera opened in London. Its satire and singability made it a first-run sell-out, a cultural craze across England, the most produced play of the 18th century, and the original "ballad opera," first in the Gilbert and Sullivan line. Within the first week one London paper was reporting "a very general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it hath made Rich [the theater manager] very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich." The politicians smarted at being portrayed as highwaymen, fences, pickpockets and molls, but the public bought playing cards, fans and parlor screens imprinted with scenes or lyrics of the dashing MacHeath, or of Polly Peachum's true-love. This is from Scene 10, the point at which Peachum, having got wind of daughter Polly's secret marriage to MacHeath, does his parental best to get her to cash the highwayman in:
POLLY. But I love him, Sir; how then could I have Thoughts of parting with him?
Seeing Polly unconvinced, Mrs. Peachum pitches in: "But your Duty to your Parents, Hussy, obliges you to hang him. What would many a Wife give for such an Opportunity!" Such parents and predicaments move Polly to song -- a tune so affecting, they say, that first-nighter the Duke of Bolton proposed to the actress playing Polly, and was accepted:
PEACHUM. Parting with him! Why, this is the whole Scheme and Intention of all Marriage Articles. The comfortable Estate of Widow-hood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife's Spirits. Where is the Woman who would scruple to be a Wife, if she had it in her Power to be a Widow, whenever she pleas'd? If you have any Views of this sort, Polly, I shall think the Match not so very unreasonable.
O ponder well! be not severe:
Not just the 18th century was enthralled. Two centuries later, in 1920, one London production ran for 1463 performances, inspiring Brecht and Weill to remake it as The Threepenny Opera, and giving Bobby Darin his signature tune: "Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear / And he shows them pearly white. . . ." Though not quite a one-hit wonder in his lifetime, The Beggar's Opera is Gay's only enduring play. His sequel, Polly, never got much of a chance, being suppressed by the government for going over the satirical line -- though this caused a run on the printed version, bringing Gay even more money. This he enjoyed so recklessly that his friends took to hiding it from him, lest he take MacHeath's carpe diem outlook too far:
So save a wretched Wife!
For on the Rope that hangs my Dear
Depends poor Polly's Life.
Let us drink and sport today,
He was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, his self-written epitaph marking the spot and continuing the worldview:
Ours is not tomorrow:
Love with youth flies swift away,
Age is naught but sorrow.
Dance and sing,
Time's on the wing,
Life never knows the return of spring.
Life is a jest; and all things show it.
Daniel Snowman's The Gilded Stage: A Social History of the Opera explains how much of the popularity of The Beggar's Opera derived from its reform agenda. Jonathan Swift, another of Gay's famous friends, first proposed the idea of a lowlife opera. Swift was composing A Modest Proposal about this time, taking his own slap at a ruling class so lost in privilege that they took seriously his plan to improve social conditions by selling the children of the poor. Gay added another level, making his satire a slap at both privileged politics and Italian opera - the kind of music the upper classes enjoyed, or enjoyed being seen at. The street life and street tunes in The Beggar's Opera represented a music hall revolt against pervasive snobbery.
I thought so once, but now I know it.
The Beggar's Opera became the first documented musical performed in New York. The 1750 show ran for months, indicating that its message played well in pre-revolutionary America.