Notes on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera
John Gay was a friend of Pope and Swift, so he moved in serious literary circles. He seems to have invested money during the time of the financial disaster known as the South Sea Bubble, and lost a lot of the money that he made with his literary work. The opera deals insouciantly with rank and virtue, reminding us that what the Peachums do isn’t much worse—and maybe not worse at all—than what goes on in high society. Some of the satire is about contemporary politicians such as Horace Walpole. Systemic corruption was rife in English politics during the eighteenth century, with parliament being full of hand-picked representatives and much influence-trading going on. The social and political system talked the language of virtue, but behaved corruptly and sometimes inhumanely, especially in the province of criminal justice. Crimes of property and finance were punished with a severity that we would today find shocking since theft was placed nearly on a level with outright murder, and in some cases could result in hanging. Forgers, false coiners, highwaymen, thieves, and so forth might find themselves sent to the gallows.
John Gay’s opera is partly making fun of stylized Italian productions, but it also re-democratizes the genre and reminds us of the craftsmanship involved in art, the “nuts-and-bolts” dimension of staging a production. This openness is appropriate to the times since what we call “the public” as a large and partly self-arbitrating audience is beginning to take shape. The public may not be aristocratic in sensibility, but they are capable of sophistication and seem aware of themselves in a post-Shakespearean era as participants in the play rather than as passive onlookers.
Polly’s parents, the Peachums, go back and forth from brazen conniving about money to tender sentiments about their daughter, as if John Gay wants to have some fun at the expense of grand operatic passions. “High passion” is a fashion just like almost everything else. Does that aspect of the play amount to a criticism of the age? Well, as Oscar Wilde later says, “It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out.” The point is that the Peachums must take the most practical line on marriage since their lives depend on the cash nexus. To them, marriage is largely an economic arrangement. The Peachums are essentially gangsters who profit from the thriving crime industry in London, recycling the criminals themselves as if they were glass bottles with a redemption value. Apparently, a capital offender was worth around forty pounds sterling.
The highway robber Macheath professes that he has little notion of individual fidelity but rather “loves the [female] sex.” Still, Polly is his choice. Part of John Gay’s popularity may consist in his rather Shakespearian touch for creating characters that are at once individual and generic, eccentric and typically human. Macheath is a thief, but not altogether lacking in charm. He is not a stick figure but a human being. Similarly, his prostitute friends behave in a “ladylike” manner, but promptly take advantage of him when opportunity knocks. Might the same be implied about the “virtuous ladies” of the age? Gay seems to delight in insinuating parallels between the values and conduct of the lower and upper classes.
Why does the play change course change at the end? Well, probably because it’s time to give the audience what they want. The opera’s incidents lead inexorably to Macheath’s execution, but in this instance, the audience and its expectations are the deus ex machina. Aristotle’s dramatic theory in The Poetics calls for observing the laws of probability and necessity, but the philosopher also says that plausible impossibilities are better than implausible possibilities. Aristotle recognized, it seems, that a drama is to a great extent its own representational world; if the mimesis or “imitation” of an action holds together logically and aesthetically, it will serve just fine. In the present play, the author may be calling attention to the silliness of the audience’s notions about “happy endings” (as if they think art is simply a way to escape from their daily lives for a few hours), but on the whole it seems ungenerous to hold to that notion. A better view is that at least in art, we can generate a happy ending where none would be provided by life itself: Macheath won’t go to the gallows, as the law demands he should. In art, sometimes, the law is indeed an ass, as the saying goes. The genre the Beggar has chosen—which is after all comic opera—gives him an aristocratic-like license to waive the severity of English legal practice and “let the bad guy win.” In keeping with eighteenth-century literary theory and practice, we find a work of art both satirizing injustices and attempting to inject some civility into the mix of society and politics.