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John Gay and the London Theatre

John Gay and the London Theatre

Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 232
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    John Gay and the London Theatre
    Book Description:

    The Beggar's Opera, often referred to today as the first musical comedy, was the most popular dramatic piece of the eighteenth century -- and is the work that John Gay (1685-1732) is best remembered for having written. That association of popular music and satiric lyrics has proved to be continuingly attractive, and variations on theOperahave flourished in this century: by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, by Duke Ellington, and most recently by Vaclav Havel. The original opera itself is played all over the world in amateur and professional productions.

    But John Gay's place in all this has not been well defined. His Opera is often regarded as some sort of chance event. InJohn Gay and the London Theatre, the first book-length study of John Gay as dramatic author, Calhoun Winton recognized theOperaas part of an entirely self-conscious career in the theatre, a career that Gay pursued from his earliest days as a writer in London and continued to follow to his death. Winton emphasizes Gay's knowledge of and affection for music, acquired, he argues, by way of his association with Handel.

    Although concentrating on Gay and his theatrical career, Winton also limns a vivid portrait of London itself and of the London stage of Gay's time, a period of considerable turbulence both within and outside the theatre. Gay's plays reflect in varying ways and degrees that social, political, and cultural turmoil. Winton's study sheds new light not only on Gay and the theatre, but also on the politics and culture of his era.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5936-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xvi)

    My guiding assumption in writing this book has been that most persons who know anything about the theatre in English know something aboutThe Beggar’s Opera—and that a great many of them cherish it as one of their favorite experiences in the drama. But as I have argued elsewhere, the very fame of John Gay’s masterpiece has so dominated the landscape of his reputation that many of those same theatregoers are not aware he wrote anything else. The book, then, is intended as an introduction to John Gay in his role as dramatic author, and to the theatre for...

  5. ONE Apprenticeship—A Prelude
    (pp. 1-10)

    It is a commonplace to refer to a playwright’s early efforts in the drama as his apprenticeship. In the case of John Gay his apprenticeship was his apprenticeship. His service, that is to say, as apprentice to Mr. Willet, a mercer in London’s Strand, selling neckcloths to fashionable customers, preceded his theatrical career and provided the Devon boy a view of the London stage from the gallery seats; he would never be inclined to idealize the drama or for that matter the London life around him from which that drama derived.¹ His poemTrivia: or, the Art of Walking the...

  6. TWO The Mohocks
    (pp. 11-25)

    In 1711, Aaron Hill was out of a job in the theatre. His secretary appears to have been examining his options that year, all of them, to his mind, literary. Gay provided a survey of the current periodicals, which were proliferating in London as literacy rose and authors and the printing establishment hastened to supply the demand for reading matter.¹ Many of these were conceived as imitations of Addison and Steele’s papers,The TatlerandThe Spectator. In his survey published in May 1711, which he entitledThe Present State of Wit, in a Letter to a Friend in the...

  7. THREE Chaucer in Augustan England
    (pp. 26-40)

    The hopes of Gay and his bookseller Lintott for a second edition ofThe Mohocksdid not materialize. At some point Gay, who naturally had more faith in his play than Lintott did, bought the copyright back for what Lintott had paid him.¹ The Drury Lane managers continued on their extremely conservative choice of repertory during the spring of 1712—not a single new play after Ambrose Philips’sThe Distrest Motherin March and only three all season. And the Mohocks suddenly stopped harrying pedestrians in Fleet Street, if they had ever been around there in the first place. Gay’s...

  8. FOUR Words and Music
    (pp. 41-59)

    The next several years after the death of Queen Anne in 1714 would be those in which Gay moved into his mature style as a farceur, paradoxical as the application of the term “maturity” to farce may seem. They would also be the years in which he received his final lessons as a librettist from the great master of the musical stage, Handel. By 1718 Gay was ready in all essentials to writeThe Beggar’s Opera:he had mined an apprentice’s knowledge of London lowlife forThe Mohocks, he had learned how to put together a full-length comedy, and a...

  9. FIVE False Starts
    (pp. 60-72)

    Gay was ready to writeThe Beggar’s Operaby 1718, in the respect that he possessed the artistic sensibility and experience to do so, but he did not write it. The point is worth reflecting upon. He was at a high point in his literary career:The Shepherd’s Week, Trivia, The What D’Ye Call Ithad all been gratifying successes; evenThree Hours after Marriageplayed to crowded houses until its untimely suppression. Then, like many another artist riding the crest of his good fortune, Gay tried something he could not do. In face of the fact that everything he...

  10. SIX The Beggar and His Opera
    (pp. 73-86)

    As if they were voicing confidence in Gay’s comic muse, the Drury Lane company playedThe What D’Ye Call Itas an afterpiece on 23 January 1724, the night afterThe Captivesclosed. It was a compliment, but the performance carried no financial reward, probably not even for the company, because, in the mysterious way of audience taste, pantomimes rather than farces were the entertainment paying customers wanted that season. Significantly, Gay was involved in the production of a pantomime recognizably kin toThe Beggar’s Opera, during the following theatrical season.

    Meanwhile, thoughout 1724 and the year following, Gay hunted...

  11. SEVEN The Beggar’s Opera in Theatre History
    (pp. 87-108)

    Hearing of Stella’s illness, Swift had departed for Dublin in September 1727. Before he left he had read scenes fromThe Beggar’s Opera, which was finished, if we can trust the text and dating of Gay’s letter to him,¹ by late October 1727. How long had it been in active preparation, one may ask, actually in the stage of composition, and what influenced Gay in writing it?

    Many years before, in the Scriblerian days of 1716, Swift had written to Pope about what Gay might do: “what think you of a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there?”² Swift...

  12. EIGHT The Opera as Work of Art
    (pp. 109-127)

    TheDaily Journalgot the matter right when it wrote of “Mr. Gay’s new English Opera” in the issue of 1 February 1728. Like all great works of art,The Beggar’s Operapossesses differing meanings for different members of the audience—every audience; its significance will not be exhausted in any single discussion. However, the three terms used by theJournal, new, English, and opera, provide convenient guideposts to what it was that Gay delivered to the reluctant—and soon to be gay—John Rich.

    There is nothing entirely new in the theatre, of course. Readers of this book will...

  13. NINE Polly and the Censors
    (pp. 128-144)

    Gay may have had a sequel in mind even while he was writingThe Beggar’s Opera. In Act III Macheath, facing execution, offers his female consorts some considered advice: “My dearLucy—My dearPolly—Whatsoever hath past between us is now at an end.—If you are fond of marrying again, the best Advice I can give you, is to Ship yourselves off for theWest-Indies, where you’ll have a fair chance of getting a Husband a-piece; or by good Luck, two or three, as you like best” (III.xv.1-6). The West Indies turn out to be the setting for...

  14. TEN Last Plays
    (pp. 145-168)

    Gay’s health had taken a turn for the worse in the winter of 1728–29. “I am but just recover’d,” he wrote Swift in March, “from the severest fit of sickness that ever any body had who escap’d death.”¹ The faithful Queensberrys nursed him at their house in Burlington Gardens and took him in their entourage to Edinburgh in the spring of 1729, after he had supervised the publication ofPolly. There he met the poet Allan Ramsay, who would eventually write an elegy for Gay in tribute to his use of the ballad tradition:

    To him …

    We awe...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 169-170)

    Gay witnessed the great triumph of hisBeggar’s Operaand saw it alter dramatic practice, but he was not content simply to savor his winnings. From the beginning of his literary career to the end of his life, the theatre fascinated him. Experiment came naturally to him, but experiment was viewed suspiciously in his theatre, and many of his experiments went on the rocks.

    A play about street gangs, with music? Too controversial by half in 1712. Bernstein and Sondheim would do one later. Film might have been his salvation; he was grasping for its equivalent inAcis and Galatea...

  16. APPENDIX A: “Were the Mohocks Ever Anything More than a Hairstyle?”
    (pp. 171-173)
  17. APPENDIX B: Gay’s Payment for the Opera
    (pp. 174-174)
  18. Reference Abbreviations
    (pp. 175-177)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 178-200)
  20. Index
    (pp. 201-214)