Monday, March 1, 2010

The Beggar's Opera

I ran into this play researching the English Regency period. John Gay wrote this ballad opera, a satiric play set to music, in 1728. Almost 100 years later, it was still a top draw in English theatres, which is why I ran into it for the Regency.

The music was stolen from popular tunes of the day (much like rap music is now).  The words were different, but anyone with an ear on London streets could hum along instantly.

Jack Wild
The Beggar's Opera is about London's criminal class. The material comes in particular from that first gentleman of Georgian-Era organized crime, Jack Wild. Jack Wild specialized in stealing from the rich, going to them as a private detective, and recovering the goods for a considerable fee. Sometimes, he arranged to have the robber (that he had hired in the first place) sent to Newgate prison. The rich paid this "thief-taker" very well, until they figured out the scam. London's slums were so poor, Wild never had trouble finding people to work for him, betrayer that he was. You wanted to be useful to him. That was the way to stay out of Newgate.

With this play, Gay satirized the rich by making fun of their love of opera, and their quest for good marriages (for dowry, income, connections) on the "Marriage Mart". He simultaneously poked fun at the criminal poor by making them the subject of his play. Maybe he was a little like Jack Wild himself.

Then Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote the Threepenny Opera as a kind of homage to John Gay. Thus "Mack the Knife" is a cultural descendant to the ditties in the Beggar's Opera.

One Naughty Ditty
At the beginning, Polly Peachum is unmarried and a virgin, flirting in bars for tips. It's an open family goal that she is to marry the richest crook the Peachums can swindle, and then prostitute herself thereafter. (much like the noble class, in fact). Unfortunately, she falls into the hands of a rogue, and gave away for sentiment what should have been worth some number of shillings:

When young at the bar  you first taught me to score,
And bid me be free of my lips and no more;
I was kiss'd by the parson, the squire, and the sot.
When the guest was departed, the kiss was forgot.
But his kiss was so sweet, and so closely he press'd
That I languished and pin'd till I gave him the rest.

Her parents are scandalized. Those family values-- ah, plans---

We are used to thinking the road to hell began in 1968. Yet somehow, this three-hundred year old play has so many insights for today. Here's one:  It's not whether you love your family. It's about what your family loves, too, and the ways it passes down through its generations.

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