Jun 302015


Today is the birthday (1685) of John Gay, an English poet and dramatist, and member of the Scriblerus Club (whose core included Gay’s friends Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope.). He is best remembered for The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a ballad opera that lampooned both Italian opera and contemporary English society. For a period of about three years I lived, breathed, and dreamed The Beggar’s Opera when I produced it for a Catskills (New York) opera company (my humble self playing Macheath). I felt the need to introduce contemporary audiences to the 18th century ballad opera through a series of stage productions I wrote – notably The Beggar’s Prologue (mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor, baritone) – before springing the full production on local audiences. Many, many of the tunes have a fascinating history in their own right. Take the tune for “Cease Your Funning,” for example, which I have in 56 settings from Purcell to Britten. It can be found as a hymn tune (Westminster), a string quartet, an aria, a morris dance tune (in at least 12 variants, major and minor), and so on. Why it was endlessly popular baffles me. Here’s Beethoven’s setting of it – mysteriously labeled a “Scottish Song” (op.156#5):


The work took satiric aim at the passionate interest of the upper classes in Italian opera, and simultaneously set out to lampoon the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. It also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and prostitutes with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” Gay’s essential point is that corruption is corruption whatever level of society you are looking at – the only difference being that the upper classes get away with it and the lower classes get hanged. Things haven’t changed much since Gay’s time !!


The Beggar’s Opera opens with Peachum, a fence, justifying his actions by comparing them with those of politicians. Mrs. Peachum, overhearing her husband blacklisting of unproductive thieves, protests regarding one of them, Bob Booty (the nickname of Robert Walpole). The Peachums then discover that Polly, their daughter, has secretly married Macheath, the infamous highwayman, who is Peachum’s principal client. Upset to find out that he will no longer be able to use Polly in his business, Peachum and his wife ask how Polly will support such a husband “in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring.” Nevertheless, they conclude that the match may make sense if the husband can be killed for his money. They leave to carry out this errand. Meanwhile Macheath enters and in learning of her parents’ scheme to sell him to the authorities, decides to go into hiding (although, in truth, his main aim is to avoid the consequences of his marriage to Polly).


Macheath goes to a tavern where he is surrounded by his gang and then by women of dubious virtue who, despite their class, compete in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Macheath discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and he becomes a prisoner in Newgate prison. The prison is run by Peachum’s associate, the corrupt jailer Lockit. His daughter, Lucy Lockit, has the opportunity to scold Macheath for having agreed to marry her and then broken this promise. She tells him that to see him tortured would give her pleasure. Macheath pacifies her, but Polly arrives and claims him as her husband. Macheath tells Lucy that Polly is crazy. Lucy helps Macheath to escape by stealing her father’s keys. Her father learns of Macheath’s promise to marry her and worries that if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune might be subject to Peachum’s claims. Lockit and Peachum discover Macheath’s hiding place and agree to split his fortune.


Meanwhile, Polly visits Lucy to try to reach an agreement, but Lucy tries to poison her. Polly narrowly avoids the poisoned drink, and the two girls find out that Macheath has been recaptured owing to the duplicity of the inebriated Mrs Diana Trapes. They plead with their fathers for Macheath’s life. However, Macheath now finds that four more pregnant women each claim him as their husband and declares that he is ready to be hanged. The narrator (the Beggar), notes that although in a properly moral ending Macheath and the other villains would be hanged, the audience demands a happy ending, and so Macheath is reprieved, and all are invited to a dance of celebration, to celebrate his wedding to Polly.


The opera does not create the sensation these days that it did when it was first produced, largely because the language is difficult for modern audiences, and the tunes that were popular in their time are now not well known. But, with suitable staging, these difficulties can be overcome. The underlying story and themes remain current, and the opera has been reworked many times to a greater or lesser extent. Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera is the most well known reworking. Go here for my appraisal: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-threepenny-opera/ Even Brecht and Weill are now rather stale although their “Mac the Knife” still has currency as a classic cabaret piece. Revivals of The Beggar’s Opera still fill theaters because its basic social and political critique – rather depressingly – never loses its force.


Curiously Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery (1st ed. 1747) resonates with the class themes of The Beggar’s Opera. From her introduction:

I Believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet though worth their while to write upon … If I have not wrote in the high polite style, I hope I shall be forgiven ; for my intention is to instruct the lower sort, and therefore must treat them in their own way … So as in many other things in cookery, the great cooks have such a high way of expressing themselves, that the poor girls are at a loss to know what they mean.


As Gay decried the high-flown style of Italian opera, so Glasse lampoons the manners of Frenchified chefs, preferring plain and simple cooking instead. However, most of her recipes are incomprehensible to the modern cook. Take this one – one of my favorites:

LARKS, roast them, and for Sauce have Crumbs of Bread; done thus: Take a Sauce-pan or Stew-pan and some Butter; when melted, have a good Piece of Crumb of Bread, and rub it in a clean Cloth to Crumbs, then throw it into your Pan; keep stirring them about till they are Brown, then throw them into a Sieve to drain, and lay them round your Larks.

Not a clue what she is on about. Best I can imagine is that you roast little birds whole and serve them with a pan gravy thickened with bread crumbs. Her meat pie recipes are hilarious. Something on the order of “put strips of bacon in a dish, layer on some steak, then more bacon, then a chicken if you feel like it (or possibly a hare), add gravy (not to mention more bacon), top with a crust and bake.”

I do like her recipe for asparagus, though, which I will paraphrase for you:

Peel the green part of a bunch of asparagus so that only the white part remains. Cut them all the same length and poach them gently so that they remain a little crisp. Toast thick rounds of bread with the crusts removed. Pour a little of the cooking water over the toast along with some melted butter. Lay the asparagus on top of the toast and serve with a dish of drawn butter on the side.

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