John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”

Although Jonathan Swift suggested that John Gay write a pastoral or neo-pastoral poem satirizing events in England at the time, especially Newsgate, and although Gay had such an intention in mind, the final product was neither a pastoral poem or prose nor a neo-pastoral prose or poem. What resulted was a farce, a deep belly shaking hysterical operatic drama. Sven Armens admits that Gay often attempted numerous times but failed to write in the traditional (neo-pastoral or pastoral) style that required propagation of serious thought. However, Armens concedes that Gay succeeded admiraby in “distorting this genre for his own purpose” (Armens 6).

Therefore, Gay may have intended to create a serious piece of work to revolutionize events in England and elsewhere, but what he ended up revolutionizing was the genre of opera. He created a new genre far from the traditional allegorical pastoral of the time. Incidentally, the drama, The Beggar’s Opera begins and ends with the Beggar and the Player commiserating on the play, on follies, and on the logistics of how the play should be presented. The Player presents the argument that an opera ends happily; if the Beggar should truly hang Macheath, then it would not be an opera indeed because the audience requires a happy ending.

An opera is a privilege for the wealthy. The title alone gives one the impetus to ponder at the audacity of a beggar hosting an opera. Therein begins the satire and compounds with all sorts of human follies that Gay brings to light. All the characters are flawed. All normal morals and norms are turned upside down, a reversal. Gay borrows liberally two types of satiric tones: Juvenalian (biting sarcasm) and Horatian (gentle teasing). He also takes the play to the extreme of absurdity.

Gay employs several devices of sarcasm: irony, exaggeration, incongruity, parody, and reversal. The Beggar frequents the slum and is proud of his association with the men there. He is welcome to dine and has a room there whenever he visits. While the Beggar’s opera is a farce, he mocks the established form of opera and has the temerity to castigate tradition. In defense of his opera, he informs the audience that his own show employs life and natural events and is real, unlike the real one which is now the fake one (Gay 1).

Gay fills his play with the names of Peachum’s band of thieves and other colorful and satirized characters: Peachum—to tell on others’ secrets or impeach him; Filch—to steal; Tom Gagg—(with one ‘g’) means a court order to stifle a person’s freedom of speech; Betty Sly—skilled in deception; and Black Moll—the girlfriend of a gangster. The other gang members are Jemmy Twitcher, Bob Booty, Crook-finger’d Jack, Wat Dreary, Robin of Bagshot, Nimming Ned, Henry Paddington, Matt of the Mint, and Ben Budge.

Gay lays out countless contradictions/contrasts and binaries: husband versus wife, priest/divine against the lawyer, the naïve against the hussy/slut, the good against the wicked, the norm against the abnormal (Gay 5). Gay’s satirical depiction turns societal norms against themselves. Marriage, that fine institution of morality that has saved the human race is ridiculed, debased, and is purported to be the downfall of the Peachum familily.

Whereas “slut” is used on loose women who choose not to get married, Gay reverses the situation and Polly Peachum is splattered with lewd names for getting married. By getting married, Polly has been ruined. “You know, Polly… If I find out that you have play’d the Fool and are married…I’ll cut your throat… Our Polly is a sad slut. You Baggage! you Hussy! you inconsiderate jade! Had you been hang’d, it would not have vex’d me” (5). Whereupon Mr. and Mrs. Peachum hatch a plan to ensure Polly’s widowhood; such is a better condition than staying married, they agree.

The perversity of the marriage situation is satirized further when one finds out that Mr. Peachum who condemns Polly’s husband, Captain Macheath, is himself a highwayman. It gets more ludicrous when it is exposed that Mr. Peachum runs a business of stolen goods brought to him by a large band of thieves who scrounge around town and steal other people’s belongings, even possessions from burning buildings.
It is evident that John Gay’s groundbreaking and trendsetting satire provided the impetus for hundreds of satirical musicals such as “Chicago” and others coming centuries later. It is a work of sheer genius, one that is yet to be paralleled or exceeded.

Realistic Fiction and Political Debate

What is the relationship between literature and politics? What should that relationship be? James T. Farrell asked these poignant and reverberative questions in his essay, “Literature and Ideology” (Farrell 1). I ask the same questions but channel mine specifically toward the genre of realistic fiction as I examine politics in the context of that literary genre. Realistic fiction paints a picture of events and characters as close to reality as possible. According to Farrell, writers have used literature as a weapon in class struggle (2). I agree with Farrell that fiction (as false as its name may imply) is an essential element in fighting for the narrator’s/author’s political views, even surreptitiously. I believe realistic fiction is the most effective tool in causing a revolution because of the depth of its platform, its deceptive nature, and its mass appeal. Before focusing on the three characteristics of realistic fiction, it is imperative to pause and offer a definition of literary genre, realistic fiction, and political debate.

Encyclopedia Britannica defines literary genre as “a distinctive type or category of literary composition (Das n.p.). Since no dictionary could offer a concise definition of the phrase, political debate, a condensed version of a definition would suffice. I believe that political debate is a discussion or an argument about political matters or a discussion of opposing political views. Since the focus in this section of our study is on realistic fiction, it is also imperative to offer a definition of that particular genre. From decades of teaching realistic fiction, I have gathered that it uses imaginary incidents and characters, and (sometimes) imaginary locations to portray similar and realistic events in our lives so that the reader could actually see himself or herself in the situation and recognize that such characters, such incidents, and such locations are relatable. Any topic under the sun and stars is a viable avenue for the realistic fiction writer to use as a medium to cause revolutions and change the world.

Literature (through realistic fiction) is “one of the arts which re-creates the consciousness and the conscience of a period. It tells us what has happened to man, what could have happened to him, and what man has imagined might happen to him” (Farrell 8). Because of the depth of its platform, the author of realistic fiction has no limit or page count. Passion has moved many writers to compose novels of hundreds of pages. Politics is a serious topic. In order to give political debate the honor it requires in realistic fiction, the author of realistic fiction needs to delve into the deepest realm of political issues and cause the world to turn on its axis.

Farrell states that authors can do so by “trying to smuggle ideology into literature” and thus seek to discuss and to enlighten people of serious matters in “an indirect and casual manner concerning the most serious problems which the human race faces” (6). These authors listed here were moved to unfurl their political ideologies; they sought to explore politics and wrote close to or over 300 pages: Ayn Ran’sAtlas Shrugged (1088 pages), Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (475 pages), Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (464 pages), Larry Beinhart’s Wag the Dog (392 pages), The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (384 pages), The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (311), Aldous Huxle’s Brave New World(288 pages), and George Orwell’s 1984, 279 pages (Wasson 3). These works show an inexhaustive evidence of passion, politics, and political debate mired in dialogue or stark.

By its deceptive nature, realistic fiction can morph into any genre and can have any genre embedded in it. While it seeks to entertain, it delivers a political jab, upper cut, and knock out of the offending government or political institution. Realistic fiction is transcendent. It is a chameleon. It is assimilative. Farrell recognizes its nature when he states that realistic fiction limps, even crawls behind events. “This is especially so in periods of great social crisis and of historic convulsion” (7). We could not possibly insert a realistic fiction novel into poetry, but the reverse happens all the time. Many a time, the line is blurred between realistic fiction and the other genres that attempt to portray realistic life such as historical fiction, mystery, science fiction (somewhat), drama, and narrative nonfiction or memoir. The words written in realistic fiction have the power to generate ideas, inspire revolutions, and change the way we view ourselves and our place in history (8).

As for its mass appeal, realistic fiction has had a lasting impact on people and cultures around the world. Realistic writers examine conditions and describe injustice, misery, and spiritual and material poverty. “The realistic novelist deals with the conditions which exist as they exist. The attempt to tell the truth in a precise, concrete, and uncompromising manner is demoralizing” (Farrell 8). The internationally renowned writers listed here changed the world with their pens and with their stand on political issues, with their beliefs, and with the works they created from fictional accounts. More than a few have won the Nobel Prize to prove it. Authors of international repute include William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henrik Ibsen,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Shakespeare (Bailey 24).

The realistic writer relies a great deal on his or her senses, imagination, intelligence, culture, and background to create a work of literature (Farrell 8). Realistic fiction solves political problems, even if it has to resort to allegory, symbolism, satire, parody, or any other form of bringing mankind’s folly or undesirable behavior to the fore in order to cause a change. Literature and its offshoot (realistic fiction) are a few of the most powerful means contrived by the human spirit to examine life and to cause ideological maneuvers and political revolutions. Without the restriction of space, the realistic fiction writer can explore any and all political issues in debates and outside of it.

Domestication Blunts the Edge of Revolution in Mary Barton 

In as much as many a workman or workwoman has a family, it is a known fact that revolutions are engineered by and are about workers, whether they are factory, domestic, scholarly, or industrial workers. Revolutions are not about the family. The critics who argued that Elizabeth Gaskell resolved the conflicts in Mary Barton by incorporating class violence into individual family scandal are incorrect. Gaskell did not resolve the conflicts for the families. As much as Gaskell sought to garner sympathy for the individual family, the drama was not and should not have been about the family; it was and should have been solely about the worker.

That Gaskell chose to domesticate the political revolution (while attempting to make it more personal) caused the edge of the novel to be blunt. The incidents that involved the worker were of sharpened and of focused interest to the reader. The worker, when not saddled by family, was happy:

[Excerpt 1] “She said in them she were very happy, and I believe she were. And Frank’s family heard he were in good work” (Gaskell 81).

Granted, revolutions can be personal, as in the personal interest of the worker, but it is more than that. It is much broader and much more political in nature and is not an arena for the family. Revolution is about the condition of the working person, not of the family. In the excepts below, each mention of the word, “family,” showed evidence of deliberate attempts by Gaskell to earn sympathy from the reader, but more so, it showed evidence of the family’s mismanagement of resources, of the family’s failure to practice population control/family planning, and of Gaskell’s attempt to cast the “master” in a bad light.

Evidence of lack of family planning/population control:

[Excerpt 2] “…In order that their only bed and bedding might be reserved for the use of their large family” (66)…

As Gaskell indicated, couples and lovers did not have any problems maintaining the wages they were paid or any problem having spontaneous fun:

[Excerpt 3] “Here and there came a sober quiet couple, either whispering lovers, or husband and wife, as the case might be; and if the latter, they were seldom unencumbered by an infant, carried for the most part by the father, while occasionally even three or four little toddlers had been carried or dragged thus far, in order that the whole family might enjoy the delicious May afternoon together” (5).

The men of business, the workers (when unencumbered by the family) seemed happy and knew how to portion his/her time and other resources for business and for pleasure: business came first so that the family can be taken care of:

[Excerpt 4] “There were happy family evenings, now that the men of business had time for domestic enjoyments” (45).

Jem Wilson rose in rank because he did not have a family to gulp his time and suffer his talent; he focused on his job and was able to invent a machine. After he was paid handsomely, the payment allowed him to save money for a rainy day. Even after his trial and acquittal for the murder of Harry Carson, and even after his co-workers refused to allow him to return to his job, Jem was able to find another job and did not have to worry about children at home needing to be fed, clothed, and catered to. In line with being unburdened, relocating to Canada or to elsewhere to find employment was not a problem for Jem; he did not have a family to strangle his ambition.

[Excerpt 5] “We have been written to by government, as I think I told you before, to recommend an intelligent man, well acquainted with mechanics, as instrument-maker to the Agricultural College they are establishing at Toronto, in Canada. It is a comfortable appointment,–house,–land,–and a good per-centage on the instruments made. I will show you the particulars if I can lay my hand on the letter, which I believe I must have left at home” (303).

Without hesitation or without the need to consult a wife, Jem responded immediately:

[Excerpt 6] “Thank you, sir. No need for seeing the letter to say I’ll accept it. I must leave Manchester; and I’d as lief quit England at once when I’m about it” (303).

Even the government, as Jem’s future employer, did not care about a family. The government’s concern was the worker, Jem:

[Excerpt 7] “They’ll never ask if the family goes upwards or downwards” (303).

[Excerpt 8] “Jem felt that it was a relief to have this point settled; and that he need no longer weigh reasons for and against his emigration” (303).

The Manchester labor union sent representative workmen to discuss terms with the Masters. During the negotiation, never was the family mentioned nor was there ever a negotiation between the Masters and the members of the representatives’ families:

[Excerpt 9] “So class distrusted class, and their want of mutual confidence wrought sorrow to both. The masters would not be bullied, and compelled to reveal why they felt it wisest and best to offer only such low wages; they would not be made to tell that they were even sacrificing capital to obtain a decisive victory over the continental manufacturers. And the workmen sat silent and stern with folded hands, refusing to work for such pay. There was a strike in Manchester” (135).

And there it was: A strike in Manchester! A strike between Masters and workmen.

(Sorry families, mine and others. I was assigned to argue against the family in this debate on revolution.)