British Dramatists from Dryden to Sheridan

By George Henry Nettleton; Arthur Eillicot Case | Go to book overview

BALLAD OPERA

OPERA in England was partly a natural development of the Elizabethan masque and partly the result of the caution of D'Avenant, who, desiring to revive the theater in spite of the Commonwealth's ban, produced The Siege of Rhodes ( 1656) as a piece 'made a representation by the art of prospective in scenes, and the story sung in recitative music.' Throughout the Restoration English opera was a familiar, although not a dominating feature of the dramatic world, provoking only occasional grumbles from the adherents of the spoken drama. Various English authors, including Dryden, tried their hands in this form of art. In 1705, however, an uproar was caused by the production of two Italian operas: Arsinoë, translated from the Italian and set to new music by an English composer, Thomas Clayton, at Drury Lane; and Camilla, with the original music by Buononcini, and with the text partly in Italian and partly in English, at the Haymarket. English authors and actors who saw themselves thus supplanted by foreigners were indignant, and they were promptly supported by almost the entire body of critics. The novelty and artificiality of the Italian style attracted the upper classes, however, and the new entertainment survived, with varying fortunes, all attempts to drive it from the stage. Attacks were made upon it in periodicals (notably the Spectator), in pamphlets, in burlesques (the earliest, apparently, being Richard Est court 's Prunella, 1708), and by means of competitive English operas, among which may be mentioned Addison's unsuccessful Rosamund ( 1706). Händel and Buononcini, at first strong props of Italian opera, eventually settled in England and composed music for English texts, a turn of events which served to moderate the storm of adverse criticism, since English composers were not so vocal in their protests against foreign competition as were English authors. Even so, there was enough patriotic discontent with 'outlandish' art and artists to provide a receptive audience for the greatest of all the counterblasts against the intruders -- The Beggar's Opera.

JOHN GAY ( 1685-1732) had, during his early days of authorship, written a good deal of verse, the basis of his early reputation, some prose, and several works in dramatic form, none of them very successful. In some of these music had been used, and one ( Acis and Galatea), which is alleged by two centuries of tradition to have been written by him in the early 1720's, is an operatic text which was eventually set to music by Händel and performed in the year of Gay's death. The Beggar's Opera grew out of several convergent ideas, of which the antipathy to Italian opera was but one: an even more cogent one was the satirizing of the court circle by comparing it with the underworld. The germ of the opera seems to have been Swift's suggestion that Gay should write a series of Newgate pastorals, carrying on the burlesque of the pastoral tradition which he had so skilfully begun in The Shepherd's Week. The most original thing about The Beggar's Opera was the author's use of well-known English ballad airs for the large majority of his songs: by this device he guaranteed the popularity of his piece on the musical side, and at the same time enlisted the national prejudices of his audience and struck a blow at foreign opera.

The Beggar's Opera was phenomenally successful. It had sixty-two performances between January 29 and June 19, 1728, of which thirty-two were consecutive. It quickly became the talk of the fashionable world; pictures of its scenes and characters decorated screens, fans, and playing-cards; the actors were lionized; and both the author and the manager, John Rich, profited handsomely. The popular bon mot had it that the opera had made Gay rich and Rich gay. The latter deserved his good fortune: he had taken up the play after Cibber had rejected it, and he had the pleasure of seeing it advance his theater, Lincoln's Inn Fields, to unquestioned predominance. The success of the opera in 1728 was continued through the following season, during which

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