Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Value of "Nothing": Ballads in the Beggar's Opera

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Value of "Nothing": Ballads in the Beggar's Opera

Article excerpt

In John Brewer's recent but already influential The Pleasures of the Imagination, The Beggar's Opera serves as a central example of the "borrowing and pastiche" used by eighteenth-century artists to respond to a "new cultural world."1 seeking to master a "heterogeneous world of high, low and commercial art" that emerged in place of the Court, John Gay cobbled his play together out of genres ranging from Grub Street's criminal biographies to the operas that entranced the English elite (432). But "inter-textuality," according to Brewer, exacted a terrible "vengeance" (440-41). By poaching Gay's characters and songs for playing-cards and other merchandise, the market sapped the force of the play's critique. While Gay may have hoped to "transcend the commercial culture he wrote about by means of satiric distance and deliberate irony.... the forces that Gay portrayed-the commercial system of fragmenting, copying, and reproducing-snatched The Beggar's Opera back" (448-49).

Brewer models a critical approach I want to build on and critique in the following pages by focusing on a particular genre at the heart of Gay's workthe popular songs he uses instead of high operatic arias. Recent cultural history productively foregrounds the self-consciousness with which elite authors of this era engaged with an emergent literary marketplace that challenged prevenient high-low distinctions. But Gay's incorporation of the ballad also shows that the terms these critics provide cannot do justice to the complexity of his encounter with popular song. It is, for example, revealing that Brewer begins with the triad "high, low and commercial" but then reduces it to a binary conflict between Gay and "commercial culture." A similar reduction marks Peter Stallybrass and Allon White's often-cited The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, in which they claim that elite eighteenth-century authors established their high status by "bid[ding] farewell to the street" and the "dirty" commercial culture associated with it, embracing instead a putatively disinterested aesthetic position.2 Recent scholarship on "The Ballad Revival" exhibits a related problem: Though focusing usefully on the appropriation of minstrel ballads and traditional ballads by Thomas Percy and others, these scholars repeat the exclusions of their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century subjects by ignoring the ubiquitous broadside ballads used by Gay and many other authors.3 These are the songs that inform a definition of the ballad published the same year as The Beggar's Opera is first performed. "Song, commonly sung up and down the Streets."4 While not the broadside's only home, it carried the street's knowingness, energy, and stigma as it moved back and forth between street, court, stage, and songbook.5 A close look at Gay's incorporation of the ballad and a brief comparison of it with those by Thomas D'Urfey and Joseph Addison reveal that their gesture toward "the street" is more complex than a wave farewell for the cleaner environs of elite aesthetic disinterest.6

The Beggar's Opera can be boiled down to its epigraph, which translates as "We know these things to be nothing."7 That negating knowledge implicates not only the play's predatory thieves and whores but also the multiple satirical targets lying beyond the precincts of its stylized underworld, whether Robert Walpole, corrupt aristocrats, stockjobbers, the penal system, or his era's political and economic system as a whole.8 And understanding the play's leveling message requires attention to how it is refracted by another thing often valued at "nothing"-the ballads dismissed as worthless by most elite authorities. The ballad's absorptive power animates a model of subjectivity that is at once "round" and "fiat," and both aspects challenge elite self-regard. On one hand, the songs encourage the audience to sympathize with characters they imagine as lower, like Polly Peachum, the daughter of thieves who believes in love, and her beloved Macheath, a highwayman who fancies himself a gentleman. …

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