Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Charles Coffey and John Mottley: An Odd Couple in Grub Street

Academic journal article Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research

Charles Coffey and John Mottley: An Odd Couple in Grub Street

Article excerpt

Charles Coffey and John Mottley we remember together (if we remember them at all) as co-creators of The Devil to Pay, the ballad opera that, when transferred to the continent, became a precursor of the Singspiel genre and thus eventually of Mozart's wonderful Magic Flute (for this later history, see Rubsamen and Van Boer). This success earned each a place in the Dictionary of National Biography. Working on them for the NeM' DNB revision, I have been struck by the contrast of their approach to writing for a livelihood, how their differences in personality and class aspiration affect their readiness to be identified with their work.

Though we remember Coffey and Mottley-or perhaps just Coffey alone-as the authors of The Devil to Pay, its genesis was in fact more complicated (more like that of the modem opera Candide), as was explained by the anonymous author of A Compleat List Of all the English Dramatic Poets, and of All the Plays ever printed in the English Language, to the Present Year M,DCC,XLVII:

Mr. Coffey's Name is printed to it, but it is a difficult Matter to say who it properly belongs to. The Foundation and best Part of it is a Farce of three Acts called, A Comical Transformation, or The Devil of a Wife, wrote by Jevon the Player; and some People doubted if that, at the Time it first came out, was not partly wrote by his Brother-in-law, Shadwell, the Poet Lauréat; it was performed in the Year 1686. Fortyfour Years after, viz. in the Year 1730, Mr. Coffey and Mr. Mottley took each of them one Act and a half of this Farce, and altering some part of the Dialogue, and adding Songs, called it a Ballad-Opera, and gave it the Name of The Devil to Pay. It was performed in the Summer Season, in three Acts, but some Part of it not pleasing, particularly the Part of a Non-Conforming Pastor, performed by Mr. Chark, who never acted any Thing before, it was cut shorter, that Part left out, and so reduced to one Act, which was done by Mr. Theophilus Cibber, one new Song was added by his Father Mr. Colleye Cibber, another introduced that was wrote by Lord Rochester above fifty Years before; so that we see about six Authors concerned in this one little Piece.

Mr. Coffey, and the other Gentlemen concerned with him in altering Jevon'?, Farce, who did not choose to have his Name appear in it, could not expect the same Advantages as from a new Play, and so instead of having the Third, they had not their Benefit till the three and thirtieth Night, and then paid seventy Pounds for it; but there was a most prodigiously crouded House, and chiefly in ready Money, which shews how ready the Town are to reward those who have the good Fortune to please them. ("Mr. Charles Coffey," Compleat List 199200)

As an afterpiece The Devil to Pay had a sensationally successful history in London, quite worthy of note apart from its fame abroad. The London stage and publication histories of this piece have been extensively examined by Arthur H. Scouten and Leo Hughes in several joint publications and of course set out day by day at length in the London Stage} What interests me here is the contrast between the two collaborators that is suggested in the passage I have quoted. It is the same individual, Mottley, who for unexplained reasons "did not choose to have his Name appear in it," yet whose equal share in the revision is insisted upon here, and who almost certainly wrote this passage declaring his authorship. The compiler five years later of the next such handlist, The British Theatre. Containing the Lives of the English Dramatic Poets; -with an Account of all their Plays,2 first notes the probable identity of his predecessor: Mottley "has published [...] I believe the last Account of the Dramatic Poets, which we may guess by the length of his own Life" (160), especially, one might add, in view of his minor place among British playwrights. The unusual abundance of details and indulgence in extra-theatrical anecdote in the Compleat List's Mottley article do suggest a special intimacy between author and subject. …

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