Gay and Fielding: Absurdly Meant
THE APEX OF THE BAROQUE IN THE NEOCLASSICAL IN ENGLAND AND, indeed, all over Europe may have been the opera, with its ubiquitous classical subjects and settings and its baroque music. The Hanoverians brought Händel to the Haymarket. Like Pope and Swift before them, who objected in this new fad to what they viewed as sound without sense, the fellow Scriblerian John Gay (who wrote the libretto for Händel’s Acis and Galatea) and the Scriblerian wannabe Henry Fielding parodied this baroque/neoclassical mix with a delightful and absurd mix of their own, their ballad operas of the late 1720s and 1730s. In The Beggar’s Opera and The Author’s Farce, especially, by means of absurdity they satirized not only the degeneracy of taste but the deleterious effects of incipient capitalism upon cultural production and consumption.
When at the end of The Beggar’s Opera the Player complains to the Beggar that the intended ending of the play will violate the “Taste of the Town” (3.16), he sets in motion a baroque reflexive intervention that has profound consequences for the interpretation of not only Gay’s masterpiece but at least one of its imitations, Fielding’s Author’s Farce. Both plays present a strident critique of emergent Whig political economy, that is, of incipient capitalism, a critique that masquerades as “mere” or “sheer” entertainment. But the absurdly baroque reflexivity of Gay’s ending and of Fielding’s entire third act force us to reconsider the significance of that which has lulled us into the complacency of comic catharsis.
FIX IN THE BEGGAR’S OPERA
Gay’s seriousness is questionable: everything is undercut so
playfully and rapidly that the targets blend and the barbs fuse
into a general, seemingly tongue-in-cheek cynicism.
Richard W. Bevis, 1988