Essays on Politics and Literature

By Bernard Crick | Go to book overview

Eighteen
Polly By Gaslight

From the Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 March, 1982.

'There is a young ingenious Quaker in this town who writes verses to his mistress . . . It gave me a hint that a Quaker pastoral might succeed if our friend Gay could fancy it . . . pray hear what he says . . . Or what think you of a Newgate pastoral among the whores and thieves there?' ( Swift to Pope, 1716).

'There is in it such a labefactation of all principles as may be injurious to morality' ( Johnson, 1775.) 'I should be very sorry to have the Beggar's Opera suppressed; for there is in it so much of real London life.' (Boswell, 1775).

It was meet, right and proper that so many of the cast of the current 'smash hit' revival of Guys and Dolls should be transported from the Olivier into the Lilliputian Cottesloe for the Beggar's Opera, though by design as well as good fortune they neither guyed it nor dolled it. For Gay Beggar's Opera is the mother of them all: ballad operas, music dramas, dramas with song and the modern musical. And until the work of Benjamin Britten, it was our truly national 'opera', both in the beauty and vitality of the folk melodies and in the satire of obsessive social class. Also, like the modern musical, it was highly speculative economically. Boswell records the Duke of Queensbury saying, when Gay showed him the text: 'This is a very odd thing, Gay; I am satisfied that it is either a very good thing or a very bad thing.' Congreve is supposed to have said: 'it will either take greatly or be damned confoundedly'; and Pope wrote to Swift (as close friends of Gay) that 'it will make a great noise, but whether of Claps or Hisses I know not'. Swift told Gay, perhaps with friendly exaggeration, that it was as great a satire on mankind as Gulliver.

Colley Cibber, the arbiter of fashion, refused it at Drury Lane, fearing that both its politics and its burlesque of Italian opera would offend the fashionable, but John Rich, a much more dour

-245-

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Essays on Politics and Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vi
  • Acknowledgements viii
  • Foreword ix
  • One - Literature and Politics 1
  • Two - The Political in Britain's Two National Theatres 20
  • Notes 47
  • Three - Young Writers of the Thirties 48
  • Four - Koestler's Koestler 62
  • Five - Hannah Arendt: Hedgehog or Fox? 72
  • Six - Beatrice Webb as English Diarist 78
  • Seven - Words 85
  • Notes 92
  • Eight - My LSE 93
  • Nine - Reading The Observer as a complex text 106
  • Notes 116
  • Ten - On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in? General and of Orwell's in particular 117
  • Eleven - Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four As Satire 133
  • Notes 163
  • Twelve - Animal Farm For Schools 166
  • Thirteen - Orwell and English Socialism 192
  • Notes 207
  • Fourteen - On the Orwell Trail 209
  • Notes 224
  • Fifteen - Wedekind's 'Spring Awakening' 225
  • Sixteen - Horvath's 'Tales From the Vienna Woods' 231
  • Seventeen - Pinter's 'No Man's Land' 239
  • Eighteen - Polly By Gaslight 245
  • Nineteen - David Edgar Catches Peter Jenkins' Ear at the Barbican 251
  • Twenty - Barrault at the Barbican 254
  • Index 257
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