Ideology & The Comic Aesthetic: John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera – Josh Mcloughlin

Josh Mcloughlin is co-founder & editor at Sonder Magazine.

 

The OED defines ‘Impersonation’ as ‘the action of impersonating or fact of being impersonated; representation in personal or bodily form; personification’ or ‘an instance of this; a person or thing impersonating or representing a principle, idea, etc’.[1]  The first definition makes impersonation the property of embodied subjects.  In the second, impersonation becomes impersonal: ‘things’ representing other abstract entities, ‘principle[s] [or] idea[s]’. Seen in this way, impersonation describes the process, grounded in resemblance, one thing ‘representing’ another. This alternative form of impersonation is central to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. Instead of dramatizing the impersonation of embodied characters, the play impersonates ‘serious’ theatre through its ‘ballad opera’ form. The Beggar’s Opera collides popular and elite elements in order to defamiliarise the hierarchy of cultural forms and social positions which situate ‘high’ aesthetics and the subjects which consume them over and above their ‘low’ counterparts. Rather than reversing that hierarchy, installing low over high, Gay collapses distinctions between serious and comic, radically critiquing the social organisation on which that hierarchy is built and which it sustains.  Whilst critics have noted play’s collision of ‘high’ and ‘low’ elements, recent scholarship sees Gay as apolitical.[2] This essay will demonstrate how recent criticism sees Gay as refusing to challenge the hierarchical dynamic of high/low and serious/comic forms, viewing Gay’s drama as satirical, but never suggestive of alternative ways of seeing and speaking about the world.

The Beggar’s Opera: Recent Scholarship

Contemporary criticism sees The Beggar’s Opera as satirical, but politically inconsequential. For Robert D. Hume, although  ‘many thousands of Londoners saw The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 [and] some may have come away reflecting on its unsettling social and philosophical implications, I suspect that most went home feeling amused and humming a tune’.[3] Hume reduces Gay’s play to mere ‘amuse[ment]’ offering no alternative to the culture it depicts. For Dianne Dugaw, ‘Gay both use[s] and reveal[s] an emerging fixation on cultural markers of social rank […] as plebeian materials are brought by Gay to comment on ‘polite’ opera, drama and literature’.[4] Noting Gay’s concern with social and cultural forms, Dugaw, more usefully than Hume’s flippant, underlines Gay’s ‘modern understanding of social class’.[5] However, like Hume, Dugaw ultimately sees The Beggar’s Opera as apolitical, concluding, ‘[Gay’s] satiric renderings, however sceptical their warnings, nevertheless remain ambivalent and bemused’.[6] John Brewer extends this view, arguing that Gay ‘transcends the commercial culture he wrote about’ and, rather than intervening in it, constructs a ‘satiric distance’ from the world represented on-stage .[7] Hal Gladfelder usefully notes that ‘Gay […] act[s] ‘in a double Capacity’, both exposing the morally corrosive effects of the burgeoning commercial economy, and ideology, of eighteenth-century England and inviting us to question the validity of Peachum’s sweeping, cynical assertions’.[8] However, Gladfelder occupies a similar critical terrain to Dugaw, Hume and Brewer when he argues that ‘bleak, […] misanthropic satire’ is the logical consequence of Gay’s ‘disenchanted perspective on all social relationships’.[9] I agree with John Richardson, who argues, ‘critics have generally not focused upon the play’s form as part of its politics’. [10] However, whilst Richardson begins by suggesting Gay’s ‘complex resistance to seeing things as they are normally seen, and […] its consistently political use of form to defy existent language, perception, and attitude,’ he concludes:

 

[the play’s] response to power is evasive rather than combative, demonstrating to reader and watcher how to extricate oneself from the constrictions of power and ideology rather than how to oppose them. Because of that, the example of resistance it offers […] is limited.[11]

 

Richardson’s conviction that Gay seeks not to actively ‘oppose’ anything echoes Gladfelder’s use of the term ‘disenchanted’; whilst what Brewer calls Gay’s ‘satiric distance’ Dugaw names his ‘ambivalent and bemused’ attitude.  Much criticism, then, sees Gay’s comic blending of high/low as at best containing no sustained political critique, at worst as ‘nihilistic’.[12] I see The Beggar’s Opera as deeply political, not in spite of but because of its satirical, formal impersonation of ‘serious’ drama. The play utilises a comedy of formal impersonation to radically critique the opposition between high and low, comic and serious, in ways which refuse to simply rearticulate that binary structure in reverse.  Gay presents a different world, resembling eighteenth-century London but impersonating it. To the extent that the distinctions between them are radically dismantled in the opera, concepts such as high/low, serious/popular cease to be accurate markers for aesthetic forms or social subjects, and thus the structures that guarantee the intelligibility of those forms and subjects begins to unravel. Before I read Gay, however, I will discuss some theories of the comic in order to establish the link between comedy and subversion.

Gay’s Comedy: Theory and Politics

 For Sigmund Freud, who says, ‘humour has something liberating in it […] humour is not resigned, it is rebellious’, the comic always desires to organise differently the world to which it refers.[13] For Simon Critchley, comedy constitutes ‘a disjunction between the way things are and the way they are represented in the joke. […] The comic world is not simply the inverted or upside down world of philosophy, but rather the world with its causal chains broken, it social practices turned inside out, and common sense rationality left in tatters’.[14] The comic world, instead of overturning the serious world, defamiliarises it, breaking the natural, ‘causal’ connections on which society is organised and taken for granted in order, as Freud says, to ‘liberat[e]’ it. When Dugaw sees Gay as ‘ambivalent and bemused’ and Gladfelder Gay’s satire as ‘misanthropic’, both critics assert the apathy The Beggar’s Opera, denying the liberatory impulse Freud says inheres in every instance of humour. The social organisation which Critchley calls ‘common sense rationality,’ T.J Clark calls ‘a set of permitted modes of seeing and saying’ in society, and both critics are describing ideology.[15] In this sense, any appeal to ‘common sense’ – the usual ‘mode of seeing and saying’ – is straight away ideological. Louis Althusser has written that ‘the specific function of the work of art is to make visible (donner à voir), by establishing a distance from it, the reality of the existing ideology’.[16] Insofar as the comic world leaves ‘common sense rationality […] in tatters’, it too ‘establishes a distance from […] the reality of the existing ideology’, and ‘make[s] visible’ – or defamiliarises – the ‘modes of seeing and saying’ upon which the world is organised. As Mary Douglas confirms, ‘a joke is a play upon form that affords an opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity’.[17] Gay’s joke is also a ‘play upon form’, and his ‘ballad opera’ combines comic and serious elements to defamiliarise the ‘accepted pattern’ of high and low cultural forms through an impersonation of the latter by the former. That hierarchical world is reimagined in Gay’s drama in the same way Freud and Critchley’s joke reimagines the world to which it refers and that re-imagination is radically political.

The Beggar’s Opera: Gay’s Egalitarian Vision

Gay’s form-play need not be seen, like Dugaw, as a disinterested satire for satire’s sake, ‘at once genial and wry’, above all ‘indetermina[te]’.[18] Instead, Gay uses humour and dramatic form as techniques for the re-presentation of a new order in which the very terms of hierarchical organisation – both social and cultural – are reorganised. Where Dugaw sees ‘ambivalence,’ I see a radical defamiliarisation or de-centering of the way in which society is organised and perceived.  The Beggar’s Opera impersonates Italian opera seria, the dominant form of drama in eighteenth-century London. Brewer says, ‘most of the works [performed] were opera seria, classical tales of moral import’.[19] Ian Woodfield likewise notes ‘the unchallenged place of Italian opera at the heart of the social and musical world of the English aristocracy’.[20] Opera seria, then, represents the ‘unchallenged’ ‘common-sense rationality’ of dramatic entertainment in eighteenth-century English cultural life. Employing operatic techniques in such a way that opera comes to mock itself through a collision with popular modes, Gay mounts such a challenge. In Air 38, Lucy sings:

 

Why how now madam Flirt?

                        If you thus must chatter;

                        And are for flinging dirt

                        Let’s try who best can spatter….[21]

Here Gay tells the kind of joke Douglas describes, ‘afford[ing] an opportunity for realising that an accepted pattern has no necessity.’ The ‘accepted pattern’ Gay engages with is the hierarchical distinction between the ‘high’ opera seria and ‘low’ popular entertainment. ‘Dirt’ here is delivered coloratura, which is an ‘elaborate ornamentation of a vocal melody’ common to Italian opera, and comes from the Latin ‘to colour’. [22] Gladfelder terms this elaboration melisma – singing one syllable whilst moving between notes – but here it is less the vocal range and more the fact of ‘ornamentation’ which is emphasised.[23] In any case, The Beggar’s Opera apes Italiante opera: the direct borrowing of Italian operatic performance techniques amount to a parodic impersonation of ‘serious’ form. Lucy’s delivery subverts Italianate performance through a comic grafting of a ‘beggar’s’ content into the formal device of operatic coloratura. Paying attention to content, the lyric itself, ‘dirt’, invisibly ironises the etymology of the Italian term for the method of its delivery. ‘Dirt’ and ‘colour’ here occupy the same space.  Crucially, dirt does not replace colour; the comic world does not overturn the serious world of Italian opera to install the beggars above their ‘serious’ Italian counterparts. As Critchley says, ‘the comic world is not simply the inverted or upside down world of philosophy, but rather the world with its causal chains broken, it social practices turned inside out, and common sense rationality left in tatters’.[24]  The play is not what Gladfelder terms, at one extreme, ‘misanthropic’; nor is it what Dugaw terms, at the other extreme, ‘indetermina[te]’ and ‘ambivalen[t]’. Rather Gay’s collision of high/low, in producing the formal hybrid ‘ballad opera’, makes the t political suggestion that society can exist without the kind oppositional conflict between aesthetic modes and the subjects who consume them. To return to the question, the formal impersonation of The Beggar’s Opera collapses aesthetic and social distinctions – high and low, serious and comic subject matter, elite and popular subjects – and re-presents them as occupying the same conceptual space, that is, as equal. Gay represents a new world where apparently oppositional elements might be organised in terms of reconciled differences and conceptual commensurability rather than hierarchical conflict.

For Critchley the total comic effect is a culmination of many ‘miniature strategies of defamiliarization,’ and Gay’s ‘miniature strategies’ are numerous. In the ‘introduction’, the Beggar conflates ‘Poverty’ and ‘Poetry’, bringing low and high onto an equal footing. More importantly, the egalitarian relationship between the Beggar and the Player rearticulates that aesthetic commensurability in terms of the relationship between embodied subjects. Both adapt a vocabulary of unanimity: ‘we’ and ‘us’, ‘our two Ladies’ (p.4). If there is disagreement between the two over the play’s denouement, it is quickly resolved: ‘Your Objection Sir, is very just; and is easily removed’ says the Beggar (III.V). The resolution of the Beggar’s impulse to stage an ending fit for ‘down-right deep Tragedy’ and the Player’s invocation that ‘opera must end happily’ not only resolves two apparently opposing aesthetic codes, the comic and the tragic, but stands for the equality of Player and Beggar, elite and popular subjects, who mutually produce the play and resolve their differences without the conflict insinuated by the hierarchical organisation of social and cultural/aesthetic difference which Gay’s play impersonates.

The stage direction for Air 20, ‘March in Rinaldo, with drums and trumpets’ (II.III), repeats this collision of serious and comic. Like the use of coloratura or melisma in Lucy’s lyric, the stage direction indicates the comic blending of formal opera seria with popular lyrical content of the ‘boys’ in the ‘Gang’. ‘Rinaldo’ refers to Handel’s 1711 opera, a show arranged ‘possibly with Gay’s assistance’.[25] Importantly, Gladfelder notes, ‘Gay was no enemy of Italian opera and The Beggar’s Opera is not an attack’.[26] In other words, Gay’s ‘ballad opera’ does not seek to reverse a hierarchy of dramatic forms, installing the low over the high. Instead, like Lucy’s lyrical delivery and the relationship between the Beggar and the Player, Gay again brings together high and low elements in way which makes them commensurable,  mutually representative of a new order in which popular subjects might utilise elite dramatic forms, and in which opera seria ceases to be either a marker of authoritative superiority over – or a target for ‘attack’ in – comic drama.

Conclusion

Gay’s use of impersonation, relying not on subjective embodiment but formal re-presentation, is a radical form of joke-telling. The Beggar’s Opera has been treated as empty satire by much recent scholarship, which has ignored the play’s political potential by dismissing it as sardonic, but ‘indetermina[te]’; ‘amus[ing]’ but not especially motivated; critical, but ultimately ‘misanthropic’. I argue that The Beggar’s Opera offers a vision of a world in which the distinction between high/low is dismantled such that the hierarchical organisation of elite and popular forms and the subjects who consume them is radically reorganised: Gay envisages a world in which ‘high’ and ‘low’ are conceptually commensurable. The comic world of The Beggar’s Opera is not simply an inversion of the serious world of Italian opera, a new hierarchy. It is what Tony Bennett calls a ‘distancing from within’ and Althusser a ‘mak[ing] visible (donner a voir)’ of the ideology of high/low as antagonistic opposites and the social and aesthetic conflict that distinction perpetuates.[27] The impersonation which defamiliarises that world breaks the seemingly natural, ‘causal’ connections on which society is organised and taken for granted, allowing for its egalitarian re-presentation. Seen in this way, Gay’s formal impersonation is like Douglas’s conception of the joke as ‘a play upon form.’ Gay’s joke,  far from being ‘disenchanted,’ engages the ‘liberating’ and ‘rebellious’ potential Freud sees in humour to present a radical, egalitarian political vision.

 

Bibliography

Bennett, Tony Formalism and Marxism (London: Routledge, 2003)

Hume, Robert D. ‘London in Comedy from Michelmas Term to The Beggar’s Opera’, Modern Language Quarterly, 74 (2013), pp.331-162

Dugaw, Dianne. ‘Deep Play’: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity (London: Associated University Presses, 2001)

Brewer, John. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013)

Richardson, John. ‘John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera and Forms of Resistance’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 24 (2000), pp.19-30

Critchley, Simon. On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002)

Woodfield, Ian. Opera and Drama in Eighteenth-Century London: The King’s Theatre, Garrick and the Business of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Clark, T.J. The Painting of Modern Life (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985)

Douglas, Mary. Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1975)

Gladfelder, Hal (ed.),  John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera and Polly, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Humour’, trans. Joan Riviere, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9 (1), pp.1-6.

Citations

[1] OED, ‘impersonation’ (n.).

[2] I use the terms ‘politics’ and ‘political’ to describe those statements, techniques and representations which make normative claims about the way in which people, culture and meanings should be organised in society.

[3] Robert D. Hume, ‘London in Comedy from Michelmas Term to The Beggar’s Opera’, Modern Language Quarterly, 74 (2013), pp.331-162, p.357.

[4] Dianne Dugaw, ‘Deep Play’: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity (London: Associated University Presses, 2001), p.20.

[5] Dugaw, ‘Deep Play’, p.21.

[6] Dugaw, ‘Deep Play’, p.166.

[7] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), p.448.

[8] Hal Gladfelder, ‘Introduction’, in John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera and Polly, ed. Hal Gladfelder (Oxford, OUP 2013), p.xviii.

[9] Gladfelder, ‘Introduction’, p.xii;p.xxii.

[10] John Richardson, ‘John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera and Forms of Resistance’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 24 (2000), pp.19-30, p.19.

[11] Richardson, p.19;28.

[12] Gladfelder, ‘Introduction’, p.xviii.

[13] Sigmund Freud, ‘Humour’, trans. Joan Riviere, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 9 (1), pp.1-6, p.2.

[14] Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002), p.2.

[15] T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985), p.8.

[16] Louis Althusser, ‘A Letter on Art’, in Lenin and Philosophy and other essays, (trans.) Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971).

[17] Mary Douglas, Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge, 1975), p.96.

[18] Dugaw,  p.166.

[19] Richardson, p.292.

[20] Ian Woodfield, Opera and Drama in Eighteenth-Century London: The King’s Theatre, Garrick and the Business of Performance (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), p.1.

[21] Hal Gladfelder (ed.) John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (Oxford: OUP, 2013), (II.XIII) [subsequent references incorporated].

[22] OED Online: ‘coloratura’ (n.)

[23] Gladfelder, ‘Appendix’, p.171.

[24] Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002), p.2.

[25] Gladfelder, ‘Appendix’, p.168

[26] Gladfelder, ‘Introduction’, p.viii

[27] Tony Bennett, Formalism and Marxism (London: Routledge, 2003) p.34

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