Tuesday, March 18, 2008

This Day in Literary History (John Gay)

March 18, 1729—Writing to friend and fellow satirist Jonathan Swift, playwright John Gay recounted a veritable physical plague of locusts that had afflicted him—“fever, asthma, and pleurisy”—as well as the reaction to his latest cause celebre: "For writing in the cause of virtue, and against the fashionable vices, I am looked upon at present as the most obnoxious person, almost, in England.”

The cause of all this commotion was The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a musical entertainment ostensibly featuring pickpockets, shoplifters and thieves which actually functioned as a none-too-disguised satire on the administration of Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister—and, with 20 years in office, probably still the master at using bribery to stay in power.

As Gay was writing to Swift, the sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, Polly, may have attracted the wrathful eye of Walpole, because the Lord Chamberlain flexed his muscle in banning it. As with other attempts at censorship over the years, all this action did was fan interest in the product. "You see my fortune (as I hope my virtue will) increases by oppression,” Gay informed Swift. “I go to no Courts, I drink no wine; and am calumniated even by Ministers of State; and yet am in good spirits.”

The new play brought in a good deal of money for Gay, who had only three years to live after this. However, that time was well-spent, under the affectionate (and, I think more important, rich) patronage of the Duchess of Queensberry.

In the course I took on Restoration literature at Columbia University more than a quarter-century ago, Gay did not impress me so much as his peers Swift or Alexander Pope. Even the LP (yes, this was the Neolithic Age!) of The Beggar’s Opera brought in by our estimable professor, Michael Seidel, did little to lift the playwright in my eyes. (My opinion of Gay rose somewhat after reading his Fables.)

But just think—without The Beggar’s Opera we would not have its cheerfully cynical Weimar Germany reworking, The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. And without that, we would not have Lotte Lenya (Weill’s muse and widow) as the diabolical Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love (or Mindy Sterling’s Frau Farbissina –closer to the real Lenya than to parody--in the Austin Powers movies); Louis Armstrong working his Dixieland magic on “Mack the Knife”; or, of course, spinning the same song, Bobby Darin (who is probably still blessing the show, somewhere beyond the sea).

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