Essay on The Beggar's Opera
On one level The Beggar's Opera can be seen as examining the evil of human behaviour in general terms, but it also is a examination of London society and court life in the eighteenth century. Gay seeks to link the events of The Beggar's opera with specific events of contemporary London and make links between his characters and famous people such as George I and Robert Walpole.
When writing the Beggar's Opera John Gay sought to re establish English drama at the forefront of the theatres' audiences. The popularity of Italian opera at the time had pushed English works to the background and Gay uses the play to mock society's fascination with it. The beggar introduces this main theme to the audience when he tells us that "he has introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas" and that he hopes that he "[has] not made [his] opera throughout unnatural" a criticism often made of Italian operas who used the world of myth and legend to create a fantasy world which bore no resemblance to the real world. Even Gay's title is a contradiction as opera generally involves people of high rank.
But The Beggars Opera can be seen as the opposite world of opera with folk songs, gritty locations and crooks and thieves as its heroes. The popular tunes allowed his audience to immerse themselves quickly into the action whilst Gay sought to gradually allow his satiric message to be absorbed.
It's general themes of crime, corruption and comedy made it popular with the theatre going population of London, but beneath its obvious comedy Gay sought to enlighten his audience as well as entertain.
Gay's process of audience enlightenment starts with Peachum at the beginning of the play. The corrupting influence of money is expertly displayed by Peachum's musings over which criminal is more useful to him alive and which he will send to the gallows. Peachum behaves like a respectable businessman, poring over his accounts and weighing up the pros and cons of each criminal and how they may benefit his business A register of the gang, Crook-fingered Jack. A year and a half in the service...Slippery Sam; he goes off the next sessions (1, iii)
Peachum's explanation of his career links the criminal world to the legal world. Peachum observes the double standards of lawyers who act " in a double capacity, both against rogues and for 'em" Peachum believes that it "fitting that [they] should protect and encourage cheats, since [they] live by them" Immediately the audience have been drawn in to Gay's argument that beneath the respectability of London society lurks a common evil, that of money and corruption.
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