Remediating the Early Modern Ballad
Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728)
John Gay (1685-1732) Invents a Generic Hybrid
The Beggar’s Opera opens 29 Jan 1728
• A member with Swift and Pope of
the Scriblerius Club offering an
“ancient” critique of “modern”
• Challenged confronted by these
highly educated authors: does the
market in printed works destroy, or
could it support, great literature?
• Gay’s generic invention: Opera +
Ballads  1st Musical Comedy
• Satire through an elaborate political
A Generic Hybrid of Two Traditions
Features of Italian Opera
• Songs scattered throughout
• Spectacular special effects
• All dialogue is sung as
• Celebrity singers with big
voices (including castrate)
with stagey big moments
• Plots are implausible and
end happily
• Expresses a taste for foreign
Features of English drama
• Music and song draws upon
English and Irish ballads
• Staging offers simulations of
‘real’ places (e.g. home,
tavern, Newgate prison)
• Dialogue is in English and
realistic—what you might
hear in street or court or
• Plots must be plausible and
may end tragically
• English plays from English
Remediating their way to fame: John Gay, Walt Disney
Gay’s primary source for 41 out of 69 airs in the ballad
opera: the collection of Thomas D’Urfey
D’Urfey’s dedication to his subscribers;
his immodest self-puffery
“I had the satisfaction of diverting Royalty…”
Gay’s Big Idea: remediating the English ballad
Traditional English Ballad (1470) in
modern performance by Melissa
Girard (Birmingham, Alabama):
“Alas! My love you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously,
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your company.
I have been ready at your hand
To grant whatever you would crave
I have brought weight and life and land
Your love and good will for to have
Greensleeves was all my joy,
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleaves my heart of gold
And who but my Lady Greensleeves.”
McHeath awaiting execution uses the
melody of “Greensleeves” to sing
these words:
“Since laws were made for ev’ry degree
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we haven’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men, like us, were to swing,
’Twould thin the land, such numbers to
Upon Tyburn tree!” (BO, 118)
What is the effect of this remediation?
What is the effect of fusing together the
pastoral past with the tawdry urban
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air III
Mrs. Peachum consoles herself for
MacHeath’s likely execution:
If any Wench Venus's Girdle wear,
Though she be never so ugly;
Lilies and Roses will quickly appear,
And her Face look wond'rously
Beneath the left Ear so fit but a Cord,
(A Rope so charming a Zone is!)
The Youth in his Cart hath the Air of a
And we cry, There goes an Adonis!
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air IV
Mrs. Peachem sings of the
danger of Polly’s love for
If Love the Virgin's Heart invade,
How, like a Moth, the simple
Still plays about the Flame!
If soon she be not made a Wife,
Her Honour's sing'd, and then for
She's -- what I dare not name.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air VI
Polly explains her desire for MacHeath to
her father Peachum:
Virgins are like the fair Flower in its Lustre,
Which in the Garden enamels the Ground;
Near it the Bees in play flutter and cluster,
And gaudy Butterflies frolick around.
But, when once pluck'd, 'tis no longer
To Covent-Garden 'tis sent (as yet sweet),
There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all
Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air IX
Mother and Daughter Duet
Mrs. Peachum:
O Polly, you might have toy'd and kist.
By keeping Men off, you keep them on.
But he so teaz'd me,
And he so pleas'd me,
What I did, you must have done.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air XXI
MacHeath justifies his infidelity’s likely
execution : “I love the Sex. And a Man who loves
Money, might as well be contented with one
Guinea, as I with one Woman.”
If the Heart of a Man is deprest with Cares,
The Mist is dispell'd when a Woman appears;
Like the Notes of a Fiddle, she sweetly, sweetly
Raises the Spirits, and charms our Ears,
Roses and Lilies her Cheeks disclose,
But her ripe Lips are more sweet than those.
Press her,
Caress her,
With Blisses,
Her Kisses
Dissolve us in Pleasure, and soft Repose.
Source ballad and Gay’s lyrics to Air LXIX
MacHeath, saved from execution, takes Polly as
his own and gives his other women to others.
The rake is beleaguered and reformed.
Thus I stand like the Turk, with his Doxies around;
From all Sides their Glances his Passion confound;
For Black, Brown, and Fair, his Inconstancy burns,
And different Beauties subdue him by turns:
Each calls forth her Charms, to provoke his Desires;
Though willing to all, with but one he retires.
But think of this Maxim, and put off your Sorrow,
The Wretch of To-day, may be happy To-morrow.
Some general questions
• How would you characterize Gay’s ballad writing?
• How is he different (or the same as) the earlier
ballad writers?
• How literary? How modernizing?
• How has he exploited the residual memory and
intertextual context of the familiar ballad (from
tune ballad and most popular recent versions
that use the tune) in the new context of the
• Has Gay enlightened/improved the ballad, or
spoiled and commercialized it?
If, “Enlightenment is an Event in the History of Mediation,”
how is The Beggar’s Opera an expression of Enlightenment?
Cardinal Mediations:
Infrastructure of post, public
spaces, highways
Generic invention: newspapers,
systematic scholarly collections,
critical essays, musical comedy
Associational practices: clubs,
secret and professional societies
 library, museum, university
Protocols: open access,
challenging instituted
authorities (here Italian Opera),
critique (here as part of the
public sphere where opinion is
formed), free speech (as an
unlicensed press), public credit,
The Beggar’s Opera
Newspaper ads and critical response helps create a ‘media
event’ around Gay’s play
Thomas D’Urfey’s 6 volume collection and criticism (like
Addison’s Spectator series on Chevy Chase) help to make
ballads available to Gay as components of theater
Gay in Scriblerius Club, professional theater networks
Gay’s Beggar’s Opera
– Ballads are now integral to a new genre (in a different
and more fundamental way than with earlier theater?)
– Which stages an allegory of the times with new literary
and intellectual heft
– The ballad is brought off the street and made part the
critical public sphere: for example, Peachum is a figure
for Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister
– Printed publication of the play further expands the
reach of the ballad opera
Critical questions: Is Gay’s opera a way to remediate the ballad so that culture is
improved and enlightened? By making art more like nature? by making it more native,
more popular and more English? Does this revaluing the ballad save and transmit it?