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The Beggars Opera (1728) - the character of Lucy
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The Beggars Opera (1728) - the character of Lucy

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Posted by Jan den Breejen on September 21, 2000 at 23:49:43:

The Beggars Opera (1728) - the character of Lucy

case text:

At its London premiere on 29 January 1728, The Beggar's Opera triumphed as an immediate success. In his comic operetta, John Gay parodied both government corruption and the vogue for Italian opera. The arias were popular ballads with new lyrics by Gay, and the characters were pickpockets and prostitutes. William Hogarth, as Gay's friend, painted six canvases of the final scene, which is set in Newgate Prison.
Life is a jest, and all things show it.
I thought it once, and now I know it.
(John Gay's self-written epitaph)
John Gay was born in Devon in 1685. He died in 1732 and was buried in Westminster. He was briefly an apprentice to a silk merchant in London. As an apprentice he became familiar with London. Although he disliked it, his years as an apprentice provided him with much of the material for his success. When his apprenticeship was complete, he returned to Devon. To pursue success as a writer he once again went to London in 1707 or 1708.
Gay worked for a time as a secretary for Arthur Hill, a friend from Barnstable Grammar School. Hill was very interested in the theatre and became manager of a company owned by William Collier, then a Tory member of Parliament. Although the job lasted only two years, Gay - as Hill's secretary - gained invaluable experience.
Writers of the time were dependent upon wealthy patrons to support them and their works. Gay inherited a small sum from his brother and in 1712 obtained a position with the Duchess of Monmouth. Through this position he became acquainted with those who would later become his patrons, most importantly, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. By this time he had also come to the attention of Alexander Pope and the Scriblerus circle. Although he produced two plays, the Mohocks (which was never staged due to politics) and The Wife of Bath, he achieved his first major succes with The Shepherd's Week in 1714.
Gay did not confine his efforts to the stage. In 1727 Gay wrote Fables, a set of beast fables that proved extremely popular and established his reputation as a poet. In the last volume (50) Gay wrote of his own situation in having to rely on patrons for favor:

Friendship, like love, is but a name,
Unelss to one you stint the falme.
The child, whom many fathers share,
Hath seldom known a father's care;
'Tis thus in frienships; who depend
On many, rarely find a friend.
A Hare, who, in a civil way,
Comply'd with ev'rything, like Gay.
John Gay was to achieve his greatest success with The Beggar's Opera. The Beggar's Opera debuted in 1728 in London. It was an immediate success, breaking all previous records and was performed more than any other play during the 18th century.(1) It was a complete departure from the popular Italian operas of its time. Beggar's Opera used both dialogue and music to further the story. Gay took music from whereever he could find them. Forty-one of the sixty-nine airs were broadside ballads of the time. The other tunes were borrowed from contemporary composers (including Handel). To these tunes he wrote lyrics to fit his play. Instead of taking his plot from myth he wrote a story focused on the underbelly of society - thieves, whores, fences and jailers. The world of the Beggar's opera is gritty and real, it's end optimistic only because of the popular insistence that Operas must end happily.
Despite its grim reality, The Beggar's Opera is a comedy. It is a period romp that comments with brilliant satire on life. It's satire was on both society and politics. The populace and critics of the time understood Walpole to be the subject of many of the scenes, and his play Polly was banned by Walpole for the fact.
The Beggar's Opera is so-called because The Beggar - the author of the tale - introduces the play. It tells the story of a love triangle between the highwayman Macheath, his fence's daughter Polly and the jailer's daughter Lucy (who is pregnant with his child). Upon discovering the marriage of Macheath and his daughter, Peachum, the fence, determines to have Macheath sent to Newgate. Polly warns him but Macheath is betrayed by the whores he frolics with and is confined to Newgate. Lucy finds him there and being assured by MacHeath that the marriage was all in Polly's mind, helps him to escape. Macheath is again captured and is sentenced to be hung. As he is to be hung the jailor brings in four other wives - "with a child apiece." Macheath pronounces it too much and says he is ready to be hanged. At this point, in a scene aside, the author (the Beggar) is persuaded to change the ending from a hanging to a happy ending. Accordingly Macheath has to settle on one wife only (Polly).
Gay followed The Beggar's Opera with a sequel, Polly, in which Macheath is transported to the West Indes and becomes a pirate. He is in the company of Jenny Diver, the prostitute who betrayed him in The Beggar's Opera and living bigamously. Polly goes to the West Indes looking for Macheath. By the end of the play Macheath is executed and Polly marries the Indian prince Cawwawkee when her mourning is over.
Polly was not produced on stage during Gay's lifetime. Robert Walpole - who had been the butt of satire in The Beggar's Opera, this time found the satire more blatent and strong. He banned its production. Although it was not produced, Gay made a great deal of money from Polly's written publication.
Gay wrote other plays, but none achieved the great success of The Beggar's Opera. Throughout the eighteenth century The Beggar's Opera was staged "just about everywhere in the English speaking world where room could be found to put up a stage."(1)

++++ Jan's analysis

Querulous Lucy seems to be an mainly paranoid personality with negativistic style too. In mythology the vigilant griffin is the instrument of the goddess of wrath Nemesis; and surely Lucy has is vengeful: explosive outbursts of anger are typical for her ('Oh you base manů.thou has robbed my of my quiet - to see thee tortured would give me pleasure'). She's alert and deeply suspicious; vigilantly guarded towards Macheath. She bears grudges and is unforgiving; insisting that she has been wronged and wants revenge. Polly is skeptical, quarrelsome and abrasive. Of course the accusations of infidelity who come so natural from her character are justified in the situation. Paranoids can be quite right and justified in being suspicious. In fact paranoia is a genetic defense mechanism in all humans in order to prevent naivity and being misused or attacked. We all are paranoid to some extend (evolution made us so.)

The stressing experience with the highwayman activates her defense mechanism and makes her caricature ALL men:

'This is the pleasure of ALL you fine men to insult the women you have ruined'

'Am I then bilked with my virtue? Can I have no reparation? Sure, men were born to lie, and women to believe them. Oh villain! Villain!'

All things that don't fit with Lucy's house rules are removed/rejected:

'If you are determined, madam, to raise a disturbance in the prison, I shall be obliged to send for the turnkey to show you the door. I am sorry madam, you force me to be so ill-bred'

Also Lucy is over-sensitive to supposed criticism:

'Why must all your suspicion light upon me?'

Comments anyone?


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