John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act I scenes 5 – 7

Left alone, Mrs Peachum confides to the audience that she thinks Mr Peachum is wrong, because being married does not mean a woman should only love her husband; actually being married increases a woman’s value. She sings a song about how a virgin is like golden ore, but a married woman is like a coin, whose value is known, and she goes from hand to hand. Filch comes in and after some banter with him about his success as a thief, she asks him whether he knows anything about what has passed between Polly and Macheath. Filch demurs, saying that he can’t say anything, because he promised Polly not to and he gave his word of honour. Mrs Peachum invites him to her own room, promising him some excellent liquor. This scene below with the wonderful Patricia Routledge

Enter Peachum and Polly. Polly also tries to explain to her father that even if she hooks up with Macheath, it’s only for material advantage and she doesn’t mean to be exclusive with him. She sings a song about how virgins are like flowers growing in the garden, but once they are plucked, they are like the cut flowers sold in Covent Garden and they wither quickly. This has a nice double meaning, because Covent Garden was both a big produce market and also the place where prostitutes congregated. Peachum warns Polly that he doesn’t mind her hooking up with anybody if it’s for money or in order to learn his secrets, but if he finds out she married Macheath, he’ll cut her throat.

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John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act I Scenes 3 and 4

Peachum returns to his books, looking for the criminals he can “peach on” before the next court sessions. The ones he picks are not only the unprofitable ones, but also the one who talks about quitting the life of crime and becoming an honest tailor, or one Bob Booty. At this Mrs Peachum enters and asks what about Bob Booty, because she is very fond of him. Peachum explains that Bob spends too much time with ladies and when his money is gone, one of them is going to inform on him sooner or later, thus cashing in the reward Peachum wants. Mrs Peachum says she defers in this matter to her husband’s judgement. Women are too biased in these matters, because they always think the criminal being sent to the gallows is so handsome. She sings a song about how the executioner’s rope is as effective in making a man desirable as the mythological girdle of Venus supposedly was for women. She says Peachum has no reason for complaining because there has not been a murder in his gang for seven months, but Peachum pooh-poohs her, saying murder is a very fashionable crime and you can find a lot of actual gentlemen in Newgate charged with it. He asks here whether Captain Macheath was here this morning, and Mrs Peachum says he was and he promised to try and join her and Polly for a card game in the evening. She asks Peachum whether Macheath is rich, but Peachum answers he is too fond of gambling for that, and to be good at gambling, you have to be born rich and train from the earliest years. Mrs Peachum says she is sorry that Captain Macheath likes the company of lords and gentlemen; “he should leave them to prey upon one another”, and she lets it drop that she is sorry about that because of their daughter Polly. This immediately raises Peachum’s hackles up and he asks what Polly has to do with Macheath. Mrs Peachum admits she thinks he and Polly may be in love. Peachum angrily says that’s no reason to marry him, because highwaymen are very good to their whores, but terrible to their wives. Mrs Peachum sings a sad song about how it can’t be helped and a virgin in love is like a moth around the flame, sure to be destroyed. Peachum says that in their trade it’s OK if Polly grants all sorts of liberties to the criminals, but marriage would be a disaster, because then she and everything she owns (and by extension, everything her parents own) is going to be the property of her husband. He wouldn’t mind if Polly were like fine ladies, who can seduce twelve men at the same time, without becoming emotionally involved, but she is too warm-hearted. He tells his wife to warn her and before that, he is going to see Polly and investigate how far her affair with Macheath has gone.

John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera Act I Scenes 1 and 2

Today I start reading possibly the biggest success story of the 18th-c. English stage, The Beggar’s Opera. Even when all its political allusions and jokes stopped being current, The Beggar’s Opera survived and thrived in the 20th c. thanks to Brecht/Weill version. The opera begins with a Prologue, or a conversation between the Beggar, who is ostensibly its author, and the Player. The Beggar says that if we believe in the stereotypical “starving poet”, then certainly he is one. He is actually better off than most poets, because in the notorious slum of St Giles he gets a small salary and free dinners, which is not something most poets can boast. The Player tells him that the Muses, unlike ladies, do not pay attention to how somebody is dressed. The Beggar explains a bit more while his opera is going to succeed: it contains the same language as the “real” operas, it has a prison scene which lady viewers always find very moving, and the two female leads get exactly the same amount of lines (which is apparently a joke at the expense of  two Italian divas famously feuding on the London stage). So it fulfils all the formal requirements of an opera, except that it doesn’t have a prologue or an epilogue. This is a nice metajoke, because of course the scenes between the Beggar and the Player ARE in fact the prologue and the epilogue. So, on with the show!

The big joke of The Beggar’s Opera is that instead of original music, the “arias” are the popular tunes of the day. So when the scene opens, we are in Peachum’s den, where he is sitting over his books. He sings a song about how all the people think other people are rouges and thieves, while the statesman thinks his trade is as honest as Peachum’s. Peachum as he says himself, is like a lawyer, working both for and against criminals.

We learn more about Peachum’s actual trade when one of his accomplices, Filch, comes to give him a report. Peachum both deals in stolen goods, but also gets money from the authorities for turning in criminals. So if they are not effective enough as thieves or robbers, he’ll make money of them anyway. He and Filch discuss several such cases, focusing especially on one Betty Sly, who is apparently a very good member of Peachum’s stable. Peachum also on principle likes to keep women alive, just like hunters refrain from shooting partridge hens, because the propagation of the species depends on them. As Filch points out, she also made criminals out of more men (presumably as a prostitute) then the gaming-table. Filch sings a song about how women lead men astray and says he’s off to Newgate to bring the news to his fellows.

Mary Leapor – “An Epistle to a Lady”

“An Epistle to a Lady” (Leapor’s friend and patron Bridget Freemantle) is a rather depressing poem by a very depressed person. She says that the addressee of the poem strives in vain to make Mira (Leapor) thrive, because she was born under a bad star, namely under the influence of Saturn. The books she reads do not bring her any comfort but rather make her more dejected. When she is asleep, she dreams about having money, books and pictures, but then the clock rings and she is back to sweeping her kitchen and mending her clothes. Anyway, as she feels sick, she finds  the things she used to like less and less enjoyable, but she hopes at least the pleasure of friendship will be the last to go. She remembers the death of her mother, who died peacefully, with her only care in the world being her daughter’s well-being. She doesn’t wish to stretch out her life as she sees nothing good in her future. She hopes to die resigned and finds some strange comfort in the thought that on the same day when she dies, thousands of people around the world will die as well.

Mary Leapor – “An Essay on Woman”

Mary Leapor, as a working-class writer, introduces an element of intersectionality in the section on women’s writing. She was a daughter of a gardener, who worked most of her adult life in various country manors as a servant or a cook. At some point, she was befriended by the daughter of a retired Oxford don, who liked her poetry and tried to publish it. But before she achieved it, Leapor, whose health was always not very good, was finished off by measles. On the other hand, maybe this early death (we all know how album sales spike after an artist dies) coupled with the novelty of “untutored country girl writing poetry” did help to get the whopping six hundred subscribers for Leapor’s first volume of poetry – more than Pope had for the first edition of his translation of The Iliad! (Susbscriptions were like the 18th-c. Kickstarter plans, when readers agreed to advance the money to the writer and get the book later. Having the names of esteemed literary figures or aristocrats on the list of the subscribers, which was attached to the book, also could help its sales to non-subscribing readers.)

In this poem, written like everything else in the 18th c. in rhyming couplets, Leapor’s main point is that women are screwed, no matter what their social standing is. Wife is a slave, maiden is neglected, the pretty ones are betrayed, and the ugly ones despised. But if a woman happens to be wealthy, all men perceive her as beautiful – until she gets married. What’s the point of having advantages? “Sylvia”, who is beautiful, is neglected by her husband. “Pamphilia”, who is wise, is disliked by women and feared by men. And “Cornelia”, who is rich, is also stingy and finds no joy in her wealth, nor does she share it with anyone. But Leapor implores Muses to give “Mira” (her nickname for herself) to give her some of this wealth which could buy her “indolence and ease”, while she also would like to have “a friend to please”. The poem ends with reiterating the claim that no matter what the woman is, admired or despised, she is still ‘a slave at large”.

Anne Ingram, Viscountess Irwin – “An Epistle to Mr. Pope”

Anne Ingram, a lady poet (as many of the female poets of the era) wrote this poetic letter to answer Pope’s “Epistle 2”. She begins by stating that both men and women seem remarkably alike when they are very young or very old. She really doesn’t follow up on this observation, but notices that even though the way men and women act may seem very different, they have the same motivation. A brave soldier fighting or a beauty trying to charm as many men as possible, they are both motivated by the love of fame. And even people in different social positions have the same motivation, it’s just more difficult for those who are lowly born to achieve something big. So why is there such a difference between men and women? Ingram answer, it’s all about education. In truth, you can find as many “Nugators” (male triflers) as “Nugatrixes” (female triflers). Women’s heads are like uncultivated fields and so it’s small wonder they do not yield rich crops. Accusing women of ignorance is as fair as accusing soldiers of ignorance because they don’t know philosophy, or accusing courtiers that they don’t know how to manage flocks. All women are taught is that the only power they have is their sexuality. If they are well-born, they may be taught in addition to dance and lisp French. No wonder the void in their heads is filled up with trifles. To prove that it can be otherwise, Ingram lists the famous Roman ladies: Clelia, Cornelia, Lucretia (of course, sigh) and Portia. She singles out Portia for special praise as the one who famously stabbed herself in the thigh to prove to her husband that she can keep a secret. But one can’t expect such virtue from modern women, so Ingram asks Pope, instead of criticizing, to educate women and rescue them “from this Gothic state” in which lack of education placed them.

Alexander Pope – “Epistle 2: To a Lady” (the end)

Pope delivers the traditional praise of a woman who never answers her husband back, submits to his will, and if she rules him, it’s through subtle manipulation. She is above all ravages of fate and time. But “[w]oman’s at best a contradiction still” and just “a softer man”, he claims, echoing the old Aristotelian notion. He goes through the well-worn stuff how Heaven mixed all contradictory qualities, like modesty with pride etc. to create the woman. The poem ends with a birthday dedication to Martha Blount: this mixture of best qualities Phoebus promised her when she was born (“I forget the year”, he adds gallantly), Phoebus didn’t grant all the prayers of her parents: he gave her beauty but didn’t give her money. (Martha’s parents were Catholic gentry, but couldn’t afford to pay her dowry – at least not the amount that was expected for a girl of her social position. I read somewhere yesterday, but can’t find the page now, that somebody – was it John Caryll? – offered to pay Martha’s dowry if that was the only thing that stopped Pope from marrying her, but Pope declined. Pope was rich anyway and could afford a dowry-less wife if he wanted, so I don’t know if that story is true. He probably didn’t want to have a wife who would have to be to him more like a nurse.) Pope manages to put a good spin on it, claiming that dowries are only good for buying a woman a tyrant husband. (Martha was at this point forty-five, so long out of the marriage market in her era.) Instead, Martha got something much better: good sense, good humour, and a poet.

I must say this poem is not quite successful in my opinion, not only because it fails to meet the feminist standards of 2018, but also because, like in many longer poems by Pope, one has a feeling it is composed rather of fragments than constituting one organic whole. These fragments are rather awkwardly cobbled together and at places the seams do show.