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.


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.

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3 (ctd.)

Gulliver continues to dream pleasantly how he and his fellow immortals would be wise mentors to the rest of society. His companion translates his words to the rest, after which there is some laughter among them. He then tells Gulliver that when travelling abroad, he noticed that people desire to live as long as possible, but never in this country, where they have the dreadful example of the Struldbruggs. The thing is, Gulliver dreams about eternal life in good health and prosperity, but he doesn’t know that the Struldbruggs (like Tithonus, although Swift doesn’t use that comparison) have eternal life, but not eternal youth. Thus, they live more or less normally until they are thirty, after which they become increasingly melancholy and when they reach eighty, they become just nasty old people, doubly so because they are envious both of the young and their pleasures, and of the ordinary old, who have the relief of dying. They are afflicted by all the common health problems of the old age, and they lose their memory (so Gulliver’s idea of the immortals as oral historians is quite ridiculous). They have no affection towards their family members past their grandchildren. The law also treats them harshly: after they reach eighty, they are declared legally dead: their possessions goes to their heirs and they get just a pittance to survive on, or else they get some meagre benefits from the state; they are also not allowed to enter any contracts or appear in court as witnesses. If they marry another of their own kind, the law dissolves the marriage after the older of the couple reaches eighty, the reasoning behind it being that it would be inhumane to make somebody who is going to be burdened with his old age for eternity be burdened also with a wife (curiously enough, Swift doesn’t conceive of husband as a burden).

Jonathan Swift – “Gulliver’s Travels” Part 3

Part 3 is only excerpted in the NAEL, probably because it’s the least interesting for the modern reader. Maybe it’s because Swift missed his mark so widely, choosing as the object of his satire modern science as engrossed with fruitless speculation. Sure, a lot of 18th-c. science, just like a lot of modern one, was a dead-end, but in the end it’s the greats who are remembered centuries later. Gulliver, this time not shipwrecked, but set adrift on the sea by pirates, is rescued by the inhabitants of Laputa, a flying island. (If the name of the island sounds rude to you, perhaps Swift meant it to be. Martin Luther called reason a whore.) They all marvel at him and he at them: they all cock their heads to one side, with one eye looking at the sky ant the other down, and their clothes are all ornamented with the images of geometrical figures and musical instruments. All the wealthier people are also accompanied by special servants carrying sticks with bladders full of peas or small pebbles, with which they hit their masters periodically on the mouth and on the ear during any conversations. The Laputans are the prototypical absent-minded scientists and without this device they are quite prone to forget who they are talking to and what about. They take him to their king, who is deep into solving a mathematical dilemma and doesn’t notice them until he’s done with it, and then only when one of his pages hits him. The king then notices Gulliver, about whose arrival he’s already been informed and addresses him. The page then hits Gulliver, but he signs to them that he doesn’t need this device. As he learns later, this lowered him very much in the estimation of the Laputans. When the King realizes they can’t find a common language, he sends Gulliver to another room to have his dinner, because the King is very hospitable to strangers. (The Helpful Footnote interprets it as a barb against George I, a patron of science and art, who filled his court with people from Hannover, but this allusion seems rather vague to me.) At dinner Gulliver is accompanied by several noblemen, whom he asks about the names of various objects and gets the hang of the language. After dinner, a special man is sent with books, paper and ink to teach Gulliver their language. With his help, Gulliver compiles a rather sizeable dictionary, including also (of course) the names of various geometrical figures and musical instruments. He also notes down some sample sentences and within a few days starts to manage basic communication. On a side note, it only struck me now how funny the title of Part 3 is, putting side by side the names of several fictitious countries and ending with “… and Japan”. As far as I remember, Japan is mentioned only in passing at the end of this part.

William Congreve – “The Way of the World” (the end)

There is not much happening at these last pages but universal rejoicing, declarations of unending love from Mirabell etc. Sir Wilfull says, let’s have some dancing so that those who are not the Official Couple can have some fun too. Fortunately the dancers who were invited to entertain “Sir Rowland” are still in the house, so there is another dance. Lady Wishfort expresses some misgivings about whether Fainall will not have his revenge, but Mirabell assures her he won’t dare. He gives back to Mrs Fainall the deed of trust, saying that if well managed, it may help them live quite easily together, presumably because now Fainall is against entirely dependent on the fortune of his wife.

After that, there is nothing more to say but the Epilogue, delivered by Mrs Bracegirdle, the most popular actress of her era, who played Millamant. In the tradition of comedy epilogues, it pre-emptively describes all the kinds of criticism this play may incur. Firstly, there are those splenetic critics who are never pleased, and it would take a supernatural power to make somebody satisfied if this person doesn’t want to be. Secondly, there are all these bad and jealous poets. Finally, there are those who keep on looking for real-life models for every character in the play. The just punishment for them would be to identify themselves in the foolish characters, if they are so narcissistic that they think they can provide enough material for a scene. The poet is like a painter painting an ideal face, compiling in one image the best features of many real-life faces.

Thus ends the play. I must say that like many comedies, it is (presumably) funnier in an actual stage production, although the language is not that easy to follow.  The main dilemma of Millamant, namely that she has to play extremely hard to get, despite all her love for Mirabell, seems quite alien to me. This being said, some scenes like Mirabell and Millamant’s marriage negotiations, are quite charming. As you can see, I am not exactly bowled over, but I appreciate the craft.

William Congreve – “The Way of the World” (Act V – ctd.)

Enter Foible and Mincing. Marwood reacts with dismay, knowing that she will be exposed, but Fainall says he doesn’t care what they say, because that’s “the way of the world”. To avoid the repetition of what the audience already knows, it seems that the revelations are conveyed to Lady Wishfort in an undertone, after which she addresses Marwood with anger, accusing her of treachery. Marwood tries to deny everything, accusing the maids of being mercenary, but Mincing says she stands by what she said: they found her and Fainall in the blue garret, after which Marwood made them take a vow of silence on a Miscellany of poems, which she, however, mispronounces comically as “Messalina’s poems”. Fainall callously says that he still doesn’t care and if Lady Wishfort doesn’t give him what he wants, he is going to drag her daughter’s name through mud. And here comes the second part of the plan, says Mirabell, and invites Waitwell with the black box. Waitwell brings in the recently sobered up Witwoud and Petulant. Witwoud provides a nice bit of meta-commentary by exclaiming”Are you all got together, like players at the end of the last act?” Gentlemen, you may remember that some time ago you were witnesses to a certain contract, says Mirabell. They confirm. Mirabell says that when Lady Wishfort’s daughter was planning to marry Fainall, her wise friends advised her to draw the contract which he now produces and gives Fainall to read. Fainall reads and realizes that the contract put the whole property of the then Arabella Languish in trust to Edward Mirabell. (Glad to know he has a normal first name.) Since the contract predates the later one, in which she gave most of her fortune to Fainall, it makes the earlier contract null and void. Fainall tries to attack his wife, but is restrained by Sir Wilfull, after which he and Marwood leave the stage with the usual exclamations of villains in the vein of “I’ll be back”. (Fainall could still insist, I guess, on his first demand, that is becoming the trustee of the whole property of Lady Wishfort.) Lady Wishfort says she doesn’t quite know how to break the news about cancelling his engagement to Sir Wilfull, which is kind of surprising, taking into account that he’s been on the stage all along. Maybe in a theatrical production it makes more sense, with blocking actors in such a way as to separate them. But anyway, Lady Wishfort needn’t worry, because Mirabell says Sir Wilfull has been a willing participant in the charade all along, and Sir Wilfull confirms, saying he has no intention to marry, but to travel.