What were the London theaters doing in this half century? They were chiefly the Drury Lane and (from 1733) the Covent Garden; there were minor stages in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Goodman’s Fields; the Hay market had a Little Theatre for comedies, and His Majesty’s Theatre for opera; altogether London had twice as many theaters as Paris. Performances began at 6 P.M. The audience had changed its character since Restoration days; “society” now withdrew from the theater to the opera. Favored or moneyed auditors still sat on the stage. The “pit” and galleries seated almost two thousand persons; there the middle class predominated, and determined by its applause the reception and quality of the plays; hence the rising competition of bourgeois with romantic themes. Women took all female parts, and many male hearts; now began the reign of famous actresses like Kitty Clive and Peg Woffington—whom Hogarth painted and Charles Reade novelized.
As the “first, great, ruling passion of actors,” said Garrick, “is to eat,” 61 they preferred plays spiced with sex. Said Fielding’s Parson Adams, “I never heard of any plays fit for a Christian to read but Addison’s, and [Steele’s] The Conscious Lovers”; however, Fielding himself produced bawdy comedies. 62 Voltaire described the theaters in England as “without decency.” Sir John Barnard appealed to the House of Commons in 1735 for some check on the theaters, alleging that “the British nation … were now so extravagantly addicted to lewd and idle diversions … that it was astonishing to all Europe that Italian eunuchs and signoras should have set salaries equal to those of the Lords of the Treasury.” 63 Nothing was done about immoral scenes and lines; but when Fielding and Gay made the theater a vehicle of political satire, attacking both Robert Walpole and George II, the minister, usually tolerant of opposition, carried through Parliament a Licensing Act (1737) directing the Lord Chamberlain to exercise more rigor in granting permission for dramatic representations. I
In the Encyelopédie Diderot went out of his way to praise a play, The London Merchant, produced in London in 1731. It interested Diderot because it marked the introduction of middle-class tragedy to the British stage. The French classic drama had established the principle that tragedy belonged to the aristocracy, and would lose caste and dignity if it descended to bourgeois scenes. George Lillo took a double risk: he brought tragic drama down to a tradesman’s home, and he wrote in prose. Thorow-good, the honest merchant, upholds “the dignity of our profession,” and trusts that “as the name of merchant never degrades the gentleman, so by no means does it exclude him.” The plot is the ruin of a merchant’s apprentice by a seductive courtesan; the theme is embroidered with moral exhortations, and is swathed in sentiment. It was applauded by a middle class glad to see its virtues and ideals presented on a British stage. Diderot welcomed and imitated it in his campaign to introduce tragédie domestique et bourgeoise to the French theater; Lessing adopted its tone in Miss Sara Sampson (1755). The middle classes were asserting themselves in literature as in politics.
In Scotland the dramatic pot was set to boiling by John Home, who offended his fellow clergymen by writing and producing (1756) Douglas, the most successful tragic drama of its time. John’s cousin, David Hume, in a burst of enthusiasm hardly becoming a skeptic philosopher, hailed him as “a true disciple of Sophocles and Racine,” who might “in time vindicate the English stage from the reproach of barbarism.” 64 When Garrick refused the play Hume, Lord Karnes (Henry Home), and the “Moderates” among the Scottish clergy arranged for its production in Edinburgh, and David acted as ticket seller. The event was a triumph for all Homes and Humes, and for the rest of Scotland, for Home had transformed an old Scottish ballad into a patriotic drama that brought tears of joy to Scottish eyes. We must except the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Kirk, which denounced Home as a disgrace to his cloth, and reminded him of “the opinion which the Christian Church has always entertained of stage plays and players as prejudicial to the interest of religion and morality.” 65 Formal accusations were issued against Home and another minister, Alexander Carlyle, for attending the performance. David Hume, aflame with kinship, dedicated his Four Dissertations to his cousin, and wrote a hot indictment of intolerance. John resigned from the ministry, went to London, and saw his Douglas produced with Peg Woffington in the female lead (1757). There too it was a triumph; the Scots in London gathered to applaud it; and at the close of this London premiere a Scot called down from the gallery, “Ou, fie, lads, fot [what] think ye o’ yir Willy Shakespeare now?” 66 The play, as dead today as Addison’s Cato, kept the stage on and off for a generation. When Mrs. Siddons played it in Edinburgh in 1784, the General Assembly of the Kirk “was obliged to fix all its important business for the alternate days when she did not act.” 67
The most hilarious success of the London stage in this period was The Beggar’s Opera. John Gay began as a merchant’s apprentice, rose to be secretary to the Earl of Clarendon, and became one of the liveliest members of the Scriblerus Club. Pope described him as
Of manners gentle, of affections mild;
In wit a man; simplicity, a child;
With native humor temp’ring virtuous rage,
Form’d to delight at once and lash the age. 68
Gay made his mark in 1716 with Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. The clatter of wagon wheels on paving stones, the drivers urging their horses with whip and tongue, the “draggled damsel” bearing fish for Billingsgate, the serenity of “Pell Mell” with fragrant ladies leaning on the arms of beaux, the pedestrian weaving his way through a game of football filling the street, the gentle thieves who with “unfelt fingers make thy pocket light,” and the burly “watchman who with friendly light will teach thy reeling steps to tread aright,” and guide you to your door: Trivia still provides all this and more for those who would visualize the London of 1716.
In 1720 Gay’s Poems were published by subscription, and brought him a thousand pounds; these he lost in the crash of the South Sea Company. Pope and others came to his aid, but in 1728 he lifted himself to renewed prosperity with The Beggar’s Opera. The introduction presents the beggar, who presents his opera. This begins with a ballad sung by Peachum, who (like Jonathan Wild) pretends to serve the law by reporting thieves (when they refuse to serve him), but actually is a dealer in stolen goods. He calls himself an honest man because “all professions be-rogue one another,” and are moved by the greed for gain. His affairs are muddled by the fact that his daughter Polly has fallen in love with, perhaps has married, the dashing, handsome highwayman Captain Macheath; this will interfere with the use of Polly’s charms in managing buyers, sellers, and constables. Mrs. Peachum reassures him:
Why must our Polly, forsooth, differ from her sex, and love only her husband, and why must our Polly’s marriage, contrary to all observation, make her the less followed by other men? All men are thieves in love, and like a woman the better for being another’s property. 69
However, Mrs. Peachum warns her daughter:
You know, Polly, I am not against your toying a trifle with a customer in the way of business, or to get out a secret or so; but if I find that you have played the fool, and are married, you jade you, I’ll cut your throat.
Polly excuses her marriage in a ballad:
Can love be controlled by advice?
Will Cupid our mothers obey?
Though my heart were as frozen as ice,
At his flame ’twould have melted away.
When he kissed me, so closely he pressed,
’Twas so sweet that I must have complied;
So I thought it both safest and best
To marry, for fear you should chide. 70
Peachum rages; he is afraid that Macheath will kill him and his wife to inherit their fortune through Polly. He schemes to betray Macheath to the law and have him safely hanged. Macheath comes on the scene, comforts Polly with pressures, and assures her that henceforth he will be monogamous:
My heart was so free
It roved like the bee,
Till Polly my passion requited;
I sipped each flower,
I changed every hour,
But here every flower is united.
She begs him to swear that if transported he will take her with him. He swears: “Is there any power … that could tear me from thee? You might sooner tear a pension from a courtier, a fee from a lawyer, a pretty woman from a looking glass.” And they join in a charming duet:
HE. Were I laid on Greenland’s coast,
And in my arms embraced my lass,
Warm amidst eternal frost,
Too soon the half-year’s night would pass.
SHE. Were I sold on Indian soil,
Soon as the burning day was closed,
I could mock the sultry toil
When on my charmer’s breast reposed.
HE. And I would love you all the day,
SHE. Every night would kiss and play,
HE. If with me you’d fondly stray,
SHE. Over the hills and far away.
She confides to him that her father plans to surrender him to the law, and sorrowfully she bids him hide for a while. He goes, but stops in a tavern to give his aides instructions for a robbery. When they are gone he dances and toys with the tavern tarts; Peachum has bribed them to betray him; while they fondle him they steal his pistols, then summon the constables; in the next scene he is in Newgate jail. There Polly and another of his wives contend for his person; they free him, but he is recaptured and is sent to the gallows. En route he comforts his ladies with a song:
Then farewell, my love—dear charmers, adieu!
Contented I die—’tis the better for you.
Here ends all dispute for the rest of our lives,
For this way, at once, I please all my wives. 71
The beggar-author now appears, and prides himself on having made vice meet its due punishment, as in all proper plays. But an actor protests that “an opera must end happily” (how customs change!). The beggar yields, saves Macheath from one noose and gives him Polly as another; all dance around the couple, while the captain wonders has he met a fate worse than death.
Gay had had the luck to secure the services of Johann Pepusch, a German composer resident in England; Pepusch chose the music for Gay’s ballads from old English airs; the result was irresistible. Despite the satire of corruption and hypocrisy, the audience at the premiere in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre (January 29, 1728) responded enthusiastically. The play ran for sixty-three consecutive nights, exceeding all precedents; it had long runs in the major towns of Britain; it still holds the stage on two continents, and has been made into one of the most delightful motion pictures of our time. The actress who played Polly became the toast of gay blades and the favorite of salons; her biography and her picture were sold in great number; her songs were painted on fans; she married a duke. But a High Churchman denounced Gay for making a highwayman his hero and letting him go unpunished. When Gay tried to produce a continuation under the title Polly the Lord Chamberlain refused to license it. Gay had Polly published; it sold so well, and the proceeds from The Beggar’s Opera mounted so pleasantly, that (as a wit said) the play made Gay rich, and Rich, the manager, gay. Four years after his triumph colic carried the poet away.