The great age of satire, the Augustan age, is a post-restoration period in which their main focus shifts from the usual medieval slapstick comedy plays and theatrical spectacles, to more generalizations and reasoned behavior, moreover mocking the human condition and legal systems or governments through criticism, classic satire and sentimental comedy.
John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera was the most performed play in the 18th century, perhaps because of Gay’s targets of satire, taunting the legal system, particularly Sir Robert Walpole, the aristocracy lifestyle, and the male-female relationship (Solomon, 1). In this essay, I will define and explain Satiric Inversion, identify some of Gay’s main targets of satire in his play, and understand how the songs advance the element of his satire, bringing other possible ideas into mind guiding the mockery through the song dialogues and verses; creating a ground breaking play in terms of theatrical satire and ridicule.
Whether it’s caricature, sarcasm or parody, classical satire never seems to get old and gets the job, or purpose to ridicule done. One of the methods John Gay implies to scorn is Satiric Inversion, flipping what may have been known to be something positive, ultimately making it to negative, vice versa, for the purpose of satire. Associating the positive with the negative, allows Gay to successfully criticize and mock many aspects of London and its culture. An example of this is the title of the play itself; The Beggar’s Opera.
The “low class” term (or expression) Beggar is not associated with the word Opera, much because of the high-class attributes that comes with the Italian dramatic composition (Solomon, 1). By linking these two terms together, “Beggar’s” and “Opera”, Gay satirizes the snob community and the aristocracy lifestyle, similarly making Operas a lower-class form not then intended for the notions of the upper class. Another example of Satiric Inversion is the songs used in the play, making fun of songs; Gay uses melodies that would have been memorable at the time and replaces the lyrics with profane ones, satirizing Italian Opera thus where the term Ballad Opera comes from (Solomon, 1).
Implying Satiric Inversion and other methods, Gay’s targets of satire includes sentimental comedy, in which characters are supposed to learn a lesson in the end but in the Beggar’s Opera finale, a contrived ending, the libertine Mac heath is set free and did not really learn the lesson, satirizing fake endings as well as marriage (Solomon, 2). Another target of satire is Italian Opera. Gay satirizes Italian Opera, Opera seria, by swapping memorable lyrics and having Polly and Lucy on stage, mocking the rivalry the two Italian premadonas of the time, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni (Solomon, 1). Also, notions of the upper class and aristocrats is satirized.
The title of the play itself is combining the low class and high class; “beggar” is not something that you associate regularly with “Opera”. Peachum also mocks the legal system particularly Sir Robert Walpole, Lawyers and the Newgate prison. Sir Robert Walpole is actually one of the key figure of Gay’s lampoon; the relationship between Macheath, Polly, and Lucy is supposed to mirror Walpole’s triangular relationship with his wife and mistress (Solomon, 1).One last but definitely not a final target of Gay’s satire is the mockery of male-female relationship. In regards to Filch worrying that females will always steal and cheat, the notion of whoring to Peachum and Mrs. Peachum is more beneficial than marriage. In air 7, Mrs. Peachum chants in a very great passion, “Our Polly is a sad slut” (1.8.1). Peachum’s daughter, Polly, is worth more a whore thus ultimately allowing them to get more money based on the fact that marriage is another form of an economic venture (Solomon, 1).
Along with Gay’s targets of satire, the songs work together with the other components in the play such as the fact that the lyrics is actually swapped and characters represent real people, adding to the overall satirical elements. Whether done aside breaking the fourth wall, soliloquies, dialogues, or chanting, the songs (or Airs) help tune in the viewers or readers to where the mockery is happening, advancing the satire.
For example in air 2 “The bonny gray eyed morn”, Filch criticizes females to be always a cheat, believing that they are only after money; ‘Tis Woman that seduces all mankind; By her we first taught the wheedling arts. Her very eyes can cheat; when most she’s kind, She tricks us of our money with our hearts.” (1.1.33-36). Filch Satirizes marriage, male-female relationship and the idea of love. Another example of this is Air 10, “How cruel are the traitors, Who lie and swear in jest … With boasts the theft reveals.” (2.9.23-30), Lucy argues with Macheath satirizing men and their lustful purpose.
Similarly, Peachum’s parents mocking her marriage and relationship to Macheath, the song Mrs. Peachum chants “our Polly is a sad slut” (1.8.1) advances the profane satire by the actual fact that it is Polly’s parent who is chanting the song, not something you’d expect off a parent thus making it immoral.
Peachum mocks the legal system, in reference to lawyers ,Sir Robert Walpole and the Newgate prison. In air 3 cold and raw (1.4.15-23), Mrs. Peachum references “Venus” which is the Roman goddess of love and “Adonis”, a beautiful young man loved by Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The implied inverted mixture of the two mythologies is supposed to link together through the similarity of the goddesses and the subject of Adonis; Not to mention the reference creates much depth.
A political statement, Peachum criticizes the aristocrats by saying “Murder is as fashionable a crime as a man can be guilty of” (1.4.36); where the rich getting away with murder, mocking the legal system in which many criminals, failing to obey the rules of conduct, are being sent to lock down, Newgate prison that is (Solomon, 1). Peachum jests honest employment and compares his “honest” pay to a lawyers “Through all the employments of life … thinks his trade as honest as mine.” (1.1.1-8). Air 1 situates Peachum’s position, role, and jest outlook on what is a “honest” employment, allowing us readers or viewers to get an insight of Peachum’s thoughts which is actually Gay mocking the legal system.
By using satiric inversion in theme and heart of the play such as swapping the lyrics in familiar songs, ridiculing the legal system and mocking the happy ending of sentimental comedy where the character Mac heath does not really learn any lesson after all and just moves on instead (Solomon, 2). The Beggar’s Opera satirizes prisons, statesmen, sentimental comedy, Italian Opera, aristocracy lifestyle and the male-female relationship (Solomon, 2).
The aside comments and songs in the play guide the ridicule through soliloquies, arguments and dialogues by having the characters sing out loud or reference the subject in their satiric element to make it sort of clear for the audience. Overall, satiric inversion and using the songs do play a role in the plot by having aside comments, and allowing outside references to the story, advancing the satire as well as successfully bring other ideas into mind when reading the text, such as Greek mythology or the ridiculed notion of love.
Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. London: n.p., 1728. Print.
Solomon, Diana. “Beggars Opera day 1” English 205 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 13 June. 2016. Seminar
Solomon, Diana. “Beggars Opera day 2” English 205 Seminars. Simon Fraser University. Vancouver. 15 June. 2016. Seminar