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Gay=s Use of Music for Satire in The Beggar=s Opera
John Gay=s The Beggar=s Opera is a rather complex work, despite its apparent simplicity. Critics have interpreted it variously as political satire, moral satire, even (at a stretch) Christian satire. Common to many interpretations is the assertion that the Opera is a satire directed at both the politics and the art of its day. A fairly conventional interpretation of the play and its composition shows that it is, and was intended by its author to be, specifically a satire of Italian opera and of the aristocrats that patronized that form. While that interpretation is not in doubt, because critics almost universally agree about it in the literature, most interpretations overlook a certain aspect of the satire and comedy. Specifically, the nature of the music and the manner in which Gay uses that music in the play produces a certain brusque effect, one which can serve to heighten the comedy and deepen the satire of Opera. This caustic use of music extends to the content of the songs themselves, the technical features of the music, and the manner of their insertion into the play itself. Several examples of the songs, as well as the text surrounding them, evidence this acerbic use of the music within the play to satirize opera.
That Gay means to satirize opera categorically is fairly obvious within the text, even without outside knowledge of the operas of the day. Gay first indicates his satiric intent in the Beggar=s opening speech when the Beggar says:
I hope I may be forgiven, that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue. (Nettleton 530)
Further, the Beggar represents opera composers to some extent, which is an unflattering representation in itself. That the Beggar speaks like a literary hack furthers the insult delivered to those composers through this character:
I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas: the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower &c.
At the end of the play, the Beggar and Player return to further insult opera. The Player says AAn opera must end happily@ (III.xvi), to which the Beggar replies by indicating that he can create a happy ending, because A*tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about@ in opera. additionally, the composer and performer do these things Ato satisfy the taste of the town,@ thus assigning blame for the banality of opera to its audiences.
Gay was motivated to satirize opera because of its immense popularity, as William Schultz says:
In 1728 (the year of the Opera=s premiere) Italian opera was firmly settled as a popular fashion. People of all ranks...flocked to hear the foreign compositions, as well as English pieces in a similar style. (136)
Italian opera was so very popular that it eroded native English music and musical styles. Musical productions of anything besides opera were poorly funded by patrons, if funded at all, and often failed. The sixty-nine ballads of Gay=s Opera are native English tunes for which Gay wrote new lyrics. And the work was a very successful strike against the foreign art form, as well as a revitalization of the somewhat sagging English musical tradition (for a fuller discussion of the historical circumstances, see Schultz ). At the very least, a certain sort of artistic patriotism motivated Gay in composition.
The most immediate aspect of Gay=s satire is in the content of the opera and some of its ballads. While there are notable exceptions, the opera as a form is one generally reserved for the most Aworthy@ material. This is more the case before the time of the Opera than after, but still largely true even after the Eighteenth century. Wagner=s Parsifal is about a quest for the Holy Grail, and the Niebelung is about the struggles of the Norse gods. Berlioz=s Les Troyens is about the Trojan War. Bizet=s Carmen is a tragic love story, and Handel=s Rinaldo is about a knight in the First Crusade. Handel was a contemporary of Gay and one of the major operatic composer of his day, thus his work rather exemplary of the operas of the period. Purcell=s King Arthur is a Asemi-opera@ about the mythic ... more
Find essay on Critical Attention In His Later Poetry
It was in 1886 that the German pharmacologist, Louis Lewin, published the first systematic study of the cactus, to which his own name was subsequently given. Anhalonium lewinii was new to science. To primitive religion and the Indians of Mexico and the American Southwest it was a friend of immemorially long standing. Indeed, it was much more than a friend. In the words of one of the early Spanish visitors to the New World, "they eat a root which they call peyote, and which they venerate as though it were a deity."
Why they should have venerated it as a deity became apparent when such eminent psychologists as Jaensch, Havelock Ellis and Weir Mitchell began their experiments with mescalin, the active principle of peyote. True, they stopped short at a point well this side of idolatry; but all concurred in assigning to mescalin a position among drugs of unique distinction. Administered in suitable doses, it changes the quality of consciousness more profoundly and yet is less toxic than any other substance in the pharmacologist's repertory.
Mescalin research has been going on sporadically ever since the days of Lewin and Havelock Ellis. Chemists have not merely isolated the alkaloid; they have learned how to synthesize it, so that the supply no longer depends on the sparse and intermittent crop of a desert cactus. Alienists have dosed themselves with mescalin in the hope thereby of coming to a better, a first-hand, understanding of their patients' mental processes. Working unfortunately upon too few subjects within too narrow a range of circumstances, psychologists have observed and catalogued some of the drug's more striking effects. Neurologists and physiologists have found out something about the mechanism of its action upon the central nervous system. And at least one Professional philosopher has taken mescalin for the light it may throw on such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness.
There matters rested until, two or three years ago, a new and perhaps highly significant fact was observed.* Actually the fact had been staring everyone in the face for several decades; but nobody, as it happened, had noticed it until a Young English psychiatrist, at present working in Canada, was struck by the close similarity, in chemical composition, between mescalin and adrenalin. Further research revealed that lysergic acid, an extremely potent hallucinogen derived from ergot, has a structural biochemical relationship to the others. Then came the discovery that adrenochrome, which is a product of the decomposition of adrenalin, can produce many of the symptoms observed in mescalin intoxication. But adrenochrome probably occurs spontaneously in the human body. In other words, each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause Profound changes in consciousness. Certain of these changes are similar to those which occur in that most characteristic plague of the twentieth century, schizophrenia. Is the mental disorder due to a chemical disorder? And is the chemical disorder due, in its turn, to psychological distresses affecting the adrenals? It would be rash and premature to affirm it. The most we can say is that some kind of a prima facie case has been made out. Meanwhile the clue is being systematically followed, the sleuths--biochemists , psychiatrists, psychologists--are on the trail.
By a series of, for me, extremely fortunate circumstances I found myself, in the spring of 1953, squarely athwart that trail. One of the sleuths had come on business to California. In spite of seventy years of mescalin research, the psychological material at his disposal was still absurdly inadequate, and he was anxious to add to it. I was on the spot and willing, indeed eager, to be a guinea pig. Thus it came about that, one bright May morning, I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results.
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single ... more
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