CONTEXT

January 29, 2011

Mea culpa…and a beggar’s opera

All those fabulous birthdays yesterday?  Well, they are actually today, so my apologies.  (It’s a side-effect of always working a day or two ahead.)  Sorry, Oprah.

Lotte Lenya as Jennie.

But it really was January 29 when The Beggar’s Opera opened in Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theater in London in 1728.  John Gay had written an anti-opera meant to be a satire on the newly popular Italian operas that were all the rage, but he didn’t shrink from mocking the aristocracy and politicians of the time either.

He used old Scottish ballads for the most part, with new satirical verses.

(Gay ultimately wrote a sequel called Polly, which was even more satirical and so offensive to PM Robert Walpole that he had it shut down. So Gay published it instead, making thousands of pounds from it.)

In the event, the play ran for two months, longer than any other play up until that time. A revival in 1920 set a theatrical record with 1,463 performances.

The idea for TBO came from our old friend Jonathan Swift, who had written to Alexander Pope a few years earlier, “…what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?”  Their friend John Gay decided it was an excellent idea, but better as a satire.

Two hundred years after, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht used Gay’s story as the basis of The Threepenny Opera, adding new music.  It starred the incomparable Lotte Lenya as Jennie.You can hear Lenya singing the pirate song here.

Gay’s epitaph was written by Pope, but a couplet by Gay himself was added:

Life is a jest, and all things show it,

I thought so once, and now I know it.

* * *

Only known photograph of Poe, ca. 1848.

This is also the day ‘The Raven’ was published in 1845 and became  an overnight hit.  Edgar Allan Poe, then 36, was well-known in literary circles for his criticism and magazine writing, but the poem made him famous.

Poe was the first American writer to attempt to support himself entirely by his writing.  As this is still not generally possible, it is easy to understand why he lived in poverty, drank to excess and died young.

His total profit from the poem that became a classic was the $9 he was paid initially by the New York Evening Mirror when it was published.

Poe’s legacy, of course, is almost immeasurable – from him, we can draw a direct line to Steven King, Caleb Carr and Thomas Harris, through Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle and just about any mystery writer whose work is not a police procedural.

Poe's home in the Bronx, phot by Zoirusha.

He can also boast the greatest number of landmarks of any American writer – no fewer than five sites are labelled Poe historic sites, including a bar in Baltimore where he drank.  His last home was in the Bronx, but he died, aged 40, in a hospital after collapsing in the street while visiting Baltimore.

‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…’ the rest is here.

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1 Comment »

  1. How did you know that Bertolt Brecht, & Lotte Lenya, were on my look up list thank you much and Poe a extra good addition.
    good stuff

    Comment by avery — January 31, 2011 @ 8:34 am | Reply


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