Literary daybook, Jan. 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 29, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 29, Mr. Moon of Bosworth Inc. has his first appointment with Lord Malquist.
-- "Lord Malquist & Mr Moon" (1968)
By Tom Stoppard

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in literary history
On this day in 1728, John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" opened in London. Its satire and singability made it a first-run sellout, a cultural craze across England, the most produced play of the 18th century, and the original "ballad opera," first in the Gilbert and Sullivan line. Within the first week one London paper was reporting "a very general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it hath made Rich [the theater manager] very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich." The politicians smarted at being portrayed as highwaymen, fences, pickpockets and molls, but the public bought playing cards, fans and parlor screens imprinted with scenes or lyrics of the dashing MacHeath, or of Polly Peachum's true love. This is from Scene 10, the point at which Peachum, having got wind of daughter Polly's secret marriage to MacHeath, does his parental best to get her to cash the highwayman in:

"POLLY. But I love him, Sir; how then could I have Thoughts of parting with him?
PEACHUM. Parting with him! Why, this is the whole Scheme and Intention of all Marriage Articles. The comfortable Estate of Widow-hood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife's Spirits. Where is the Woman who would scruple to be a Wife, if she had it in her Power to be a Widow, whenever she pleas'd? If you have any Views of this sort, Polly, I shall think the Match not so very unreasonable."

Seeing Polly unconvinced, Mrs. Peachum pitches in: "But your Duty to your Parents, Hussy, obliges you to hang him. What would many a Wife give for such an Opportunity!" Such parents and predicaments move Polly to song -- a tune so affecting, they say, that first-nighter the Duke of Bolton proposed to the actress playing Polly, and was accepted:

"O ponder well! be not severe:
So save a wretched Wife!
For on the Rope that hangs my Dear
Depends poor Polly's Life."

Not just the 18th century was enthralled. Two centuries later, in 1920, one London production ran for 1,463 performances, inspiring Brecht and Weill to remake it as "The Threepenny Opera," and giving Bobby Darin his signature tune: "Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear/ And he shows them pearly white ..." Though not quite a one-hit wonder in his lifetime, "The Beggar's Opera" is Gay's only enduring play. His sequel, "Polly," never got much of a chance, being suppressed by the government for going over the satirical line -- though this caused a run on the printed version, bringing Gay even more money. This he enjoyed so recklessly that his friends took to hiding it from him, lest he take MacHeath's carpe diem outlook too far:

"Let us drink and sport today,
  Ours is not tomorrow:
Love with youth flies swift away,
  Age is naught but sorrow.
  Dance and sing,
  Time's on the wing,
Life never knows the return of spring."

He was buried in Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey, his self-written epitaph marking the spot and continuing the worldview:

"Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once, but now I know it."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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