Several aspects account for the success of John Gay’s ballad opera The beggar’s opera when it premiered in London in 1728.
Gay’s skillful transformations of well-known songs contained many witty references to the originals, adding a rich subtext that his audience would have understood fully.
His audience would also have appreciated his caricatures of grand opera, which included references to recent London productions—particularly Händel’s Floridante (1721) and Alessandro (1726)—and to the highly public rivalry of the local operatic sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778) and Faustina Bordoni (1697–1781).
Gay’s facility as a writer was also a factor; he created clever, well-wrought lyrics and dialogue, vivid characters, and an irresistible ironic tone. An accomplished musician, Gay was certainly the musical arranger—not Pepusch, as some have argued.
This according to “The beggar’s opera” by Bertrand Harris Bronson, an essay included in Studies in the comic (Berkely: University of California Press, 1941, pp. 197–231).
Above, William Hogarth’s 1729 painting of a scene from the work (click to enlarge); below, a gallant and dashing excerpt from Peter Brook’s 1953 film, courtesy of our friend Allan Janus.
William Hogarth explicitly positioned his aesthetic theory in opposition to those of his contemporaries.
He disagreed both with philosophical treatments that viewed beauty and taste in moral terms and with art treatises that relied on exemplification and lacked causal explanation; further, he attacked the mystification of the concept of grace in both approaches.
He argued that understanding beauty did not require initiation into a new body of knowledge: It simply involved exercising a natural reflective vision that finds pleasure in the forms of the human body and related designs and ornamentations.
It was natural, therefore, that—unlike other aestheticians of his time—he drew extensively on dance examples in his treatise The analysis of beauty: Dance, particularly in its use in deportment training, belonged to a sphere of relatively everyday polite culture, as opposed to the rarefied and mystifying culture of art appreciation. Anyone open to dance and deportment could learn how to appreciate them, just as anyone open to Hogarth’s theory could apply its illuminations to their everyday lives.
This according to “An aesthetics of performance: Dance in Hogarth’s Analysis of beauty” by Annie Richardson (Dance research: The journal of the Society for Dance Research XX/2 [winter 2002] pp. 38–87. Above, an illustration of a country dance from Hogarth’s treatise (click to enlarge). Below, an English country dance that he might have seen—or participated in!