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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

IV. The Drama and the Stage

§ 5. The Beggar’s Opera

Hardly had pantomime firmly established itself in popular favour, when Rich produced another formidable rival to regular drama in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728). This work marked the triumph of ballad-opera. “The vast Success of that new Species of Dramatick Poetry” was, to Colley Cibber, further proof of the “vulgar taste” which had already welcomed pantomime. But the influence of Gay’s opera is not confined to its introduction of popular lyrics. In satirising not merely the absurdities of Italian opera but the conscious moralisings of sentimental drama, and in providing happy issues out of all the afflicitions of its “charmingly pathetic” prison scenes, Gay points towards the dramatic burlesques of Fielding and Carey. Palpable hits at Sir Robert Walpole and other politicians of the day open the vein of social and political satire, worked to the full in Fielding’s farces. The Beggar’s Opera, accordingly, holds an important place in English dramatic annals. Like pantomime, ballad-opera, henceforth, must be regarded as a stock attraction of the theatre. During the Garrick era, its popularity was maintained by many operas like those of Isaac Bickerstaff, and the initial run of Sheridan’s Duenna surpassed that of The Beggar’s Opera.

Even this general survey of those earlier aspects of eighteenth century drama, which form a necessary background to any account of its later history, must make it clear that English drama is the resultant of many forces. So complex, indeed, is the interaction of these various forces that it is idle to seek to resolve actual dramatic products exactly into their precise component parts. Still more futile are attempts to warp the actual facts of dramatic history into conformity with a rigid preconceived theory of dramatic evolution. The convenient distinction between tragedy and comedy, if converted into an arbitrary critical formula, becomes a stumbling-block to the critic of sentimental drama. To attempt to explain English classical drama simply from the standpoint of French classical, or pseudo-classical, theory is to ignore English influences which directly affected the dramatic practice, and even the theories, of Voltaire himself. To regard the transition from the immorality of restoration comedy to the sentimentalised morality of the eighteenth century as a complete moral regeneration is to forget the frank licence of Mrs. Centlivre and the imperfect ethical standards of even professed moralists like Cibber.