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Preview: Past and present meet in York University's twist on John Gay Beggar's Opera

By John Terauds on January 27, 2014

Macheath&Filch
Emilio Vieira as Macheath, left, and Jonathon Le Rose as Filch in a York University production of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera opening Tuesday.

Look at the state of Toronto’s politics, or the colourful world of venture capitalists and you, too, might conclude that, “A rich rogue nowadays is fit company for any gentleman; and the world, my dear, hath not such a contempt for roguery as you imagine.”

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

This isn’t drawn from the pages of Maclean’s or a Torontoist post of 2014, but a nearly 300-year-old line from The Beggar’s Opera, a musical by John Gay that took London by storm in 1728.

This landmark piece of musical theatre gets a fascinating remake at the hands of the teachers and students from a cross-disciplinary mix of fine arts at York University this week. All of it is designed to underline how little has changed in a world where both the rich and poor love to break laws — but only the poor need pay the full price.

There is a former news baron among us who might, in a circumloquatious way, accede concurrence.

Osgoode Hall Law School professor, historian C. Douglas Hay, certainly does.

Imagine how much we Torontonians might enjoy going to a play that cast our own rogues and miscreants in a rough-and-tumble story of love and intrigue. It was the same for Londoners. Well-born people had the Italian operas of George Frideric Handel to enjoy — all very nice, but divorced from the real stories of the street.

Along came Gay, who thinly disguised the murderers, gangleaders, extortionists and crooked politicians of his day in an English libretto, spiced up with popular tunes guaranteed to be hummed on the way home.

Hay, who specializes in crime and criminal law of the 18th century, recounts — with evident relish — the parallels between the ne’er-do-wells of Gay’s London with the characters in the play.

York University theatre prof Gwen Dobie has made a logical extension to our present day, setting The Beggar’s Opera in a 21st century prison — Lincoln Fields (a twist on the inner-city Lincoln’s Inn Fields law courts in London) — where the inmates have, in the quest for creative rehabilitation, been asked to mount a production of Gay’s play.

The university’s young dancers, singers, instrumentalists and even digital artists are all part of the effort, supervised by the excellent teachers in each department — people like vocal coach Catherine Robbin, conductor Stephanie Martin and choreographer Michael Greyeyes.

“There are a lot of things that make it an apposite kind of thing to put on again,” says Hay, who met with the cast and crew to provide them with the true stories behind the play. “In the 1720s there were a lot of things going on that have resonances today,” he adds.

That would include a shaky economy, due to a burst stock market bubble in 1720, and the way that well-placed members of society were able to get away with murder, larceny and bigamy.

Hay describes how the Lord Chancellor, the rough equivalent of a modern Attorney General, was found guilty by Parliament of stealing what would be more than $50 million in today’s money. He managed to pay his fine — about half the money stolen — in six weeks.

Some aspects of 18th century criminal life in London don’t have immediate parallels. For example, it’s a lot less easy to have multiple wives nowadays.

“Marriage laws were so loose people could simply say ‘I thee wed’ in front of a witness,” Hay explains. This led to Parliament passing the Marriage Act a generation later, requiring couples to officially register their wedlock.

One character in the play evokes an interesting sort of criminal double-dealer of the time. Hay tells the story of Jonathan Wild, the model for Peachum, who presented himself publicly as a “Thief Taker,” essentially a vigilante who would get a substantial bounty for turning in criminals.

In reality, Wild was the equivalent of an underworld mob boss who used the legal system and its rewards to get rid of rival gangsters and those he thought might be unloyal to him.

The paths of Wild and Jack Sheppard, London’s most famous burglar and the model for John Gay’s Macheath, crossed in 1724 — eventually leading to both men’s undoing.

Justice caught up to both men, who were hanged within months of each other. Apparently, people bought tickets to witness Wild’s death in May, 1725. He was then subjected to the punishment reserved for society’s worst offenders: public dissection by a team of surgeons.

Wild’s skeleton can still be seen on display at the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons — in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Hay says the first production of The Beggar’s Opera, staged only three years after Wild’s execution, had the longest run of performances of any play or opera in London to that time.

“Everyone was trying to make identifications in its moral satire,” he explains. There were even souvenirs and mementoes to be bought by the musical’s hundreds of new fans.

I ask Hay about libel, and how difficult it would be for someone to put thinly disguised public figures on a stage today. He replies that it wasn’t that much easier for Gay.

Then-Prime Minister Robert Walpole, the 1st Earl of Orford, was thought to be leading a corrupt government, and The Beggar’s Opera didn’t pull its satirical punches, so, when Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, “Walpole leaned on the Lord Chamberlain [the public censor] to have the play suppressed.”

Perhaps we are a little better off these days, after all.

+++

You can find all the details of York University’s production here. Preview night is Tuesday, Jan. 28. Performances continue to Feb. 1.

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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