The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 5/Intelligencer Number 3

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Ipse pet omnei
Ibit personas, et turbam reddet in unam.

THE players having now almost done with the comedy called the Beggar's Opera for the season; it may be no unpleasant speculation, to reflect a little upon this dramatick piece, so singular in the subject and manner, so much an original, and which has frequently given so very agreeable an entertainment.

Although an evil taste be very apt to prevail, both here and in London; yet there is a point, which, whoever can rightly touch, will never fail of pleasing a very great majority; so great, that the dislikers out of dulness or affectation will be silent, and forced to fall in with the herd: the point I mean is, what we call humour; which, in its perfection, is allowed to be much preferable to wit; if it be not rather the most useful and agreeable species of it.

I agree with sir William Temple, that the word is peculiar to our English tongue; but I differ from him in the opinion, that the thing itself is peculiar to the English nation, because the contrary may be found in many Spanish, Italian, and French productions: and particularly, whoever has a taste for true humour, will find a hundred instances of it in those volumes printed in France under the name of Le Theatre Italien; to say nothing of Rabelais, Cervantes, and many others.

Now I take the comedy, or farce (or whatever name the criticks will allow it) called the Beggar's Opera, to excel in this article of humour; and upon that merit to have met with such prodigious success, both here and in England.

As to poetry, eloquence, and musick, which are said to have most power over the minds of men; it is certain that very few have a taste or judgment of the excellencies of the two former; and if a man succeed in either, it is upon the authority of those few judges, that lend their taste to the bulk of readers, who have none of their own. I am told there are as few good judges in musick; and that among those who crowd the operas, nine in ten go thither merely out of curiosity, fashion, or affectation.

But a taste for humour is in some manner fixed to the very nature of man, and generally obvious to the vulgar: except upon subjects too refined, and superiour to their understanding.

And, as this taste of humour is purely natural, so is humour itself; neither is it a talent confined to men of wit or learning; for we observe it sometimes among common servants, and the meanest of the people, while the very owners are often ignorant of the gift they possess.

I know very well, that this happy talent is contemptibly treated by criticks, under the name of low humour, or low comedy; but I know likewise that the Spaniards and Italians, who are allowed to have the most wit of any nations in Europe, do most excel in it, and do most esteem it.

By what disposition of the mind, what influence of the stars, or what situation of the climate, this endowment is bestowed upon mankind, may be a question fit for philosophers to discuss. It is certainly the best ingredient toward that kind of satire, which is most useful, and gives the least offence; which, instead of lashing, laughs men out of their follies and vices; and is the character that gives Horace the preference to Juvenal.

And, although some things are too serious, solemn, or sacred, to be turned into ridicule, yet the abuses of them are certainly not; since it is allowed that corruptions in religion, politicks, and law, may be proper topicks for this kind of satire.

There are two ends that men propose in writing satire: one of them less noble than the other, as regarding nothing farther than the private satisfaction and pleasure of the writer; but without any view toward personal malice: the other is a publick spirit, prompting men of genius and virtue to mend the world as far as they are able. And as both these ends are innocent, so the latter is highly commendable. With regard to the former, I demand, whether I have not as good a title to laugh, as men have to be ridiculous; and to expose vice, as another has to be vicious. If I ridicule the follies and corruptions of a court, a ministry, or a senate, are they not amply paid by pensions, titles, and power, while I expect and desire no other reward, than that of laughing with a few friends in a corner? yet, if those who take offence think me in the wrong, I am ready to change the scene with them whenever they please.

But, if my design be to make mankind better, then I think it is my duty; at least, I am sure it is the interest of those very courts and ministers, whose follies or vices I ridicule, to reward me for my good intentions: for, if it be reckoned a high point of wisdom to get the laughers on our side; it is much more easy, as well as wise, to get those on our side who can make millions laugh when they please.

My reason for mentioning courts and ministers (whom I never think on but with the most profound veneration), is, because an opinion obtains, that in the Beggar's Opera there appears to be some reflection upon courtiers and statesmen, whereof I am by no means a judge.

It is true indeed, that Mr. Gay, the author of this piece, has been somewhat singular in the course of his fortunes; for it has happened, that after fourteen years attending the courts with a large stock of real merit, a modest and agreeable conversation, a hundred promises, and five hundred friends, he has failed of preferment; and upon a very weighty reason. He lay under the suspicion of having written a libel, or lampoon against a great minister[1]. It is true, that great minister was demonstratively convinced, and publickly owned his conviction, that Mr. Gay was not the author; but having lain under the suspicion, it seemed very just that he should suffer the punishment; because, in this most reformed age, the virtues of a prime minister are no more to be suspected, than the chastity of Cæsar's wife.

It must be allowed, that the Beggar's Opera is not the first of Mr. Gay's works, wherein he has been faulty with regard to courtiers and statesmen. For, to omit his other pieces, even in his fables, published within two years past, and dedicated to the duke of Cumberland, for which he was promised a reward, he has been thought somewhat too bold upon the courtiers. And although it be highly probable he meant only the courtiers of former times, yet he acted unwarily, by not considering that the malignity of some people, might misinterpret what he said to the disadvantage of present persons and affairs.

But I have now done with Mr. Gay as a politician: and shall consider him henceforward only as author of the Beggar's Opera, wherein he has, by a turn of humour entirely new, placed vices of all kinds in the strongest and most odious light; and thereby done eminent service both to religion and morality. This appears from the unparallelled success he has met with. All ranks, parties, and denominations of men, either crowding to see his opera, or reading it with delight in their closets; even ministers of state, whom he is thought to have most offended (next to those whom the actors represent) appearing frequently at the theatre, from a consciousness of their own innocence, and to convince the world how unjust a parallel, malice, envy, and disaffection to the government, have made.

I am assured that several worthy clergymen in this city went privately to see the Beggar's Opera represented; and that the fleering coxcombs in the pit amused themselves with making discoveries, and spreading the names of those gentlemen round the audience.

I shall not pretend to vindicate a clergyman, who would appear openly in his habit at the theatre, with such a vicious crew as might probably stand round him, at such comedies and profane tragedies as are often represented. Besides, I know very well, that persons of their function are bound to avoid the appearance of evil, or of giving cause of offence. But when the lords chancellors, who are keepers of the king's conscience; when the judges of the land, whose title is reverend; when ladies, who are bound by the rules of their sex to the strictest decency, appear in the theatre without censure; I cannot understand, why a young clergyman, who comes concealed out of curiosity to see an innocent and moral play, should be so highly condemned: nor do I much approve the rigour of a great prelate, who said, "he hoped none of his clergy were there." I am glad to hear there are no weightier objections against that reverend body planted in this city, and I wish there never may. But I should be very sorry that any of them should be so weak, as to imitate a court chaplain[2] in England, who preached against the Beggar's Opera, which will probably do more good than a thousand sermons of so stupid, so injudicious, and so prostitute a divine.

In this happy performance of Mr. Gay's all the characters are just, and none of them carried beyond nature, or hardly beyond practice. It discovers the whole system of that commonwealth, or that imperium in imperio of iniquity, established among us, by which neither our lives nor our properties are secure, either in the highways, or in publick assemblies, or even in our own houses. It shows the miserable lives, and the constant fate, of those abandoned wretches: for how little they sell their lives and souls; betrayed by their whores, their comrades, and the receivers and purchasers of those thefts and robberies. This comedy contains likewise a satire, which, without inquiring whether it affects the present age, may possibly be useful in times to come; I mean, where the author takes the occasion of comparing the commion robbers of the publick, and their several stratagems of betraying, undermining, and hanging each other, to the several arts of politicians in times of corruption.

This comedy likewise exposes, with great justice, that unnatural taste for Itallan musick among us, which is wholly unsuitable to our northern climate, and the genius of the people, whereby we are overrun with Italian effeminacy, and Italian nonsense. An old gentleman said to me, that many years ago, when the practice of an unnatural vice grew frequent in London, and many were prosecuted for it, he was sure it would be the forerunner of Italian operas and singers; and then we should want nothing but stabbing, or poisoning, to make us perfect Italians.

Upon the whole, I deliver my judgment, that nothing but servile attachment to a party, affectation of singularity, lamentable dulness, mistaken zeal, or studied hypocrisy, can have the least reasonable objection against this excellent moral performance of the celebrated Mr. Gay.

  1. Sir Robert Walpole.
  2. This court chaplain was Dr. Thomas Herring, then preacher at Lincoln's Inn. He was made rector of Blechingly in 1731, and the same year dean of Rochester: was raised to the see of Bangor in 1737, translated to York in 1743, and to Canterbury in 1747. He died in 1757, at the age of 64. See a letter of Dr. Herring to Mr. Duncombe (who had written two letters in justification of the Sermon against the Beggar's Opera) in the preface to "Archbishop Herring's Seven Sermons on publick Occasions, 1763."