John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 and it was an immediate success. Various different productions appeared down the years, but perhaps none stranger than the “gender reversed” performances where female actresses took the male parts – and vice versa. Michelle Holman has kindly agreed to do a blog-post for me about these productions, as follows:
I am delighted to have been asked to write a guest blog post for the Georgian Gent, and so here I present the story of The Beggar’s Opera in Reverse. In a celebratory adjunct to the guest spot, please raise a glass for the relaunch of my website about theatre history, and Handel’s favourite trumpeter, Abraham Adcock.
‘The manager’s appetite must have been extremely keen when the ‘sacred hunger for gold’ induced him to bring upon the stage the indecorous catchpenny of the reversed Beggars’ Opera.’
Memoirs of the Colman family, edited by Richard Brinsley Peake, Vol. II
So wrote George Colman the Younger regarding the raucous production of The Beggar’s Opera in reverse staged at the Haymarket Theatre in the summer of 1781. It began its long residence in early August and continued to entertain a full house up until the season closed at the end of September, thereby immortalising its success for Colman the elder. There is no doubt it was a cash cow for Colman, he must have laid down his head each night to the sound of ‘ker-ching’ reverberating in his coffers, thinking of how brilliant an idea it was to have female characters played by males and male characters by females. And success always breeds imitators or flatterers; in the October of the same year, Harris the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, went one step further with an all female cast. Even though the novelty of ‘the appearance of Ladies without petticoats’ (London Chronicle, 16 Oct 1781) began to wane [the Covent Garden performance only lasted two nights according to some sources], it seems in the regions it had ‘spread so universally, that it now rages through every barn company in the remotest corners of the island!’ (Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser 20 Oct 1781).
The Morning Chronicle looked charitably upon Colman’s entertainment suggesting he had merely returned the opera to it satirical roots with crossdressing and the addition of a preludio, writing:
‘Powerful as the satire originally was, it gradually lost its efficacy, in proportion as the mode of representation because injudiciously refined, till at length what was meant as a piece of comic ridicule, was converted into a serious sentimental performance, and instead of its being attended as dramatic satire, the sole allurement to the Theatre whenever it was represented, was a new or favourite singer in one or other of the principal characters. Finding it in this state, Mr Colman wisely lent wings to the author’s original intention…’
Colman junior accuses ‘the manager’ of the Haymarket of despotism and coercion, suggestion some of the performers were forced into the performances:
‘Many of the actresses for instance, must have been conscious of their want of symmetry for male attire; trowsers were not then in fashion; nor were boots furnished for gentlewomen upon low salaries; those females, therefore, who could not afford the last articles appeared not only en culottes, but in silk stockings; and certes among the she highwaymen belonging to Macheath’s gang, thus accoutred, there were, to quote the song of Jenny Jumps, in ‘The Farmer’,
‘Six feet ladies,
Three feet ladies,
Small legg’d ladies,
Thick legg’d ladies,
all with horsepistols in the hands screaming, ‘let us take the road!’ a feminine phalanx which constituted, as Macheath himself says of the Judges in the Old Bailey, ‘a terrible show!”
It is worth referencing the Biographia Dramatica, Vol. 3 for an account of the Preludio before heading straight for the death from too much laughter, elopements, satire, indignation, and letters signed by FlyFlap &c.:
‘This trifle was produced merely to usher to the public the representation of The Beggar’s Opera, with the characters reversed. — We have seen it called The School of Shakespeare [Genest, in Some Account of the English Stage, vol. VI, calls this an error]. It consisted of three scenes of dialogue ; the first of which was between Townly and the Beggar; the former insisting that the very essence of opera consisted in absurdity; to which the Beggar acceded, and informed Townly, in order to make it appear the more strongly in that light, he had contrived that the “ladies’ characters” should be all acted by men,” and the “men” represented by “ladies:” that as the Beggar’s Opera originally owed its existence to the “feminine” rage for Italian Operas, such a risible travestie could not fail of heightening the satirical burlesque ; and this scene was concluded by the Beggar giving an account of a party of Italian chiefs having assembled at a neighbouring coffeehouse [i.e. the Orange Coffee house] to condemn the performance.
‘The second scene was in a coffeehouse, which was rendered exceedingly laughable from the groupe of characters that were discovered; namely, a musical composer, a French dancer, a John Bull of an Englishman, &c. A better idea of this scene cannot be given, than Hogarth’s Enraged Musician, to which it bore a considerable resemblance.
‘The last scene discovered Townly, the Beggar, and Prompter [played by Bannister, who also took on the role of Polly]. The Beggar asking the Prompter why he did not ring to begin, as the sticks were at work in the gallery, was answered, that “Polly” was but “half shaved;” and besides, Mr, Bannister’s “jumps” were so tight, that the Carpenter was not able to lace them; that they had disappointed Mr. Edwin in his “cork rump” for “Lucy;” that the Taylor had made Mrs. Webb’s “coat” and “waistcoat” so tight, that she could hardly get them on, and was not able to button her “breeches;” that the present state of their house was worse than the political state of the nation; — for here both “sexes” were in the “opposition” Townly saying, he began to “smell powder;” the Beggar replied, “For Heaven’s sake, don’t mention the ‘powder;’ the very name is become to my ears as terrible as an earthquake, since a very capital powdermill was lately blown up in the ‘neighbourhood’.
After the Prelude was seemingly concluded, the Carpenter popped up his head through a “trap,” which occasioned a great roar of laughter. The Prompter came on, and asked him, what he meant by opening the trap; and was answered, that it was the place for him to prompt the opera, as they did on the other side of the Haymarket [i.e. at the King’s Theatre where all that Italian opera stuff was going on]. “Psha!” replied the Prompter, “none of your Italian tricks for me! Put up the trap again! I shall prompt in my old place; for we ‘won’t’ do ‘all’ they ‘do’ on the other side of the way till they can do all we do on ours’.
” This concluded the Preludio ; which, considered as a few light scenes, written merely as a sort of “prose prologue” to the “travestie” of “characters” in the Opera, was very well handled, neatly pointed, and highly laughable.’
The audiences flocked to the performances and the account of Bannister’s triumph as Polly in Genest’s Some Account of the English Stage, VI, is worth quoting to see why:
‘…any person who can recollect old Bannister, tho’ he never saw him in Polly, can easily imagine how his rough manly face must look in a woman’s gown his first appearance excited a tumultuous roar of laughter, and his fine low courtesies, with his grave modest looks, conspired to keep it up for a considerable time… he did not disguise his natural voice either in speaking or singing when he acted Polly; nor except in holding up his train rather too high when he went off the stage sometimes, did he seem wilfully to burlesque the character when he sang the songs all was silent attention and the travestie was forgotten…’
Bannister’s performance was so hilarious, a woman actually died from too much laughter. The Derby Mercury ran this story on the 4th Oct 1781:
‘… On Wednesday evening [Mrs. Fitzherbert] went to the Drury Lane Theatre*, in company with some friends, to see the Beggar’s Opera. On Mr. Bannister’s making his appearance in the character of Polly, the whole audience were thrown into an uproar of laughter. Unfortunately the actor’s whimsical appearance had a fatal effect on Mrs. Fitzherbert; she could not suppress the laugh that seized her on the first view of this enormous representation; and before the second act was over, she was obliged to leave the Theatre.
Mrs Fitzherbert, not being able to banish the figure from her memory thrown into hystericks, which continue without intermission till Friday morning, when she expired.’
*I think this is an error and should read Hay
This was not the only incident to befall the production; it was during the run at the Hay, Mrs Cargill who played the leading role of Macheath, eloped to Bath ‘with a young gentleman somewhat allied to the theatre’ (Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser 14th Sept 1781) and was eventually replaced by the very capable Mrs Wells.
Of course it was not long before the satirists got to work. Almost immediately after the first night at the Hay the St James’s Chronicle ran the preposterous story of women taking over roles in government and men taking roles at court:
‘The success of the Beggar’s Opera, since the Parts of the Men have been performed by Women, and those of the Women by Men, has determined his Majesty to have Recourse to the same Species of Management; and we are told from good Authority, the following Management is speedily to take Place:
‘… Lady Charlotte Finch, to be Lord Chancellor, vice Lord Thurlow, who is, as Governess, to document the younger Princesses… ‘The Duchess of Devonshire, to be Commander in Chief, vice Lord Amherst, Mistress of her Majesty’s Wardrobe… ‘Mrs. Yates, the Actress, to be Prime Minister, vice Lord North, who is to be Mistress of the Queen’s Privy Purse… ‘…It is not doubted, when this Change has taken Place, but our combined Enemies will tremble; and the American Congress, having Faith and Confidence in our Women, will immediately submit to them, even unconditionally.’
After the satire came letters of indignation to newspaper editors, ‘FlyFlap’ writing in the Morning Herald on 17th August 1781 directed much of his ire at Mr Wilson in the role of Mrs Peachum:
‘Mr. Wilson did Mrs. Peachum. He had not been taught that the extravagance of burlesque has no affinity to blackguardism. The hissing he received for his indecencies was, perhaps, the only mode of instruction he is capable of understanding. His acting was as defective as his behaviour was reproachable; the want of sense can be no matter of wonder where there is total defection of decency.’
Finally, by far the best piece is the ‘speech’ from ‘The Beggar’ himself, as it appeared in the Morning Chronicle on the 22nd October 1781, following on from Miss Catley’s and Mrs Wilson’s performances in the all female production at Covent Garden:
‘Executed last week, pursuant to his sentence, the Beggar’s Opera; when arrived at Covent Garden, the place of execution. he made the following speech and confession:
“I was born of honest Aristotle fearing parents, who gave me a good education, and taught me to sing and dance. I continued for many years as a reputable tradesman, and was much in service in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, where I had interest enough to fill houses, when nothing else would. I kept my character till last summer, when getting acquainted with one George Colman, helped me into the company of women, which soon proved my ruin. His reason was, that he might make money of me. Let me warn all other Operas, especially the young, to beware of bad women. I forgive both fidlers and door keepers , and die in peace with all men. May Aristotle bless Mr Sheridan, for he was very kind to me, and took me into his house often. But all would not do. As a dying play, I advise Mr. Harris to repent of his many sins, and particularly the injuries he has done to me. I forgive Miss Catley and Mrs. Webb, and hope they receive mercy at the day of benefits So prays the dying Beggar’s Opera…”‘
Thanks, Michelle. If you haven’t already visited her newly re-launched website about Abraham Adcock, do have a look at it here:
She is a historical researcher and author of The Guinea Ghost, a paranormal short story set in 18th century Yorkshire, and the forthcoming book, The Sea Of Conscience, released 28 May 2014.