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The Success and Signification of The Beggar’s Opera (1728) in an Era of Illiteracy, Expensive Books and Bad Roads

Abstract : While the levelling of elite and popular cultural forms has long been recognised as integral to the extraordinary reverberation in eighteenth-century British society of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, this article argues that the ballad opera’s subversive challenge to prevailing norms relied just as importantly on its capacity to overcome the material impediments limiting the circulation of cultural products and restricting their reception to a miniscule and wealthy section of the population living in the main urban centres. The socially-stratified cultural sphere was imagined as registering a hierarchy of taste, but material conditions also acted as regulators of access to the artefacts of high culture. The impact on audiences of the ballad opera’s provocative postulate of a community of taste – unifying in shared pleasure the most disparate of publics – derived I argue from its authentication: the performance purporting to emanate from the humblest section of the population did effectively circulate outside the walls of theatre houses to fairs and barns in London and the provinces. Moreover, this circulation was not restricted to these theatrical reproductions and adaptations, for the different media which had been metonymically conjoined in the performance of the ballad opera – the prompt-book text outlining the story, the sing-able songs and the charismatic stage characters – could, in a yet greater diversity of media forms, break apart, take on a life of their own and travel without ever losing the resonances acquired by their mutual interrelation. The Beggar’s Opera levelled because it reached “all ranks of people” and its success was intimately linked to the sensation it procured of experiencing a pleasure embracing in a common humanity the whole of society.
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Submitted on : Friday, December 13, 2019 - 9:31:06 AM
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Orla Smyth. The Success and Signification of The Beggar’s Opera (1728) in an Era of Illiteracy, Expensive Books and Bad Roads. Hans-Peter Wagner. Intermediality and the Circulation of Knowledge in the Eighteenth Century, 6, WVT, pp.67-87, 2019. ⟨hal-02408545⟩



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