Behind an unimposing wall between Portugal Street and Lincoln’s Inn Fields lies a long lost theatre where the modern musical was born.
It was in 1738 that a reluctant impresario, John Rich, put on a new kind of performance that mixed words with popular ballads laced with satirical references to contemporary politicians and events. The Beggar’s Opera ran for 62 consecutive performances at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, an England all-comers record. It made the reluctant Mr Rich so rich he had enough money to build a swanky new theatre in Covent Garden that eventually became the Royal Opera House.
Rich was no beggar, but the play he put on was unusual in depicting ordinary folk backed by familiar tunes which the audience could hum to. Written by poet and dramatist John Gay, it was a multi-layered satire on politics (one of the characters, Bob Booty, was based on the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole), inequalities of wealth and even fashionable upper class Italian operas.
Gay got the idea by way of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who had written to Alexander Pope suggesting “a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there”. Gay decided a satire would be more appealing and his targets included well known criminals such as Jonathan Wild, heart throb highwayman Claude Duval, and Jack Sheppard, a master jail-breaker. This might have seemed a risky thing to do, but they probably wallowed in the publicity. Gay also wrote a sequel, called Polly. This was even more satirical and was banned after Walpole complained to the Lord Chamberlain, with the result that the work was not performed for over 50 years.
The Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre had originally been Lisle’s “real tennis” court, but was easily converted into a small theatre. It was the first in London to use movable backgrounds and scenery. Samuel Pepys described it as “the finest playhouse that ever was in England”.
The popularity of The Beggar’s Opera is attributed to it being about ordinary people with whom the audience could identify and its use of existing songs, including works from Handel. It has proved popular ever since and in these times of growing wealth inequalities and political intrigue, its message is as relevant as ever.
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