Toward the end of the 1720s, the behavior of opera stars, the absurdity of spectacle productions, and an escalation of political warfare between the two parties led to a reclamation of the stage by political dramatists. During the later years of King George I, who favored Robert Walpole, there was a scramble for the favor of the future King George II, his wife, and his mistress, and this combined with a shattering of public confidence in the government after the South Sea Bubble and revelations of corruption in the trial of Jonathan Wild, Charles Hitchen, the Earl of Macclesfield, and others.
John Gay and comic inversion
John Gay parodied the opera with his satirical Beggar's Opera (1728) and with it delivered a satire of Robert Walpole's actions during the South Sea Bubble. Superficially, the play is about a man named Macheath who runs a gang for a criminal fence named Peachum, whose daughter, Polly Peachum, is in love with him, and who escapes prison over and over again because the daughter of the jailor, Lucy Lockitt, is also in love with him. Peachum wishes to see Macheath hanged because Polly has married Macheath, unlike Lucy Lockitt, who is merely pregnant by him (and neither woman is concerned with Macheath's sexual activity, but only with whom he marries, for marriage means access to his estate when he is eventually hanged). Peachum fears that Macheath will turn him in to the law, and he also feels that marriage is a betrayal of good breeding, that prostitution is the genteel thing. Gay announced his intention to create the "ballad opera" with the play. The music for the songs came from tunes already popular, and ten of the tunes were from the satirist Tom D'Urfey, whose Pills to Purge Melancholy was a collection of coarse, bawdy, and amusing songs on various topics. The ballad was associated with folk songs and folk poetry, and so Gay's choice of using ballads (although ballads written by a well-known author) for his music was itself an attempt to deflate the seeming pomposity and elitism of the opera.
For most of the audience, the central entertainment of the opera was the love triangle between Macheath, Polly, and Lucy, but satirically, the centre of the opera was the Peachum/Macheath story. This story was an obvious parallel with the case of Jonathan Wild (Peachum) and Jack Sheppard (Macheath). However, it was also the tale of Robert Walpole (Peachum) and the South Sea directors (Macheath). Robert Walpole was one of the most divisive ministers in British history, and his control of the House of Commons ran for over two decades. Until Margaret Thatcher, no other Prime Minister (the office would not exist in name until later) had as adversarial a relationship with authors, and he had ruthlessly consolidated power and jealously guarded it against all threats. During the South Sea Bubble, Walpole was accused of being "the screen," protecting the moneyed directors of the corporation from prosecution and of cashing in his own shares for full value before the collapse of the stock. Further, during the life and career of the actual Jonathan Wild, Walpole's Whig ministry was suspected of protecting and supporting the master "thief-taker."
Additionally, Gay's opera was a strict parody and inversion of the opera. Gay has his thieves and prostitutes speak like upper-class gentlemen and ladies. Implicitly, he suggests that the nobles are no better than the thieves even as he suggests that thieves have their own mock-monarchies, senates, and religion. He has his Beggar (the putative author of the opera) explain that the two female leads have equal parts and therefore should not fight (a joke that witnesses of the diva battle would understand). The supernaturally lofty settings of opera are, in Gay's hands, the warrens of St Giles parish. For palace settings, he has prisons. For throne rooms, he has taverns. For kings, he has criminal fences. For knights errant/shepherd lovers, he has a highwayman. For goddesses drawn about on gilded chariots, he has a ruined maid, a chorus of prostitutes, and Polly (who is perversely chaste). The arias also use the same metaphors that were common in opera, and Gay's songs are themselves parodies of the predictable lyrics in opera. In each case, high and low trade places and Gay's suggestion of an essential likeness of the ministry with its most famous thief extended also to a suggestion that high opera is essentially like tavern songs and rounds. The play was a hit, running for an unheard-of eighty performances. Subsequently, the songs, as well as the play, were printed up and sold.
Robert Walpole, who had some personal animosity to John Gay, attended the play and enjoyed it. However, upon learning from a friend that he was one of the targets of the satire, he tried to have the play stopped. When Gay wrote a follow-up called Polly, Walpole had the play suppressed before performance. The suppression was without precedent, although it was soon to be used as a precedent, for there had been no actual attack on the ministry. The anti-ministerial (Tory) sentiment was entirely derived from interpretation.
Playwrights were therefore in straits. On the one hand, when the playhouses were not running operas imported wholesale from the continent, they were dispensing with dramatists by turning out hack-written pantomimes. On the other hand, when a satirical play appeared from a literary source, the Whig ministry suppressed it even though it came from the most popular dramatist of the day (i.e., John Gay). Furthermore, the grounds of the suppression were all implicit comparisons, and nothing explicit. Gay had not said that Walpole was a crook as bad as Wild, although he had suggested it.
The new Tory wits, escalating satire, and the creation of the Licensing Act
Robert Walpole's personal involvement in censoring entertainments critical of him only fanned the flames of the antagonism between himself and the stage. Henry Fielding, among others, was not afraid to provoke the ministry, and anti-Walpolean plays spiked after the suppression of Polly. Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730) was a satire on all of the tragedies written before him, with quotations from all the worst plays patched together for absurdity, and the plot concerned the eponymous tiny man attempting to run the kingdom and insinuate himself into the royal ranks. It was, in other words, an attack on Robert Walpole and the way that he was referred to as "the Great Man" and his supposed control over Caroline of Ansbach. As with Gay's Beggar's Opera, the miniature general speaks constantly in elevated tones, making himself a great hero, and all of the normal-sized ladies fight each other to be his lover. The contrast between reality, delusion, and self-delusion was a form of bathos that made the audience think of other grand-speaking and grandly spoken of people. If a ridiculously tiny figure could be acclaimed a hero because of his own braggadocio, might other great leaders be similarly small? Were they titans, or dwarves like Tom Thumb? Fielding announced, essentially, that the emperor had no clothes, the prime minister no greatness. Walpole responded by suppressing the performance of the play. Fielding was a justice of the peace by profession, and so he knew that the ministry could only control the stage and not book publication. Therefore, he tapped into the market for printed plays, and his revision of the play was solely in book form. It was written by "Scribblerus Secundus," its title page announced (a reference to the Scriblerus Club of Jonathan Swift, Gay, Pope, Robert Harley, Thomas Parnell, John Arbuthnot, and Henry St. John), and it was the Tragedy of Tragedies, which did for drama what Pope's Peri Bathos: or The Art of Sinking in Poetry had done for verse. Fielding placed a critical apparatus on the play, showing the sources of all the parodies, and thereby made it seem as if his target had all along been bad tragedy and not the prime minister. (Fielding's later novel, Jonathan Wild, makes it clear that such was not the case, for it used exactly the same satirical device, "the Great Man," to lambaste the same target, Robert Walpole.)
Henry Fielding was not done with ministry satire. His Covent-Garden Tragedy of 1732 was set in a brothel amongst the prostitutes. Although the play was only acted once, it, like Tom Thumb, sold when printed. Its attacks on poetic license and the antirealism of domestic tragedians and morally sententious authors was an attack on the values central to the Whig version of personal worth. Two years later, Fielding was joined by Henry Carey in anti-Walpolean satire. His Chrononhotonthologos takes its cue from Tom Thumb by outwardly satirizing the emptiness of bombast. However, it also encoded a very specific and dangerous satire of King George II and his statutory wife. The king and queen never meet in the play, and the subject is the former's wars with personal discomfort and the latter's desire for adultery. In particular, the Queen herself is implicitly attacked. However, the play also appears to be a superficial work of fancy and nonsense verse, and it delighted audiences with tongue twisters and parody. However, Carey worked The Dragon of Wantley into a play in 1734. Fielding and Carey, among others, picked up the cudgels where the Tory Wits had set them down and began to satirize Walpole and Parliament with increasing ferocity (and scatology). Although a particular play of unknown authorship entitled A Vision of the Golden Rump was cited when Parliament passed the Licensing Act of 1737 (the "rump" being Parliament, a rump roast, and human buttocks simultaneously), Carey's Dragon of Wantley was an unmistakable attack on tax policy and the ever-increasing power of the London government over the countryside. Notably, Fielding's and Carey's plays made allowances for spectacle. Indeed, their plays relied upon a burlesque of spectacle and by spectacle, for the effects of TopsyTurvy armies in Chrononhotonthologos (stacked atop each other instead of in ranks) and the titular dragon of Wantley, as well as the miniaturizing of Tom Thumb and the lurid scenery of the Covent Garden brothel, were part of the draw and part of the humor for these plays.
The Licensing Act required all plays to go to a censor before staging, and only those plays passed by the censor were allowed to be performed. Therefore, plays were judged by potential criticism of the ministry and not just by reaction or performance. The first play to be banned by the new Act was Gustavus Vasa by Henry Brooke. The play invoked the Swedish Protestant king Gustav Vasa to castigate the purportedly corrupt Parliament of Walpole's administration, although Brooke would claim that he meant only to write a history play. Samuel Johnson wrote a Swiftian parodic satire of the licensers, entitled A Complete Vindication of the Licensers of the Stage (1739). The satire was, of course, not a vindication at all but rather a reductio ad absurdum of the position for censorship. Had the licensers not exercised their authority in a partisan manner, the Act might not have chilled the stage so dramatically, but the public was well aware of the bannings and censorship, and consequently any play that did pass the licensers was regarded with suspicion by the public. Therefore, the playhouses had little choice but to present old plays and pantomime and plays that had no conceivable political content. One consequence was that William Shakespeare's reputation grew enormously as his plays saw a quadrupling of performances, and sentimental comedy and melodrama were the only "safe" choices for new drama. Dramatists themselves had to turn to prose or to less obvious forms of criticism, such as puppet shows that Charlotte Charke would invest in.