Saturday, June 30, 2012

John Gay's 18th century work endures

It is the birthday of English poet and dramatist John Gay (1685), whose satirical ballad opera The Beggar's Opera (1728) featured the characters Captain Macheath, a highwayman and his lover, Polly Peachum, and inspired a modern-day musical and an enduring popular song.

Gay's satirical work skewered the government of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister, and its tolerance for the illegal activities of infamous criminal Jonathan Wild and robber Jack Sheppard. It was quite popular in its time and made Gay a wealthy man. Gay was a contemporary of poet Alexander Pope and satirist Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), who encouraged is work.

More than 200 years later, German dramatist  Bertolt  Brecht and composer Kurt Weill were inspired to create The Threepeny Opera, based on Gay's work. They wrote the enduring song The Ballad of Mack the Knife, the best-known recording of which was made by Louis Armstrong in 1956, though a close contender could be Bobby Darin's version in 1959.

Here is Armstrong's 1959 performance of a song written in 1933 based on a work originally used to poke fun at English nobility  in 1728. Enjoy!

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