‘When Farce and when Musick can eke out a Play’: Ballad Opera and Theatre’s Commerce

Joncus, Berta. 2020. ‘When Farce and when Musick can eke out a Play’: Ballad Opera and Theatre’s Commerce. In: Delia da Sousa Correa, ed. The Edinburgh Companion to Literature and Music. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 289-296. ISBN 9780748693122 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

Ballad opera, fathered by John Gay 1728 and propelled forward by Henry Fielding until 1736, capitalized on tensions rampant in eighteenth-century theatre. Its music joined with the literary and theatrical traditions of pastoral, satire, burlesque and sentimental comedy in riotous, heterodox works connected not by similar content but by shared practice. John Ralph, lampooning the genre in his ballad opera _The Fashionable Lady_ (1730), succinctly articulated the practices and critical reception of current ballad opera productions in ways illuminating for students of the genre.

A close reading of Ralph’s burlesque will allow us to identify how Gay, Fielding and others first formulated, and then brilliantly exploited, ballad opera’s curious dramatic syntax, crucial to which were the manipulation of generic formulae and the introduction of musical numbers to interrupt the narrative flow. Ballads and airs, putatively tasked with ‘teaching’ audiences what lesson to draw from the drama, in practice became moments of direct address by the playwright or celebrity actor. Ralph’s sarcastic review of ballad opera’s merging of high- with low-style traditions in music and comedy illuminates these transactions in political wit and theatrical celebrity. Ralph’s observations help us understand how ballad opera established its extraordinary hold on the London stage, and how it generated a new industry in British music.

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ballad opera, 18th century, British vocal music, common tunes, pantomime, James Ralph

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June 2020Published

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Date Deposited:

17 Jul 2020 09:18

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17 Jul 2020 09:18



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