In September 1773, the actor and impresario David Garrick got into a dispute with the Westminster magistrate John Fielding, over Garrick’s plan to shortly begin staging John Gay’s Beggars’ Opera (see our previous post). Fielding was trying to persuade Garrick not to put the play on, as the Opera ‘made people laugh at scenes which they ought to condemn’, thus corrupting the morals of the ‘lowers orders’. Writing to Garrick, Fielding suggested changing the ending of the play, proposing that the protagonist Macheath should be hanged instead of being reprieved.
Fielding was keen to censor immorality on the stage – a long tradition in London, where the authorities saw theatres as potential hotbeds of unrest. From Elizabethan times to the nineteenth century the Lord Chamberlain’s office oversaw theatres and regularly closed down plays seen as unruly or immoral. Nor was the widely held view among magistrates and government that the ‘mob’ that gathered to watch plays could easily become a riotous crowd and a political challenge entirely unjustified… Gradually however, the protection of public morality became a bigger concern for the censors.
Fielding claimed that stagings of the Beggars’ Opera had always resulted in a wave of crime and immorality in the city. Critics replied that he had the cart before the horse – John Gay’s Opera was commenting on the state of the world, not responsible for it.
In reply to Fielding, Garrick ‘in return pleasantly remarked, that it did not seem his interest at present to carry conviction to such lengths’…
Commentators of the time were amused by the request, since Fielding himself was thought to be immured in vice, and to tolerate and profit from the bribes from, any number of rackets in the area he nominally policed… As William Augustus Miles pointed out in a letter to Fielding, ‘not endeavouring to suppress the open practice of all manner of vice and immorality in his own neighbourhood, before he made application to Mr Garrick for the suppression of the Beggars’ Opera… considering the uniform practice of your life… your being intrenched up to your very chin in all manner of vice… the request to Mr Garrick was neither decent nor plausible, and what a man, the least conversant with your character, can hear without a mixture of laughter and indignation…. Do you imagine that to expose vice is the same as to encourage it?’
Ironically, although Garrick refused to play Fielding’s game, Fielding could easily have thought Garrick would be up for it, since he was well-accustomed to re-writing famous dramas. He continued the Restoration tradition of adapting Shakespeare’s tragedies to give them happy endings or editing out classic scenes, although he did bring some whole chunks of Shakespeare’s texts that late 17th century playwrights had excised. Garrick also took a dim view of the unruly culture of the theatre-going crowds, who were fond of making a racket, heckling, entering and leaving noisily when they liked, and carrying on in what sounds like a most enjoyable fashion to break down the strict separation of audience and viewer. However Garrick’s attempts to reform the audience – refusing admittance behind the scenes and on the stage and attempted to discontinue the practice of reduced entry fees for those who left early or came late, but these changes resulted in riots. Theatre crowds were made of sterner stuff back then and took no shit when it came to price rises or controls on their behaviour… (We will hopefully come back to this on 18th September).
Fielding’s attempt to censor, or persuade Garrick to censor the Beggars Opera itself inspired drama. Shortly after, an anonymous play was staged in London, called “The Bow Street Opera in Three Acts. Written on the Plan of the Beggars’ Opera”. It featured deeply satirical and scathing attacks on the politics an hypocrisy of the justice system, aimed directly at Fielding, who was portrayed as ‘Justice Blindman’ (he had been blind since an accident at the age of 19), but very much in the style of John Gay, also relating a thinly veiled account of the career of radical demagogue and bogy of the establishment (at least until he joined it), John Wilkes.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online