Engraved print of The Beggar's Opera by William Blake after Hogarth, London, England, about 1729
The 18th century saw the flourishing of theatre as a popular pastime and many theatres were enlarged and new playhouses built in London and the provinces.
One of the most successful shows on the London stage in the early part of the 18th century was the ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. John Gay recycled popular songs of the day and wrote new lyrics that were humorous and satirical. Despite the attempt to suppress it via the 1737 Licensing Act, satire remained popular, such as those staged by Samuel Foote at the Haymarket Theatre.
This engraving shows a performance of The Beggar's Opera from about 1729. This comic opera was first produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre by the father of pantomime John Rich in 1728.
Engraved print of John Gay, London, England, about 1730
It was a huge success and was regularly revived throughout the century making (as was noted at the time) 'Rich gay and Gay rich'.
At this time, it was still common for members of the audience to pay a little extra to sit on the stage itself. This ensured that everyone in the house could see their fine clothes, hear their witty comments and the young gallants could get close to the actresses. When an actor had a benefit performance, they would squeeze as many seats as they could on to the stage in order to maximise their profit. The actors barely had enough room to perform and were subject to interference from the spectators.
John Gay, born in 1688, is most famous for his ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, first produced in 1728.
This wasn't his first attempt at writing for the stage. He had tried satire, comedy and pastoral, including The Mohocks in 1712 and The What d'ye Call It in 1715. He had also written some poetry. However, none of these works had gone down particularly well with audiences. The Beggar's Opera took the town by storm. Gay himself seems to have been a charming man but quite shy.
Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera, mezzotint print by John Faber (the Younger) after John Ellys, London, England, 1728, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.3769-2009
He presented himself to the world as a simple countryman, but the modesty hid a sharp eye and a sly sense of humour.
The portrait captures these qualities, as does the epitaph he wrote for himself. He worked and was friends with many of the great writers of his day, such as Alexander Pope, to whom this plate is dedicated.
Furthermore, one of the most famous satires of the time was Lilliput based on Jonathan Swift's book Gulliver's Travels which was performed on stage in 1756 with a cast of children.
Cartoons about current social or political events were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As well as mocking individuals, they often featured symbolic figures representing a type of person (John Bull, for eample, was the archetypal Englishman).
The below cartoon is satirising the fashion for child actors that swept the country in the late 19th century, the most famous of whom was William Henry West or Master Betty.
His success led to The Glasgow Roscius and The Little Siddons, named after Sarah Siddons. The children announcing their identities in this toy theatre take no notice of each other, and all appear to be costumed for a different play.
Coloured print entitled John Bull in Lilliput or Theatricals for the Nineteenth Century, published by S W Fores, London, England, February 1805, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.4651-2009See also: