Guest Blog: Writer Carl Grose On DEAD DOG IN A SUITCASE (AND OTHER LOVE SONGS)
We at Kneehigh aren't the first to refashion a Beggar's Opera for our times. And I'm betting we won't be the last. The enduring power of John Gay's extraordinary musical mash-up of high and low art, first unleashed in 1726, made an explosive impression on popular culture then and continues to do so now.
But what makes The Beggar's Opera so alluring? What continues to draw artists and audiences alike back to its subversive form, moralistic darkness and low-down, dirty charms? (I think I've answered my own question there, but let's pretend I haven't and delve a little!)
Firstly, you have to love the characters. As the writer of Kneehigh's version, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs), I know the first thing that made me fall in love with the original material was the lurid gallery of folk who populated Gay's world. Macheath the highwayman. Mr and Mrs Peachum, the corrupt business owners, and their sweet, innocent daughter Polly. Lockit the jailer and his daughter Lucy.
These brilliantly vivid characters operate like archetypes. They lurk in our collective cultural consciousness like figures from folklore. Macheath in particular is a trickster, a disrupter, a dangerous but charming bastard. We love characters like this. They do in drama what we, in life, cannot, which is to steal from the rich, live wild, immoral lives, surviving beyond the reach of the law, and cheating death at every corner.
Secondly, Gay's themes are as resonant today as they ever were. The Beggar's Opera explores social injustice and systemic corruption within institutions. It also makes the connection between greed and crime, and it cites how big business and the privileged few get away with murder. Themes as old as the hills, sadly. He incapsulates it in a proto-punk song right at the end of his play:
"But gold from law can take out the sting
And if rich men like us were to swing
T'would thin the land such numbers string
Upon Tyburn Tree!"
Isn't it f-ing great? This is undiluted John Gay. I rewrote everything. But not this final song. It can't be bettered. It is the burning heart of his piece, and ours. It is a song that needs to be sung. And it never gets old.
Thirdly, John Gay created a new theatrical musical form with the invention of the jukebox musical. No one had ever taken the lofty, high-class art form of opera and subverted it in such a way. Indeed, even his slamming together of the words "Beggar's" and "opera" proved highly controversial.
Imagine what the upper echelons thought of him taking pieces written by Handel and Purcell (art-house composers of godlike stature at the time) and overlaying them with filthy, scabrous lyrics describing prostitutes and thieves and the social miasma of London's underbelly in the 1700s. They utterly hated it, of course. How dare this son of a grocer take such gifts from the greats and sully them!
However, the other end of the social spectrum lapped it up, and the show was an enormous popular hit. Gay had taken opera in all its finery, rubbed shit in its face, and given it to back to everyone. He democratised art.
In 1920, Nigel Playfair revived it at the Lyric in Hammersmith (where we will play Dead Dog through May and June). It was a Hamilton-sized hit and ran for 1,460 consecutive performances over three straight years.
Sure, they censored it - more than the original outing. But this run cemented the legacy of Gay's piece in more ways than one. It was here that Bertolt Brecht came to see it. As the shadow of fascism fell across Europe, he made a version for his time; The Threepenny Opera was born. Now, who doesn't know the woozy crooner's classic to Mac The Knife? A jaunty, jazzy number about a loveable serial killing crook?
We made our version in 2014 against the collapse of the banks and the immigration crisis, and we revive it now in the midst of Brexit, Trump, and another wave of fascism. A lot of shit has gone down recently, and the world seems to be changing all too quickly. But the song remains the same. John Gay knew that as long as there is greed and avarice and injustice in the world, Macheath will have his place.
Photo credit: Steve Tanner