"The Beggar's Opera', and the common question, whether it was pernicious in its effects; having been introduced;--
"Johnson-- 'As to this matter, which has been very much contested, I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation. At the same time, ... there is in it such a labefactation of all principles as may be injurious to morality."
--Boswell: "Life of Johnson"
In 1728 Gay's Beggar's Opera" took London by surprise and fifty years later it was still a favorite theme for polite dispute. The occasion on which Johnson coined this mouth-filling dictum is memorable for another reason; -- the attentive Boswell for once disagreed with his master's defense of the play, and declared "the gaiety and heroines of a highwayman very captivating to a youthful imagination", and a temptation which "it requires a cool and strong judgment to resist". Boswell was not alone in his brave opposition; no loss a figure than Edmund Burke "thought the literary merit of "The Beggar's Opera' small and its social effect injurious".
A century and a half has not been sufficient to answer this academic question. Last week at New Haven, that baptismal font of good plays and evil, the revived "Beggar's Opera" came for a "one-night stand" after winning London for three years, and the whole of this country during an extensive tour. But New Haven, accustomed to passing independent judgment, was inclined to be inhospitable. Professor John Million Berdan, of Yale and Early Tudor fame, took the double role of Burke and Boswell, calling the Play banal and immoral. A good citizeness of the town, alarmed by these aspersions, appealed to the police; and a censoring sortie ensued which stirred the Yale News to earnest defense, playing Johnson to Berdan's Boswell. The performance went on but the increase in highway robberies on the road to Savin Rock has not yet been computed.
Last November, curiously enough, this same revival was received in Puritanic Boston without a murmur of moral protest. Professors of the drama, of music and of literature were ardent in their recommendations. Widener Library prepared a special exhibit of original manuscripts, old playbills, criticisms; illustrations, and "Gayiana". The Fine Arts Theatre became the student fashion, and the original month's run was extended two weeks and again two weeks, closing only with the Christmas recess.
Perhaps the University is depraved beyond redemption. Yale has recently undertaken a Temperance Movement. At any rate, the redoubtable Doctor must be called in once again: "The Beggar's Opera' is an excellent example of how literary tastes differ".