I am delighted to welcome back a guest who writes under the pen name of Erato. Her article last time was about her then latest book – The Cut of the Clothes: A Story of Prinny and Beau Brummell.
Today she is here to talk about her new book which has just been released – Slick Filth: A Story of Robert Walpole and Henry Giffard.
I remember the first time I saw G.W. Pabst’s 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera, I was very struck by what a wicked man Mack the Knife was and how there was so little attempt to give him any really favourable qualities. The popular versions of Threepenny’s famous Mack the Knife tune, sung by Sinatra and his ilk, have lyrics that omit and soften many of his worst crimes, and with their upbeat, jazzy rhythms (a bit different from Brecht’s original) make Macheath sound like a pretty swell guy.
It’s reasonably well known that The Threepenny Opera was adapted from John Gay’s 18th century musical The Beggar’s Opera, but it takes a little more work to discover that Macheath was conceived as a rather blatant caricature of the first Englishman to win the title of Prime Minister — Robert Walpole.
With the understanding that the show’s star, criminal Macheath, was created to poke fun at a politician, his lack of good qualities becomes far less surprising. John Gay’s 1728 musical was a huge hit, spawning a veritable fad of stage plays which poked fun at politicians. Audiences loved them — but the politicians, not so much. Robert Walpole bribed a theatre manager to prevent the staging of Gay’s sequel to Beggar’s Opera, entitled Macheath Turned Pirate; but this action only turned the printed script for the play into a bestseller.
Whether it was due to some personal vendetta against the theatre for his depiction as Macheath the Highwayman, or whether it was over a real concern that the political satires had gotten out of hand, Robert Walpole soon set into motion a bill which would strengthen the power of politicians to censor the British stage. In order to gain support for his proposed regulations, he read before Parliament some passages from an extremely offensive play called The Golden Rump, which was purportedly intended to be staged in London.
No script for The Golden Rump survives, and there is doubt amongst scholars as to whether or not a complete script for such a show ever really existed; for, it seems that everybody who has ever looked into the matter has come to the conclusion that Robert Walpole created the alleged script himself.
By reading passages from a play so offensive that nobody could possibly agree that it should have been staged, Walpole was able to convince both the Commons and Lords of a need to enact stricter censorship of stage shows. The result of this Licensing Act was that the Lord Chamberlain had to approve the scripts for all new plays before they could be performed; and this remained law until the 1960s. The dearth of good English stage plays from the 18th century has been directly attributed to Walpole and his Licensing Act; for not only was there a risk that a show could be suppressed for any reason at all, but also the expense of submitting new scripts to the Lord Chamberlain limited the playhouses’ interest in even trying new shows. Revivals of Shakespeare, Otway and Dryden became the norm for much of the 18th century’s theatrical fare.
An effort to re imagine the script has been composed in my new book Slick Filth; inspiration was taken from genuine offensive plays of the past such as a Henry Fielding’s Pasquin (1736) and the unsurprisingly anonymous Sodom; or, the Quintessence of Debauchery (1689). The effect is rather like South Park, only with long-Ss and greater use of the word “swive.”
A glimpse of my play:
And for those who don’t relish the idea of reading a mere play script, unstageable as it is, Slick Filth also contains a fictionalised account of Walpole’s creation of the script, as told by his unwilling accomplice, Henry Giffard of Goodman’s Fields.
Slick Filth: A Story of Robert Walpole and Henry Giffard to which is appended the Farce of The Golden Rump by Erato is available in hardback at Amazon and other retailers.
Captain Macheath Upbraided by Polly and Lucy in the ‘Beggar’s Opera’, 1826. Gilbert Stuart Newton (1794–1835)