Playwrights of Ballad Opera: Henry Fielding
Born to Colonel Edmund Fielding and Sarah Gould in 1707, Henry Fielding eventually gained lasting fame for his work as a pioneering novelist. Prior to that achievement, Fielding’s claim to fame had stemmed from his work as a playwright. Fielding ignored entirely any form of serious theater, instead focusing on comedy, particularly satire, and couching his plays almost entirely in the framework of a ballad opera. Of Fielding’s plays, most of the most successful were ballad opera’s and most were satires of somehow influential Englishmen and/or contemporary issues. In fact Fielding so loved satire that several times he rewrote successful plays to enhance the obviousness of the satire, even going so far in his rewriting of Tom Thumb as The Tragedy of Tragedies as to sacrifice humor and audience pleasure for satire by removing some popular jokes in favor of more obvious satire and by adding lengthy footnotes to a copy of the play handed out at the entrance before and during performances.
As addicted as Fielding was to both satire and ballad opera, the relationship seems to have been one of cause and effect, rather than of random chance. Of the extant genres of Fielding’s time, none offered the freedom of newly created and therefore loosely defined ballad opera. Really, the only restrictions of the genre were that the songs were to be easy for the actresses and audience to sing and remember and the plot was to be humorous. After that anything was acceptable. This liberty was very attractive to Fielding, a man whose dedication to getting his point across instilled in him a great willingness to bend the rules. In fact, it could be said that the freedom of ballad opera enticed Fielding to take unnecessary liberties, such as his puppet show within a play in The Author’s Farce. However, just as ballad opera helped define Fielding’s style, Fielding helped define ballad opera as a genre. Fielding’s love of satire, combined with the, according to popular belief, satirical nature of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera led to the irreversible association of ballad opera with satire. SO much so in fact, that after the Licensing Act of 1737, an act designed to limit satirical attacks against the government, ballad opera productions nearly died out.