- Parody, Gender, and Transformation in Gay and Handel’s Acis and Galatea
The comic satire of John Gay tilts and turns our perspective on the cultural politics of early modern Britain, exposing in it the social mores of power relations that we still inherit today. In his burlesque works, especially The Beggar’s Opera and Polly, Gay critiques the world of early English capitalism and burgeoning empire by reworking forms and ideas drawn from popular traditions to bring them into comic and satiric play with polite forms. As he does so, he casts into view a new dynamics of class difference and, with particular emphasis on gender, the introspective politics of social and personal relations. The plebeian character of popular traditions is pivotal to Gay’s success as we see before us the laughable yet sympathetic familiarity of our ordinary selves. Critics usually discuss this complex interplay of high and low with regard to Gay’s rollicking satiric muse. However, it can be seen to shape as well the structure, themes, and aesthetic of his operatic collaboration with George Frederick Handel, Acis and Galatea, a poignant and serious work. 1
Acis and Galatea is synergetic; to understand it, we must consider text and music together, particularly as they strengthen and comment upon each other. Media and message are profoundly linked as the work affirms throughout the interdependence of mutually constructing realms. Parody is key to the method of Acis and [End Page 345] Galatea, and gender to its theme. When we recognize the collusive parodic strategies in both text and music, we see the work’s final focus on the heroine, Galatea, for the important shift it is. In the culminating artistry of the nymph’s final arias, Gay and Handel articulate a profound transformation of language, musical form, and sensibility. Enacting a complex and socially charged interplay of popular and “high” art, Acis and Galatea presents in the figure of Galatea the poignant, ambivalent, and interiorizing onlooker of a very modern-seeming world.
In 1718, Gay and Handel created Acis and Galatea, a musical drama routinely categorized as a through-composed English pastoral masque, or more recently as an anglicized Italian serenata. 2 Acis and Galatea was originally composed for private performance in May of 1718 at Cannons, the Edgeware estate of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon and later Duke of Chandos. 3 Literary scholars agree that Gay is principal author of the libretto, though one aria is known to be by John Hughes. 4 The Scriblerian circle of writers and wits in which Gay traveled frequented the Cannons estate at this time, and the libretto of Acis and Galatea reflects their joint company as do other of their works from these years, particularly those by Gay. 5
The story, taken from Ovid, tells of the nymph Galatea’s love for the shepherd Acis, whose suit to her is rivaled by the likewise smitten cyclops, Polyphemus. After being spurned by Galatea, the amorous monster discovers the two courting lovers. Flying into a rage, he crushes Acis with a stone. (The story is an etiological tale linked to the eruption of the volcanic Mount Aetna.) By the semi-divine power of the grieving Galatea, the dead Acis is transformed into a stream flowing from under the rock, a bittersweet presence “murm’ring still his gentle Love.”
Acis and Galatea unfolds in a three-stage process that culminates in Galatea’s empowered transformation of Acis. Here I will uncover and analyze this process in the work’s intricate collaboration of text and music. Acis and Galatea begins with a depiction of an Arcadia naive in its adherence to a mannered order. The shepherd Acis is identified with this realm. Next, words and music create a socially resonant portrait of Polyphemus that parodies, then destroys this order. Thus the masque moves from a purposefully overwrought pastoral to a disruptive evocation of mock-pastoral, bringing elements of high art and low into ironic and interdependent interplay. Indeed, Acis and his burlesquing double Polyphemus mirror each other with a parodic nuance that looks ahead to Macheath and other of Gay’s mock-heroes. 6 More important, as we shall see, this...