What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Will be read, The BEGGAR’s OPERA.”
Many advertisements in eighteenth-century newspapers encouraged colonists to participate in consumer culture, promoting an array of goods to acquire and services to obtain. Other advertisements invited colonists to participate in popular culture, promoting various kinds of spectacles and performances ranging from fireworks displays to viewing exotic animals when their proprietors arrived in town for limited time only. An advertisement in the September 16, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette announced a performance of The Beggar’s Opera “at Mr. Hacker’s Assembly-Room” two days later.
This was not, however, a full-scale production of the ballad opera. Instead, it featured a single performer, “a Person who has read and sung in most of the great Towns in America.” Even though the advertisement indicated that the opera “will be read” by an individual rather than performed by a larger cast, it also assured prospective viewers that “All the Songs will be sung.” The ballad opera lent itself well to such treatment. Originating in England in the early eighteenth-century, ballad opera intermixed spoken dialogue with music in the popular style. The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728, included music drawn from broadsheet ballads, church hymns, and folk tunes familiar to general audiences. Viewers in Providence and “the great Towns in America” may have hummed or even sang along with the itinerant performer who read the dialogue for their entertainment.
To draw an audience to Hacker’s Assembly Room, the advertisement promised a spectacle. The lone performer “personates all the Characters, “including Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, “and enters into the different Humours or Passions, as they change from one to another, throughout the Opera.” The advertisement invited prospective viewers to witness this extravaganza. Those who saw it would join the ranks of audiences in other “great Towns in America,” enjoying an experience that they could discuss with others for days after the performance concluded. If this rendition of The Beggar’s Opera became the talk of the town, readers of the Providence Gazette could not afford to miss it. To guarantee themselves a spot in Hacker’s Assembly Hall, they had to purchase a ticket in advance. After all, the advertisement made clear “No Person to be admitted without a Ticket.”