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The Beggar’s Opera and The Player and Stupid Endings

October 5, 2013

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John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and Robert Altman’s movie The Player (1992) share a remarkably similar commitment to the idea of the ludicrous happy ending.

At the end of The Beggar’s Opera, the beggarly writer informs the theatre manager that Macheath, the hero, will be hanged and that all his associates will be hanged and transported in due course.   This ending offers realistic poetical justice.  The theatre manager asserts that such a tragic ending will prove quite unacceptable and so the writer instead comes up with the idea of someone riding up at the last minute with a pardon.  Macheath is saved and everybody dances.  It’s not a realistic ending, but it’s wonderfully realistic about how commercially unrealistic realism can be.

Likewise in The Player (scripted by Michael Tolkin), there is in Altman’s Hollywood, a film constantly being pitched within the movie.  Played by Richard E. Grant, a passionate young film-maker insists on making a tragic film with no big stars which culminates tragically with the execution of the innocent lead character “because that happens”.  This grim narrative is pitched at various points in the film before, at the end of our main story, we are offered a screening of the film as it was finally developed.  At this point, the film stars Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis.  Julia Roberts is in the gas chamber, which is filling up with something toxic, when Bruce Willis (sans shirt), blasts down the door, smashes open the chamber door and carries her out of the prison, Officer and a Gentleman style.  “What kept you?” “Traffic was a bitch!”.  When it is suggested that this is no longer the film as pitched, then the by now jaded director merely refers to the dreadful effect of his original conception on test audiences.

I have know idea whether  Michael Tolkin  was originally inspired by John Gay, but the delight in the stupidity of the happy ending is very similar.  Neither of these works are what you might call bitter satires as such – neither of them offer consistent moral visions, but they do generate immense inventive comedy out of inconsistency.  The larger narrative of The Player is about a man who gets away with murder, and whether as we watch him, we want him to get away with it.  Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera is one who seduces because he lives so intently in the present tense.  His commitment to whichever girl he’s with at any given moment is absolute, but he is incapable of joining up the various scenes of his life into any consistent consecutive identity – one that demands a settled policy.

Realism itself is revealed for the fabrication it is.  We cannot interpret our place in the world without narrative, and we cannot tell stories without a sense of desired resolution.  The joke is on the audience as far as both narratives are concerned.  We’ve been given the endings we all of us wanted, but do we really like ourselves for having wanted them all along?

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