Dragons and slayers: a new recording of Lampe’s burlesque opera The Dragon of Wantley from Resonus Classics

‘A dragon is no idle fancy.  Whatever may be his origins, in fact or invention, the dragon in legend is a potent creation of men’s imagination, richer in significance than his barrow is in gold.  Even to-day (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them, who yet have been caught by the fascination of the worm.’  

So wrote J.R.R. Tolkien in his 1936 lecture ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’.  And, it’s certainly true that whether it’s the Archangel Michael fighting a war in heaven with ‘an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads’ whose ‘tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth’; or St George, saving the King’s daughter from becoming the beast’s sacrificial lunch on condition that the people convert to Christianity; or Beowulf saving the people of Heorot from Grendel, fighting the monster bare-handed … for every dragon there is a dragon-slayer – a hero.  After all, Dragons are not ordinary creatures, therefore, no ordinary man could possibly kill them.

In John Frederick Lampe’s burlesque opera, The Dragon of Wantley – which was first performed at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket on 16th May 1737 – the ‘hero’ is the inebriate, preposterously attired but ‘valiant’ Squire Moore, who saves a village from a rampaging, child-eating dragon by despatching the marauding beast with a well-aimed ‘Kick on the Back-side’.  Lampe’s librettist, Henry Carey, adapted an old English ballad set in the Rotherham area of his native Yorkshire – the legend of Moore of Moore Hall and the dragon of Wantley, or Wharncliffe, which would have been familiar to eighteenth-century audiences from the ballad printed in Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy (1699) and Ambrose Phillip’s A Collection of Old Ballads (1723) – bringing the down-to-earth English folktale into ironic conversation with the artifice and high-flown rhetoric of Italian opera seria

It has been posited that the idea of turning the tale into a burlesque of Italian opera may have come from the synopsis of a possible comic opera scenario which was published by the anonymous author (presumed by some to be the political journalist and historican James Ralph) of The Touch-Stone in 1728, although it seems likely that the various facetious subjects suggested were not serious propositions but rather designed to lampoon the fickle London audiences who had abandoned Italian opera for the catchy ballads of The Beggar’s Opera.[1]  Similarly, it’s sometimes suggested that Lampe’s Wantley was influenced by Handel’s Giustino which premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre on 16th February 1737 and which presents the heroic exploits of the titular hero who saves Leocasta from a bear and Arianna from a sea monster.  But, Carey and Lampe apparently offered it to Charles Fleetwood at Drury Lane as early as 1734–35 since Carey’s Preface to the printed libretto states that Wantley ‘had lain several Years dormant in the Repository’ of Drury Lane Theatre.

The definitive three-act Dragon of Wantley as performed at Covent Garden (the Little Theatre production was advertised as being in two acts) opens with the locals fleeing at the approach of the Dragon. Margery, a ‘fair Maid of sixteen’, who is the object of Moore’s affections, her father Gaffer Gubbins, and Mauxalinda, Moore’s ‘cast-off mistress’ (‘Maux’ being slang for a slattern or prostitute), issue Moore the challenge of ridding them of the Dragon:

Gentle Knight!  All Knights exceeding,
Pink of Prowess, and good Breeding,
Let a Virgin’s Tears inspire thee,
Let a Maiden’s blushes fire thee.

‘Scene from the ballad The Dragon of Wantley; etching by John June; ca. 1744–75. Photograph of this etching is ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

It’s a challenge that the Squire accepts in return for Margery’s favours, thereby inflaming Mauxalinda’s jealousy.  The latter is hell-bent on revenge when she encounters Margery, who has had a premonition of Moore’s death, threatening: “Were you as fine as e’er were Silk or Satin,/ I’d beat your Harlot’s Brains out with my Patten,/ Before you shall delude a Man of mine … D’ye laugh, ye Minx! I’ll make you change your Note,/ Or drive your grinning Grinders down your Throat.”  Moore intervenes in the women’s catfight, drinks ‘Six Quarts of Ale, And one of Aquae-vitae’ to gird his loins and, in the final Act, dons a suit of spiked armour, hides in a well, and slays the Dragon with his timely, targeted boot to the accompaniment of an orchestral ‘Battle Piece’.  The ‘hero’ is reunited with Margery, who has been hiding up a tree, and the opera concludes with a cheerful chorus:

Sing Sing and Rorio,
An Oratorio,
Of gallant Morio of Moore-hall.

In eighteenth-century London, Wantley was the most popular opera after Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), its success credited to the juxtaposition of Carey’s crude inanities and a score that mocked Handel in his most majestic mode.  While following in the satirical footsteps of The Beggar’s Opera, Lampe mocked Italianate idiosyncrasies by replicating the idiom: in his Preface Carey describes the score as being ‘as grand and pompous as possible’.  Lampe eschewed spoken dialogue and set the entire text to music, imitating Handel’s secco recitative, lavish da capo arias, elaborate simile arias, florid coloratura, vigorous fugal choruses and lieto fine convention, suggesting that opera seria was considered sufficiently ludicrous on its own terms to have no need of further extravagant embellishments.  Even the enraged Dragon has a coloratura showpiece, though the unison doubling of the singing beast’s bass voice and Carey’s coarse lyrics confirm the comic intent: “Oh!  Mr. Moore,/ You Son of a Whore,/ I wish I’d known Your tricks before.”

Moreover, Wantley simulates the elaborate excesses of the Italian genre both on and off the stage, the competition between Moore’s two lovers surely being designed to imitate the feuding between Handel’s rival divas, the mezzo-soprano Faustina Bordoni and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni.  And, Carey couldn’t resist having a dig at the physiological inadequacies of Italian castrati, when Margery, in an aria lauding Moore’s heroic masculinity, bluntly confirms, “He’s a man every inch, I assure you.”  It seems ironic that it was the very London nobility who patronised the exalted Italian art form who would have appreciated the burlesque parody and witticisms, suggesting that for all its elevated status opera seria was perceived as being innately comic.  

Carey’s libretto was reprinted fourteen times in just over a year.  Wantley was quickly taken up by other companies, transferring to Covent Garden in October 1737 where it enjoyed a run of 69 performance – trumping Gay’s record.  It was pirated at Drury Lane and Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield, and held the stage until 1782.  This month, Resonus Classics release a new recording of Lampe’s operatic burlesque, with a starry cast including Mary Bevan, Mark Wilde, Catherine Carby, John Savournin and the Brook Street Band conducted by John Andrews.

John Andrews (c) Matthew Johnson

Lampe (c.1703-51) was, like Handel, a Britain-domiciled German.  He arrived in London in or just before 1726 and was a bassoonist in Handel’s orchestra.  In 1732–33, he teamed up with Henry Carey, when he joined the latter and Thomas Arne in a project to produce English operas at the Little Theatre.  Lampe wrote three serious operas for this company ‘after the Italian manner’, only a few airs of which survive, as well as instrumental music for composers on successful theatrical careers.  In spring 1734 Lampe wrote incidental music for two plays, a ‘dramatic performance’ (masque) to celebrate Princess Anne’s wedding to the Prince of Orange entitled Aurora’s Nuptials and the pantomime Cupid and Psyche, or Columbine Courtezan, the latter being his first major success.

Lampe seems to have disappeared from the capital’s theatre season for a few years but when he returned in 1737 to mount The Dragon of Wantley it was triumphantly received – the sensation of the season.  The burlesque is Lampe’s only work which survives complete, although as John Andrews explains the sources are not uncomplicated.  Two scores were published in 1738, one containing the airs and duets and the other the overture and choruses.  Neither contain the recitatives, though the latter do exist in a manuscript score, now in the archives of the Royal College of Music and reputed to be in the hand of the countertenor and copyist, Thomas Barrow. 

Mary Bevan and Catherine Carby (c) Matthew Johnson

The MS seems to relate to a later production, explains Andrews, as one of the original two soprano roles has been transposed to a mezzo-soprano range suggesting that the MS might have derived from a small-scale touring production during which the part of Mauxalinda could have been taken by a soloist who would also have sung in the one-to-a-part chorus, and whose range did not extend to the top C peak of the original soprano role.  While it preserves the recitatives – although Andrews observes that these contain several ‘gear changes’ – the MS version is heavily cut, and also omits the da capos.  In addition to these sources, several airs appeared in Bickham’s contemporary series The Musical Entertainer of 1739, the engravings of which seem to show scenes from an early production.  Given the incompleteness of the various sources, an editor’s only option is to pragmatically conflate them.

‘Moore Coaxing Mauxalinda’ in George Bickham, Bickham’s Musical Entertainer, vol. 2 (C. Corbett: London, 1740)

The Dragon of Wantley invites reflections on interlocking debates about contemporary politics and culture.  In ‘Ballads and Britons: Imagined Community and the Continuity of ‘English’ Opera’, Suzanne Aspden notes that John Addison’s 1711 Spectator article ridiculing the theatrical histrionics of the castrato Nicolini is an early example of ‘the British suspicion of Italian opera’; and, that in observing that there was once a proposal to cast an opera from ‘an English folk-tale [the story of Whittington and his cat – rejected by the playhouse proprietor for fear of mice infestation] as homespun antithesis to the pretensions of Italian opera, Addison strikes a chord that resonates throughout early eighteenth-century attempts to control operatic representation in Britain’.[2]  Aspden suggest that popular history, and the ballad in particular, played a part ‘in forming the ideal of a theatrical and operatic form that could speak for the nation’ and that such national stories could serve not only as ‘as bathetic counterbalance to the excesses of Italian opera’ but also ‘polemical purposes’.

John Savournin and Mark Wilde (c) Matthew Johnson

Between 1711 and 1747, approximately 70 percent of all stage productions mounted in London were comedies or farcical afterpieces.  Returning to the popular tales proposed as suitable for operatic treatment in The Touch-Stone, such as ‘St George and the Dragon’ and ‘Tom Thumb’, Aspden suggests that the anonymous author intended these for ‘genuine, if mocking, consideration’.  One outline scenario began with ‘a Chorus of Men, Women, and Children, whose Bread and Butter, Milk-Pottage or Relations the Dragon had devour’d’ and closed with ‘the Combat … the Dragon’s Death, and a grand Chorus of the whole Country’.

Moreover, alongside parallels with the English patron saint, The Dragon of Wantley also engaged with contemporary issues, the ballad having already been deployed for satirical purposes during the 1733 Excise crisis (when the government of Robert Walpole proposed new taxes on necessities such as wine and tobacco).  Several ballads circulated in which Walpole’s tax was depicted as a dragon ransacking the British countryside, the most famous of which, Britannia Excisa, was, Aspden observes, ‘accompanied by an engraving showing a many-headed dragon harnessed to a coach holding Sir Robert; as the dragon gobbles ‘Beef, Bread and Bacon’ it throws gold back to the minister.  The Dragon of Wantley, also famed for devouring comestibles, was a natural analogue’.  ‘An Excise Elegy: or, The Dragon Demolish’d’ which celebrated the defeat of the bill reflected:

Oh! have you not heard of the Wantley great Dragon,
Which poor helpless Children did not leave a Rag on?
This Monster Excise,
For so say the Wise,
More fierce would have been, and occasion’d more Cries.

(c) Matthew Johnson

Aspden’s account extends the contemporary political relevance of The Dragon of Wantley, connecting representations which associated Walpole with a dragon – such as the 1737 allegorical engraving, Festival of the Golden Rump – with George II’s penchant for kicking those who annoyed him.  That The Common Sense newspaper declared that ‘nobody should have the Honour of being kicked by the Sovereign, except the first Minister’ leads Aspden to imagine ‘Moore dispatching the Dragon in the climactic scene of The Dragon of Wantley as satirical fulfilment of the Opposition’s desire to remove Walpole from office’, suggesting that this ‘may explain something of the work’s popularity’.  But, there’s also surely a strong connection with that other dragon-slayer, St George, representative of English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry with which the monarch would surely have wished to have been associated.

It would seem that the dragon is a potent British symbol and that cultural representations of dragons, however ‘low’ (dragons abound in eighteenth-century verse satires, harlequinades, pantomimes), had real social power.  As Carey wrote in his Preface, ‘they say ’tis low, very low; now (begging their Worships Pardon) I affirm it to be sublime, very sublime:
It is a Burlesque Opera:
And Burlesque cannot be too low.

Lowness (figuratively speaking) is the Sublimity of Burlesque: If so, this Opera is, consequently, the tip-top Sublime of its Kind.’

In ‘The Legacy of Stage Dragons and the Monstrous Eighteenth Century’, Manushag N. Powell suggests that Wantley’s success was a result not only of the sublime juxtaposition of frivolousness, flatulence and high art, ‘but also by the compatibility between its subject matter and that same discordia concors’: that Carey’s burlesque is ‘a well-arranged playing up of something long present in English dragon folk culture’.[4]  In Courage Crowned with Conquest (1641) a ballad about the gallant Sir Eglamore of Artois (the hero of a popular Middle English verse romance), the knight overcomes the impenetrability of the dragon’s hide by thrusting his sword into the beast’s mouth with such force that ‘the hilt appeared at his fundament’, then celebrates his heroism with a flagon of ale.  ‘Wantley was’, argues Powell, ‘on solid historical ground in embracing the corpuscular vulgarity of dragon slaying’.  Stage dragons were nothing new either, in pantomimes such as John Rich’s The Necromancer, or Harlequin Doctor Faustus which was presented at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in December 1723.  In 1724, prints appeared in the periodical Tea-Table and in William Hogarth’s Masquerades and Operas (or, The Bad Taste of the Town) which, Powell suggests, ‘use the dragons as shorthand for the larger, thrilling, but slightly gauche phenomenon of the Faustus pantomimes’. The verse that accompanies Hogarth’s print declare:

O how refin’d, how elegant we’re grown!
What noble Entertainments Charm the Town
Whether to hear the Dragon’s roar we go,
Or gaze surpriz’d on Fawks’s matchless Show.

William Hogarth, Masquerades and Operas, in Daily Courant 24.2 (1724).

Henry Carey was the composer for the Harlequin Doctor Faustus.  But, he was not the first to bring the Wantley ballad to the stage.  Eliza Haywood’s A Wife to Be Lett, which premiered in 1723, incorporates a chorus from the ballad which compares a rival in love to the ravaging dragon.  Powell suggests that Haywood’s comedy could ‘conceivably have helped put the Wantley ballad in Carey or Thurmond’s mind, and at least it shows how well known the old ballad continued to be in the 1720s’.  Similarly, ‘[p]ost-Carey, the Wantley Dragon and his enemy Moore of Moore-hall appear in puppet shows, pantomimes, and various novelizations’, and, even if the burlesque came to be considered somewhat old-fashioned ‘Wantley continued to be staged frequently through the 1750s and onward, well into the nineteenth century’.  Moreover, it had a ‘dynamic afterlife’, in the children’s market – in the form of pantomimes, puppet shows and short stories – initiated partly by Carey’s self-branding of his burlesque.  As early as 1738, selected printings of Wantley reached for the children’s market, the publishing blurb claiming that an expert pedagogue had ‘found it to be of infinite Use in alluring little Children to learn to read, when other Books have been found ineffectual. For which reason I hereby exhort and advise all Fathers and Mothers, Godfathers, &c. to buy this book by way of New-years Gift, as they would an Anodyne Necklace [used for teething and to ward off illness] for the Improvement of this Generation, and the advantage of the Future’.

Carey and Lampe attempted but failed to replicate their success in a sequel, Margery, or A Worse Plague than the Dragon, which was produced at Covent Garden in 1738, though Lampe consolidated his position in London musical and social life by marrying his leading lady, Isabella Young, in December 1738, in the process becoming Thomas Arne’s brother-in-law (Arne had married Isabella’s sister, Cecilia, the preceding year).  Wantley‘s dragon reappeared in the form of the seventeen-foot clockwork snake that devoured Euridice in Lampe’s 1740 pantomine, Orpheus and Euridice, and there was more lampooning of European conventions in Lampe’s last opera, Pyramus and Thisbe, performed at Covent Garden in 1745, in which Italian opera and singers were the object of ridicule, rather than Shakespeare’s rustic players.  Lampe settled with his family in Dublin in September 1748 and then travelled to Edinburgh for the 1750–51 season, succumbing to a fever in the Scottish capital.  He was buried in Canongate churchyard and, having converted to Methodism a few years earlier, his death was commemorated by Charles Wesley in a hymn ‘Tis done! The Sov’reign will’s obey’d’.

In his Preface to the Wantley libretto, Carey pays tribute to his friend and collaborator, recalling a prediction made in 1726 by his cousin Harry, which ‘is now, I think, amply verified in your Favour’:

Call not my Lampe obscure, because unknown;
He shines in Secret now, to Friends alone:
Light him but up, let him in Publick blaze,
He will delight not only, but amaze.

Lampe’s The Dragon of Wantley is released this month by Resonus Classics.

Claire Seymour

[1] THE TOUCH-STONE: OR, Historical, Political, Philosophical, and Theological ESSAYS On the reigning Diversions of the Town was a pocketbook of seven essays by the pseudonymous ‘A. Primcock’ which analysed in stylish prose the taste of the town and the nature of its entertainments, of which Italian opera was at the heart.

[2] Aspden, Suzanne (1997) ‘Ballads and Britons: Imagined Community and the Continuity of ‘English’ Opera’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 122/1: 24-51.

[3] Philalethes (1733), ‘An excise elegy: or, the dragon demolish’d. A new ballad. To the tune of Packingto’s [sic] pound’, printed for W. James; and sold by the booksellers and pamphletsellers of London and Westminster (London). Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

[4] Powell, Manushag N. (2020) ‘The Legacy of Stage Dragons and the Monstrous Eighteenth Century’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction 32/3: 485-504.

ABOVE: ‘Moore fighting with ye Dragon’ in George Bickham, Bickham’s Musical Entertainer, vol. 2 (C. Corbett: London, 1740).