Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Doctor Gives a Heavy Stroke

'I myself am of opinion,' declares Samuel Johnson to the assembled company, 'that more influence has been ascribed to "The Beggar's Opera" than it in reality ever had; for I do not believe that any man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation. At the same time I do not deny that it may have some influence, by making the character of a rogue familiar, and in some degree pleasing.' Then collecting himself, as it were, to give a heavy stroke: 'There is in it such a labefectation of all principles, as may be injurious to morality.'
 While he pronounced this response, we sat in a comical sort of restraint, smothering a laugh, which we were afraid might burst out...'
 A heavy stroke indeed, 'labefactation'. Johnson seems to have coined it for the occasion, taking the already obscure word 'labefaction' and making of it something still more crushingly impressive. The meaning is straightforward enough: a weakening or loosening, tending to downfall (from labare, to fall or totter, with facere, to make). There's a verb, equally obscure – to 'labefy'.
  Boswell himself believed there was real moral danger in The Beggar's Opera, with its highly attractive picture of the gaiety and heroism of an amoral rogue – but the young Scotsman was no doubt rather more prone to moral labefaction than the good Doctor.


  1. Ha! My very naice girls' school was not concerned about labefactation in 1961. We had great fun rehearsing and performing the work for the public - with all the bawdy insults cut out!

  2. Johnson had a record of insisting on the moral role of art and condemning work on these grounds. 'Tom Jones' was written off on the same principle (Johnson feared for the nation's youth) I believe and Fielding, who was magistrate, was hardly a reprobate. Perhaps he operated at a time when the role of art was shifting to something new where the burden of making moral judgements was more with the audience than the author? Or perhaps he was a little puritanical and naive about sexual shenanigans? Any views Nige?

  3. I think in this, as in so many other matters of opinion, Johnson was gloriously inconsistent. One of the pleasures of reading him is that there is clearly no 'system' at work, so you can rarely predict what his position will be - and of course his critical judgment is often just wrong (as, famously, on Tristram Shandy). His responses are always genuine, fully engaged and personal, not in thrall to any overarching theory (though sometimes too easily dismissive). On The Beggars Opera he was more relaxed than Boswell - and I don't think he was ever puritanical (he knew too well what it was to be a flawed human being), still less naive.

  4. Perhaps he didn't pick up well on the original or new trends. 'Tom Jones,' 'Tristram Shandy' and 'The Beggar's Opera' were all innovative in their way. Don't mean to demean the great man.