The Beggar's Opera



  • A ballad opera by John Gay (1685 - 1732) that opened at Lincoln'sInn Fields Theatre, London, in 1728. The idea originated with Jonathan Swift, who suggested to Gay that a Newgate prison pastoral "might make an odd pretty sort of thing". Since the play's great success brought its producer John Rich(see Beefsteak Club) an £800 profit, London wits said The Beggar's Opera "made Gay rich and Rich gay". Gay's sequel, Polly, was banned until 1777 when it opened at the Haymarket in an expurgated version by the elder George Colman (see the Colmans).

    The Beggar's Opera satirized both the conventions ofItalian opera and contemporary politics. Almost all the topical referencesare missed by modern audiences, but at the time the character of Macheath,the highwayman, was widely understood to represent the prime ministerSir Robert Walpole. This influenced Walpole's decision to introducethe 1737 Licensing Act, placing tighter controls on the stage (seeThe Golden Rump; licence).

    The play's English airs, selected and arranged by Pepusch,have always been a major part of its appeal. Frederic Austin rearrangedthe music for a 1920 production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith,while in 1948 Benjamin Britten adapted it for Sadler's Wells. In 1928Bertolt Brecht used the story as the basis of his The ThreepennyOpera with music by Kurt Weill (including the famous 'Mack theKnife').

    The play is described by the Beggar who presents it as a "finemoral tale". It begins with Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods,expressing horror that his daughter Polly has married the highwayman,Macheath. Peachum deals with the situation by informing against hisnew son-in-law. Macheath escapes, however, and goes to a brothel wherehe is betrayed by Jenny Diver, arrested, and sent to Newgate. LucyLockit, the jailer's daughter, becomes pregnant by Macheath and helpshim escape. Lucy and Polly argue about who is the rightful wife. Thishardly disturbs Macheath who muses (in a satire on Walpole, who marriedhis mistress on his wife's death):

    How happy could I be with either,
    Were t'other dear charmer away!
    Macheath is again caught. He is about to be hanged when thecrowd demands a reprieve. The Beggar tells the audience that the piecemust be realistic but then decides that a happy ending will ensurea longer run and a larger profit; consequently a messenger enterswith a royal pardon for Macheath, who embraces Polly. see also Orpheus of Highwaymen.