The Beggar's Opera premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 28 January 1728 and ran for 62 consecutive performances, which was the longest run in the theatre up to that time. The work became Gay's greatest success and has been played ever since. The original production was so successful that John Rich, the manager of the theatre, was able to build a new theatre in Covent Garden that was the forerunner of the Royal Opera House. In 1920, The Beggar's Opera began an astonishing run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was one of the longest runs in history for any piece of musical theatre at that time.
The piece satirised Italian opera, which had become popular in London. However, instead of the grand music and themes of opera, it used familiar tunes and characters that were ordinary people. Some of the songs were by opera composers like Handel, but only the most popular of these were used. The audience could hum along with the music and identify with the characters. The story satirised politics, poverty and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became an overnight success. Her pictures were in great demand, verses were written to her and books published about her. After appearing in several comedies, and then in numerous repetitions of the Beggars Opera, she ran away with her married lover, Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton.
The work took satiric aim at the passionate interest of the upper classes in Italian opera, and simultaneously set out to lampoon the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. It also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeois "betters." Gay used the melodies of 69 well-known fiddle tunes, ballad airs and opera melodies to serve his hilariously pointed and irreverent texts. The renowned composer, John Christopher Pepusch, composed an Ouverture and arranged all the tunes shortly before the opening night at Lincoln's Inn Fields on 28 January 1728. However, all that remains of Pepusch's score are the Ouverture (with complete instrumentation) and the melodies of the songs with unfigured basses. Various reconstructions have been attempted, and a 1990 reconstruction of the score by American composer Jonathan Dobin has been used in a number of modern productions.
Gay uses the operatic norm of three acts (as opposed to the standard in spoken drama of the time of five acts), and tightly controls the dialogue and plot so that there are surprises in each of the forty-five fast-paced scenes and 69 short songs. The success of the opera was accompanied by a public desire for keepsakes and mementos, ranging from images of Polly on fans and clothing, playing cards and fire-screens, broadsides featuring all the characters, and the rapidly-published musical score of the opera.
The absence of the original performing parts has allowed many producers and arrangers to have free creative reign. The tradition of personalized arrangements, dating back at least as far as Thomas Arne's later 18th century arrangements, continues today, running the gamut of musical styles from Romantic to Baroque: Austin, Britten, Sargent, Bonynge, Dobin and other conductors have each imbued the songs with a personal stamp highlighting different aspects of characterization. Following is a list of some of the most highly regarded 20th-century arrangements and settings currently available.
|Jemmy Twitcher||Macheath's Gang|
|Robin of Bagshot|
|Nimming Ned - ("Nimming" meaning thieving)|
|Matt of the Mint|
|Mrs. Coaxer||Women of the Town|
|Dolly Trull - ("Trull" meaning prostitute)|
|Betty Doxy - ("Doxy" meaning slut)|
The middle-class criminal complacency of these two is shattered by their discovery that their daughter Polly has secretly married Macheath, the famous highwayman.
The parents conclude, however, that the match may make sense, provided the husband can be killed for his money. They depart, intent on this errand, and we find that Polly has hidden her man on the premises. She informs him of his danger, and there follows a touching duet, in spite of its intentional burlesque of popular love scenes:
Macheath's idea of escaping is to repair to a tavern and gather around him a company of women of dubious virtue. These, though they are of the lowest possible class of society, vie with one another in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Two of them, to Macheath's great surprise, have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and Macheath finds himself a prisoner in Newgate, the great City prison. Here, it develops, the jailer's daughter, Lucy Lockit, awaits her chance to upbraid Macheath for having promised to marry her, and reneged.
Macheath succeeds in mollifying her, only to have Polly drop in at this inopportune moment, nearly ruining his chances of escape by claiming him for her husband in Lucy's presence. Macheath finds himself forced to pretend that Polly is crazy, and succeeds in forcing her to retreat--but something in the performance fills Lucy with foreboding: "But that Polly runs in my Head strangely." And she sings, affectingly:
There would be, as the Beggar promised in the introduction, difficulty choosing between the two young women, but for Lucy's capacity for violence and revenge. Macheath notices, and this would be fatal to her cause, were it not lost already:
In spite of her fears, Lucy aids Macheath in his escape. Her father learns of Macheath's promise of marriage to her, and determines to learn from Peachum the status of Polly's possible marriage, for if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune will be subject to rival claims. Lockit visits Peachum, and they discover, while listening to a long-winded account by Mrs. Trapes, the whereabouts of Macheath. They conclude to go halves in him, and the chase is on. Mrs. Trapes shows the practical presence of mind that characterizes these underworld characters, by not presuming upon Peachum and Lockit's promise of a reward:
Polly, meanwhile, goes to visit Lucy in hopes of working something out, little knowing that Lucy has resolved to poison her. In a fine takeoff on melodramatic murder scenes, Polly narrowly avoids the cup, and Macheath's recapture is revealed. In the scene memorialized by William Hogarth, who was present on opening night, The two "wives" plead with their fathers, unavailingly, for Macheath's life. Then, in a moment of inspired burlesque, Macheath finds that his life has become too complex for him:
A scene, reminiscent of the interruptions in The Rehearsal, interposes, in which the Beggar explains that he would have provided a properly moral ending with the hanging of Macheath, "and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience is to suppose they were all either hang'd or transported." But the "taste of the town" will not allow this, for the people had not come to see a tragedy and must have a happy ending. Macheath is brought back, to the general cry of "a Reprieve," and invites all to a dance of celebration, declaring to Polly that he acknowledges his marriage to her as binding.
The commentator notes the Beggar's last remark: "That the lower People have their Vices in a Degree as well as the Rich, and are punished for them," implying that rich People are not so punished (Guerinot & Jilg, 89).
The political satire, however, was even more pointed in Polly than in The Beggar's Opera, with the result that Prime Minister Robert Walpole leaned on the Lord Chamberlain to get it banned, and was not performed until fifty years later.