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The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of opera, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

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.

Origin and analysis

The original idea of the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope on August 30, 1716 asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Their friend, Gay, decided that it would be a satire rather than a pastoral opera. For his original production in 1728, Gay intended all the songs to be sung without any accompaniment, adding to the shocking and gritty atmosphere of his conception. However, a week or so before the opening night, John Rich, the theatre director, insisted on having Johann Christoph Pepusch, a composer associated with his theatre, write a formal French overture (based on two of the songs in the opera, including a fugue based on Lucy's 3rd act song "I'm Like A Skiff on the Ocean Toss'd") and also to arrange the 69 songs. Although there is no external evidence of who the arranger was, inspection of the original 1729 score, formally published by Dover Books, demonstrates that Pepusch was the arranger.

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 Beggar's Opera has had an influence on all later British stage comedies, especially on nineteenth century British comic opera and the modern musical.

Adaptations

As was typical practice of the time in London, a commemorative "score" of the entire opera was assembled and published quickly. As was common, this consisted of the fully-arranged overture followed by the melodies of the 69 songs, supported by only the simplest bass accompaniments. There are no indications of dance music, accompanying instrumental figures or the like, except in three instances: Lucy's "Is Then His Fate Decree'd Sir" - 1 measure of descending scale marked "Viol."; Trape's "In the Days of My Youth", in which the "fa la la chorus is written as "viol."; and the final reprieve dance, Macheath's "Thus I Stand Like A Turk", which includes two sections of 16 measures of "dance" marked "viol." (See the 1729 score, formerly published by Dover).

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.

  • In 1920 baritone Frederic Austin newly arranged the music (and also sang the role of Peachum) for the long-running production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. In 1955 this version was recorded by conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent with John Cameron as Macheath and Monica Sinclair as Lucy.
  • In 1928, Bertolt Brecht (words) and Kurt Weill (music) created a popular new musical adaptation of the work entitled The Threepenny Opera. In this work, the original plot is followed fairly closely (although the time is brought forward over a hundred years) but the music is almost all new, and specially composed.
  • In 1948, Benjamin Britten created an adaptation with new harmonisations and arrangements of pre-existing tunes. Peter Pears was the first singer of Macheath.
  • The opera was made into a film version in 1953, and starred Sir Laurence Olivier as Captain Macheath.
  • In 1975, Czech playwright (and future president) Václav Havel created a non-musical adaptation.
  • In 1981 Richard Bonynge and Douglas Gamley arranged a new edition for a recording with Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa, James Morris and Angela Lansbury.
  • In 1990, Jonathan Dobin, created his now highly acclaimed performing edition for TenTen Players in NYC. He's fleshed out all 69 songs from the extant skeletal score including choruses, dances and intervening ritornelli in a convincing baroque idiom. Increasingly performed in the U.S. and excerpts abroad.
  • The all female Japanese troupe, Takarazuka Revue, produced a play in 1998 based on Beggar's Opera titled Speakeasy. The play was Maya Miki's retirement play.
  • It was also adapted for BBC television in 1983. This production was directed by Jonathan Miller and starred Roger Daltrey in the role of Macheath, Stratford Johns as Peachum and Bob Hoskins as the Beggar. The "happy" ending was changed so that Macheath is hanged instead of being reprieved.

Roles

Mr. Peachum
Lockit
Macheath
Filch
Jemmy Twitcher Macheath's Gang
Crook-Finger'd Jack
Wat Dreary
Robin of Bagshot
Nimming Ned - ("Nimming" meaning thieving)
Harry Padington
Matt of the Mint
Ben Budge
Beggar
Player
Mrs. Peachum
Polly Peachum
Lucy Lockit
Diana Trapes
Mrs. Coaxer Women of the Town
Dolly Trull - ("Trull" meaning prostitute)
Mrs. Vixen
Betty Doxy - ("Doxy" meaning slut)
Jenny Diver
Mrs. Slammekin
Sukey Tawdrey
Molly Brazen

Synopsis

Peachum, who is both fence and thief-catcher, sets the tone with his song of self-justification as he sits at his account-book. This dark tune is the only song that appears in both The Beggar's Opera and The Threepenny Opera (as Morgenchoral des Peachum): Mrs. Peachum comes in, and overhearing her husband's blacklisting of unproductive thieves, remonstrates with him over one of them (Bob Booty, a nick-name for Robert Walpole), but easily goes along:

The middle-class criminal complacency of these two is shattered by their discovery that their daughter Polly has secretly married Macheath, the famous highwayman.

Can you support the Expence of a Husband, Hussy, in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring? Have you Money enough to carry on the daily Quarrels of Man and Wife about who shall squander most? There are not many Husbands and Wives, who can bear the Charges of plaguing one another in a handsome way.

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. And I would love you all the Day,
POLLY. Every Night would kiss and play,
MACHEATH. If with me you'd fondly stray
POLLY. Over the Hills and far away.

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.

You base Man you,----how can you look me in the Face after what hath passed between us?---- See here, perfidious Wretch, how I am forc'd to bear about the Load of Infamy you have laid upon me----O Macheath! thou hast robb'd me of my Quiet----to see thee tortur'd would give me Pleasure.

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:

If love be not his Guide,
He never will come back!

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:

LUCY. How happy I am, if you say this from your heart! For I love thee so, that I could sooner bear to see thee hang'd than in the Arms of another.
MACHEATH. But could'st thou bear to see me hang'd?

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:

TRAPES. I don't enquire after your Affairs-- --so whatever happens, I wash my hands on't---- It hath always been my Maxim, that one Friend should assist another-- --But if you please----I'll take one of the Scarfs home with me. 'Tis always good to have something in Hand.

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:

JAILOR. Four Women more, Captain, with a Child apiece! See, here they come.
MACHEATH. What----four Wives more!----This is too much----Here----tell the Sheriff's Officers I am ready.

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.

Reaction

Two weeks after opening night, an article appeared in The Craftsman, the leading Opposition newspaper, ostensibly protesting Gay's work as libelous and ironically assisting him in satirising the Walpole establishment by taking the government's side:

It will, I know, be said, by these libertine Stage-Players, that the Satire is general; and that it discovers a Consciousness of Guilt for any particular Man to apply it to Himself. But they seem to forget that there are such things as Innuendo's (a never-failing Method of explaining Libels).... Nay the very Title of this Piece and the principal Character, which is that of an Highwayman, sufficiently discover the mischievous Design of it; since by this Character every Body will understand One, who makes it his Business arbitrarily to levy and collect Money on the People for his own Use, and of which he always dreads to give an Account – Is not this squinting with a vengeance, and wounding Persons in Authority through the Sides of a common Malefactor?" (in Guerinot & Jilg, 87-88)

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).

Sequel

In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, set in the West Indies: Macheath, sentenced to transportation, has escaped and become a pirate, while Mrs Trapes has set up in white-slaving and shanghais Polly to sell her to the wealthy planter Mr Ducat. Polly escapes dressed as a boy, and after many adventures marries the son of a Carib chief.

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.

Notes

External links

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