The Beggar’s Opera
The Beggar’s Opera
by John Gay
THE LITERARY WORK
A ballad opera, set in the London underworld during the early eighteenth century; published in 1728.
Low domestic comedy and political satire mix in this tale of a dashing highwayman, a double-crossing informer, and the highwayman’s romance with the informer’s daughter.
Born in Devonshire in 1685, John Gay was educated at the local grammar school, then apprenticed to a silk merchant in London after the early deaths of both parents. In his spare time, Gay wrote verse, publishing Wine, a satiric poem on the joys of drinking, in 1708. After negotiating an early release from his apprenticeship, Gay became private secretary to an old schoolmate, Aaron Hill, a professional writer with ties to the theater. Hill introduced Gay to literary circles, in which he met Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, to whom Gay dedicated what came to be considered his first important poem, Rural Sports (1713). On account of his wit and lively temperament, Gay was well liked by many of London’s leading authors. They helped him secure positions and patrons, including the duke and duchess of Queensbury, to finance his art. Meanwhile, Gay turned his hand to writing plays, including The Wife of Bath (1713), based on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times); The What D’Ye Call It (1715), a broad comic farce; and Three Hours After Marriage (1717), a satiric comedy about contemporary authors that Gay wrote with Pope and John Arbuthnot. Although some of these plays were well received, Gay did not achieve great popular success as a playwright until The Beggar’s Opera. Widely considered to be his masterpiece, this innovative “ballad opera” was performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (a London theater) on January 29, 1728, and enjoyed a record-breaking initial run of 62 performances. Set among the thieves and prostitutes of London’s underworld, The Beggar’s Opera delighted audiences with its keen satire and skillful setting of popular ballad tunes to new lyrics and contexts.
Crime, punishment, and the London underworld
Historian George Rudé divides the populous “lower orders” of eighteenth-century London into the following four categories: master craftsmen and small shopkeepers; skilled journeymen and apprentices; semiskilled and unskilled laborers; and the indigent, the unemployed, and the criminal classes (Rude, p. 83). While the exact number of persons comprising the last category is not known, it has been estimated that near the end of the century about 115,000 people—something like 12 percent of the city’s population—made up the London “underworld” (Rude, p. 83).
Gay’s ballad opera (essentially a play set to folk music) focuses exclusively on the denizens of the underworld—the thieves, prostitutes, and informers whose trades flourished during the early decades of the eighteenth century but whose futures were almost invariably cut short when they were apprehended by the law. Criminal courts of the time dealt harshly with members of the underworld, especially thieves, many of whom paid for their crimes with their lives. Historian Douglas Hay observes that
DEATH AT TYBURN
From 1388 until 1783, most London hangings took place at Tyburn, The Tyburn is a small tributary of the Thames; the term “Tyburn” became associated with the Middlesex Gallows—also known as “Tyburn Tree”—which were located on the Tyburn’s west bank. The gallows were near the crossroads of Edgeware and Bayswater Roads in London, at the northeast corner of Hyde Park. The public was invited, even encouraged, to watch people get hanged, in hopes that the gruesome spectacle would deter future criminals. The eight “hanging days” of the year during which executions were scheduled were public holidays. Crowds would fill the streets from Newgate to Tyburn to observe the condemned as they traveled by cart to Tyburn Tree, a gallows so large that 21 bodies could hang suspended from it at one time. Some prisoners would be greeted with cheers and even toasted along their way by partisan spectators; others were greeted with jeers, derision, and loud demands that they be dispatched as quickly as possible. Child-and-wife murderers and “thief-takers,” like Jonathan Wild, received no sympathy from the crowds, but highwaymen “whose only crime was to have robbed the rich, were often cheered and toasted as heroes of the day” (Rudé, p. 94). In The Beggar’s Opera, Polly Peachum sentimentally envisions just such an ending for her husband, Macheath, should he be captured and condemned: “Methinks I see him already in the cart, sweeter and more lovely than the nosegay in his hand. I hear the crowd extolling his resolution and intrepidity.… I see him at the tree! The whole circle are in tears! Even butchers weep!” (Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, pp. 26-27). Often after the hanging, the family of the deceased had to fight to claim the body before surgeons took it away for dissection and research.
the rulers of eighteenth-century England cherished the death sentence. … In place of police … propertied Englishmen had a fat and swelling sheaf of laws which threatened thieves with death.… One account suggests the number of capital statutes grew from about 50 to over 200 between the years 1688 and 1820. Almost all of them concerned offences against property. (Hay, pp. 17-18)
Although some offenders might be given the lesser sentence of “transportation”—exile to American, Australian, or West Indian plantations for a period of 7 or 14 years—many of them were sentenced to death by public hanging.
Public executions were not, however, always an effective deterrent to crime. Criminals who were hanged or transported were speedily replaced by others just as rapacious. In the early eighteenth century, a thriving organized crime network was formed by Jonathan Wild, an erstwhile merchant who learned the criminal trade during a stint in debtors’ prison. After his release, Wild used his new skills to achieve the highest status in the London underworld. Indeed, Wild led a complicated double life: in one capacity, he served as a “thief-taker,” a sort of unofficial policeman who helped the law arrest criminals and who provided evidence against those criminals at their trials. If the offender was convicted, Wild received 40 pounds for his services. In another capacity, Wild instructed criminals in his organization as to where and what they could steal. He would subsequently serve as a “fence” for the stolen loot—after receiving it from his gang, he would sell it to the public or back to the original owners at a profit. In time, Wild commanded a large organization of thieves and felons, from whom he expected complete loyalty. Criminals who ignored or resisted Wild’s organization frequently found themselves betrayed to the law by Wild himself.
Wild was not the only colorful figure in the London underworld. Jack Sheppard, a Cockney “housebreaker,” achieved notoriety as a thief in his own right and as one of Wild’s targets. In February 1724, Sheppard was captured and imprisoned in St. Giles’s Roundhouse, but he promptly escaped. Wild was then recruited in his capacity as “Thief-Taker General” to recapture Sheppard. He succeeded in doing so in May, but within the week Sheppard escaped from New Prison, where he had been incarcerated. He remained at large until July when he was again captured by Wild; tried and condemned to death, Sheppard nonetheless managed to escape from his cell in Newgate Prison on August 30, the night his death warrant arrived. Wild’s men caught him again ten days later; this time Sheppard was incarcerated in the “Castle,” the strongest room in Newgate, and loaded down with fetters and manacles. Incredibly, he escaped five nights later, breaking his chains, forcing open several padlocked doors, and, at last, climbing down a wall to freedom. A determined Wild renewed his pursuit of Sheppard, who was finally apprehended in a Drury Lane gin shop towards the end of October. Imprisoned once more in Newgate, Sheppard was loaded down with 300 pounds of iron until his execution at Tyburn on November 16, which was reportedly witnessed by 200,000 people. Ironically, Wild’s obsessive pursuit of Sheppard damaged his own popularity with both the authorities and the denizens of the underworld. Less than a year later, he himself was arrested on a minor felony charge; former associates came forward with evidence of his various criminal misdeeds, and the man who styled himself “Thief-Taker General” was tried, condemned, and hanged at Tyburn on May 24, 1725. The dramatist Gay followed the careers of both Wild and Sheppard with interest, eventually using them as models for the characters of Peachum and Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera.
But Gay also had grander objects in mind for his satire.
Corruption in high places
The Beggar’s Opera targets not only such low-lifes as Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard but also more elevated figures, including Sir Robert Walpole, the British prime minister during the reigns of George I and George II. Walpole was a strong and capable statesman, and England enjoyed a lengthy period of peace and prosperity during his administration. At the same time, however, he actively participated in the ongoing corruption of the House of Commons by “buying” journalists and members of Parliament to help keep his party, the Whigs, in power. Walpole is said to have been “coarse in morals and uncouth in manners, a heavy drinker, generous to his friends and indifferent to his opponents” (Schultz, p. 178). Walpole’s enemies accused him of lining his pockets at his country’s expense, especially after an ill-fated speculation scheme crashed in 1720.
According to the plan, the South Sea Company, formed in 1711 as a rival to the Bank of England and the East India Company, would take charge of a large portion of England’s national debt. A joint-stock venture, the South Sea Company set out to profit from trade in South America, where it did garner a monopoly in the slave market and also part of the market for European goods. But such faraway trade boded ill for quick profits, which was the aim of many of the company’s shareholders. From the start, the South Sea Company was plagued by selfish manipulation—its directors bribed officials with stock and allowed members of Parliament and the king’s court to buy many shares. Reassured because the government appeared to be investing in the company, average citizens sold their own assets to buy stock, first in this venture and then in many others. In fact, a speculation craze struck England early in 1720. Pay-offs to government officials continued, new stocks were issued, and prices soared as much as 1,000 percent before the market collapsed in August 1720 (Schultz, p. 177). In the end, many—including John Gay—who had invested heavily in the South Sea Company suffered grievously when their stocks plummeted. Average citizens faced financial ruin.
Walpole himself had invested in the South Sea Company, but he escaped disaster through the advice of his banker, Robert Jacomb. Untarnished by the scheme’s collapse, Walpole used his skill and political connections to extricate some of his Whig cronies from charges of corruption, infuriating the Tory opposition. During his tenure as prime minister (1721-42), he also leveraged such things as pensions and official appointments in exchange for parliamentary support.
In The Beggar’s Opera, Walpole’s practices of bribery and influence-peddling are satirized in Gay’s portrayal of Peachum, the treacherous informer who works both sides of the law and pockets the profits. Contemporary audiences also spotted allusions to Walpole in the triangle between Macheath, Polly, and Lucy, which mirrored Walpole’s own extramarital affair with Maria Skerret, and in the last-minute reprieve of Macheath on the scaffold, which paralleled Walpole’s own narrow escape from dismissal from office upon the ascension of George II in 1727. Perhaps in part because of the savaging he endured in The Beggar’s Opera, Walpole legislated the 1737 Licensing Act, which reduced to three—Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Hay-market—the number of London theaters. The ban was not lifted until 1843.
Although Gay concentrates most of the action in The Beggar’s Opera on the criminal activities of Peachum, Lockit, and Macheath, he also directs his attention to their female compatriots in the London underworld—the prostitutes. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, prostitutes plied their trade in public venues where large crowds could be found, including parks and even churches. Meanwhile, Covent Garden, a fashionable area in London, became the site of many houses of ill repute; as Rudé writes, “to evade the law, the houses masqueraded under the ostensibly respectable (and legitimate) labels of tavern, coffee house or ‘bagnio’ [public bath]” (Rude, p. 72). The precincts from Charing Cross to Drury Lane were the most popular areas for London prostitutes.
Tourists … could purchase Harris’s New Atlantic, a guidebook to London’s harlots, detailing addresses, physical characteristics and specialties.… But, in free-market London, prostitutes were chiefly to be picked up on the streets on which … women were available … “got up in any way you like, dressed, bound up, hitched up, tight-laced, loose, painted, done up or raw, scented, in silk or wool, with or without sugar. …” (Porter, p. 171)
Conditions in London brothels varied. Some establishments catered to an upper-class clientele, so the procuresses took special pains to please their aristocratic customers, plying them with food and wine and allowing them the opportunity to accept or reject the girl chosen for them. Other brothels were grittier, serving those with less money and social status. Whatever their working conditions, prostitutes in houses were obliged to give a portion—up to one-half—of their earnings to the procuress, as well as pay for their own board and clothing (Scott, p. 96).
While prostitutes’ lives often ended in poverty, squalor, and disease, the trade of prostitution continued to flourish throughout the eighteenth century, because it remained one of the only professions in which women could earn an independent living: “Prostitution was one of the few ways a woman could make it on her own, and if she had intelligence, sophistication, talent, and the right contacts, she could go far. Most failed because they lacked the contacts. Often the woman’s family pulled strings for her to become the mistress to a powerful man, since in such a position, she could do much in return” (Bullough, p. 187). Some determined prostitutes who lacked such advantageous connections found another means of scaling the social ladder: they became actresses on the theater stage, where their looks and talent could garner them wealthy lovers and protectors. A century earlier, Nell Gwyn had worked her way up from brothel servant to actress to mistress of King Charles II. Ironically, the staging of The Beggar’s Opera brought about a similar development—Lavinia Fenton, the first to fill the role of Polly Peachum on stage, caught the eye of the duke of Bolton during one performance; the smitten duke made her his mistress, and, some time later, his wife.
English versus Italian opera
The Beggar’s Opera would probably never have been written without the growing popularity of operas among English audiences. The opera form had first taken hold in England in the previous century towards the end of the Interregnum (1649-60), the period in which the royal family was exiled and the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell governed England. Although the Puritans had closed the theaters and banned the staging of plays, some people managed to circumvent this ban by presenting, in private houses, dramatic works that required musical accompaniment from beginning to end. This form, known as the “English dramatic opera,” persisted until 1660, when the monarchy was restored and the theaters reopened. After 1660, the English dramatic opera underwent some changes—music became intermittent rather than continuous, and dialogue could now be spoken instead of sung, since plays were no longer banned.
During the early eighteenth century, however, English dramatic operas were supplanted by lavish Italian operas. Literary scholar Peter Elfed Lewis observes that, by the time Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera, “‘opera’ in England had become virtually synonymous with Italian opera, a theatrical form characterized by great dignity and seriousness and peopled with mythological figures or personages of high rank from the distant past” (Lewis, pp. 8-9). George Friedrich Handel, the German composer, came to London in 1710 by way of Italy and was immediately commissioned to write an Italian opera. His Rinaldo (1711) marked the first in a string of successful operas that he composed for English audiences. Meanwhile, the popularity of Italian opera as a genre continue to escalate—the new Queen’s Theater was the principal venue for Italian opera in England and became known as the Opera House. Meanwhile, leading Italian singers, including feuding sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, were paid hefty sums to perform in England and were treated like major celebrities once they arrived.
Italian opera, however, was not universally loved—some English intellectuals ridiculed everything from the tradition of the male castrati singers to the temper tantrums of divas to the lavish scope of some operatic productions. Critics such as Joseph Addison and John Dennis even believed that the taste for Italian opera threatened the future of English drama and music.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gay did not dislike Italian opera; he wrote an operatic libretto for Handel’s Ads and Galatea some ten years before composing The Beggar’s Opera. Nonetheless, he too was alarmed by the ways in which Italian opera was overshadowing English music and by the slavish worship of the genre, and sought to provide uncritical audiences with a corrective. Gay’s boldest stroke by far was to set The Beggar’s Opera not among gods and goddesses or other heroic personages in some suitably lofty atmosphere, as in Italian operatic tradition, but among thieves and whores in the seamy London underworld. Throughout his mock epic production, Gay spoofs many of the conventions of Italian opera—from the impassioned bickering between “divas” Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit over Macheath’s affections (which culminate in Lucy’s unsuccessful attempt to poison her rival) to Macheath’s own less than heroic reaction to his impending execution, which is to drink heavily and lament the loss of his many mistresses.
The Beggar’s Opera opens with a short introduction in which the beggar who composed the opera attempts to stage his work before a player, explaining, “I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas: the swallow, the moth, the bee, the ship, the flower, etc. Besides, I have a prison scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 5). The player agrees to watch the opera, and he and the beggar withdraw as the performance begins.
The curtain rises as Mr. Peachum, an informer and a fence for stolen goods, reckons up his account and sings of his profession: “Through all the employments of life / Each neighbor abuses his brother; / Whore and rogue they call husband and wife; / All professions be-rogue one another” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 6). Declaring himself to be as honest as any lawyer or statesman, Peachum discusses with Filch, one of his apprentice pickpockets, the fates of thieves who have worked for him but have now been arrested. Those who excelled in their trade Peachum plans to help by bribing jailers and law officers; those who did not earn sufficient profit Peachum will abandon to their fates—hanging or transportation.
In the middle of this conversation, Mrs. Peachum enters to discuss Captain Macheath, a dashing highwayman and sometime associate of Peachum’s, who has begun courting their daughter, Polly. The news displeases Peachum, especially when he learns that Polly wants to marry Macheath: “Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 13). The Peachums resolve to dissuade Polly from wedding Macheath, but their resolution comes too late—Polly enters and reveals that she and Macheath are already married. Horrified, the Peachums berate their daughter, warning her that Macheath’s gambling and philandering will be her ruin. Fearing that Macheath will betray them to the law so he can acquire Polly’s fortune, the Peachums urge Polly to be a dutiful daughter and inform on her husband first. Polly, however, vows that she loves Macheath and will never betray him. Later Polly eavesdrops on her parents and learns they mean to have Macheath arrested. When the highwayman comes to visit his bride, Polly warns him of her parents’ plans. After singing a tender duet, the loving couple decides that Macheath should go into hiding for a few weeks until Polly can persuade her parents to relent.
In the second act, Macheath meets his gang of robbers at a tavern near Newgate and tells them that they must meet at their private quarters for the next few weeks because he has fallen out with Peachum. The highwayman hopes to make Peachum believe he has left the gang and thus pave the way for reconciliation. The robbers agree to obey their leader’s instructions, then depart on their separate errands. Alone in the tavern, Macheath reflects on the irresistible joys of women. To his delight, a bevy of prostitutes and female pickpockets joins him in the tavern for drinks and dalliance. While the highwayman is thus distracted, two of the prostitutes relieve him of his pistols and alert a watching Peachum, who then rushes in with some constables to arrest the astonished, enraged Macheath.
In Newgate prison, Macheath pays Lockit, the principal jailer, to fit him with a lightweight set of chains before he is led off to his cell. Alone, the highwayman bemoans his fate and laments that his imprisonment has brought him into proximity with Lockit’s daughter, Lucy, whom he had also promised to marry. A vengeful—and pregnant—Lucy then enters and upbraids her former lover, vowing to watch his sufferings with enjoyment. Macheath quickly claims that Polly Peachum means nothing to him and vows to fulfill his promises to Lucy who, despite herself, is softened by his apparent ardor.
Meanwhile, Peachum and Lockit agree to divide the reward for Macheath’s capture between them, but Peachum’s faith in his partner’s honesty is shaken when he discovers that one of his men has been convicted, in spite of the bribe Peachum gave Lockit to set him free. Peachum and Lockit quarrel violently but reconcile after realizing that each has enough evidence to hang the other. After Peachum leaves the prison, Lucy approaches her father to plead with him for Macheath’s life. Lockit remains adamant—the highwayman must hang, and he advises his daughter to “do like other widows: buy yourself weeds, and be cheerful” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 51).
Visiting Macheath’s cell, Lucy sadly relates her father’s hard-heartedness but agrees to consider the highwayman’s suggestion that Lockit might be bought off. While they plan this new strategy, Polly enters to visit her husband in jail. The two young women exchange hostilities and demand that Macheath choose between them. Needing Lucy’s assistance to escape from jail, Macheath spurns Polly, who is dragged off, lamenting, by Peachum. Left alone with Lucy, Macheath persuades her to steal her father’s keys and release him from his cell, promising to send for her as soon as the search for him cools.
As the third act begins, Macheath has escaped, leaving behind a furious Lockit and a humiliated Lucy, who now suspects she was duped by her former lover. Believing that Peachum means to cheat him out of his share of the reward money, Lockit schemes to turn the tables on his partner. Meanwhile, Macheath meets with two of his men at a gaming house, where they discuss future robberies. Macheath arranges for them to meet again that evening in another den where he can point out a likely victim.
Peachum and Lockit, meeting to discuss the division of some loot, learn from Mrs. Diana Trapes, a procuress, that Macheath is currently with one of her whores, Mrs. Coaxer. As the two men eagerly set off to recapture Macheath, Polly calls upon Lucy at Newgate. The two women bemoan their shabby treatment by Macheath, and a jealous Lucy serves Polly poisoned wine. Suspicious of Lucy, Polly refuses to drink, dropping the glass on the floor when she beholds Macheath being brought back to prison by Peachum and Lockit.
Although Polly and Lucy both plead for Macheath’s life, their fathers refuse to listen. Macheath himself, while despondent over his fate, seems almost relieved that his matrimonial woes will soon be ended by his execution: “Contented I die. ’Tis the better for you. / Here ends all dispute the rest of our lives, / For this way at once I please all my wives” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 77).
Sentenced to death by hanging, Macheath broods on the laws that consign poor criminals like himself to death but allow rich criminals to buy their way out of punishment:
Since laws were made for ev’ry degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we ha’nt better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men, like us, were to swing,
Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn tree!
(The Beggar’s Opera, p. 79)
Receiving a visit from two of his men, Macheath reveals that he was betrayed by one of his own gang, Jemmy Twitcher. The highwayman urges his gang members to trust no one and beseeches them to see that Peachum and Lockit are brought to the gallows. Polly and Lucy visit, still vying for Macheath’s love; the jailer enters with the news that four more wives have appeared at the prison, each with a child. Appalled, Macheath asks to be led out to the gallows.
At this juncture, The Beggar’s Opera is interrupted by another dialogue between the beggar and the player. The player is dismayed to hear that the beggar means to end the production with Macheath’s hanging. The beggar explains that he wished to show “strict poetical justice” by having the opera end with Macheath’s execution and the likely deaths and transportations of the other characters; the player, however, insists that “an opera must end happily … to comply with the taste of the town” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 82). The beggar agrees and hastily changes the ending. As the opera resumes, Macheath receives a last-minute reprieve, thanks to the pleas of the London rabble, and is reunited with Polly, whom he has legitimately married. The opera concludes with a dance as Macheath finds other partners for his former lovers.
Aristocrats and criminals
The eighteenth century saw the publication of numerous satirical works, including Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726; also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) and Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1728). What Gulliver’s Travels did for contemporary travelogues and The Dunciad did for epic poetry, The Beggar’s Opera does for opera, juxtaposing “high” and “low” elements to create the mock-heroic tone so praised by wits of the eighteenth century.
The very title of The Beggar’s Opera reveals Gay’s satirical intent by suggesting that a beggar—in the person of a starving poet—could in fact compose a work as exalted as an opera. The satirical tone continues as Gay links noble sentiments with characters who represent the very dregs of society. For example, Matt of the Mint, one of Macheath’s gang, gives a speech that seems to express the openhanded philosophy of true aristocrats:
The world is avaricious, and I hate avarice. A covetous fellow, like a jackdaw, steals what he was never made to enjoy, for the sake of hiding it. These are the robbers of mankind, for money was made for the freehearted and generous, and where is the injury of taking from another what he hath not the heart to make use of?
(The Beggar’s Opera, p. 32)
Similarly, Macheath gives money to members of his gang when they fail to find success on the road: “When my friends are in difficulties, I am always glad that my fortune can be serviceable to them. You see, gentlemen, I am not a mere court friend, who professes everything and will do nothing” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 63). The true generosity of these thieves is contrasted with the empty promises of aristocrats in Macheath’s subsequent song: “The modes of the court so common are grown, / That a true friend can hardly be met; / Friendship for interest is but a loan, / Which they let out for what they can get” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 63).
But while Macheath and his gang are represented as more honest than genuine aristocrats and certainly more appealing than the conniving Peachum and Lockit, Gay never forgets that they are criminals nonetheless. Moreover, Macheath may be the king of highwaymen, but his flaws—including womanizing, drinking, and gambling—are as common among aristocrats as among thieves. Mrs. Peachum scolds Polly for her rash decision to wed Macheath, demanding: “Can you support the expense of a husband, hussy, in gaming, drinking, and whoring? … If you must be married, could you introduce nobody into our family but a highwayman? Why, thou foolish jade, thou wilt be as ill-used and as much neglected, as if thou hadst married a lord!” (The Beggar’s Opera, pp. 18-19). The vices of the aristocracy and the underworld are continually connected in Gay’s opera.
The purported virtues of the aristocracy—propriety, chastity, decorum—are likewise mocked. Polly herself, despite her role as the opera’s innocent, loyal heroine, displays a hard-headed awareness of the world and how it works, declaring to Peachum: “I know as well as any of the fine ladies how to make the most of myself and of my man too. A woman knows how to be mercenary, though she hath never been in a court or at an assembly. We have it in our natures, Papa” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 17). In such a context, Polly’s victory over her pregnant rival, Lucy Lockit, appears not as the triumph of virtue over vice but rather the triumph of calculating pragmatism over heedless romanticism. Polly “wins” Macheath not because she is more pure than Lucy, but because she is shrewd enough to use marriage as a bargaining chip. Yet, in this regard, Gay implies, Polly and her parents are no different from the gentry, whose ways they mimic. Historian G. M. Trevelyan writes: “In the upper and middle classes, husbands were often found for girls on the principles of frank barter” (Trevelyan, p. 18). Therefore, Polly’s declaration that she did not marry Macheath “(as ’tis the fashion), coolly and deliberately for honor or money” but for love leads Mrs. Peachum to lament: “Love him! Worse and worse! I thought the girl had been better bred!” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 20). The hollowness of upper-class ideals of honor and chastity is further suggested when Mrs. Peachum remarks to Mr. Peachum: “If she had had only an intrigue with the fellow, why the very best families have excused and huddled up a frailty of that sort. ’Tis marriage, husband, that makes it a blemish” (The Beggar’s Opera, p. 22).
While the principle of marriage as an economic arrangement was the norm among the upper and middle classes during Gay’s lifetime, the eighteenth century, overall, was a time of transition, during which “an ever-increasing proportion of ordinary marriages were the outcome of mutual affection” (Trevelyan, p. 20). In time, marriage for love became neither a disgrace nor an anomaly, though financial considerations remained, more often than not, a factor.
Sources and literary context
The seed for The Beggar’s Opera may have been sown as early as 1716, when Gay’s friend, Jonathan Swift, suggested that Gay write “a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there” (Swift in Winton, Dictionary of Literary Biography, p. 193). Certainly Gay’s experiences as a London apprentice provided him with inspiration for such a project. Moreover, Gay drew upon real-life models for his main characters. Peachum and Macheath were based, respectively, on Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, notorious figures in the London underworld. Like Peachum, Wild ran an efficient crime organization: he instructed members of his gang where and what to steal, collected the stolen goods from them at a profit, then “retrieved” and returned those goods to their original owners for a sizeable fee. And while Sheppard was a house burglar rather than a highwayman, his charisma and ability to escape from various prisons no doubt played a part in Gay’s characterization of Macheath. Both Sheppard and Wild had been arrested and executed by the time The Beggar’s Opera premiered in 1728.
Gay also mined contemporary performers in the theater for material. The rivalry between Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit was inspired by the quarrels between Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, two reigning divas of the Italian opera. Journalists eagerly chronicled the on-and off-stage spats of these dueling prima donnas, including a scratching, hair-pulling altercation that took place during a performance of Buononcini’s Astayanax in the spring of 1727.
By the time The Beggar’s Opera was first performed, London audiences had acquired a taste not only for opera but for satire and farce as well. The main attraction on a playbill was usually followed by a short, farcical afterpiece; moreover, music and dance numbers, such as those found in British pantomimes, were frequently scheduled between acts of the play. Gay exploited all these forms—opera, farce, pantomime—in The Beggar’s Opera, ultimately producing an entirely new art form: the ballad opera. Unlike operas, which contained florid original airs written by the composer, Gay used a variety of familiar English, Scottish, and Welsh tunes, for which he wrote new lyrics. Many of these tunes originated from folksongs, others were drawing-room and street ballads—most were of recent composition and thus familiar to audiences. For these familiar tunes, Gay provided new, often bawdy or wittily over-stylized lyrics. In retrospect, The Beggar’s Opera did not, as hoped by some, spawn a new tradition of English opera; nonetheless, it made a lasting contribution to musical theater.
With time and modification [the ballad opera] form has been extended to such diverse works as the Singspiele of Mozart, the Savoy operas, and the collaborations of Rogers and Hammerstein. The historical consequences of Gay’s play have been more extensive. Its melodies, a collection of spirited and sometimes hauntingly beautiful songs drawn mainly from English music, contributed as much to the developing interest in popular poetry and music as did the later Reliques of Bishop Percy and the earlier critiques of “Chevy Chase” by Addison. Today, The Beggar’s Opera is for most students, the principal locus of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century popular music.
(Roberts in Gay, p. xv)
Thus, traditional tunes such as “Greensleeves” and “Bonny Dundee” were given new life in The Beggar’s Opera when transformed, respectively, into songs with lyrics such as “Since laws were made for ev’ry degree” and “The charge is prepared; the lawyers are met.”
A few days after The Beggar’s Opera premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Daily Journal enthusiastically praised “Mr. Gay’s new English opera, written in a manner wholly new, and very entertaining,” adding, “there were present then, as well as last night, a prodigious concourse of nobility and gentry, and no theatrical performance for these many years has met with so much applause” (Nokes, p. 418). Another newspaper, The Craftsman, reported that Gay’s work “has met with a general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it has made Rich [the manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields] very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich” (Winton, John Gay and the London Theatre, p. 99). Gay’s satiric thrusts did not go unnoticed, either—his good friend, Jonathan Swift, wrote thus in The Intelligencer:
This Comedy contains likewise a Satyr, which, without enquiring whether it affects the present Age, may possibly be useful in Times to come. I mean, where the Author takes the Occasion of comparing those common Robbers of the Publick, and their several Stratagems of betraying, undermining and hanging each other, to the several Arts of Politicians in Times of Corruption.
(Swift in Gay, “Introduction,” p. xxv)
The Beggar’s Opera did have its detractors. Literary critic and author John Dennis (whom Gay had parodied as “Sir Tremendous” in Three Hours After Marriage) called it “a low and licentious piece,” while an anonymous pamphleteer wrote that “thieving and the highway are edged-tools to play with, and they ought by no means to be set in a gay or ridiculous light to the mob” (Nokes, p. 443). Despite such censure, The Beggar’s Opera remained a success, outperforming most of the productions mounted by rival theaters during its run. Its sequel, Polly (1729), was not so lucky; it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain and was available only by subscription.
FROM MACHEATH TO MACK THE KNIFE
The Beggar’s Opera spawned many imitations, such as Henry Fielding’s The Grub Street Opera and Charles Coffey’s The Devil to Pay, which similarly exploited street songs and broadside ballads. Few of these productions achieved the success enjoyed by Gay’s work. The Grub Street Opera did not even make it onto the stage, vanishing mysteriously before production in 1731. Some 200 years later, however, in 1928, Bertolt Brecht successfully adapted The Beggar’s Opera for modern audiences with his Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Brecht retained Gay’s plot and most of his characters, though in altered forms, but his collaborator, Kurt Weil, composed a new score inspired by modern jazz.
The popularity of The Beggar’s Opera was perhaps due to its very Englishness—manifested by Gay’s use of British folk-tunes—which audiences, who had been sated on Italian operas, found refreshing. Thievery-a-la-Mode, a pamphlet circulated in June 1728, noted approvingly that The Beggar’s Opera satirized “the inconsistencies and unnatural conduct of the Italian opera, which tho’ they charm the eye with gay dresses and fine scenes, and delight the ear with sound, have nothing in them either to reform the manners or improve the mind, the original institutions of the stage” (Nokes, pp. 424-25). Swift sounded a similar note, claiming that The Beggar’s Opera had revealed “the unnatural taste for Italian music among us which is wholly unsuitable to our Northern climate, and the genius of the people, whereby we are over-run with Italian effeminacy and Italian nonsense” (Swift in Nokes, p. 430). In 1791, John Ireland summed up what he felt to be Gay’s contribution to the English theater: “Gay must be allowed the praise of having attempted to stem Italia’s liquid stream which at that time meandered through every alley, street and square in the metropolis—the honor of having almost silenced the effeminate song of that absurd, exotic Italian opera” (Ireland in Nokes, pp. 425-26).
—Pamela S. Loy
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Hay, Douglas. Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Pantheon, 1975.
Lewis, Peter Elfed. John Gay: The Beggar’s Opera. London: Edward Arnold, 1976.
Nokes, David. John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Rudé, George. Hanoverian London: 1714-1808. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.
Scott, George Ryley. A History of Prostitution from Antiquity to the Present Day. London: Torch-stream, 1954.
Schultz, Harold J. British History. 4th ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
Trevelyan, G. M. Illustrated English Social History. Vol. 3. London: Longmans, 1942.
Winton, Calhoun. “John Gay.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 84. Ed. Paula R. Backscheider. Detroit: Gale, 1989.
_________. John Gay and the London Theatre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.