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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 theatre history 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, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, that was the forerunner of the Royal Opera Housemarker. In 1920, The Beggar's Opera began an astonishing revival run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmithmarker, 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. According to The New York Times: "Gay wrote the work more as an anti-opera than an opera, one of its attractions to its 18th-century London public being its lampooning of the Italian opera style and the English public's fascination with it." Instead of the grand music and themes of opera, the work uses 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 30 August 1716 asking "...what think you, of a Newgatemarker 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.


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 of the opera.

  • 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, Hammersmithmarker. In 1955 this version was recorded by conductor Sir Malcolm Sargent with John Cameron as Macheath and Monica Sinclair as Lucy.
  • In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production, Bertolt Brecht (words) and Kurt Weill (music) created a popular new musical adaptation of the work in Germany entitled Die Dreigroschenoper (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. Additional dialogue was written by the producer, Tyrone Guthrie. Peter Pears was the first singer of Macheath.
  • The opera was made into a film version in 1953, and starred Laurence Olivier as Captain Macheath.
  • In 1975, Czechmarker playwright (and future president) Václav Havel created a non-musical adaptation.
  • In 1977, the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright and dramatist Wole Soyinka wrote, produced and directed Opera Wonyosi (publ. 1981), an adaptation of both John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera; most of his characters as well as some of the arias are from the two earlier plays.
  • 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.
  • The opera was 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.
  • In 1984 in the play (and later film) A Chorus of Disapproval by Alan Ayckbourn, an amateur production of The Beggar's Opera is a major plot driver and excerpts are performed.
  • In 1986 in the Brazilian musical film Ópera do Malandro (American title Malandro), by Ruy Guerra (director) and Chico Buarque (writer and composer).
  • In 1990, American composer Jonathan Dobin created a performing edition for the Ten Ten Players in New York City. The edition contains orchestrations for all 69 songs from the extant skeletal score and fleshes out the choruses, dances and intervening ritornelli in a baroque style. The New York Times wrote, "only a trace of Pepusch's score has survived ... the music was reconstructed in a convincing period style by Jonathan Dobin, the ensemble's harpsichordist".
  • In 1998, the all female Japanese troupe, Takarazuka Revuemarker, produced an adaptation titled Speakeasy. The play was Maya Miki's retirement play.
  • In 2008 the Sydney Theatre Company of Australia and Out of Joint theatre company co-produced a version entitled The Convict's Opera written by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Max Stafford-Clark. This version is set aboard a convict ship bound for New South Walesmarker, where convicts are putting on a version of The Beggar's Opera. The lives of the convicts partly mirror their characters in The Beggars' Opera, and modern popular songs are performed throughout the piece. 'The Convict's Opera' began touring the UK in early 2009.
  • Vanishing Point created a modern production of The Beggar's Opera in 2009 for The Royal Lyceum Theatremarker and Belgrade Theatremarker, Coventry, set in a near-future apocalypse world. It features music from A Band Called Quinn.


Mr. Peachum
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
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


Peachum, a fence and thief-catcher, justifies his actions. Mrs. Peachum, overhearing her husband's blacklisting of unproductive thieves, protests regarding one of them, Bob Booty (the nickname of Robert Walpole). The Peachums discover that Polly, their daughter, has secretly married Macheath, the famous highwayman, who is Peachum's principal client. Upset to find out that he will no longer be able to use Polly in his business, Peachum and his wife ask how Polly will support such a husband "in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring". Nevertheless, they conclude that the match may make sense if the husband can be killed for his money. They leave to carry out this errand. However, Polly has hidden Macheath.

Macheath goes to a tavern where he is surrounded by women of dubious virtue who, despite their class, compete in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Macheath discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and he becomes a prisoner in Newgate prison. The prison is run by Peachum's associate, the corrupt jailer Lockit. His daughter, Lucy Lockit, has the opportunity to scold Macheath for having agreed to marry her and breached this promise. She tells him that to see him tortured would give her pleasure. Macheath pacifies her, but Polly arrives and claims him as her husband. Macheath tells Lucy that Polly is crazy. Lucy helps Macheath to escape by stealing her father's keys. Her father learns of Macheath's promise to marry her and worries that if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune might be subject to Peachum's claims. Lockit and Peachum discover Macheath's hiding place. They decide to split his fortune.

Meanwhile, Polly visits Lucy to try to reach an agreement, but Lucy has decided to poison her. Polly narrowly avoids the poisoned drink, and the two girls find out that Macheath has been recaptured owing to the inebriated Mrs Diana Trapes. They plead with their fathers for Macheath's life. However, Macheath now finds that four more pregnant women each claim him as their husband. He declares that he is ready to be hanged. The narrator (the Beggar), notes that although in a properly moral ending Macheath and the other villains would be hanged, the audience demands a happy ending, and so Macheath is reprieved, and all are invited to a dance of celebration, to celebrate his wedding to Polly.

Selected musical numbers

  • Can Love Be Controlled By Advice? (Polly)
  • Let Us Take To The Road (Chorus of Highwaymen)
  • When Gold Is At Hand (Jenny Diver)
  • At The Tree I Shall Suffer (Macheath)
  • How Cruel Are The Traitors (Lucy)
  • How Happy Could I Be With Either (Macheath)
  • In The Days Of My Youth (Mrs Diana Trapes)
  • The Charge Is Prepared (Macheath)


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 a 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).


In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, set in the West Indiesmarker: 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.


  1. Article about long runs in the theatre in London and New York, Stage Beauty website
  2. Musicals Guided Tour - First Musicals, PeoplePlay UK
  3. Article about the length of theatrical runs around the world, World Theatres
  4. Dobin's Beggars Opera website
  5. Kozinn, Allan. "The Beggar's Opera, An 18th-Century Satire", The New York Times, 10 May 1990, accessed 6 November, 2009
  6. Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History, p. 11
  7. "Baroque Composers", Baroque Arts
  8. Dobin, Jonathan. Jonathan Dobin's The Beggar's Opera website, accessed 6 November 2009
  9. 1948 Benjamin Britten version of The Beggar's Opera at the Guide to Musical Theatre
  10. [1]
  11. Takarazuka Revue
  12. [2]
  13. His dark song of self-justification is the only song that appears in both The Beggar's Opera and The Threepenny Opera (as Morgenchoral des Peachum)
  14. O'Shaughnessy, Toni-Lynn. "A Single Capacity in The Beggar's Opera", Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Winter, 1987-1988), pp. 212-227 The Johns Hopkins University Press (online version requires subscription)

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