1921 edition of The Beggar's Opera, illustrated by Claud Lovat Fraser


In 1920‒23, Nigel Playfair staged a spectacular revival of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. The production ran for over 1,460 performances, breaking new theatrical records, just as the original had in 1728 when it played for 62 nights.

This riotous ballad opera, set in London’s criminal underworld, was the most frequently performed show in the theatre of 18th-century Britain. It mixed bawdy comedy with bold political satire, using popular songs and tunes to subvert the conventions of Italian opera. By the late 19th century it had fallen out of fashion, but the Lyric Theatre production gave it a new lease of life.

What was special about Playfair’s production?

The music was arranged by Frederic Austin, the script adapted by Arnold Bennett and the innovative set and costumes designed by Claud Lovat Fraser. Some of Gay’s most risqué content was cut ‒ the word ‘whore’ was omitted ‒ and The Times reviewer found it entertaining but ‘dainty’ (10 November 1920). Nevertheless, it inspired Elisabeth Hauptmann and Bertolt Brecht to write a German translation, paving the way for their darkly satirical The Threepenny Opera (1928).

This book is a memento of Playfair’s acclaimed production. It is part of a limited edition of 430 copies printed on handmade paper, decorated with Lovat Fraser’s line drawings and coloured plates.

Claud Lovat Fraser’s designs: Simple and symbolic

In his preface, Lovat Fraser explains how he started by using ‘historically accurate’ sources, including Hogarth’s painting of Gay’s prison scene. But he felt this realist method led to ‘appalling’ designs, unsuited to the ‘little’ modern theatre.

Starting afresh, Lovat Fraser switched to a ‘symbolic’ approach, which hinted at 18th-century London rather than showing it faithfully. Instead of complex scenery, he created one simple set which hardly changed throughout the evening. For the men’s costumes, he kept things fairly traditional, with Macheath ‒ the dashing highwayman ‒ in a scarlet coat and wig. For the women, Lovat Fraser used the ‘outlines’ of Georgian fashions, but he stripped away the ‘ribbons and lace’ for ‘dramatic simplicity’. The thief-taker’s wife, Mrs Peachum, wore a low-cut black dress and ginger wig, while her daughter Polly was in striking pink and green.

Full title:
The beggar's opera. New and complete edition.
1921, London
Book / Illustration / Image
John Gay, Claud Lovat Fraser [artist]
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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