• Full title:  

    The beggar's opera. As it is acted at the Theatre-Royal in Lincolns-Inn Fields.

    Polly: an opera. being the second part of the Beggar's opera.

  • Published:   1729 , London
  • Formats:  Book, Quarto, Music
  • Creator:   John Gay, John Christopher Pepusch [composer]
  • Usage terms Public Domain
  • Held by  British Library
  • Shelfmark:   R.M.10.a.6.(1.); R.M.10.a.6.(2.)


John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was a theatrical sensation when it was first staged at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1728. With its ground-breaking mixture of witty songs, dance and drama, it introduced a new genre known as the ‘ballad opera’ ‒ a forerunner of the modern musical.

Set amongst the whores and rogues of London’s Newgate Prison, the ‘opera’ tells the story of the dashing highwayman Macheath, who seduces Polly Peachum, the thief-catcher’s daughter, as well as Lucy Lockit, the prison warden’s daughter. These exploits are used to satirise the hypocrisies of Georgian Britain, where professional people are just as corrupt as these crooks.

What’s special about this copy?

This elegant third edition, printed in 1729, was the first to show the full musical score ‒ the overture, songs and accompaniments arranged by Christoph Johann Pepusch. In this copy The Beggar’s Opera is bound alongside Polly, a sequel in which the heroine follows Macheath to the West Indies, where he has been transported as punishment for his crimes.

Well-known tunes and ironic lyrics

The airs (or songs), which are interspersed throughout the comic action, are reproduced in engravings at the back of this book. Gay takes well-known melodies from popular songs and ballads and introduces new lyrics to suit his ironic aims.

The first air is sung to the tune of a ballad whose opening line is ‘An old woman cloathed in gray’. But Gay changes the words to uncover the self-deception of statesmen, who believe themselves ‘as honest’ as the rogues on stage.

Air 20 is adapted from a March in Rinaldo – an opera in Italian, composed in 1711 by the German-born George Frederic Handel. Gay subverts this high art form to explore London’s lowlife. In doing so, he undermines the pretentions of this fashionable genre, with its melodramatic plotlines, impenetrable foreign lyrics and extortionate ticket prices.

In Air 44, Gay takes the tune of the popular song ‘Lillibulero’, and adds new lyrics which compare the friendships at George I’s court to financial transactions.

Polly: Censorship and success

In December 1728, the Lord Chamberlain banned Gay and his theatre-manager John Rich, from rehearsing Polly. This was probably because Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whigs, suspected that Gay used his characters, especially Macheath and Peachum, to mock Walpole’s womanising and self-enriching career.

But rather than hiding from scandal, Gay turned it to his own advantage, publishing Polly at his own expense and selling it by subscription. In his preface, he reveals how the work was ‘supprest’ from performance, while Gay was accused of ‘slander’ against ‘great persons’. He insists he is printing the volume to prove his own innocence, forfeiting all hope of ‘profit’ from putting it on stage. In fact, this quarto edition became a best-seller and earned Gay £1,200.