The Beggar’s Opera

The Beggar’s Opera (1728) overview

John Gay’s The Beggar's Opera survives as the best-known example of a satirical ballad opera, a popular 18th-century genre.

The ballad opera fused some of the conventions of opera with folk tunes and broadsheet ballads, combining high and low art. Written in part as an attack on Sir Robert Walpole's corrupt administration, and humankind’s worst tendencies, The Beggar's Opera is also a satire on fashionable London's obsession with Italian opera.

In the opening scene it is explained that The Beggar’s Opera is to be understood as opera, even though it contains no recitative and no epilogue or prologue. The Beggar reassures the audience that it will follow all the other conventions of the fashionable operas.

The story proper begins in the house of Peachum, who runs a gang of thieves, highwaymen and prostitutes. Peachum profits from the gang's earnings, and when they are no longer of use he betrays them.

His wife believes their daughter Polly is having an affair with Macheath, the infamous highwayman. Peachum is appalled by this, and Polly assures her father that she is merely toying with Macheath. The Peachums soon discover that Polly and Macheath are actually married.

Peachum plots to betray Macheath to the authorities so that he and his family can receive the reward money and Macheath's property. Polly, who loves Macheath, warns him, and he goes to Peachum’s gang and asks the men to convince Peachum he has fled town. Macheath is then tricked by two female members of Peachum’s gang and ends up being taken to Newgate Prison.

There, Lucy, the daughter of the jailer Lockit – who was previously jilted by Macheath – pleads with her father for Macheath’s release, but he refuses. But after Polly visits and Macheath ignores her, Lucy hatches a plan to help him.

In the third act Macheath has made a successful escape but it is short-lived and he is dragged back to prison. There the feuding Lucy and Polly plead with him to confirm which one of them he truly loves. Macheath refuses to make a choice.

As more women turn up, each calling herself Macheath’s wife, he asks the hangman to finish him off. At this point, the figures of the Player and the Beggar dispute the ending. If Macheath hangs it would make the opera a tragedy, rather than a popular comedy. It is decided that a happy ending would be more in keeping with the audience’s demands and the mob is instructed to ‘cry reprieve’ for Macheath. In the final scene, it is revealed that Macheath has been pardoned from hanging, and he takes Polly as his one, true wife.

Key productions of The Beggar’s Opera

The influence of The Beggar's Opera on British theatre is considerable and can be seen particularly in 19th-century British comic opera. Later, it was the basis for Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928).

The Daily Telegraph’s theatre critic Charles Spencer called Gay’s play a ‘perplexing classic’, and said that of recent productions Lucy Bailey’s 2011 staging for the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park came the closest to finding the right balance between comedy and cruelty.

John Gay
Literary period:
18th century