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‘To lash the age’: John Gay and The Beggar’s Opera

Andrew Dickson introduces The Beggar's Opera and its many satirical targets, including the court of George I, the politician Robert Walpole, the British legal system and Italian opera.

A huge hit when it first appeared in 1728, and extensively revived and imitated ever since, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera ranks as one of the biggest successes of the 18th-century theatre. Set partly in Newgate Prison and populated by a back-stabbing cast of con artists, highwaymen, corrupt jailers and prostitutes, the piece is an audacious blend of lowlife farce and high art, comedy and cruelty. One of the first so-called ‘ballad operas’, employing pre-existing popular songs – these days we would call it a jukebox musical – it mocks the conventions of fashionable baroque Italian opera, and also takes aim at the grim realities of early 18th-century London, and at political corruption in particular. Its author’s epitaph in Westminster Abbey records how Gay’s ‘native humour’ and ‘virtuous rage’ enabled him to ‘lash the age’. As its continued popularity around the world demonstrates, The Beggar’s Opera has resonated in many other ages and countries too.

Portrait of John Gay by William Aikman, c. 1720

Portrait of John Gay by William Aikman, c. 1720

Before he hit the big-time with his popular Beggar’s Opera (1728), John Gay was often worried about making enough money or securing wealthy patrons.

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From ‘Newgate’s Garland’ to The Beggar’s Opera

His biographers aren’t entirely sure when John Gay – by the early 1720s a successful but perennially impecunious satirist, songwriter and playwright, closely tied to a circle of authors including Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Thomas Parnell – first began to consider The Beggar’s Opera. One spur seems to have been his composition of a ballad-cum-poem called ‘Newgate’s Garland’ in 1724, which was inspired by the antics of the master criminal Jonathan Wild.

A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers

A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers

At this time, there was a huge market for racy stories about daring criminals and highwaymen. This image shows Jonathan Wild being carried towards his execution at Tyburn.

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Wild was one of the most famous lawbreakers of the period, and became a folk hero for his shameless manipulation of the legal system, which enabled him to move in legitimate circles while still controlling a vast network of criminal gangs. Wild prospered as a so-called ‘thief-taker’ or paid informant – it was said that over a 100 people had been hanged on his evidence – and when he himself was eventually executed at Tyburn in 1725 it was a national event.[1] Comparisons were often drawn between Wild and the prime minister of the day, Robert Walpole – often accused of self-enrichment and double-dealing – and Gay drew attention to the parallel in his poem.[2] Soon afterwards he began work on his ‘Newgate pastoral’, The Beggar’s Opera.

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

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

John Gay reimagines Wild as the corrupt thief-catcher, Peachum. This painting depicts Frederic Austin playing the part in the Lyric Theatre’s acclaimed production, 1920‒23.

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The plot Gay came up with draws heavily on the life of Wild, called ‘Peachum’ in his reimagining (‘peaching’ was slang for informing). The opera begins with a preface narrated by the ‘Beggar’ of the title, who introduces the main story. In this play-within-a-play, one Peachum, a thief-catcher and fence for stolen goods, is horrified to discover that his daughter Polly has fallen in love with and secretly married his great rival, the highwayman Macheath (a thinly veiled portrait of another celebrated real-life criminal called Jack Sheppard, whom Wild sent to the gallows).

A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers

A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers

This engraving shows Jack Sheppard ‒ the notorious thief and gaol-breaker – bound in chains in the Stone Room at Newgate Prison.

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Determined to get their own back, Peachum and his wife plot to have Macheath murdered so they can steal his money; they contrive to get him locked up in Newgate, where it transpires that he has also been entangled with the jailor’s daughter, Lucy. She helps Macheath escape, and plots to poison Polly. Macheath refuses to choose between the two women, and is appalled when more women appear, each with a child and claiming that Macheath is the father; knowing that he has no way out, he gladly submits to the death penalty – only for the ‘Beggar’ to reappear. He tells the audience that while it would be ‘poetical justice’ for Macheath to die for his numerous crimes, there will be a traditional operatic happy ending: Macheath will be spared the noose and reunited with Polly.

Divas and duels

To punctuate the action, Gay used no fewer than 69 songs, a mixture of popular folk tunes from England and Scotland, plus others borrowed from contemporary songwriters and opera composers, all of which were arranged by the composer Johann Christoph Pepusch. To these melodies the playwright set playful, satirical lyrics, often poking fun at contemporary manners and morals. These, for instance, are Gay’s words for ‘Lillibulero’, a popular song of the time, satirising how things really operated at the court of George I:

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.
’Tis true, you find
Some friends so kind,
Who will give you good counsel themselves to defend.
In sorrowful ditty,
They promise, they pity,
But shift you for money, from friend to friend. (The Beggar’s Opera, Act 3, Sene 4)[3]

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

In Gay’s subverted version of the popular song, ‘Lillabulero’, the friendships at court are exposed as cut-throat financial deals.

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Gay has another target, too: the excesses of Italian opera seria (operas on grave or mythological themes), which had taken over London stages in the 1710s and 1720s, much to the playwright’s irritation (in a letter to Jonathan Swift in 1725, he carped that ‘There’s nobody allowed to say, I sing, but an eunuch or an Italian woman’).[4] Composers such as the German-born, Italian-trained George Frederic Handel had scored huge successes with works such as Rinaldo (1711), an epic but narratively unlikely tale of war and witchcraft, and Radamisto (1720), a tryst-filled and even more implausible saga set in ancient Thrace, which dazzled audiences with lavish sets and costumes, the more extravagant the better.[5]

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

This elegant third edition includes all Dr Pepusch’s musical arrangements. Here he adapts a march from Handel’s Rinaldo (1711) – one of the fashionable operas which Gay used and satirised.

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For those in the know, the playwright prepares any number of operatic gags, from the cat fight over Macheath’s affections between Polly and the jailer’s daughter Lucy – a version of a grudge match between operatic divas – to the love duet between the hero and heroine at the end of Act 1, which lampoons the high-flown sentiments of duets written by Handel and his ilk:

MACHEATH The miser thus a shilling sees,
Which he’s obliged to pay,
With sighs resigns it by degrees,
And fears ’tis gone for aye.

POLLY The boy, thus, when his sparrow’s flown,
The bird in silence eyes;
But soon as out of sight ’tis gone,
Whines, whimpers, sobs and cries. 

(The Beggar’s Opera, Act 1, Scene 13)

Subtle it isn’t – comparing romantic love to a miser’s obsession with money, or a boy’s sadness over a lost bird – but audiences lapped it up. John Rich’s original production at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields playhouse, which opened on 29 January 1728, went on to have no fewer than 62 performances, a record-breaking run.

Letters from John Gay to Jonathan Swift about The Beggar's Opera, 1728‒29

Letters from John Gay to Jonathan Swift about The Beggar's Opera

Gay shares the news of his sell-out success with his friend Jonathan Swift. But he fears he may be chastised by the Royal Academy of Music for tempting audiences away from traditional Italian opera.

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Many critics thrilled to these potshots at imported Italian culture. A ballad published not long afterwards proclaimed that ‘Of all the belles that tread the stage, / There’s none like pretty Polly’, pouring scorn on ‘flat … Cuzzoni’ (the prima donna Francesca Cuzzoni, who once had a hair-pulling fight with a rival onstage) and ‘warbling Senesino’ (another famous singer, one of Handel’s most renowned and temperamental stars).[6]

A political work

From a 21st-century perspective, the political context of The Beggar’s Opera can be hard to grasp. But though Gay denied – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – that he had any intention of referring to contemporary events, these in-jokes run through the text at every level. Peachum sings at one point, with heavy irony, that ‘The statesman, because he’s so great, / Thinks his trade as honest as mine’ (43), and this upside-down, topsy-turvy moral universe is a major feature of the work.

Letters from John Gay to Jonathan Swift about The Beggar's Opera, 1728‒29

Letters from John Gay to Jonathan Swift about The Beggar's Opera

Gay says he is almost regarded as the ‘most obnoxious person’ in England, for ‘writing in the cause of Virtue and against the fashionable Vices’.

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A major object of Gay’s satire is the politician Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whig party, who by the 1720s had become a byword for corruption and was detested by Gay and many of his allies. The text makes continual reference to a criminal called ‘Bob Booty’, a popular nickname for Walpole, and also pokes fun at his penchant for womanising – most famously in the song ‘How happy could I be with either’, which although ostensibly about Macheath’s inability to choose between Lucy or Polly, gestures at Walpole’s own marriage, and his long and very public affair with a woman called Maria Skerrett. The politician himself saw a performance of The Beggar’s Opera: although it was said he won over the crowd by calling for an encore, making it appear that he had a sense of humour, he clearly held a grudge. Gay’s follow-up, a sequel called Polly (1729), was suppressed, probably at Walpole’s behest.[7]

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

Third edition of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, 1729

Though Polly was banned from performance, Gay went ahead and published it at his own expense. The scandal helped to make it into a best-seller and Gay made £1,200.

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But Gay’s satire is far broader than one man or even on social class: The Beggar’s Opera makes caustic fun of everything, from the inequities of the British legal system (Macheath’s jailor is every bit as corrupt as Macheath himself) to a society driven entirely by self-interest and greed. Though the piece is deliciously funny to watch, the laughter is often bitter: in the words of editors Bryan Loughrey and T O Treadwell, ‘The Beggar’s Opera takes an extremely dark view of human nature’.[8]

A lively afterlife

The Beggar’s Opera was so popular that it became the most revived single play of the entire 18th century, inspiring an apparently endless number of imitators; a scene from it was even painted by William Hogarth.[9] And for a piece so closely tied to the events and politics of its time, it has proved remarkably popular in the centuries since, too.

A scene from The Beggar's Opera by William Hogarth, 1731

A scene from The Beggar's Opera by William Hogarth, 1731

The painting shows the climactic scene in which Macheath is chained at Newgate Prison , while Polly and Lucy implore their fathers to spare him from hanging.

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Usage terms William Hogarth, A Scene from ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ VI, Tate, Photo © Tate

Its most famous reworking is probably Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1928) by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. A snarling send-up of Weimar Germany – every bit as unequal and corrupt as 18th-century England, Brecht and Weill suggest – this transplanted Peacham, Polly and Macheath (here named ‘Mac the Knife’) to the grimy surroundings of 1920s Berlin, and gave them not folk songs but jazz-influenced numbers to sing. According to one early reviewer, The Threepenny Opera is ‘not … a morality play, it is not a revue, it is not a conventional burlesque, and it is not The Beggar’s Opera; but it is an interesting combination of them’.[10]

Premier of Brecht’s musical, The Threepenny Opera, at the Theatre am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin

Photographs of The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), 1928

In The Threepenny Opera (1928), Brecht adapted Gay’s work to produce a biting satire of 20th-century capitalism.

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Gay’s opera has also inspired a number of 20th-century adaptations, among them the American lyricist John Latouche’s The Beggar’s Holiday (1946, with a jazz score by Duke Ellington), Vaclav Havel’s heavily politicised translation Zebrácká opera (1976), which used Gay’s text as a mirror for the injustices of Soviet-era Czechoslovakia and the left-wing Italian dramatist Dario Fo’s reworking L’opera dello sghignazzo (1981), a freewheeling blend of Gay and Brecht.

And though it is not by any means as popular as it once was, The Beggar’s Opera is still intermittently revived in England, too. John Caird’s lightly adjusted version was a success at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1992, and Lucy Bailey’s 2011 revival at the open-air theatre in Regent’s Park, London, was acclaimed for its Hogarthian energy and bravura. In the words of one reviewer, despite being performed in 18th-century costume, The Beggar’s Opera felt as relevant as ever: ‘Bailey leaves it to us to deduce the parallels between Gay's portrait of a society dominated by money, self-interest and celebrity-criminals and our own day’.[11]



Footnotes

[1] The best quick reference on Wild’s life is Andrea McKenzie’s 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for him; available online, with subscription, at: [oxforddnb.com].

[2] Technically, the post of prime minister did not yet exist, but as First Lord of the Treasury, Walpole is often called the first British prime minister he was gifted 10 Downing Street by King George I.

[3] John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, ed. by Bryan Loughrey and T O Treadwell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986). All citations are to this edition.

[4] Cited in William Eben Schultz, Gay’s Beggar’s Opera: Its Context, History and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1923), p. 135.

[5] The Encyclopedia Britannica article on Handel offers a good overview of his career and a brief introduction to his operas. Online for free at
[https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Frederic-Handel]

[6] Quoted in David Nokes, John Gay: A Profession of Friendship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 425.

[7] Nokes, John Gay, p. 464.

[8] Introduction to The Beggar’s Opera, ed. by Loughrey and Treadwell, p. 28.

[9] Schultz, xxi. The painting can be seen on the Tate website at: [http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hogarth-a-scene-from-the-beggars-opera-vi-n02437]

[10] 'The Threepeny Opera: A Berlin Burleque', The Times, 25 September 1928.

[11] Michael Billington, review of The Beggar’s Opera, The Guardian, 21 June 2011. [https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/jun/29/beggars-opera-review].

  • Andrew Dickson
  • Andrew Dickson is an author, journalist and critic. A former arts editor at the Guardian in London, he writes regularly for the paper and appears as a broadcaster for the BBC and elsewhere. His book about Shakespeare's global influence, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare's Globe, is out now in paperback. He lives in London, and his website is andrewjdickson.com.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.