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 Newgate 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
Gay used Scottish folk melodies mostly taken from the poet
Allan Ramsay's hugely popular collection The Gentle Shepherd
(1725) plus two French tunes (including the carol 'Bergers,
Ecoutez La Musique!' for his song 'Fill Every Glass'), 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 play is sometimes seen to be a reactionary call for
libertarian values in response to the growing power of the
conservative Whig party. It may also have been influenced by
the then-popular ideology of Locke that men should be
allowed their natural liberties; these democratic strains of
thought influenced the populist movements of the time, of
which The Beggar's Opera was a part.
The character of Macheath has been considered by critics as
both a hero and an anti-hero. Harold Gene Moss, arguing that
Macheath is a noble character, has written, "[one] whose
drives are toward love and the vital passions, Macheath
becomes an almost Christ-like victim of the decadence
surrounding him." Contrarily, John Richardson in the
peer-reviewed journal Eighteenth-Century Life has argued
that Macheath is powerful as a literary figure precisely
because he stands against any interpretation, "against
expectation and illusion."
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" – one 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.
The absence of the original performing parts has allowed
many producers and arrangers to have free creative reign.
The tradition of personalised 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 characterisation. Following is a list of some of the most
highly regarded 20th-century arrangements and settings of
In 1920, the baritone Frederic Austin newly arranged the
music (and also sang the role of Peachum) for the
long-running production (1,463 performances) at the Lyric
Theatre, Hammersmith. The Irish baritone Frederick Ranalow
sang the role of Captain Macheath in every performance. In
1955 this version was recorded by conductor Sir Malcolm
Sargent with John Cameron as Macheath and Monica Sinclair as
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.
In 1946, John La Touche (book and lyrics) and Duke Ellington
(music) created another musical adaptation of the work for
Broadway entitled Beggar's Holiday. An updated rendition of
the story focused on a corrupt world inhabited by rakish
Mobsters, raffish Madams and their dissolute whores,
panhandlers and street people.
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, Czech 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 The Australian Opera (now Opera Australia). It
was recorded the same year 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,
Gary Tibbs as Filch, 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 1998, the all female Japanese troupe, Takarazuka Revue,
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 Wales, 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
Vanishing Point created a modern production of The Beggar's
Opera in 2009 for The Royal Lyceum Theatre and Belgrade
Theatre, Coventry, set in a near-future apocalypse world. It
features music from A Band Called Quinn.
The original opera was performed in an 18th-century setting
at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park in summer 2011, in a
production directed by Lucy Bailey.
Mr. Peachum – powerful first class man/ controls who gets
sent to the gallows
Lockit – jail keeper
Macheath – captain of gang of robbers
Filch – the Peachums' loyal and squeamish servant
Jemmy Twitcher Macheath's Gang
Robin of Bagshot
Nimming Ned – ("Nimming" meaning thieving)
Matt of the Mint
Mrs. Coaxer Women of the Town
Dolly Trull – ("Trull" meaning prostitute)
Betty Doxy – ("Doxy" meaning slut)
jailor drawer constables
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 then broken 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 tries 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)
The Beggar's Opera was met with widely varying reactions.
Its popularity was documented in The Craftsmen with the
"This Week a Dramatick Entertainment has been exhibited at
the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, entitled The Beggar's
Opera, which has met with a general Applause, insomuch that
the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will
make Gay very Rich." (3 February 1728)
""We hear that the British Opera, commonly called The
Beggar's Opera, continues to be acted, at the Theatre in
Lincoln's-Inn Fields with general Applause, to the great
Mortification of the Performers and Admirers of the
Outlandish Opera in the Haymarket." (17 February 1728)
Two weeks after opening night, an article appeared in The
Craftsman, the leading opposition newspaper, ostensibly
protesting at Gay's work as libellous 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
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.
Criticism of Gay's opera continued long after its
publication. In 1776, John Hawkins wrote in his History of
Music that due to the opera's popularity, "Rapine and
violence have been gradually increasing" solely because the
rising generation of young men desired to imitate the
character Macheath. Hawkins blamed Gay for tempting these
men with "the charms of idleness and criminal pleasure,"
which Hawkins saw Macheath as representing and glorifying.
In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, set in the West
Indies: 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
have it banned, and it was not performed until fifty years
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