The Beggar's Opera

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Painting based on The Beggar's Opera, scene 5, William Hogarth, c. 1728, in the Tate Britain

The Beggar's Opera[1] is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of opera, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.

The Beggar's Opera premiered at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre on 29 January 1728[2] and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time.[3] The work became Gay's greatest success and has been played ever since. In 1920, The Beggar's Opera began an astonishing revival run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was one of the longest runs in history for any piece of musical theatre at that time.[4]

The piece satirised Italian opera, which had become popular in London. According to The New York Times: "Gay wrote the work more as an anti-opera than an opera, one of its attractions to its 18th-century London public being its lampooning of the Italian opera style and the English public's fascination with it."[5][6] Instead of the grand music and themes of opera, the work uses familiar tunes and characters that were ordinary people. Some of the songs were by opera composers like Handel, but only the most popular of these were used. The audience could hum along with the music and identify with the characters. The story satirised politics, poverty and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society. Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became an overnight success. Her pictures were in great demand, verses were written to her and books published about her. After appearing in several comedies, and then in numerous repetitions of The Beggars Opera, she ran away with her married lover, Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton.

Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill adapted the opera into Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928, sticking close to the original plot and characters but with a new libretto and mostly new music.

Origin and analysis[edit]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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 bourgeois "betters."[citation needed]

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.[9]

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.[citation needed]

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.[10]

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."[10]

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.

Adaptations[edit]

Frederic Austin's 1920s version

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." (See the 1729 score, formerly published by Dover).

The absence of the original performing parts has allowed producers and arrangers free rein. 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 the opera.

Roles[edit]

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
Crook-Finger'd Jack
Wat Dreary
Robin of Bagshot
Nimming Ned – ("Nimming" meaning thieving)
Harry Padington
Matt of the Mint
Ben Budge
Beggar
Player
Mrs. Peachum
Polly Peachum
Lucy Lockit
Diana Trapes
Mrs. Coaxer Women of the Town
Dolly Trull – ("Trull" meaning prostitute)
Mrs. Vixen
Betty Doxy – ("Doxy" meaning slut)
Jenny Diver
Mrs. Slammekin
Sukey Tawdrey
Molly Brazen

jailor drawer constables

Synopsis[edit]

Peachum, a fence and thief-catcher, justifies his actions.[15] 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[edit]

  • 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)

Reaction[edit]

The Beggar's Opera was met with widely varying reactions. Its popularity was documented in The Craftsmen with the following entries:

"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)[16]

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 Malefactor?"[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

Sequel[edit]

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 later.[20]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ http://www.bibliomania.com/0/6/2/1088/frameset.html
  2. ^ Penguin Pocket On This Day. Penguin Reference Library. 2006. ISBN 0-14-102715-0. 
  3. ^ "Stage Beauty". 
  4. ^ "Long runs". World Theatres. 
  5. ^ Dobin's Beggars Opera website
  6. ^ Kozinn, Allan. "The Beggar's Opera, An 18th-Century Satire", The New York Times, 10 May 1990, accessed 6 November 2009
  7. ^ Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History, p. 11
  8. ^ "Baroque Composers", Baroque Arts
  9. ^ Dobin, Jonathan. Jonathan Dobin's The Beggar's Opera website, accessed 6 November 2009
  10. ^ a b Richardson, John. "John Gay, The Beggar's Opera, and forms of resistance." Eighteenth-Century Life. 24.3 (2000): 19–30.
  11. ^ 1948 Benjamin Britten version of The Beggar's Opera at the Guide to Musical Theatre
  12. ^ Takarazuka Revue
  13. ^ http://www.belgrade.co.uk/site/scripts/show_details.php?showID=367 Belgrade Theatre[dead link]
  14. ^ Michael Billington (30 June 2011). "Review – The Beggar's Opera". The Guardian. 
  15. ^ His dark song of self-justification is the only song that appears in both The Beggar's Opera and The Threepenny Opera (as Morgenchoral des Peachum). The lyrics in the latter version are very different, but the melody and the position of the song in the libretto are retained.
  16. ^ "The first production." The Beggar's Opera. Accessed 10 August 2011.
  17. ^ Guerinot & Jilg, 87–88.
  18. ^ Guerinot & Jilg, 89.
  19. ^ Kidson, Frank. "The Beggar's Opera" The Musical Times 1 January 1921: 18–19.
  20. ^ O'Shaughnessy, Toni-Lynn. "A Single Capacity in The Beggar's Opera", Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Winter, 1987–1988), pp. 212–227 The Johns Hopkins University Press (subscription required)

External links[edit]