If you read our review of John Gay’s play The Beggar’s Opera, you know how interesting this ballad opera is.
As our reviewer notes, “Posing in various forms such as social commentary, a satire on Italian opera, a ballad opera, and a musical comedy, there’s no doubt that The Beggar’s Opera has inspired playwrights and composers ever since, and its popularity has never been in doubt.”
A summary of The Beggar’s Opera would run thus: Peachum is the leader of a gang of robbers in England, who sell stolen goods which are retrieved by his highwaymen. His daughter, Polly falls in love with one of his highwaymen, Macheath, and marries him simply out of love. Her parents are angered by this marriage because they fear that Polly will give away the family secrets to him and also because now they will not be able to use her to make a financial profit. Out of their anger and rashness, her parents decide the only way to resolve this problem is to have Macheath sentenced to death. Because of this, Polly will be able to make a handsome profit as widow and the Peachums will not have to worry about having their family secrets revealed. The Peachums have Macheath arrested. Polly visits him in jail only to find that he has another lover, Lucy Lockit, to whom he is also supposedly married.
Neither woman knew of the other’s existence and they are both angered and get into a huge fight. Lucy devises a way to steal her father’s keys and set Macheath free but realizes that he will only run back to Polly, so she helps everyone capture him again. She also tries to poison Polly but does not succeed. As Macheath is about to be hanged, Polly and Lucy come to visit him, along with four other of his wives. While Macheath is walking to the gallows, the beggar decides to spare his life and he chooses to stay with Polly.
Thieves, whores, coppers, corrupt judges — The Beggar’s Opera had it all! Like Thomas De’Urfey’s ‘Blowzabella me Bouncing Doxie,’ it celebrates the carnal in ways that owe more to the groundlings than to those who sat high above the mud of the outdoor London theaters.
Given such a rich and rather racy plot, it’s no surprise that Polly Peachum and The Beggar’s Opera, which details how The Beggar’s Opera has fared from its inception ’til the late Victorian period, is a lively read. First published in 1913 in London, this book covers literally everything about The Beggar’s Opera: the creation of the play, what Gay intended its meaning to be, how realistic the play is, the music, the first production, Polly Peachum (yes, there was an actress named so!), how Puritans considered the play to be ‘evil’ and how Swift defended it, and how later critics treated it. If you want to know everything about this opera, buy this book. The only pity is that it has not been revised to take account of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s classic 1928 rewrite which took on the rise of Nazis in Germany and Austria.
(Benjiman Blom, 1968)