The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera, a satiric play using some of the conventions of opera, but without the recitative. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama. The airs in the play are set to popular ballads of the time. It was written in 1728 by John Gay, and the music was arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. The play was targeted at the prevailing interest in Italian opera, as well as being meant to lampoon the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole and the famous criminal Jonathan Wild. It also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, primarily through the comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeoise "betters." It is the first, and only successful example of the ballad opera, although it is an ancestor of the plays of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and eventually Gilbert and Sullivan. Gay cuts the standard five acts to three, and tightly controls the dialogue and plot so that there are delightful surprises in each of the forty-five fast-paced scenes.
The original idea of the opera came from Jonathan Swift, who wrote to Alexander Pope on August 30, 1716 asking "...what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?" Their friend, Gay, decided that it would be a comedy rather than a pastoral. It became his greatest success.
Exactly 200 years later, in 1928, Bertolt Brecht (words) and Kurt Weill (music) created a new version of the work entitled The Threepenny Opera.
It was also adapted, in a non-musical form, by Czech playwright/president Václav Havel in 1975.
Peachum, who is both fence and thief-catcher, sets the tone with his song of self-justification as he sits at his account-book. This dark tune is the only song that appears in both The Beggar's Opera and The Threepenny Opera (as Morgenchoral des Peachum):
Macheath succeeds in mollifying her, only to have Polly drop in at this inopportune moment, nearly ruining his chances of escape by claiming him for her husband in Lucy's presence. Macheath finds himself forced to pretend that Polly is crazy, and succeeds in forcing her to retreat--but something in the performance fills Lucy with foreboding: "But that Polly runs in my Head strangely." And she sings, affectingly:
In spite of her fears, Lucy aids Macheath in his escape. Her father learns of Macheath's promise of marriage to her, and determines to learn from Peachum the status of Polly's possible marriage, for if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune will be subject to rival claims. Lockit visits Peachum, and they discover, while listening to a long-winded account by Mrs. Trapes, the whereabouts of Macheath. They conclude to go halves in him, and the chase is on. Mrs. Trapes shows the practical presence of mind that characterizes these underworld characters, by not presuming upon Peachum and Lockit's promise of a reward:
A scene, reminiscent of the interruptions in The Rehearsal, interposes, in which the Beggar explains that he would have provided a properly moral ending with the hanging of Macheath, "and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience is to suppose they were all either hang'd or transported." But the "taste of the town" will not allow this, for the people had not come to see a tragedy, and must have a happy ending. Macheath is brought back, to the general cry of "a Reprieve," and invites all to a dance of celebration, declaring to Polly that he acknowledges his marriage to her as binding.
The intent of the play is clearly to remind those in high place that corruption at their level leads to corruption and suffering throughout society. As such, it is a highly moral play, in spite of its apparent glamorization of the criminal life. Two weeks after opening night, an article appeared in The Craftsman, the leading Opposition newspaper, ostensibly protesting Gay's work as libelous, but actually assisting him in satirizing the Walpole establishment by very clumsily taking the government's side:
The commentator drives home his point by taking note of the Beggar's last remark, which is the most important of the play: "That the lower People have their Vices in a Degree as well as the Rich, and are punished for them,----innuendo, that rich People never are" (89).
See also The Beggar's Opera for the 1953 film version.
The play was also adapted for BBC television in 1983 and was directed by Jonathan Miller and starred Roger Daltrey in the role of Macheath, Stratford Johns as Peachum and Bob Hoskins as the Beggar.