Of Poets and Playwrights- John Gaye’s The Beggar’s Opera

First produced in 1728 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, John Gaye’s The Beggar’s Opera was a resounding success. The work itself was the first of its kind, a farcical ballad opera, that satirized Italian opera as well as the social and political climate of the Georgian age through witty, often bawdy dialogue, and satirical ballads set to well-loved popular tunes. Poet Alexander Pope said of the performance:
We were all at the first night of it, in great uncertainty of the event; till we were very much encouraged by overhearing the Duke of Argyle, who sat in the box next to us, say, “it will do,–it must do!–I see it in the eyes of them.”–This was a good while before the first act was over, and so gave us ease soon; for the duke, (besides his own good taste) has a more particular knack than anyone now living, in discovering the taste of the public. He was quite right in this, as usual; the good nature of the audience appeared stronger and stronger with every act, and ended in a clamour of applause.
The opera’s success proved unprecedented with 62 full house performances. The Craftsman, on February 3, carried the following notice:

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 very general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it hath made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.

In fact, Gaye cleared over six hundred pounds, and Rich was enabled to build a fine new theatre in Covent-Garden. Prints of Miss Lavinia Fenton as Polly were sold in all the shops with mobs following the bright young actress wherever she went.

Miss Fenton’s fame eventually garnered her a duke who is said to have lost his heart on opening night with her rendition of  “Oh ponder well! Be not severe.”

Hogarth’s portrait forever immortalizes Miss Fenton (later the Duchess of Bolton) as Polly Peachum.

The Characters in the play are primarily thieves and harlots, and its intent is clearly a reminder to those in powerful positions that corruption trickles downhill and infiltrates all levels of society. Though presented tongue-in-cheek, it is a highly moral play, despite its romantic portrayal of the criminal life.

Although the prevailing government perceived it as libelous, Two weeks after opening night, the following appeared in The Craftsman:

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?

The Beggar’s last remark in the play say:

“The lower People have their Vices in a Degree as well as the Rich, and are punished for them”  (implying that the rich are impervious to the punishment)

The Beggar’s Opera has seen a number of revisions, modern adaptations, and classic revivals, and there are at least two film versions. Here’s a couple of snippets from the 1983 film version with Roger Daltry as Macheath.



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