Today in London’s radical past: the Beggars’ Opera premieres, satirising the rich, 1728

The Beggar’s Opera was a three act ballad opera written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. The lyrics of the airs in the piece were 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, and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in British theatre history up to that time. The work became Gay’s greatest success and has been played ever since; it has been called “the most popular play of the eighteenth century.” In 1920, the 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. The Beggar’s Opera had a wide influence on later British stage comedies, especially on nineteenth century British comic opera and through to the modern musical.

The piece satirised Italian opera, then very popular in London, especially with the upper classes. Instead of the grand music and themes of opera, the work uses familiar tunes and the characters were ordinary people. Some of the songs were by opera composers like Handel, but only the most popular of these were used. The idea being that 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 celebrity. Her pictures were in widely sold, verses were addressed to her and books published about her. After appearing in several comedies, and numerous repetitions of The Beggars Opera, she ran away with her married lover, Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton.

Eat your heart out George Lucas: Long before star Wars revolutionised modern film merchandising, the Beggars’ Opera’s success spawned an associated industry of 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.

Inspired by an idea of 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 to write a satire on a pastoral opera. Originally, Gay intended all the songs to be sung without any accompaniment, adding to the shocking and gritty atmosphere of his conception. But a week or so before the opening night, John Rich, the theatre director, insisted on having Johann Christoph Pepusch, write and arrange music for the Opera.

Besides taking the piss out of the passionate interest of the aristocracy in Italian opera,  at the same time Gay caricatured the leading Whig statesman Robert Walpole, and politicians in general, as well as the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard. The opera also deals with social inequity on a broad scale, comparing low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic and bourgeois “betters.” 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 Opera’s anti-hero, Macheath has long been thought to be modelled on the famous thief and gaol-breaker Jack Sheppard, who had gone to the gallows in 1724, after breaking out of almost every London prison, and becoming a hero to the lower classes (and remaining a legend and inspiration for a hundred years.)

The Beggar’s Opera was met with widely varying reactions. Its popularity was documented in The Craftsman 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).

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?”

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”  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 put pressure on the Lord Chamberlain to ban it, and it was not performed until fifty years later.

In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill wrote a popular new musical adaptation of the work in Germany entitled Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). This followed the original plot fairly closely (although the time is brought forward over a hundred years) but the music was almost all new, with Brecht’s satirical words expressing his stark class politics. From the Threepenny Opera, the famous song Mack the Knife has entered popular 20th century culture.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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