The Beggar’s Opera, one of the finest plays written in English in the early eighteenth century, follows in the satiric tradition of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. John Gay’s purpose is likewise to ridicule the corrupt politics of his day and the follies of polite society. His depiction of crime and vice in all strata of society and his shrewd, humorous characterizations give the play universality. The Beggar’s Opera has remained popular since its first performances, both in its original version and in such reworkings as those by composers Benjamin Britten and Arthur Bliss; Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation of the original with music by Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera; and a fine British film version made in 1953.
The Beggar’s Opera was written as a satire of the government of King George II, represented by Macheath, and the Whig prime minister, Robert Walpole, represented by Peachum. Gay also satirizes the contrived but popular Italian operas and the simpler English alternative to them. The work features well-known English and Scottish ballads and airs to which Gay added his own lyrics.
Colley Cibber, whom Pope satirized in The Dunciad (1728-1743) and who managed the Drury Lane Theatre, unwisely declined to produce The Beggar’s Opera when Gay submitted it to him. At length a reluctant John Rich, of the Theatre Royal, agreed to produce the play. His fears of failure proved unwarranted, for the play became a great financial success. It was said at the time that The Beggar’s Opera made Gay rich and Rich gay.
Gay’s achievement and the reason for the play’s continued success is the fact that the work can be enjoyed without a knowledge of the contemporary political and theatrical milieu that it satirizes. The tone is jocular and bawdy, but it never lapses into bitterness or mere vulgarity. The diction is simple, the satire sharp, but the message is neither overly...
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