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 subjective nor acidic. The play may be considered as one long song, for it has that lyrical, bell-like quality of its finest airs. The plot, unlike the comedies of manners, the burlesques, and the farces popular at the time, is extremely simple, with no complicated and intertwining subplots to divert attention.
Like a song or ballad, The Beggar’s Opera has several refrains. One of these is the cynical view of love and marriage, a favorite theme of the comedy of manners. There is, too, the typical strain of antifeminism (“ Tis woman that seduces all mankind,” sings Filch in act 1, scene 2). As Gay makes clear, however, neither sex is faultless when it comes to romance. “Love,” says Lucy, “is so very whimsical in both sexes, that it is impossible to be lasting” (act 3, scene 8). That Macheath and Polly will at least attempt a lasting relationship is suggested by the song he sings to Polly in act 1, scene 13:
My heart was so free,It rov’d like the bee,’Till Polly my passion requited;I sipt each flower,I chang’d ev’ry hour,But here ev’ry flower is united.
Not the least aspect of this song’s effectiveness lies in its sexual imagery, which is typical of the play.
Two other refrains are the plays Gay makes on the words “duty” and “honor.” Polly, say her parents, must have her husband “peach’d” (impeached, given to the authorities for reward money) because it is her “duty” thus to obey her parents—a subversion of the biblical commandment to honor one’s parents. It is also the “duty” of the thieves to rob, of the whores to “love,” and of Polly to stand by her husband, who is...
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anything but faithful.
Another refrain, the pun on the word “honour,” effectively criticizes the manners of the court. Thus the honor of the Peachums (that is, the Walpoles) is in question if Polly makes an unsuccessful marriage, one that is not remunerative. However, Polly insists: “I did not marry him (as tis the fashion) coolly and deliberately for honour or money. But, I love him.” The thieves are “men of honour” in name only, just as are the courtiers, and Lockit, with heavy irony, declares to his fellow mobster, Peachum: “He that attacks my honour, attacks my livelyhood.”
One of Lockit’s songs advises: “When you censure the age,/ Be cautious and sage.” Yet, subtle and sophisticated as his censure of the court and Walpole’s government is, the prime minister sees through it and refuses to allow the production of Polly (1729), Gay’s sequel to The Beggar’s Opera. By 1737, the Licensing Act was in effect and the theaters had been closed, ending dramatic criticism of the government. (The Beggar’s Opera and the plays of Henry Fielding are in fact largely credited with having brought on the 1737 act.) Gay’s masterpiece, however, not only survived but also thrived.