The Beggar’s Opera
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480
Gay’s opera ingeniously blends comedy and satire. It has clever stage business. It spoofs the affectations of Italian opera and the sentimentalism of popular plays. It draws a stinging analogy between thieves and politicians. It attacks society’s worship of power and money.
The audience first meets the Beggar, the opera’s author, who hopes for success by catering to contemporary theatrical taste. The opera then begins, showing the plot of Peachum (ringleader and fence) to betray Macheath. Though a skilled robber, Macheath is expendable: Peachum must sacrifice some criminal to the authorities, and Peachum resents Macheath’s wooing of his daughter Polly.
Peachum imprisons Macheath, but Lucy, jailer Lockit’s daughter, has also been promised marriage by Macheath; moreover, she is pregnant. Hoping a free man will prove a good husband, Lucy helps Macheath to escape.
Lockit arranges another betrayal of Macheath, who is immediately sentenced to execution. He laments his fate until four more “wives” appear; preferring death to marital confusion, Macheath willingly heads for the gallows. The Beggar now intervenes. Since audiences like happy endings, the Beggar changes the denouement and spares his hero.
The plot is less important than the satiric dialogues and soliloquies. Peachum and Lockit compare their professions to that of the politician. Polly and Lucy lament the infidelity of lovers and of the world in general. Macheath possesses the veneer of a dramatic hero, but at heart he is a deceiver.
Nonetheless Gay makes his satiric points with great humor. A crowd of clownish thieves and comic prostitutes populate the underworld, and the play resounds with ironic songs set to traditional English ballad tunes which express the singer’s knavery in sweet, lyrical melody.
Armens, Sven. John Gay, Social Critic. 1954. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. This full-length critical examination of Gay and his work deals in depth with The Beggar’s Opera.
Bronson, Bertrand H. “The Beggar’s Opera.” In Studies in the Comic. University of California Publications in English 8, no. 2. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1941. A fine critical study of The Beggar’s Opera, particularly valuable for placing the work in the context of its time and exploring the links to Italian opera that Gay so skillfully exploited.
Gay, John. The Beggar’s Opera. Larchmont, N.Y.: Argonaut Books, 1961. This edition of the play, a reproduction of the 1729 version, contains the lyrics to all the tunes that Gay adapted.
Irving, William Henry. John Gay: Favorite of the Wits. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940. Considered the best treatment of Gay’s life and works.
Noble, Yvonne, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Beggar’s Opera.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975. Comprises a series of nine critical and informative essays on Gay’s masterpiece as well as an informative introduction by the editor.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. John Gay. New York: Twayne, 1965. An excellent introduction to Gay’s life and works.