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Works written for the stage are almost always best seen on the stage rather than read from the page. I am fortunate, therefore, in having seen two excellent productions of The Beggar's Opera in my time, the most recent last Saturday at London's Open Air Theatre*, and thoroughly enjoyed them both. By way of preparation for the performance, the thought occurred to me that it might be a good idea to re-read the script (for the first time in about fifty years), both to remind myself of its substance and to try to judge how it would stand up to being read fresh by a modern reader who might not have the opportunity to see a live performance. Although recognised as a classic of its kind, the 'opera' is, after all, not staged very often nowadays, in contrast to its heyday in the 18th century, during which it was, according to some estimates, the most-performed stage show in Britain. The 18th century was, of course, some time ago, and one of the concerns is how well the language of and references in The Beggar's Opera can be understood by an audience not versed in its historical and artistic context.
* The historical and artistic context *
Despite being some time ago, there were aspects of life in the London of 1728, when the Beggar's Opera first appeared, which would not be wholly unfamiliar to the denizens of the city today. The economy was in the doldrums following a financial crisis (the South Sea Bubble) in which, among many others, the author John Gay had lost most of his savings. The public mood was disillusioned and cynical. Trust in the probity of politicians and financiers was at a low ebb, as was trust in the forces of law and order, whilst there was concern at an apparently rising tide of public binge drinking, disorder and criminality. Trust in the media was probably at a low ebb too, although the News of the World would not be launched for another 115 years, and Rupert Murdoch not born for another 203. After having enjoyed a revival during the Restoration, English theatre had subsided into a dull period. The most fashionable form of entertainment was Italian opera, then of a formative, stylised (and arguably rather absurd) type. In literature, a counter-culture of satire was growing, with Swift and Pope - both good friends of Gay - among its most prominent exponents. Indeed, the original idea of The Beggar's Opera arose from an exchange of correspondence among them.
* The idea of The Beggar's Opera... *
...was to adapt the formal conventions of Italian opera to a bawdy satire set in the contemporaneous London underworld. The targets of the satire, in ascending order of significance were: (i) Italian opera itself; (ii) those responsible for administering the law, and their over-cosy, corrupt relationship with the mobsters of the time; and, (iii) the parallel practices of society at large, particularly politicians and most particularly Robert Walpole, then establishing himself as Britain's first recognised Prime Minister by unscrupulously exploiting the power and patronage of his office.
Relative to such an ambitious range of targets, the plot of the 'opera' may sound rather trivial. Satire it may be, but, in keeping with Gay's philosophy as expressed in his epitaph, it is also a comic jest. The main characters are: Peachum, a leading organiser of thieves and receiver of stolen property; Lockit, the jailer at Newgate, London's central prison and last stop for many on the road to the gallows; their daughters, Polly and Lucy respectively, both of whom have been seduced by and are in love with Macheath, highwayman, rogue and debauchee. For self-interested motives that have little to do with any concern for their daughters' honour and even less to do with any concern for justice being done, Peachum and Lockit decide that Macheath is overdue for a one-way trip to Tyburn and set about fixing up just such a fate for him. Will they succeed, or will he escape, perhaps aided and abetted by one or another of his 'wives'? And, if the latter, with which 'dear charmer' will he end up? The action needed to provide answers to these questions stretches over three acts, but never flags, enlivened as it is with duplicitous dealings between all the principals, cat-fight rivalry between Polly and Lucy, back-stabbing and byplay with a full supporting cast of footpads, fences and 'women of the town' (to quote the dramatis personae). Oh, and frequent musical embellishments - it is an 'opera' after all.
* Significance and longevity *
So, you might be thinking, having read the summary of the plot above, this is a low-life farce with a lot of disreputable characters behaving disreputably - fair enough entertainment in all likelihood, but what's so epoch-making about that? Lampooning the Italian opera of the time has long since lost its relevance, as have many of the coeval references. For example, few would now care that the character of Peachum would have been readily identifiable to the audiences of 1728 as one Jonathan Wild, a notorious 'thief-taker' who kept his criminal gang subservient by selectively betraying ('peaching') them to the authorities for a reward, until ultimately he was similarly betrayed. Even the similarities hinted at between his mode of operation and that of politicians such as Walpole might be considered to be of limited interest except to historians.
Similarly, perhaps, The Beggar's Opera's place in dramatic history. When it first appeared it was innovative in several ways. Although entitled 'opera' it was arguably the first 'musical' in the modern sense; it is a play enlivened by songs but it has plenty of unsung dialogue, unlike the Italian opera of the times. The music is not the primary point; although he had a musical collaborator, Pepusch by name, Gay wrote most of his lyrics simply to suit existing popular melodies. It was also unusual in being set in a realistic representation of the then present day, and unique for its era in being set solely among the seamiest section of society. Other dramatists - Shakespeare among them - had included such characters in minor, usually comically-intended, roles, but never made their interaction the mainstay of the play. Having all the action take place in this milieu might seem to limit the scope for satirising those higher up the social scale, but in practice is little obstacle. In case the audience misses the hinted parallels, they are spelled out in the lyrics, for example:
"Physicians and lawyers (who take their degrees
To be learned rogues) called their Pilfering - fees."
"Some by publick Revenues, which pass'd through their hands,
Have purchased clean houses, and bought dirty Lands."
More than once Gay appears to be arguing that the highwaymen, pickpockets and whores of his narrative are more honest than their supposedly respectable counterparts, in that they are less hypocritical. It is perhaps this message that has given the work its longevity and accounts for its influence, most notably in Bertolt Brecht's re-writing of it as The Threepenny Opera, which took Berlin's theatrical world by storm in the late 1920s much as The Beggar's Opera had London's two hundred years earlier.
* The author *
John Gay was born in 1685 of relatively obscure Devon stock and apprenticed to a silk merchant in London. He found that vocation far too unexciting, however, and being of lively mind, ready wit and convivial nature, became accepted among the capital's literary circles. Convivial or not, he had a knack of rubbing the establishment up the wrong way, and he largely failed in his attempts to secure an official appointment that would have given him financial security, though he was the recipient of private patronage from several noblemen. He published a variety of pamphlets, essays and verses, some in collaboration with Alexander Pope. The Beggar's Opera was not the first of his dramatic pieces to find its way onto the stage, although it is the only one still remembered or performed today. A sequel, Polly, was banned from the theatre at the instigation of Walpole, but sold well in published form. I haven't read it, but it is generally regarded as very inferior, as sequels often are. At least this was in the days before Hollywood and we were spared Beggar's Opera 3, 4, and so on ad nauseam. Not that Gay would have lived long enough to write them all; he died at the age of forty-seven, just four years after his masterpiece appeared.
* Is The Beggar's Opera still worth reading today? *
Yes, certainly, if you like that sort of thing, and especially if you are interested in the history and literature of the time, although in that case you will probably have already read it. The script can be enjoyed without a full understanding of all the contemporary satirical references. It is peppered with pungent, timeless observations on the darker side of human nature. The language is slightly dated, especially the underworld slang, but if you read the edition published by Penguin Classics (cover price £7.99 in paperback) you will find it helpfully annotated with explanatory footnotes, and usually the meaning is clear enough in any case even if the odd word is unfamiliar. The Beggar's Opera is still a ribald, racy read, with some sharp dialogue, and the lyrics for the songs work well enough as verse in their own right. They do work better still, though, as sung lyrics, just as the script works better as a show on stage. For that reason, I would urge you above all to see it performed live if you have the chance: it makes for a wonderfully roisterous, boisterous romp. This year's Open Air Theatre production has, I regret to say, now closed. Let us hope that not too many years pass before it is staged again.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2011
* For a review of the Open Air Theatre, see: