This three-act play by John Gay was one of the runaway successes of the eighteenth century, and was a regular on London stages from its first performance in 1727 right into the mid-twentieth century. It still appears now from time to time. Calling this work a ‘play’ does it a bit of an injustice. Gay described it as a ballad opera, and the editor of my edition (Edgar V. Roberts) eventually sums the work up as “above all a satire, though it is also a ballad opera, a ‘Newgate [i.e. prison] Pastoral’, and a parody of both Italian opera and criminal literature.” Rigorous and academic as this is, Roberts actually quotes a much better contemporary description of The Beggar’s Opera, by Gay’s friend, the Duke of Queensberry.
This is a very odd thing, Gay; I am satisfied that it is either a very good thing, or a very bad thing.
Time has proved The Beggar’s Opera to be a very good thing, and I’ll now pick out a few of my favourite parts of it, offering a little analysis as I go.
The play (or whatever you want to call it) opens with a prologue between Beggar and Player, since the text has been written by the former. The passage – as well as offering some incidental satire on supposedly upper-class pursuits and contemporary theatregoers – also allows a neat parallel between beggar and player, since this work has apparently been performed by the beggars in the “great room at St Giles’s”, and now the players have shown their “charity in bringing it now on the stage”. Such parallels between actors and the lowest of society are often not to the performers’ credit, but Gay avoids such simple portrayals, and makes me think rather of Lamb’s On the Decay of Beggar’s in the Metropolis.
After the prologue, we jump into the grimy world of the play, meeting Mr and Mrs Peachum and their daughter Polly. The Peachums run a ring of thieves, but also act as prosecutors, thus establishing a kind of horrible double to the closed circle of eighteenth-century government and law-making. The status quo of the Peachums is disturbed, however, when Polly announces her attachment to the highwayman Macheath, a Peachum employee and thus someone the parents do not want their daughter marrying. Debates over this, as is fitting for a ‘ballad opera’, deftly incorporate songs as follows:
MRS PEACHUM […] All men are thieves in love and like a woman the better for being another’s property.
AIR V, Of All the Simple Things We Do, etc.
A maid is like the golden ore,
Which hath guineas intrinsical in’t,
Whose worth is never known before
It is tried and impressed in the mint.
A wife’s like a guinea in gold,
Stamped with the name of her spouse,
Now here, now there, is bought, or is sold,
And is current in every house.
There is much to note here, such as the way these lines bring out the omnipresent evocation and criticism of a mercenary attitude by conflating young women and coins. As regards the song itself, one might observe how its theme is announced by what Mrs Peachum says before she starts singing: such an announcement of a topic is common, and is probably there to help the audience. It may also be there, I suspect, for comic purposes, as there is often a significant disjunction between the original, well-known ballad tune and the material Gay has adapted it to. Here, it is a hardly a “simple thing” to conceive of women as currency.
There are many other comic moments in The Beggar’s Opera, only a few of which have lost their original fire, while others have perhaps improved with age, such as Mrs Peachum’s comparison of her daughter to a “cucumber”, which would have been much more comprehensible to an eighteenth-century audience that believed the cucumber to be poisonous.
Once the Peachums learn of their daguhter’s connection to Macheath, they resolve to have him apprehended and executed as a thief. Despite Polly’s warnings, her parents succeed, trapping Macheath when he is surrounded by a band of ‘city women’. The dialogue which follows shows better than any other, the way that The Beggar’s Opera manages to combine low and high so successfully.
MACHEATH Was this well done, Jenny? – Women are decoy ducks; who can trust them! Beasts, jades, jilts, harpies, furies, whores.
PEACHUM Your case, Mr Macheath, is not particular. The greatest heroes have been ruined by women. But to do them justice, I must own they are a pretty sort of creatures, if we could trust them. You must now, sir, take your leave of the ladies, and if they havea mind to make you a visit, they will be sure to find you at home. The gentleman, ladies, lodges in Newgate. Constables, wait upon the Captain to his lodgings.
AIR XXV, When first I laid siege to my Chloris…
MACHEATH At the tree I shall suffer with pleasure […]
Be careful not to overlook the massive irony of Macheath singing lines on his imminent hanging (the “tree” refers to the gallows) to the tune of a pastoral love song here, while the combination of gallows and pastoral is indicative of larger ironic conflations too. Macheath, a highwayman, is no different from the “greatest heroes”, and indeed has Peachum describe his imprisonment as a kind of forced entry into a gentlemanly life. The lines bite both ways, Peachum is mocking Macheath’s pretensions, but in comparing the robber and the gent, is also bringing down the nobleman.
In prison, the plot of The Beggar’s Opera thickens, as we discover that Lucy, the daughter of the jailkeeper Lockit, is also pledged to Macheath. She springs the highwayman, who is then recaptured. Lucy also meets Polly, goes to poison her but fails in the attempt. Comically writing off her animosity with a shrug, she and Lucy retire, a move prompted not least by the imminent arrival of some dancing prisoners.
POLLY Sure there is nothing so charming as music. I’m fond of it to distraction. But alas! Now, all mirth seems an insult upon my affliction. Let us retire, my dear Lucy, and indulge our sorrows. The noisy crew, you see, are coming upon us.
The dance of the prisoners is one of the big set-pieces of the third act. It also, I think, echoes the Jacobean play The Changeling, which has a dance of madmen in it. There’s no way to be sure of this, and Gay certainly has the conventions of contemporary opera more in his sights than Jacobean drama; even so, it’s an intriguing parallel, and fits with the quotations from well-known Shakespeare plays. Perhaps it’s all part of creating a ‘native’ operatic tradition.
After the dance, Macheath, with a series of airs, composes himself for death. Before he leaves the prison, he meets four more women all claiming to be his wife, and so seems comically glad to get off to the gallows. At this point, the play is interrupted and we return to the Beggar and the Player of the prologue. At the player’s importuning, the Beggar decides to alter his plot and save Macheath.
BEGGAR Your objection, sir, is very just, and is easily removed. For you must allow that in this kind of drama ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about. – So, you rabble there, run and cry a reprieve. Let the prisoner be brough back to his wives in triumph.
This is a neat reversal from the opening of the play (and of society more generally) in that the Beggar now has all the power, with the Player (and the audience through the Player) asking him to do them the favour of saving Macheath.
Of course, though, things are not quite so simple as that. Macheath is indeed saved, but the plot does not stop there. The highwayman goes on to claim Polly as his wife in an even happier ending than the one suggested by the Player. He then sings the ambiguous lines of the last air, picked up by the Chorus. The strength of these words lies in the use of the modal verb ‘may’.
But think of this maxim, and put off your sorrow:
The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.
I’m sure there’s something of the enduring appeal of The Beggar’s Opera in these lines, and their carefully ironic optimism.