The first English musical and a powerful satire on political corruption that still rings true
This site offers the only accessible edition of The Beggar’s Opera that integrates what scholars agree is the authoritative edition of the text (the first) and the music (the third), with some textual changes in the second and third that seem to have authorial warrant. For more see here
The Text and the Songs
This is the core text of the site, combining the authoritative edition of the text (the 1st, with emendations that can reasonably be attributed to the author) and the authoritative edition of the scored music (the 3rd).
About this Site
The Beggar’s Opera: A Site for Scholars, Performers, Teachers and Students breaks new ground by providing the first scholarly digital edition of the play and the first that makes substantial use of the multimedia functionalities of a digital environment, bringing the play alive both in its time and ours.
Gay's Life and Works
John Gay was born on June 30, 1685, in Barnstaple, north Devon (here is its Guildhall), the youngest of five children. His parents died when he was ten and he was put under the care of his uncles. His family had been prominent in the political and economic life of the town but its fortunes had declined by the time of his birth. It is perhaps for this reason that he did not go to university after his education at the local grammar school but was instead apprenticed to a London silk mercer (i. e., merchant), John Willet. Mercers were among the most prosperous tradesman in London, and their guild was first in order of precedence among the many there. So while earning money through trade was not understood to be a ‘gentlemanly’ profession, this would have been the next best thing open to someone in Gay’s position, since his parents’ property would have gone to the eldest son.
Politics of State
Part of the enduring power of The Beggar’s Opera arises from its satire on the government, then under the direction of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Whig party that he led. Gay does not satirize the government by naming any ministers or the monarch directly; this would have been a sure way to have faced legal action and having his play suppressed through the Crown’s power to block any play from being performed. In 1729, the person who would have had responsibility for doing so was the Master of the Revels, part of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. (More about this system of censorship can be seen in London Theater in 1728.
Crime and Punishment
In eighteenth-century England, crime and punishment was a large part of a society just beginning to develop the concept of a “gentleman,” a respectable class apart from the more well-established English nobility. Criminals—from murderers to thieves and pickpockets—became a focus of numerous writings, from court records to elaborate tales of the supposedly autobiographical accounts of notorious criminals. The popularity of this body of criminal literature is evidenced by the large amount of publications and references to criminals in other texts, suggesting that criminal literature was a source of entertainment as well as a record of institutionalized punishment or a morality tale. John Gay’s interest in beggars and criminals is a natural extension of his society’s interest; thus, many of his writings, such as Trivia and The Beggar’s Opera engage with his contemporary society’s fascination with criminality, all the while satirizing the pretensions of the new genteel class.
One of the innovations most responsible for the success of The Beggar’s Opera was Gay’s setting new lyrics to old tunes drawn largely from ballads—cheap songs circulating orally and through print on a dizzying range of topics, some of them centuries old (“Chevy Chase”) and others quite new (“The South Sea Ballads”). In one sense, Gay was following prior practice; new words for old tunes was built into ballad practice, sometimes simply to draw the audience in with a familiar bit of music and other times to add to the effect by setting lyrics that contrast with the reputation of the tune. For instance, religiously-minded authors adapted secular tunes in attempt to draw in potential converts. This section will contain examples and discussions of Gay’s musical sources—not only ballads but also Italian opera.
For more on ballad music, see this brief but informative essay on the University of California Santa Barbara’s excellent broadside ballads site.
London Theater in 1728
When Gay sought a venue for The Beggar’s Opera, there were two “patent theatres”—the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the latter moving to Covent Garden in 1731. The name refers to the patents bestowed by Charles II upon the Restoration of his reign in 1660 and, with it, the re-opening of the houses closed by the anti-theatrical Puritans who ruled from 1649-1660. They were thus the only theatres licensed to perform more serious drama. Though there were other venues allowed to stage pantomime, comedy, and melodrama, such as Goodman’s Fields and The Little Theatre, Haymarket, they staged fewer productions, were less prestigious, and were less likely to benefit an author financially.
In 1716, Jonathan Swift famously suggested to Alexander Pope that their mutual friend John Gay write “a Newgate Pastoral” set among “the thieves and whores there.” While the Newgate half of Swift’s phrase of the play has understandably attracted more attention, the play’s effect depends upon its pairing with pastoral. This is how Gay juxtaposes the deceptions of the very un-innocent denizens of the London Underworld with the innocence associated with the rural world of pastoral. It is a genre dating back to the earliest reaches of Western poetics, with the Bucolics or Idylls of Theocritus from the 3rd century BCE perhaps the earliest example. We could also see its origins, as Raymond Williams argues in The Country and the City, in the Eden of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and, indeed, any story celebrating a Golden Age. [read more here.]
Economics of the South Sea Bubble
This is where the site will discuss the influence of the South Sea Bubble—the first stock market crash–on Gay’s life and The Beggar’s Opera; see the tune to Air 42, “The South-Sea Bubble” for one of the play’s nod to the scandal. For an excellent overview of the controversy and its lasting relevance, see the Harvard Library’s site, The South Sea Bubble, 1720, which also makes available a range of documents from the Baker Library’s rich holdings.
There have been countless productions of The Beggar’s Opera since 1728. This section brings together materials from some of the most important ones—such as a 1770 production in Williamsburg, Virginia, attended by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and the Lyric Hammersmith production starting in 1920. It also includes productions associated with this website, among them a staging at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg in 2017.
The popularity of The Beggar’s Opera on the stage has sparked a tide of editions. These editions often include visual materials of interest in their own right, such as the illustrations Robert Cruikshank provided for an edition in 1827, or those by Claud Lovat Fraser for the 1920 Lyric Hammersmith revival.
This section will provide examples of the play’s rich publishing history.
As The Beggar’s Opera spread throughout the English-speaking world and beyond, often the only record of its performances that have survived are the playbills. This section gives a sample of these documents, which often provide important insights into these performances—the cast, the other works that were often played that evening, scenery, and other elements.
The Beggar’s Opera was controversial from the start, eliciting both celebratory ballads on Polly Peachum as well as attacks on the character of the actress, not to mention sermons denouncing the play for encouraging sin and criminality as well as amplifications of the satirical messages supposedly to be found within it. This page gathers a representative sample of this part of the play’s afterlife.
Excluding the Bible, The Beggar’s Opera was perhaps the first text that inspired its own non-textual merchandise, including playing cards and fans. Some representative objects will be collected here.
Data and Visualizations
To gain a sufficient view of the history of The Beggar’s Opera, it is helpful to move beyond looking at individual performances and editions and instead see if revealing patterns can be found in the aggregate data. This is where the site will collect, analyze, and visualize this data.
Since its first performance in 1728, there has rarely been a year when The Beggar’s Opera has not been performed somewhere in the English-speaking world. Its popularity has led to and, in turn, been increased by the many adaptations of it, starting in 1928 with Die Diegröschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, in collaboration with Elizabeth Hauptmann.
It has been followed by many other adaptations, including: The Beggar’s Holliday (1946) by John Latouche, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn; Vaclav Havel, Žebrácká opera (The Beggar’s Opera) (1975); Wole Soyinka, Opera Wonyosi (1977); Dario Fo, L’Opera dello sghignazzo (1981); Alan Ayckbourn, A Chorus of Disapproval (1984); Chico Buarque, Opera Malandro (2003); and Carl Grose and Charles Hazelwood, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (2015).
Brecht/Weill/ Hauptmann, The Three Penny Opera
La Touche and Ellington, Beggar’s Holiday
Havel, The Beggar’s Opera
Soyinka, Opera Wonyosi
Buarque, Opera do Malandro
Fo, L’Opera dello sghignauo”
One place many people first encounter The Beggar’s Opera is in classrooms in English Literature, theater, and opera. This site wants to help and be helped by students and teachers by offering and receiving syllabuses, lesson plans, assignments, annotations, questions for students, and questions from them and teachers. These materials will be gathered here.