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.

Since The Beggar’s Opera was first staged in 1728, it has been, along with Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe, among the most influential and enduring texts from the English eighteenth century and indeed in the whole of English Literature.  It has been performed countless times by professional and amateur troupes; it has been printed and reprinted in innumerable editions; and it has inspired adaptations from a remarkable range of artists, among them Bertolt Brecht, Elizabeth Hauptmann, and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (1928), Duke Ellington and John La Touche’s Beggar’s Holiday (1946), Vaclav Havel’s Žebrácká Opera (1975), Wole Soyinka’s Opera Wonyosi (1977), and Stephen Jeffreys’ The Convict’s Opera (2008). It remains a vibrant presence on the stage, performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018 and the next year the adaptation Dead Dog in a Suitcase was re-staged at the Lyric Hammersmith, site of the famous revival in 1921 that inspired The Threepenny Opera.  The play also continues to spark interest in other countries; The Beggar’s Opera was staged at Versailles in 2019, and last year in Paris Helene Ducos performed her adaptation, “Minuit Montmartre:  Rag-Opera.”  If we wish to understand the origins of the modern musical or political satire and the continuing relevance of Gay’s play to our time, we must study it.  Yet despite its ubiquity, importance, and congeniality to a digital environment where its blend of text, music, and image might properly be brought to life, no site has yet realized the play’s potential to inform and stimulate students and scholars or brought together authoritative editions of the text and music.  This will also be one of the few digital projects bringing together music, text, and image, and will thus be useful to others seeking to do the same.

This site owes its existence in part to funding provided by multiple grants as well as other forms of support from Temple University, including from the President’s and Provost’s Office, the Dean of Boyer College of Music and Dance, and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and the Dean of Libraries.  We are very grateful for this support and also for the support from so many colleagues at Temple, including Marcus Bingenheimer, Brian Boling, Joyce Lindorff, Matt Shoemaker, and Steven Zohn, and colleagues at other institutions, including Jeremy Barlow, Elisa Beshero-Bondar, Elisa Anne Bowers, Toni Bowers, Hal Gladfelder, Michael Gamer, Berta Joncus, Laura McGrane, Cheryl Wanko, and George Williams.  Thanks also to the University of Washington for providing scans of a first edition, first issue, which serves as the copytext for our text, and to Baldwin-Wallace University and especially Paul Cary for providing scans of a first edition, fifth issue and related materials that we plan to integrate into later versions of this site. 

A new editorial approach:

  • This site offers the only freely-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.  Recent editions by Lewis (1973), Fuller (1983), and Gladfelder (2013), do not include the music, reasoning that it can be found elsewhere, as in Barlow’s standard edition of the music only (1990).  But this splits apart the essential twinning of text and music, word and song at the heart of the play.  This edition also seeks to acknowledge recent challenges to authorial intent as the determining criterion by retaining inconsistencies in printing where there is no good reason to assume authorial intent, thereby acknowledging the contingencies of the publication process.
  • The only recent editions to include the music are faulty in other ways.  Lindley and Jones (2010) do not include the overture, despite using the third edition as the music copy-text, and they  follow the second edition’s integration of the music into the body of the text, even though there is good reason to believe that the third edition, which reverts to the first’s practice of putting the scored music at the end, had authorial sanction.  The other version from the past to print music and text, from Project Gutenberg (2008)–which is also the only other online version–reprints Lovat Fraser’s 1921 edition, which, though historically significant, is itself based on the non-standard 1765 edition.  Other editions that combine text and music are either long out of print (Roberts and Smith, 1969) and/or are problematic in other ways.

A realization of the resources of a digital environment:

  •  Neither the print editions nor the Project Gutenberg (2008) edition enrich the experience of the text by providing audio and video clips as our site does; the Gutenberg Edition provides access to MIDI and pdf files that can  be downloaded, but this does not provide the dynamic experience found on this site. In contrast, visitors to our site will ultimately be able to:
    • hear audio  of all of the airs by hovering over them
    • click on links to audio and audiovisual performances
    • access an image bank of playbills, pictures of performances and performers, and Beggar’s Opera merchandise ( g., playing cards and fans), among other things.
    • engage with essays on the many historical contexts of the play that include audio and visual examples, among them political satire, the South Sea Bubble (the first stock market crash), the state of the theater at the time, the history of both Italian opera and ballads, the sources of the tunes, and adaptations.
    • annotate the text privately or publicly using hypothes.is
    • interact with those overseeing the site and with other users; in addition to being able to contact the site curators, visitors will be able to deposit syllabi and suggest ideas for teaching and performing the play.
    • provide a proof of concept for the digital presentation of music and text, especially musical theater: There is a surprising lack of digital sites that present texts combining music and text, and this is particularly true of musical theater.  This may be due in part to the obstacles posed by acquiring rights to any text not in the public domain, but it is probably also due to the challenges posed by the necessarily mixed media of musical texts.  Our site aims to help others who seek to make these works accessible in a digital format, including ways to combine the two standard languages for the scholarly presentation of text and music, the Text Encoding Initiative Extensive Markup Language (TEI-XML, or TEI for short) and the Music Encoding Initiative Extensive Markup Language (MEI-XML, or MEI for short).   These languages, which provide a rich lexicon for noting the features of texts and music, from speakers to locations to musical tempi, have rarely been brought together in a single project.