Idol-Worship, or, the Way to Preferment (c. 1740), British Museum
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.)
Gay winks at this possibility in his epigraph, which translates to “We know these things to be nothing,” a way to disavow any political implications (while also freeing him up to hint at them). In this vein, he offers a telling comparison in the voice of Mr. Peachum. Peachum, who both employs thieves and turns them in when it is to his advantage, says to his confederate, Mr. Lockit, who makes a nice profit charging prisoners in Newgate for amenities and taking bribes, “In one respect indeed, our Employment may be reckon’d dishonest, because, like Great Statesmen, we encourage those who betray their Friends” (II.x.). Lockit then warns him that when he “censure[s] the Age” the corruption of “Courtiers” will make them take offense, assuming that any “mention” of “Vice or Bribe” refers to them (Air 30). This is the song that Walpole reportedly laughed at when he attended, calling for an encore, though proof of the story, which we all want to be true, is thin.
Anecdotes like this might move us to read the play as a political allegory, with Gay using Peachum and Lockit as stand-ins for Walpole and his brother-in-law, Charles Townshend. After all, they call each other “Brother” in this scene, and, like these two politicians in real life, fight with each other. That was certainly the way that an emerging Opposition press read the play. For instance, The Craftsman, the Opposition periodical founded by Henry St. John (Viscount Bolingbroke) and William Pulteney, frequently alludes to the play and the attempt to suppress its sequel, Polly, as a way of critiquing the Walpole ministry [link to Ballad on Corruption or other text from Burney Newspapers]. Many have also seen in the aliases of Bob Booty at the end of I.iii., punning off of Bob both for “Robert” and thieves’ cant for a shoplifter’s sidekick (Gladfelder). This would be in keeping with the Tory politics of Gay and his friends, and Gay himself suffered from the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, which was also the occasion for the rise of Walpole, who established himself as “the Screen-master General,” as the Opposition has it, in his skill in protecting members of the Cabinet implicated in the Bubble from punishment.
However, this allegorical reading risks narrowing the scope of Gay’s satire. The play does indeed satirize the politics of his time, and it may lean toward the Tory critique of the Whigs as facilitating a new, corrupt economic world built on paper promises. With that, we may see Gay skewering the reduction of all values to whatever can be gained through sharp economic practices—a world run by aspiring tradesmen and operators like Peachum and Lockit, at the expense of Macheath, who, however objectionable in making his money by robbing others and in betraying women, at least has some sense of aristocratic flair about him. Unlike Peachum and Lockit, he is willing to put his own safety at stake and to spend freely and is willing to spend freely. But the larger political point resides in the comparison of high and low made by Peachum and throughout the play; whatever their party, all politicians are prone to betraying their friends. They certainly bear watching.
This fundamental likening of politicians to thieves within an emerging regime of capitalism and a modern political order is one reason the play continues to live both in performances of The Beggar’s Opera itself and the many adaptations that have followed, from Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera to Vaclav Havel’s attack on Soviet-era authoritarianism to Wole Soyinka’s send-up of post-colonial tyranny in Opera Wonyosi.