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. 

Patent to Killigrew

Patent for Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Issued in 1662 by Charles II to Thomas Killigrew. LW Theatre Groups Limited. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

All plays supposedly had to be submitted to the Master of the Revels for approval, but the state’s power over the stage was looser than it had been prior to the Cvil War.  The government’s sense that things needed to be tightened up led to the Licensing Act of 1737, which required all plays to be submitted directly to the Lord Chamberlain, who took an active role in reviewing manuscripts and refusing to permit them to be staged if something objectionable were found.  However, the somewhat looser regime prior to 1737 did not stop Polly, the sequel to The Beggar’s Opera, from being banned.  Playwrights still had to worry about offending authorities.     

Gay first tried to interest Drury Lane in The Beggar’s Opera, which, as Calhoun Winton says in John Gay and the London Theatre (Kentucky UP, 1993), “produced his earlier plays and whose actors and actresses he consequently knew well” (91).  The managers at Drury Lane rejected the play; as Winton also notes, the reasons are hard to establish in the welter of accounts that emerged after the success of The Beggar’s Opera, which were “beclouded with theatre gossip [and] partisan comment” (91).  Whatever the reason for the rejection, Gay then approached John Rich, the manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and he accepted it.  Why Rich took a risk on this daring, experimental play is unclear.  The productions at Lincoln’s Inn Fields had not been doing well, and Rich may have been encouraged by the support offered by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, who would be faithful friends of Gay till the end of his life. 

A Scene from 'The Beggar's Opera

William Hogarth, The Beggar’s Opera (1729), Yale Center for British Art

Rich cast a relatively new actress, Lavinia Fenton, as Polly Peachum.  James Quin, the leading actor, refused the role of Macheath, and so it was assigned to Thomas Walker.  The play opened on January 29, 1728.  The reports of the first performance suggests that the audience was unsure what to make of this unprecedented mixture of high and low at the start but they warmed to it soon enough, applauding it by the second act.   Although no images of the interior of the theater survive, we can get some sense of it from the famous painting by William Hogarth.

And so The Beggar’s Opera was launched.  By February 14th, an edition [link to title page of 1st ed. in Stage/Page] had been published by John Watts.  A little over a week later, the Royal Family attended a performance.  The wrangle over the political implications of the play  commenced, as did the tide of ballads to Polly Peachum and other paratexts and objects The Beggar’s Opera inspired.