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The Beggar’s Opera: a guide to why and when it was composed and its legacy in musical theatre

By poking fun at 18th-century society in The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay landed himself a major hit and, says Berta Joncus, paved the way for the modern musical

UNITED KINGDOM - CIRCA 1900:  Beggar's Opera at the Lyric Theatre  (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Where do musicals come from? The simplest answer is: The Beggar’s Opera. None of its initial proponents, least of all its author John Gay, anticipated this legacy.

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When and why did Gay write The Beggar’s Opera?

Gay wrote the The Beggar’s Opera to needle complacent high-end consumers. His work inverted, and perverted, the giddy 1720s fashion for Italian opera. Opera seria is the foil to Gay’s work, which like its target features warring divas, simile arias, an overture, three acts, a prison scene and a happy ending. But Gay thrust the action of The Beggar’s Opera deep into London’s underworld. Instead of kings and queens, his dramatis personae are notorious grifters: instead of virtue, they celebrate vice. Most importantly, song exists in The Beggar’s Opera not to climax affectively but to school listeners in social breakdown.

Where did Gay’s characters in The Beggar’s Opera come from?

Gay drew his characters from real-life criminals. His antihero Macheath was based on the thief and bigamist Jack Sheppard, whose multiple partners and four prison escapes fascinated the public. Crime boss Peachum represented the underworld kingpin Jonathan Wild, who publicly sold goods his gangs had stolen, sometimes back to their original owners. Gay took the name of Jenny Diver, who betrays Macheath, from London’s most infamous pickpocket. Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, rivals for Macheath’s love, were proxies for the Italian opera stars Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, who were popularly (but incorrectly) believed to hate each other.

These low characters’ dialogue apes that of the upper ranks whose privilege allows them to evade justice. To this Gay added ad hominem attacks: Macheath and Peachum were alternately stand-ins for First Minister Robert Walpole, whose nickname ‘Great Man’ is also Macheath’s. Wanting audiences to grasp the ironic lesson of each song instantly, Gay fitted new words to so-called ‘common’ tunes – that is, melodies already known to audiences, mainly through print. And Gay based his plot on events taken from the popular press.

What is the storyline of The Beggar’s Opera?

In the story, the highwayman Macheath has deflowered Polly Peachum. To her parents she admits to ‘marrying’ him, which makes the Peachums furious: they had groomed Polly to be a prostitute. They want Macheath to hang. Polly warns Macheath to flee London, but instead he visits his favourite brothel, where ex-lover Jenny Diver betrays him in return for the Peachums’ bounty.

In prison Macheath persuades the jailor’s daughter Lucy, another ex-lover and pregnant with his child, to let him escape. On learning that Macheath is supposed to have married Polly, the furious Lucy tries unsuccessfully to poison her rival. Thanks to another of Peachum’s informants, Macheath is then returned to prison, where he bemoans his fate until the arrival of his women prompts him to accept hanging. The work’s narrator, a Beggar, here intervenes with the deus ex machina of having the rabble ‘cry reprieve’, by which means Macheath walks free.

What inspired Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera?

The Beggar’s Opera was thought by its earliest audiences to be wholly original, but Gay in fact borrowed his central idea of comic inversion from the comédie en vaudeville, the Parisian street theatre in which melodies from tragédie en musique were paired with ribald action. While mock stage tragedy had been embraced by London audiences since the Restoration, Gay followed the Parisian model by parodying song rather than speech to rail against the ruling classes.

The difference was that French vaudeville was a species of commedia dell’arte in which Harlequin, Columbine and other commedia figures sang during their antics, while Gay’s personae and action derived from the grimmest corners of the news. And to have the protagonist of an ‘opera’ damn the rich and powerful in song was entirely new and deeply subversive. On-stage social and political criticism at London’s two licensed theatres had until then been confined to veiled allusion. Upon reading The Beggar’s Opera, the managers first of Drury Lane and then of Lincoln’s Inn Fields refused to touch it.

But Gay had a powerful backer: the headstrong 26-year-old Kitty Douglas, Duchess of Queensberry, whose salon regularly hosted cultural luminaries such as the poet Alexander Pope, the architect William Kent, the painter Charles Jervas – and John Gay. The Duchess assured Lincoln’s Inn Fields manager John Rich that, should The Beggar’s Opera fail, she would make good any financial loss. With his theatre’s box office receipts lagging those of Drury Lane, Rich yielded, though his star actor James Quin refused to play Macheath.

Quin may just have wanted to avoid the singing. Some of the melodies Gay chose are challenging, deriving from airs by Purcell, Handel and John Eccles. In selecting his tunes, he relied on two top-selling collections, one of airs and one of dances: Thomas d’Urfey’s Pills to Purge Melancholy and John Playford’s Dancing Master. The idea that Gay mostly deployed ‘folk’ tunes is a canard almost as old as The Beggar’s Opera itself. Rather, as The Daily Journal noted three days after the premiere, Gay had forged his score from ‘about 60 of the most celebrated’ – that is, most published – ‘old English and Scotch Tunes’. These were arranged by the eminent Johann Christoph Pepusch, co-founder and director from 1726 of what was to become The Academy of Ancient Music.

How was The Beggar’s Opera first received?

The first audience for The Beggar’s Opera, at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 29 January 1728, initially sat in stunned silence. Would Gay’s satire take, or would it be hissed off the stage? Towards the end of the first act there came a moment of unexpected import: Lavinia Fenton, the 17 year-old playing Polly, gave a heart-rending rendition of ‘Now ponder well, ye Parents dear’, in which she expresses her love for Macheath. From this moment the audience vigorously applauded The Beggar’s Opera, and Fenton became a sensation. Indeed, it was through Fenton’s performance that the work was most clearly a prototype for the musicals of our day. Gay had already isolated key elements of the later formula – real-life story, socially critical standpoint, everyday music and words – but it was Fenton’s fresh, untrained voice, which smote the ear and the heart together, that clinched this revolution in taste. Gay soon admitted that her fame ‘surpassed his own’.

Already by the fifth performance it was being said by ‘waggs’ about town that The Beggar’s Opera ‘has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich’. After the 15th performance, Gay wrote to Pope that he expected ‘six or seven hundred pounds’ from it, but by March 23 Pope was writing to Jonathan Swift that Gay now anticipated ‘about … two thousand’ pounds, worth perhaps £400,000 today, which was about ten times the salary of a menial court post Gay had turned down the year before. So great were John Rich’s profits that he built himself a new theatre at Covent Garden. That building burned down in 1808, but the house’s founding still owes a debt to opera parody.

Back in 1728 the craze around The Beggar’s Opera was fuelled by publishing, merchandising and Fenton fascination. The volume of product tie-ins was unprecedented. Beyond the standard song sheets, wordbooks, air collections and verse miscellanies, music and singers’ likenesses from The Beggar’s Opera were displayed on fire screens, ladies’ fans and playing cards. An independent industry sprang up around Fenton: writers fervently damned and praised her, her print portrait hung in homes and shops, and personal mobbing by gentlemen compelled her to organise a bodyguard. Faked memoirs, tell-all biographies, gossipy pamphlets, poems, ballads and newspaper commentary cascaded from the presses, all addressing the question: who is this girl?

The deluge of misinformation from 1728 makes it hard for us to know. Fenton was said to be the illegitimate daughter of a navy lieutenant and the manageress of a coffee house, where as a child she charmed customers by singing catches. She supposedly became mistress to a Portuguese nobleman, whose demise forced her to work at a fringe theatre, from whence Rich hired her to play bit parts.

What is clear is that she was a theatrical nobody, without the patronage of a high-born English lover that until her arrival on the scene had been necessary to the rise of a star actress. And unlike any actress before her, she was catapulted to fame by singing. Fenton’s absence of bel canto technique, intended by Gay as satire, instead bewitched audiences, causing both sexes ‘to be in Wonder lost’. Commentators held her voice to reveal personal contradictions – innocent yet alluring, earnest yet easy, artless yet elegant, authentic yet playful – which in turn provoked hot debate.

Hot passion as well. Among the gallants ‘from all Quarters of the Town’ in pursuit of Fenton was the Duke of Bolton. In his famous depiction of The Beggar’s Opera, William Hogarth captures the moment when Fenton, singing Air 54 to the tune of ‘I am a poor Shepherd undone’, cast her spell over Bolton. Hogarth shows Fenton kneeling, entreating her father to intervene to save her lover from hanging. The Duke, recognisable from the Garter star and ribbon he wears, sits stage right with other male audience members, transfixed. Hogarth painted the tableau five times. In each, Fenton’s sentimental appeal is shown as the central element of a scene from London’s criminal underworld, amidst an audience whose frank interest in the events onstage itself marked a new kind of spectatorship.

What is the significance of The Beggar’s Opera?

These elements, from romance to the gritty mis-en-scène, to the pop-music idioms, to the raw vocal technique, to the audience fascination, have been the stuff of musicals ever since. Audiences who in the present era flock to see Hamilton or Wicked are perpetuating a legacy that, astonishingly, took hold in the same year that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the fourth suite of his Clavierübung I.

The Beggar’s Opera had a vigorous afterlife. Readers familiar with the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera, or with Benjamin Britten’s score for Gay’s work, may not know of the hundreds of productions of the original work, which by the end of the 18th century had been mounted not just throughout Britain, but from Philadelphia to the West Indies. Fenton retired in the year of its premiere to be the Duke of Bolton’s mistress, and eventually his wife, but The Beggar’s Opera itself went on to become an X Factor-type vehicle for wannabe Fentons.

It was also a stage classic, whose female lead roles fell to singing stars like Kitty Clive and Susannah Cibber; as late as 1789, the opera tenor Michael Kelly felt that ‘to play Macheath … was the height of … ambition’. Into the 19th century, novelty casts – with all-child, all-woman or cross-gendered parts – piqued audience interest anew, as did inserted Italianate numbers; in 1799, a critic complained that Macheath had become an ‘Italian singer’ to the ‘loss of Dramatic justice’.

Today, The Beggar’s Opera can be appreciated not just for brilliance of the work itself, but for the innovations in musical theatre that Gay and Fenton left to us.

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