For love of the Beggar's Opera...

by Rebecca Jenkins

October 23, 2012

A long time ago, when I pitched my first book – a biography of the actress Fanny Kemble – I was told firmly that “performing arts don’t sell”.     The fact that I have never accepted this advice no doubt explains a lot, but I have always been enchanted by theatre, actors and the charm of performance. (Purely as an observer, that is. I have absolutely no talent as an actress.)

Hogarth painting of Beggar's OperaI also love musicals. (Yes, I am willing to admit it, and in public too.)  This probably explains why I am so fond of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which has been dubbed the 'first musical.’   When The Beggar’s Opera burst on to the London stage for the first time in 1728 it represented Gay’s rejection of the notion that ‘art’ was something only an elite group could access and understand.   Until Gay, opera was the province of the aristocracy and the court. Opera was sung in Italian and a seat in the gallery of the King’s Theatre, where a gentleman went to hear it, cost 10 shillings and sixpence in contrast to the price of a similar seat at Drury Lane of one or two shillings.

The Beggar’s Opera was wildly popular.   For contemporaries, it was a startling innovation.   It was sung in English; Gay’s setting was a prison and his hero a highwayman. Gay took the most popular tunes of his day and orchestrated them to be performed by opera singers, then seasoned the whole with wit.

Unlike the Italian operas it challenged, The Beggar’s Opera has survived to be performed today.   Macheath, the hero, is still dashing.   Polly may be a bit of a whinger, but the tunes are pretty and much of the satire still works.   See Macheath about to be hanged, for instance, singing his defiant 'Tyburn Tree' (a reference to the site where criminals were publicly hanged in London at the time).  More than two hundred years on, Gay's lyrics continue to speak to the frustration of the ordinary person baffled by the privileges of the rich and powerful.


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