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Life is a jest; and all things show it,
I thought so once; but now I know it.
- John Gay's epitaph
 

    As we sit here, nearly 300 years removed from the debut of The Beggar's Opera,

it's hard to recapture the effect that it had on the England of 1728. So look
at it this way, John Gay was the Sex Pistols of his day and The Beggar's Opera
hit London like  Never Mind the Bollocks....

Since Italian opera had first come to London in 1705, it had dominated the
British stage. Replete with ornate sets, elaborate costumes, unintelligible
plots and imported sopranos and castrati, it was less art than event. Audiences
attended to share in the spectacle, as chariots swooped through the air &
romantic tales unfolded on stage.

 
Into this artificial world, Gay unleashed an opera about the scum of London

society, set in taverns and thieves' dens. He tells the story of Peachum, a
fence with a lucrative sideline in informing on fellow criminals. His daughter
Polly has secretly married MacHeath, a highwayman. Now Peachum and his "wife"
fear that MacHeath will inform on them & inherit their loot when they are
hanged. After berating Polly for marrying, & not having sense enough to live
out of wedlock, they decide to turn MacHeath in, before he can turn them in. As
Peachum prepares his daughter for this turn of events he tells her: "The
comfortable estate of widowhood, is the only hope that keeps up a wife's
spirits. Where is the woman who would scruple to be a wife, if she had it in
her power to be a widow whenever she pleased?" However, to the Peachum's
disgust, Polly is actually in love with MacHeath and so, to her great surprise,
are several other women, including Lucy Lockit who helps him to escape from
prison. So, the stage is set for a madcap farce.
 
Mix in a satiric look at the corrupt administration of justice, some political

jabs at the political master of the day, Sir Robert Walpole and songs like the
following:
A fox may steal your hens, sir

A whore your health and pence, sir,
Your daughter rob your chest, sir
Your wife may steal your rest, sir,
A thief your goods and plate.
But this is all but picking,
With rest, pence, chest and chicken;
It ever was decreed, sir,
If lawyer's hand is fee'd, sir,
He steals your whole estate.
and you've got Gay's recipe for what quickly became the most popular play of the

18th Century, fathering myriad imitations including Brecht's Threepenny Opera.
A delicious romp.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Plays
Book-related and General Links:
    -The Beggar's Opera (1728) (a Guide to the Airs)
    -The Beggar's Opera (etext)

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