The Beggar's Opera
A Ballad Opera in Three Acts
By John Gay
The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It is one of the watershed plays in Augustan drama and is the only example of the once thriving genre of satirical ballad opera to remain popular today. Ballad operas were satiric musical plays that used some of the conventions of opera, but without recitative. The lyrics of the airs in the piece are set to popular broadsheet ballads, opera arias, church hymns and folk tunes of the time.
The Beggar's Opera premiered at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre on 29 January 1728 and ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in theatre history up to that time (after 146 performances of Rober Cambert's "Pomone" in 1671). The work became Gay's greatest success and has been played ever since; it has been called "the most popular play of the eighteenth century." In 1920, The Beggar's Opera began an astonishing revival run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, London, which was one of the longest runs in history for any piece of musical theatre at that time.
Peachum, a fence and thief-catcher, justifies his actions. Mrs. Peachum, overhearing her husband's blacklisting of unproductive thieves, protests regarding one of them, Bob Booty (the nickname of Robert Walpole). The Peachums discover that Polly, their daughter, has secretly married Macheath, the famous highwayman, who is Peachum's principal client. Upset to find out that he will no longer be able to use Polly in his business, Peachum and his wife ask how Polly will support such a husband "in Gaming, Drinking and Whoring." Nevertheless, they conclude that the match may make sense if the husband can be killed for his money. They leave to carry out this errand. However, Polly has hidden Macheath.
Macheath goes to a tavern where he is surrounded by women of dubious virtue who, despite their class, compete in displaying perfect drawing-room manners, although the subject of their conversation is their success in picking pockets and shoplifting. Macheath discovers, too late, that two of them (Jenny Diver, Suky Tawdry) have contracted with Peachum to capture him, and he becomes a prisoner in Newgate prison. The prison is run by Peachum's associate, the corrupt jailer Lockit. His daughter, Lucy Lockit, has the opportunity to scold Macheath for having agreed to marry her and then broken this promise. She tells him that to see him tortured would give her pleasure. Macheath pacifies her, but Polly arrives and claims him as her husband. Macheath tells Lucy that Polly is crazy. Lucy helps Macheath to escape by stealing her father's keys. Her father learns of Macheath's promise to marry her and worries that if Macheath is recaptured and hanged, his fortune might be subject to Peachum's claims. Lockit and Peachum discover Macheath's hiding place. They decide to split his fortune.
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