The Beggar’S Opera Summary

John Gay

The Beggar’S Opera

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The Beggar’S Opera Summary

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The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay, is a ballad opera. Ballad operas hit their height of popularity during the early 18th century, in England. The form is a combination of an opera and satirical play, and while it followed many of the conventions of opera, thisstyle doesnot include a recitative. The Beggar’s Opera is one of the best examples of this style, with music inspired by and pulled from broadsheet ballads, church hymns, opera arias, and even folk songs. John Gay wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1728 alongside Johann Christoph Pepusch, who arranged the music.

The Beggar’s Opera was England’s longest-running production of its time, with 62 performances given consecutively in 1728. About two hundred years later, it was revived for over 1,400 performances. A popular trend in the early 1700s was to satirize Italian opera, which is exactly what The Beggar’s Opera does, touching on poverty, injustice, politics, and above all, corruption. Gay wasn’t the first to dream up the idea of a ballad opera; he was inspired by his friend Jonathan Swift (known for many works, including Gulliver’s Travels), who thought it would be interesting to write a pastoral about Newgate prison. Initially, the songs were meant to be performed without accompaniment, but Pepusch was brought in at the last minute, at the requirement of the theatre director, John Rich.

Satire is the use of humorous devices such as irony to highlight the vices and foibles of others, and it often operates through political commentary. In three acts, Gay’s work pokes fun at how the upper classes are so fond of Italian opera and Robert Walpole, a notorious Whig politician, at the same time. Walpole had many supporters in Britain, but a great many detractors as well. Gay was not the only writer to satirize him and his rule as Prime Minister. He was joined by Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, and Alexander Pope.

The story opens on Peachum, a thief-catcher who is speaking out against a number of unproductive thieves. Among them is a thief named Bob Booty, which is a nickname for Robert Walpole. Peachum and his wife, Mrs. Peachum, find out that their daughter Polly has secretly married a highwayman named Macheath. They decide that this marriage can be profitable for them if Macheath dies, so they leave to plan his death. They don’t know that Polly has hidden Macheath in safety.

Her hiding place for him isn’t very effective, though—it’s a tavern where he’s surrounded by women of questionable virtue. They compete with one another, comparing their success in stealing and picking pockets. Two of them, Jenny Diver and Suky Tawdry, are in the employ of Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, and they capture Macheath and drag him to Newgate prison, which is run by Peacham’s associate Lockit. Lockit has a daughter named Lucy, whom Macheath had agreed to marry. She is cross with him, and wants to see him tortured for breaking his promise and marrying Polly instead.

Macheath manages to calm her anger, but Polly arrives and claims he is her husband. Macheath protests and tells Lucy that Polly is crazy, so Lucy decides to help him escape by lifting her father’s keys. Lockit learns about Macheath’s promise to marry Lucy, but worries that if he’s hanged, Peachum will get Macheath’s fortune. So, Lockit goes to Peachum and they arrange to split Macheath’s wealth upon his execution.

Polly goes to Lucy, meanwhile, to try to broker a peace, but Lucy tries to poison her. Polly manages to escape Lucy’s plans, and together they learn that Macheath was captured shortly after his escape, this time by a drunk woman named Mrs. Diana Trapes. Lucy and Polly beg their fathers not to have Macheath executed. But Macheath protests, after discovering four pregnant women all claiming to be his wife. He decides he wants to be hanged. However, his request is denied, as he is reprieved. Everyone joins in a dance to celebrate his marriage to Polly at the end of the ballad opera.

One example of satire in The Beggar’s Opera is Gay’s commentary on equality. By constantly pairing the noble with the typically ignoble, and having them behave in the same way, he creates irony that forms the basis for his satire. Another example lies in his mockery of marriage. In The Beggar’s Opera, marriage isn’t based on love, but rather on lust, both material and physical. For women, there is also freedom in marriage to do and say as they wish without tarnishing their reputations.

Gay satirizes the current political climate by making all of the characters in The Beggar’s Opera hypocrites. In so doing, he suggests that all those in politics got there not by their virtue or capability, but by hypocrisy.