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Theatre / The Beggar's Opera

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As the opera is Older Than Radio and most twists are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera by John Gay, which premiered in 1728.

Supposedly written by a beggar, who comes out on stage at the beginning and end to talk to the audience, the show inverts and parodies opera conventions, using common folk tunes instead of specially-written music, and concerning the lives of the poor and vulgar instead of the high and mighty (though with many satirical asides suggesting that the high and mighty are not so different).

The central character of the opera is Macheath, a highwayman by trade and an inveterate womanizer by personal inclination. When the story begins, he is romancing Polly Peachum, whose father fences stolen goods and arranges matters for his clients when they get in trouble with the law (unless he's making less off their thievery than he would from turning them in for the reward money, in which case he'll do so without hesitation). Peachum is horrified to learn his daughter has married Macheath in secret — the more so when she professes to have done it for love, without thought of material advancement — and resolves to get Macheath into the hands of the authorities, but Polly helps him escape.

Despite vowing love and fidelity to Polly, Macheath resumes his womanizing, until two of his girlfriends conspire to sell him out to Peachum. Macheath finds himself in jail, facing imminent execution; worse, the jail keeper's daughter, Lucy Lockit, is another ex-girlfriend, to whom he promised marriage before he fell in with Polly Peachum. He manages to persuade Lucy that his recent marriage is a fiction put about by Polly, and she helps him escape (the usual method of bribing his way out having failed, since Peachum and Lockit have united in wanting him safely dead and away from their daughters). Having delivered another round of protestations of love and fidelity, he returns to womanizing once again, until yet another ex-girlfriend sells him out, and he winds up back in prison. This time his time has come, and he is escorted away to the gallows...

...but the beggar returns to the stage and announces a Deus ex Machina reprieve, on the grounds that An Aesop is one thing, but modern audiences insist on a Happy Ending.

The Beggar's Opera was a massive success for its author, for its stars, and for the producer, John Rich; it was famously said that it made Gay rich and Rich gay. It inspired many imitations and adaptations, most famous nowadays being the German musical The Threepenny Opera, which debuted in 1928, The Beggar's Opera's bicentennial year.

Other adaptations include a film made in 1953 by Peter Brook and starring Laurence Olivier (it was the only musical he made during his movie career, but he considered it an Old Shame, though); Speakeasy, a 1998 Takarazuka Revue production; The Villains' Opera, a 2000 National Theatre production with a Setting Update to modern times; and The Convict's Opera, a 2008 Australian ballad musical about a group of convicts putting on a production of The Beggar's Opera (which is included, somewhat abridged, as a Show Within a Show). In 1948 composer Benjamin Britten created a version for his touring English Opera Group company, with the original songs arranged and harmonized in Britten's style.

The Beggar's Opera provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: The Beggar remarks that the opera ought to end with all the villains being hanged to show that crime doesn't pay, but...
  • The Casanova: Macheath. He loves women, he says at one point, but expecting him to be happy with one is like expecting a man who loves money to be happy with one coin.
  • Dance Party Ending: After Macheath is reprieved from his execution, the characters are all invited to a dance to celebrate his marriage to Polly.
  • Deus ex Machina: Parodied at the end.
  • The Hedonist: "Fill Every Glass," "Youth's the Season Made for Joys," and even Mrs. Trapes' song:
    The Life of all Mortals in Kissing should pass,
    Fa la la la, fa la la la la la la,
    The Life of all Mortals in Kissing should pass;
    Lip to Lip while you're young, then your Lip to the Glass.
  • Hanging Around: How Macheath and the other villains are set to be Publicly Executed.
  • The Highwayman: Macheath and his gang.
  • The Ingenue: Polly Peachum is a parody of the type.
  • Jukebox Musical: In spirit, at least. Before there were recordings, there were folk songs, which the opera uses in place of specially written music.
  • Luxury Prison Suite: Lockit runs his prison on the principle that everybody deserves a bit of comfort as long as they can afford to pay for it. Macheath can.
  • Meaningful Name: Nearly everybody.
    • Peachum: Because if an acquaintance isn't making him money, he'll peach 'em to the authorities.
    • Lockit: The jail keeper.
    • Filch: A young thief. Not to mention Nimming Ned, Bob Booty, etc.
    • Macheath's collection of girlfriends have surnames like Vixen, Doxy, Trull, Tawdry, and Brazen.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Peachum is obviously based on corrupt police officer Jonathan Wild, and Macheath is based on Jack Sheppard, a repeat prison-escapee who had made a kind of Lovable Rogue reputation for himself. Peachum mentions an accomplice of his, Bob Booty, who went to prison- this is a reference to crooked politician Robert Walpole.
  • Public Execution: At the end of the opera, Macheath now finds that four more pregnant women each claim him as their husband. He declares that he is ready to be hanged. The narrator (the Beggar), notes that although in a properly moral ending Macheath and the other villains would be hanged, the audience demands a happy ending, and so Macheath is reprieved, and all are invited to a dance of celebration, to celebrate his wedding to Polly. Some stagings, however, have the Beggar making his pronouncement about the need for a happy ending and totally failing to notice Macheath actually being hanged in the background.
  • Villain Protagonist: Macheath.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Mr. Lockit.
  • Woman Scorned: Lucy Lockit.