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What is the Beggar’s Opera?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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The Beggar’s Opera is a three act ballad opera, a form created by John Gay, who was an eighteenth century poet and dramatist whose friends included Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Gay's idea for The Beggar’s Opera may have come from Swift. The ballad opera is a satiric genre of play, performed by actors, not singers, in which dialogue alternates with songs taken from popular works refitted with words that fit the needs of the plot development. If you know the Capitol Steps and how they use known songs with new words to create comedy and political satire, you’ll have the idea.

The Beggar’s Opera is original and outstanding example of the ballad opera genre. It contains 69 songs drawn from Henry Purcell, Georg Handel, and John Eccles, among others, as well as popular songs and 28 English ballads, from whence came its generic name.

The Drury Lane Theatre refused the opportunity to present The Beggar’s Opera, and it opened in London at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, produced by John Rich, on 29 January 1728. It was performed in every stage season for the rest of the eighteenth century, and to this day, it is the most performed operatic work in English. It serves as the basis for Bertolt Brecht’s German adaptation Die Dreigroshchenoper, The Threepenny Opera in English, with music by Kurt Weill. It also sparked a market for branded items from fans to decks of cards to figurines.

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The Introduction to The Beggar’s Opera is an explanation of the opera by the Beggar to the Player. In Act I of The Beggar’s Opera, a fence named Peachum is going over his accounts and talking with his wife about the dangers of a ne’er-do-well named MacHeath. They begin to be concerned about their daughter marrying and giving away family secrets. Upon confronting their daughter, they find out that she has in fact married MacHeath who, it turns out, is hiding in her room. He leaves, swearing fidelity, and she believes him.

In Act II, MacHeath and his gang visit a tavern and dance with the whores assembled there. They, in turn, signal Peachum, who comes in with a constable and has MacHeath arrested. MacHeath is taken to Newgate Prison, and tries to seduce the warden’s daughter in order to regain his freedom. Polly enters, however, thwarting his plan. Peachum enters and takes Polly away. MacHeath tries again, and despite Polly, Lucy agrees to help him.

Act III of The Beggar’s Opera opens with the warden chiding his daughter for not making any money out of MacHeath’s escape. Peachum and Lockit then plan to recapture MacHeath, while Lucy plans to poison Polly, but Polly drops the glass in surprise and dismay when MaHeath is brought in again. MacHeath goes to trial, and Polly and Lucy come to say farewell, as do for other women, each with a child. The Player and the Beggar return to their conversation, with the Beggar proclaiming that he intends to hang MacHeath. The Player argues that this would not fit the genre, as operas should end happily. The Beggar takes the point and declares the MacHeath must be reprieved.

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