Rich Rogue Arts

Beg, Borrow, and Steal—History

The Beggar’s Opera

The Beggar’s Opera premiered in London in 1728 and singing theatre hasn’t been the same since!

John Gay created a new theatre genre, the “ballad opera”, which used popular tunes and told a story of the lower classes rather than the aristocracy. This was directly opposed to Italian opera, especially the work of Handel, which dominated the London stage at that time. Not only did his comic farce poke fun at the prevailing fashion in Italian opera by the upper classes, it also took aim at the social and political climate of the age—lampooning the notable Whig statesman Robert Walpole and the notorious criminals Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard.

Gay’s songs—60 in total—are based on songs known to working people of London: popular broadsheet ballads, church hymns, songs of the pubs and drinking dens, folk tunes of the time plus a few he “lifted” from Handel! What was most shocking to the audience was the discrepancy between the words and the music. Gay would take a sleazy tune and place it with sweet and docile lyrics. (A similar experience for us would be if hymn lyrics were placed in a song by Puff Daddy or Britney Spears.)

The show was a smash hit. It ran for 62 performances, setting the record for the longest-ever theatre run, a record it held for a hundred years!

Jonathan Swift

The Beggar’s Opera was based on an idea of Jonathan Swift, who proposed “ …what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?”

William Hogarth

It was the the London of 1728. Teeming with whores, highwaymen and ne’er do wells, this world was depicted in Hogarth’s first popular success Scenes from The Beggar’s Opera, and later in his later famous series The Rake’s Progress. John Gay brought this underworld of London to life.

Hogart’s The Rake’s Progress
Hogarth’s Scenes from The Beggar’s Opera

A Rich Legacy

Not only has The Beggar’s Opera had an influence on all later British stage comedies, (especially the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan), it can be thought of as the ancestor of the modern musical.

It was also the first example of political satire and its overwhelming success encouraged new writers such as Henry Fielding to begin political drama works.

The Beggar’s Opera has been constantly revived over the last 300 years and has inspired many composers and arrangers of the 20th century to put their own stamp on the piece:

  • Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht adapted it into Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) which premiered in 1928.
  • Benjamin Britten put his own twist on the piece with his version for the English Opera Group—first performed in 1948 with Sir Peter Pears as MacHeath.
  • Duke Ellington brought to Broadway a jazz version called Beggar’s Holiday which debuted in 1946.
  • In 1975, Czech playwright (and future president) Václav Havel created a non-musical adaptation.
  • The 1975 Broadway musical Chicago has a plot with very similar satiric intent.
  • Richard Bonynge created a new arrangement for Australian Opera which ran in the 1980s.
  • The all-female Japanese troupe Takarazuka Revue produced a play in 1998 based on The Beggar’s Opera titled Speakeasy. The play was Maya Miki’s retirement play.