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The Beggar's Opera by John Gay

The Beggar's Opera

by John Gay

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6941121,170 (3.29)48
The tale of Peachum, thief-taker and informer, conspiring to send the dashing and promiscuous highwayman Macheath to the gallows, became the theatrical sensation of the eighteenth century.In THE BEGGAR'S OPERA, John Gay turned conventions of Italian opera riotously upside-down, instead using traditional popular ballads and street tunes, while also indulging in political satire at the expense of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Gay's highly original depiction of the thieves, informers, prostitutes and highwaymen thronging the slums and prisons of the corrupt London underworld proved brilliantly successful in exposing the dark side of a corrupt and jaded society.… (more)



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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
I wanted to like it more than I actually did, perhaps I didn't because generally plays and books that are from that time period I rarely find easy reads. I did however love everything by Moliere and I also loved ' She stoops to conquer ' but that might not be as old as this, I've forgotten when that was written.
2-2.5 ( )
  REINADECOPIAYPEGA | Jan 11, 2018 |
I also watched the 60's BBC production of this play, which helped flesh out the story a bit. This is an operatic play, so reading it without hearing the songs is a bit dull. This play is supposed to be light entertainment with a bit of social commentary thrown in, and it seems fairly successful, even for a modern audience, but it's not one of my favorite classic plays. ( )
  JBarringer | Dec 30, 2017 |
Written in the early 1700's, The Beggar's Opera was a satirical play featuring the more unsavory aspects of society, from thieves and prostitutes to corrupt officials and an unjust law enforcement system. The play also poked fun at traditional Italian opera, by both simply being an anti-opera by nature and by using the characters to mimic some of the drama surrounding the opera scene, such as feuding actresses.

The play was fairly successful, though for conflicting reasons. It was hailed as both a revolutionary and insightful denouncement of corruption among all walks of life, while others saw it as simply offensive and indecent. Regardless, the play stood the test of time, and here I am reading it today.

Reading it today, however, doesn't have the same impact as it did at the time. While the physical play has stood the test of time, the meaning and purpose of it doesn't stand up quite so well. At least, I found it rather uninteresting. It's something to appreciate for it's historical merit, but not much else, I'm afraid. ( )
1 vote Ape | Feb 25, 2017 |
I want to give this play a high score simply because of it's context and content, and as it is one of the only satirical operas that has survived from the early 18th Century should also give this play, or more properly opera, some credit. Now, when we hear the word opera we usually thing of 'it's not over until the fat lady sings' (and then Bart Simpson going 'is she fat enough for you?') and you would actually be quite correct, because that is the type of opera that we would be thinking of in this context. In the early 18th century we see the rise in the popularity of the Italian Opera, which was mostly fat ladies singing, and dealt with heroes, villains, and mythical stories. They were basically the Hollywood blockbusters of the era.
So, along comes John Gay with an idea (which he apparently stole off of Jonathon Swift, of Gulliver's Travels fame) of making a satire of the ever popular opera. So instead of having heroes and mythical scenes, and stories dominated by the rich and powerful he instead delved into the dark and dirty streets of inner London to take us for a satirical journey through the criminal underworld. The problem is that on the page much of the satire does not actually come out, and further, since we are not familiar with the songs (though I am sure we will be familiar with the tunes) the parodying of the operatic style does not evidently come about (and while I have seen a couple of musicals – five to be exact – I have never seen an opera).
The other interesting thing that came out with this play, or at least the commentary, is how much London has changed since those days. Take Piccadilly Circus or Marlyebone for instance, which for those of us who know London know that these days is a very fashionable area, and also a very expensive place to set up residency. However, back in the days of the Beggar's Opera, this could not be farther from the truth. In fact the area around central London was a crime ridden cesspool that would result in you risking your life if you even considered wondering about after dark (or even not so much after dark). This, however, was almost three hundred years ago, so it is not surprising that London has cleaned up its act a lot, with the rise of the middle-class (as well as the establishment of John Wesley's church, whose mission was targeting the lower class residents of this area at the time).
Another thing that comes about, which I knew about anyway, but this play emphasised it so much more, is the popularity of Gin. Now, I'm a beer drinker, and as such I am generally not that well disposed to spirits, however back in those days spirits were exceedingly cheap. In fact, to some, Gin was the 18th century version of methamphetamine (though it was not illegal). The upper classes simply did not touch it (it was too cheap) and the lower classes would get excessively drunk drinking it. Also, like meth, it would be distilled in basements and apartments, and some of the product that came about was virtually poison.
The other aspect we hear about is the life of the criminal underworld. A bulk of the play takes place in Newgate Prison, and the version that I read had copious amounts of notes explaining a lot of the slang that was used. For instance, unlike today, it actually cost the criminal money to stay at Newgate, and in fact Newgate was one of the most expensive prisons in England in which to be locked up. Obviously nobody had listened to Thomas More when he wrote Utopia because the death penalty was still being imposed at the drop of a hat (though if you could quote a verse from Psalm 21 you could get off because it would suggest that you were literate). They also introduced a system of rewards for various criminals, however this led to the rise of a class known as the thief-catchers who would purposely go out and set people up so they could get the rewards (which would be paid once the thief was hung, in much the same way that rewards are offered by the police on a successful conviction).
It is interesting how there is still this belief that penal penalties (including the death penalty) deter crime, and all we have to do is to look back at this period of English history to know that this does not work. If theft brings about the death penalty, then technically nobody would steal, however a lot of people still stole, and even though it was clear that you would be hung if you were caught stealing, people would still keep on doing it (probably because they either believed that they were too smart to get caught, or they had nothing left to lose). Anyway, this is a whole field of criminology, which I don't really want to go into here because I have written enough already and want to get on and do something else now. ( )
1 vote David.Alfred.Sarkies | Mar 31, 2014 |
Very strange to read this in the 21st century. These days everyone treats the poor/disadvantaged etc very nicely (well, everyone except Martin Amis). For his time, you might say the same of Gay, but every character in this book full of poor people is a criminal or scumbag of some other kind. So not so sympathetic. On the other hand, that's a good thing: there's no way you can depict the evils of poverty without making the impoverished at least a little offputting. If they're all nice and happy, what's the problem with impoverishment? But the opening and closing dialogues are very cutting parodies of Italian Opera, and the plot contrivances of both those operas and fictions in general, as well as the disproportion between the punishments the vicious poor and the vicious rich suffer. It's pretty funny, but I suspect it would be better on stage than on the page, and certainly some of the humor must be lost to history. ( )
1 vote stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (38 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Gayprimary authorall editionscalculated
Loughrey, BryanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Treadwell, T. O.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Beggar: If poverty be a title to poetry, I am sure nobody can dispute mine.
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