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The Beggar's Opera has weathered nearly three hundred years of change, and yet its humorous satire remains vibrant today. Its first performance January 29, 1728 was an immediate success and its popularity quickly spread to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, and Germany, and even to the New England colonies (and became a favorite of George Washington).
A London revival in 1920 ran 1,463 performances. A Beggar's Opera Club had membership limited to those that had seen at least forty performances. Later, Duke Ellington wrote the music for a Broadway musical called The Beggar's Holiday. Bertholt Brecht's version, Three Penny Opera, has been immensely successful too, with the rendition of one of the play's songs, Mack the Knife, becoming Number One on the Hit Parade in the early 1960s.
John Gay's innovative musical overwhelmed the formal, highly structured, Italian opera - in Italian - that dominated the London stage at that time. Gay's new, rollicking, rowdy lyrics overlain on traditional English ballads and sentimental melodies had extraordinary appeal. Although having only three acts, The Beggar's Opera has some forty-five scenes, almost all with musical interludes. Gay holds his myriad of short scenes together with nearly continuous action, more akin to a motion picture than to the conventional eighteenth century play.
The cast was equally original with cutthroats, pickpockets, thieves, streetwalkers, and highwaymen. The only honest character was the simple, sweet, trusting Polly Peachum. Miss Lavina Fenton, the best theatrical singer of her day, became immensely popular for her role as Polly; at the end of the run, a record setting sixty-two performances, she married the Duke of Bolton and retired from acting.
The audience was quick to associate Newgate Prison with Whitehall; the deceitful, avaricious Peachum (Polly's father) with Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister; Macheath's band of rogues (like Jemmy Twitcher, Crook-Fingered Jack, and Nimming Ned) with aristocratic courtiers, and Macheath's women of the streets (Mrs. Coaxer, Dolly Trull, Mrs. Vixen, Molly Brazen, etc.) with ladies of high society.
The Beggar's Opera and Companion Pieces, Crofts Classics, 1966, edited by C. F. Burgess, has a moderately short introduction. Unlike some editions, the lyrics embedded within the play are not accompanied by musical scores. This edition is particularly valuable for including other works by John Gay: a selection from Trivia (subtitled The Art of Walking the Streets of London), other poems (Newgate's Garland, 'Twas When the Seas Were Roaring, Sweet William's Farewell, Molly Mog, An Epistle to a Lady, and The Hare and Many Friends), and extracts from various letters. Trivia is perhaps the finest poem of any period on London life.
I also like the Barron's Educational Series edition: The Beggar's Opera by John Gay, edited by Benjamin Griffith, with full page, delightful ink-line drawings of the key characters by Keogh. The lengthy, three-part introduction (the playwright, the play, and the staging) is quite good. Initial musical notes are presented along with the lyrics.
An English major might prefer The Beggar's Opera by Regents Restoration Drama Series, Nebraska University Press, 1969. Edgar V. Roberts authored the scholarly introduction. An extensive appendix, some 140 pages, is a compilation of the music of The Beggar's Opera with keyboard accompaniments, edited by Edward Smith.