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VINE VOICEon 14 November 2016
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's not often that you praise a comedy and the first thing that you comment on are the footnotes! But they are not just of scholarly interest, they are essential to full enjoyment of these plays.

The violent, immoral Macheath, the (relatively) innocent Polly, her cynical parents, the light-fingered lads, the ladies of the night, the corrupt officials... all the characters are familiar from the Brecht and Weil update, translated into English as "The Threepenny Opera", which itself has been restaged and updated many times. And the interplay is as amusing. Georgian London was every much as corrupt and depraved a city as any of the settings used in the multiple updates.

But just to readit as it seems is to miss half the jokes: Gay's drama of the lower classes was an opportunity for him to satirize the politicians and big-wigs of his day. The extensive notes identify who is targeted by which ressemblance, and what had they done to earn it, thus enabling the reader to enjoy the fun, without prior knowledge of the politics of the period.

The other thing point is that "The Beggar's Opera" is just that - it is interspersed by songs that comment on the proceedings of the play, set to popular tunes of the day. And, just as in a modern comedy skit, part of the joke involves identifying the original, and viewing the parady in the light of the original. This is where this edition really stands out. An extensive additional section has identified the original songs behind most of the plays, and printed a copy of those lyrics also, for the reader to compare.

It is also unusual to see the sequel "Polly" also included. Although both plays superficially have the conventional "happy ending", comparison of the two shows that Gay does not believe in anything so trite - he is as cynical about love as any of his characters.

Add a good introduction, setting the works in the context of Gay's life, and this really is an edition that enables a comic writer of 200 years ago to still entertain and provoke an audience today.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 September 2013
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This is a brilliantly funny, wild and unruly play set amongst C18th London low-life in and around Newgate. `Captain' Macheath, the notorious highwayman, sweet Polly Peachum, and Suky Tawdry have passed into folklore legend and this is where they first come into being.

Written in 1728, this was a huge theatrical success and reading it today, even without the benefit of the songs, it's easy to see why. Gay uses his low-life characters - thieves, pick-pockets, prostitutes, and thief-takers - to comment on society mores, not least the increasing commercialisation of London life. Shifting between the scabrous, the hysterically funny, and the sweetly sentimental, this is hugely enjoyable with some genuine laugh-out-loud moments (the four wives...).

Mrs Peachum, especially, has some wonderful lines and reminded me more than once of Austen's Mrs Bennett (`How a mother is to be pitied who hath handsome daughters!'), though Peachum isn't far behind (`The comfortable estate of widowhood is the only hope that keeps up a wife's spirits').

The OUP edition has a short contextual introduction and particularly helpful notes about the songs and ballads.

Although written in the eighteenth-century, this reminded me of sixteenth-century street ballads, especially the Newgate songs and coney-catcher pamphlets. So this is short but enjoyable and very funny - an unexpected pleasure.
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Gay's friend Alexander Pope confided in Jonathan Swift, "It will make a great noise, but whether of Claps or Hisses I know not."

Claps won - and do even now, getting on for three hundred years later. Welcome here the chance to discover the reasons for that instant success with its unpredictable audacious combination of styles, sparkling dialogue interwoven with lyrics set to popular tunes of the time.

This presentation is most scholarly, crammed with notes about the background to both "The Beggar's Opera" and its sequel "Polly". (The latter was banned on stage, which of course created much interest and made it a best seller when printed.) References that may puzzle are explained in detail and much research has been done into the tunes used.

Serious students are thus very well served. I confess myself not one of them, simply reading to enjoy - which I did. Low-life rogues are here in abundance, all intent on self-advancement, treachery no problem if the price is right. Charismatic highwayman Macheath has many women after his favours, he more than happy to oblige. He lives on his wits, cheating a speciality - his main ambition to cheat the rope. Polly Peacham is his main love, she ever a delight. In the West Indies follow-up she appears in man's garb, Macheath as a black pirate king (both unaware of the other's identity). Will their love triumph? One thing for sure, its course will not be smooth.

The two pieces are an excuse for Gay to take swipes on high - he adept at inserting the sword, then giving it a twist. The foibles depicted here are evident in all levels of society, especially the nearer one reaches the top. As Polly's duplicitous father freely admits (amongst much else), "Like Great Statesmen, we encourage those who betray their Friends."

Great fun. No hisses from me.
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VINE VOICEon 28 November 2013
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These plays offer up a bold mixture of political satire, lyrical poetry, social issues, family values, colonialism, gender roles and racial discrimination; with a number of popular folk tunes and ballads interspersed throughout. It's no wonder that The Beggar's Opera ended up creating its own genre: the comic opera.

The Beggar's Opera takes place in London's underworld, following thieves and prostitutes, as the local fence and informant Peachum attempts to have his new son-in-law (the highwayman Macheath) hanged. Macheath repeatedly seduces women to help him evade capture and escape, but is constantly betrayed at each turn by his fellow criminals. In the end the Beggar (the playwright) has to be asked to come out and save his hero, so as to give the audience a happy ending.

The sequel Polly takes place in the West Indies, as Polly Peachum attempts to find her now transported husband Macheath in the middle of a revolt. This play was in fact banned by the Lord Chamberlain before it was ever performed. It survived in published form and was not performed on the stage until over forty years after Gay's death.

While these plays are enjoyable enough to read and study as a text, they were definitely written to be enjoyed as a performance.
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VINE VOICEon 15 July 2013
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John Gay's classic The Beggar's Opera requires little introduction: an enduring piece of bawdy and very sharp satire that resonates almost as strongly with a current audience / readership as it did when first written in 1728. The wholesale inversion of social norms and values within a new ballad opera form gained it considerable notoriety in its day, while its sequel, Polly, an even less-veiled attack on contemporary society and political life, was banned during the author's lifetime.

In this volume, The Beggar's Opera is combined with its sequel in an inexpensive but decent-quality paperback. The short introduction & notes on the text are useful background if you're not familiar with either, or their author, and there is a brief time-line of John Gay's life. The text itself is nicely reproduced in a decent font-size and clear print. Polly also has the original preface by John Gay, with remarks on the prohibition of it being performed, which is occasionally missed out. All in all, a solid edition that does exactly what it needs to.
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The Beggars Opera and Polly
Oxford classics

I have only experienced the beggars Opera via Benjamin Britten's adaptation on CD and Peter Brook's Film / DVD musical version with Laurence Olivier / Stanley Holloway using popular songs and tunes.
In the late 1720's, opera was (somewhat like today) for the rich and the Nobility. Handel was still composing Italianate Opera Seria in competition with the "Opera of the Nobility - using highly paid (and highly strung) castratos and prima donnas.
Then in 1728 along came the ballad opera for the common people based on common songs and ballads about London low life (thieves, highwaymen, whores and the like) .It was also a biting political satire on the government of the day - so much so that the sequel (Polly) was banned. It was very successful - particularly financially leading to the saying that Rich as made gay and Gay was made rich. Its structure also parodied the Opera seria.
The plot involves MacHeath (a highwayman) , and his pregnant doxies - claims of marriage and betrayals for cash and a deux ex machine redemption. I will not give further details (spoilers) other than to comment that much is made of transactions and financial gains / losses of personal relationships and also by innuendo, the mores of the so called polite society of the time and the political shenanigans of the time.
The subversive (political) sub plot vs. the government resulted in the banning (by the Lord Chamberlain - the Censor) of the staging sequel Polly for it's "too close to the knuckle" satire. This is the first time that I have seen even the libretto for this lost masterpiece
This edition gives the libretto in full with detailed annotations of the argot of the time. Well worth reading
The original opera bears comparisons to Brecht/Weill "Die drei Groeschen oper" (the threepenny opera) and the PW Pabst film (now DVD) and also Weil's Stadt Mahoganny for its exposure of reducing relationships to commercial transaction
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My headline quote comes from the Beggars Opera. It seems Gay didn't take the advice his own characters offer each other, the consequence being that his next play, Polly, was banned by then Prime Minister Walpole, who took umbrage at what he took to be Gay's attacks on him.

Having recently read Voltaire's Candide and wondered what all the fuss was about, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this rather more. Topical satire dates very rapidly, and frequently requires vast amounts of explanation (such as these well put together Oxford World Classics dutifully and helpfully supply), but bawdy humour frequently connects immediately across the years. These two works - The Beggar's Opera and Polly - have both, and the latter helps make the former more approachable and palatable, for me at any rate.

I also like the basic premise of parodying opera and 'debasing' it via popular song, because I don't like opera. If any art form deserves parodying, opera does. I found myself agreeing with K Clark when he remarked in Civilisation on how odd it was that opera should be taken so seriously. Having said this, I note that others, including reviewers here, give Gay credit for helping invent modern musical theatre: that might be enough to make me loathe him, as I generally dislike that genre as much as I do opera. However, in this format we're dealing, perhaps mercifully, with a reading experience alone.

Whilst the characters are a bit thin (tho' not quite as sketchily drawn as Voltaire's in Candide), the laughs are at least sufficiently broad to make up for this. I've read very few plays since my school days, and must confess that this facet of the reading experience had me wondering if perhaps the best thing might be to see some version of these works - it'd have to be The Beggar's Opera - either live or on DVD. I had also thought, prior to reading these pieces, that Polly sounded intriguing, and might be also be good to see, but apparently it almost never gets performed. One might imagine that for it to be banned it must have been in some way quite interesting - but I think it's weaker than its predecessor, perhaps in part for being more slapstick and outlandish: there's something more believably Hogarthian about the Beggar's Opera.

There are perhaps several kinds of irony at work or play here, especially for me as a reader, inasmuch as I've only engaged with both of these pieces of frippery as reading experiences, when they were intended as far more immersive theatrical experiences. Whilst the Beggar's Opera has remained popular, spawning such offspring as the Threepenny Opera in addition to being continually performed and enjoyed, Polly by contrast started its life, thanks to the performance ban, as a reading experience, just as I encountered it, and just as it remains. It was observed by a contemporary wag, that the success of the Beggar's Opera on the stage (and of Polly in print, as it turned out), 'made the rich gay, and Gay rich'. Another irony might be that Voltaire's ideas underlying Candide may well be more profound, but Gay's, whilst more humdrum, are every bit as real, and, crucially for this reader, much more fun and engaging to read.

All in all this is a kind of burlesque of hypocrisy and lewdness. The satirical elements are dated in terms of detail, requiring fairly frequent recourse to the explanatory notes, but remain reasonably universal in terms of such underlying themes of human nature as love vs. lust and idealism vs. hypocrisy. Fun enough to be worth reading as a standalone, raising a steady if small stream of smiles and titters, and a spur to seeing Gay's work performed.
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VINE VOICEon 28 September 2013
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These plays offer up a bold mixture of political satire, lyrical poetry, social issues, family values, colonialism, gender roles and racial discrimination; with a number of popular folk tunes and ballads interspersed throughout. It's no wonder that 'The Beggar's Opera' ended up creating its own genre: the comic opera.

'The Beggar's Opera' takes place in London's underworld, following thieves and prostitutes, as the local fence and informant Peachum attempts to have his new son-in-law (the highwayman Macheath) hanged. Macheath repeatedly seduces women to help him evade capture and escape, but is constantly betrayed at each turn by his fellow criminals. In the end the Beggar (the playwright) has to be asked to come out and save his hero, so as to give the audience a happy ending.

The sequel 'Polly' takes place in the West Indies, as Polly Peachum attempts to find her now transported husband Macheath in the middle of a revolt. This play was in fact banned by the Lord Chamberlain before it was ever performed. It survived in published form and was not performed on the stage until over forty years after Gay's death.

While these plays are enjoyable enough to read and study as a text, they were definitely written to be enjoyed as a performance.
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Here we have "The Beggar's Opera", and its sequel, "Polly" published in a single volume for the first time. The former was a ballad opera, first performed in 1728, but it remains a sharp-witted, bawdy, satirical take on the low-life, thievery and prostitution that resonates with the same that may be found in any modern town or city. The underlying notion of these plays is that relationships may be seen as transactions for one gain or other. It is applied to all manner of characters, from the bottom the top of society, with comic and sometimes tragic outcomes. The language is of its time, but worth delving into, for there is even more humour to be found. For example, the various character surnames have comic meanings, such as doxy (meaning "slut" and Trull (meaning "prostitute") and so on.

The sequel, "Polly", about a daughter of that name, is every bit as bawdy as its forerunner, and contains so much political satire that the prime minister of the day had it banned. There are elements of "Pirates of the Caribbean" in the plot, but don't let that deter you. This is a rollicking tale of piracy, white slavery, chicanery and misadventure.
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VINE VOICEon 17 September 2013
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Without The Beggar's Opera, we would probably not have the modern musical. It is certainly a piece that any lover of musical theatre must get to know - it is that influential.

Polly, on the whole, is a much weaker piece and has fallen almost completely out of the repertoire.

This collected edition is as scholarly and well-researched as you would expect from the Oxford World's Classics series. There is plenty of interesting detail and information which help set the pieces fully into the context of the period.

It would have been perfect if this edition had also contained the music for each of the songs as well - as it would then be truly complete.

It is still a good starting point for anyone interested in the world of John Gay.
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