The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera Study Guide

Though The Beggar's Opera has earned a reputation for its ironically rambunctious exploration of amoral characters, crime syndicates, and overt sexuality, John Gay originally intended it primarily as a political statement, a comment on both the royal court of his time and statesmen in general.

For fourteen years, Gay attempted to earn a place in the court of either George I or George II. As a successful and respected writer in the early 18th century, Gay expected to receive patronage, as many of his contemporaries had. His final disappointment came in 1727, when George II ascended to the throne and offered Gay the post of Gentleman-Usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa. Especially because he had previously served in similarly minor positions for earlier monarchs, Gay considered the appointment an insulting humiliation, and resigned himself to a life without significant patronage. It was from these disappointments that he began to write The Beggar's Opera.

The social satire of The Beggar’s Opera reflects Gay’s belief that the royal court rewarded hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy, rather than virtue and talent. The play frequently observes how, in the words of the Beggar, “the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen” (p. 72).

The opera was an enormous success, running for a record 62 performances at London's Theatre Royal. Its audiences would have had no trouble recognizing the similarities between the play's main characters and top political figures. Foremost among those satirized was Robert Walpole, considered the first man to hold the position of Prime Minister. Robert Walpole was also in attendance for the play’s opening night.

The Beggar's Opera is also notable for its use of music and exploitation of criminal characters. In addition to lampooning the political climate, Gay mocked the conventions of Italian opera, which was very popular at the time. Gay explicitly modeled the work around those conventions, but used them in a self-conscious manner. Further, he chose to dramatize low-class characters, refusing to judge them for their moral lapses. Perhaps most profoundly, he eschewed the use of sophisticated music in exchange for popular ballad melodies, to which he wrote new lyrics relevant to his plot. All of these elements help to explain the opera's runaway success.

While the show cemented Gay's reputation both at the time and for the ages, it made him an enemy of the crown. His sequel, Polly, was banned from the stage, and Gay died a few years later, after only one more production.

However, The Beggar's Opera has remained a popular stage show since its premiere, largely thanks to German dramatist Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, a very close adaptation of the source material. While the latter has arguably maintained a greater reputation, both works continue to be studied and performed today.