The Introduction features characters named Beggar and Player, who address the audience directly.
The Beggar identifies himself as belonging to a “company of beggars,” with whom he frequents the area of St. Giles’s, a London district that was known to be a slum in the 18th century. He explains that he earns a modest income there in exchange for his songs and ballads.
The Player then assures the audience that the Beggar's work should be judged on its artistic merit, and not on the appearance of its author. He insists that the Muses, i.e. the “poetic spirits,” pay no attention to fine clothing.
The Beggar next explains that he originally wrote this story to celebrate the marriage of two ballad-singers. He then insists to the audience that his opera follows the conventions of the celebrated, fashionable operas of the day. As examples, he notes that: his opera utilizes nature-similes; his opera includes a prison scene; and the female roles receive equal stage time. The only contemporary opera features he has omitted are the use of prologue and epilogue.
The Player spies the actors preparing to begin. He cues the orchestra, and retreats with the Beggar.
The play begins in Peachum’s house. Peachum, a criminal who manages a syndicate of highwaymen, sits alone at a table with a large account book before him. He sings an air (or ballad) whose lyric insists that all social roles and jobs are equally duplicitous and base: "Whore and rogue they call husband and wife...The priest calls the lawyer a cheat...The lawyer be-knaves the divine" (p. 5). He then follows that his own employment as a criminal is at least as honest as a lawyer’s, since both professions protect "cheats."
Enter Filch, a member of Peachum's gang. Filch brings word of Black Moll, who is soon to face a criminal trial and hopes Peachum can secure her release through his connections with law enforcement. Peachum suggests that Black Moll could claim to be pregnant to avoid hanging, but then decides that he will soften the evidence against her since she has been useful to him.
In this conversation, the audience first learns that Peachum controls a large band of thieves, and that he is connected to the government and courts because he is of a slightly higher social class than the thieves are. Because of these connections, Peachum can decide whether to allow a captured crook to be hung or to be released. If he chooses the former, he receives a reward.
Peachum and Filch discuss the gang. There’s Tom Gagg, against whom Peachum will provide evidence in exchange for a reward of 40 pounds. He will save Betty Sly from being shipped off to the colonies, since her reprieve will yield greater profit than her punishment will. Filch reminisces how Betty taught him the art of thieving. Both men reflect on the utility of women: they are good thieves, and they procreate to make more. “...[T]here is nothing to be got by the death of women—except our wives" (p. 6).
Filch sings an air which states that men first learn trickery from women. Woman’s kindness is but a device, used especially to ensnare a man’s love. After the song, Filch leaves for Newgate, London’s most notorious prison, to announce Peachum's decisions about whom he will save.
Peachum, alone with his account book once more, flips through the pages to determine which crooks he should betray, and which he should save. He examines their winnings - items purloined in pickpocketing - and considers each crewmember’s shortcomings. Their names include: Crook-finger’d Jack, Tom Tipple, Wat Dreary, Matt of the Mint, Bob Booty.
Mrs. Peachum, Peachum’s wife, enters and inquires about Bob Booty, her favorite member of the gang. Peachum responds that Bob is currently on Peachum's blacklist, meaning he will allow Bob to be hung in exchange for the 40 pound reward. Mrs. Peachum rescinds her concern, acknowledging that women are terrible judges in gallows-matters. She then sings an air about how a man riding the pillory cart towards the gallows is irresistible: "There dies an Adonis!" (p. 9).
Peachum inquires whether Captain Macheath, another gang member, has stopped by to retrieve some purloined banknotes that he had left with them for safe-keeping. Mrs. Peachum affirms that he has, though the bank had stopped payment on the notes. She praises Macheath’s temperament and conviviality, and inquires whether Macheath is rich. Peachum assures her that he is too fond of gambling to amass wealth.
Mrs. Peachum then reveals that Polly — their daughter — and Captain Macheath are attracted to one another. She further laments that Macheath does not leave gambling to the better-educated, since it makes the captain a bad match for Polly.
Peachum, however, is disgusted by the prospect of his daughter marrying such a man: "Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives" (p. 10). In accordance, Mrs. Peachum sings an air which state that a virgin's heart turns the virgin into a whore once it is invaded by love.
Peachum declares that they must prohibit a match between Polly and Macheath, since her potential earnings as a seductress will then go to her husband rather than to them. Ironically, he attacks the institution of marriage, claiming it turns women into property. He decides to convince Polly of the foolishness of marriage, and insists Mrs. Peachum instruct their daughter how to use her womanly wiles more profitably. He then exits.
Mrs. Peachum, alone, muses that her husband has misconstrued the concept of profitability. She believes that marriage does not reduce one’s profitability or choices, since a married woman attracts lovers precisely because she is another’s property. She sings an air to this effect: "A wife’s like a guinea in gold...And is current in every house" (p. 12).
Filch returns from Newgate, and Mrs. Peachum pumps him for information about amorous relations between Polly and Macheath. Filch is reluctant to break Polly's confidence, so Mrs. Peachum exits with him to her chamber to get him drunk.
Enter Peachum and Polly. Polly reassures her father that she is merely playing Macheath for goods and gifts. She sings an air which compares virginity to a fair flower; once plucked, it loses its beauty and is trod underfoot. Peachum assures her that he will "cut her throat" if he finds out she has married Macheath, and calls her a "hussy" (p. 15).
Mrs. Peachum storms in, and sings an angry air denigrating Polly, calling her a slut and reviling daughters in general. She announces that Polly is indeed married (which she has learned from a drunken Filch). Peachum is outraged, and reveals that he and Mrs. Peachum never actually married: "Do you think your mother and I should have liv’d comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married?" (p. 15).
Mrs. Peachum then accuses Polly of marrying in order to act like the gentry. She further insists that Polly lacks money to support a gambler like Macheath, but does have enough money to secure a better match than him.
Peachum realizes that he could secure a profit through Macheath, either through the main's thievery or through his death (which would earn Peachum the reward). However, success will depend on whether Polly has yet been legally married and “ruin’d.” When she refuses to answer, Peachum pinches her, and insists he will determine his answer based on how far Macheath stays from the house; if they are indeed married, then Macheath will come nowhere near.
Polly sings an air which states that she married Macheath to safeguard her reputation, since she was so sexually attracted to him. Mrs. Peachum grows nearly hysterical at this statement. Peachum figures Macheath is simply after Polly’s money.
Polly protests that she married Macheath for love, a statement which her mother finds excessively foolish. When Mrs. Peachum faints, Polly rushes to revive her. Mrs. Peachum’s anger momentarily softens at her daughter’s tenderness, and the women sing an air together in which Polly asserts that her mother has surely acted similarly at some point or another. The idea pulls Mrs. Peachum from song to insist she has never given herself to a "highwayman." Peachum then announces that he has a plan to make the best of the situation.
Polly sings an air which compares her virginity to a ship at sea, long afraid to dock because of the contraband treasure it carries. Thus, the ship stayed at sea while the waves ravaged the treasure. Finally, she can safely dock. After the song, she exits.
To her husband, Mrs. Peachum bemoans Polly’s marriage, and not the girl's loss of virtue. Peachum assures her that money will prove the great leveler, and that he will find a way to turn the marriage to their financial advantage by securing Macheath's death. However, Mrs. Peachum fears Macheath may already have two or three wives, which means any inheritance he leaves will be contested. Peachum concedes the possibility as a concern, and sings an air which claims that lawyers - especially those who settle inheritance claims - are the greatest thieves of all.
Polly re-enters, and Peachum asks whether she has secured her jointure from Macheath, whether she is set to inherit his estate when he dies. She is terrified at the thought of his death, but Peachum insists that "parting from [a husband]...is the whole scheme and intention of all marriage articles!" (p. 21).
Peachum orders her to secure her claim to Macheath’s property, and to then betray him at the next round of court sessions to ensure a rich widowhood. Polly rejects this idea, even after Peachum argues that he will surely be murdered one day or another, and that she has the chance now to profit from this inevitable end. Mrs. Peachum joins the argument, suggesting she will forgive the girl if Polly agrees to their plan.
Polly sings an air which states that Macheath’s hanging would be her hanging, too. She then sings another in which she likens herself to a grief-stricken turtle dove, falling from the sky over her lover’s loss.
Mrs. Peachum laments that Polly has been ruined by those “cursed play-books she reads" (p. 22). She orders the girl to leave, but Polly merely hides onstage to eavesdrop.
Believing Polly gone, Mrs. Peachum suggests to Peachum that they must betray Macheath themselves, since Polly cannot be trusted to such a task. Peachum takes a moment to lament the loss of a fine robber like Macheath, who would surely bring much future profit were he to live. However, he agrees with his wife, and they decide that Mrs. Peachum will manage Polly while Peachum arranges the captain's arrest at Old Bailey, a prison. They both leave the stage.
Polly, now alone on stage, delivers a long, pathetic speech in which she imagines the desperately tragic scene of Macheath’s hanging. She resolves to inform Macheath of her parents' design, and to help him escape London. Though she knows his escape would separate them from one another, she cannot bear the thought of his death. She then reveals that he has been hidden in her room during the entire day, and she leaves the stage to let him out before her parents find him.
Polly and Macheath reenter, singing a duet in which Macheath asks Polly if she has ever been unfaithful to him. She insists in song that she could never betray him, and then asks him out of song whether he has ever strayed. He demands she never suspect his love, and she believes him, citing the romance novels he has lent her as proof of a lover's constancy.
Macheath sings a small air which describes him as a fickle bee who sipped every flower before he met Polly. Now, all flowers have been united in her.
Polly asks whether he could bear to leave her behind if he were ever sentenced to work in the colonies. His response: "You might sooner tear a pension out of the hands of a courtier, a fee from a lawyer, a pretty woman from a looking-glass, or any woman from quadrille" (p. 25).
Basking in each other’s love, they sing another air together. Its theme is that any hardship can be endured so long as they are together. On the heels of this declaration, however, Polly informs him that they must part, since her parents are plotting against him.
Here begins a melodramatic parting scene, including two airs and many vows to remain true (if wretched) until they reunite. Poised to exit, each at opposite doors, Macheath and Polly sigh and glance back at each other.
Gay introduced a wildly new theatrical form in 1728 with The Beggar's Opera. He minted with this play a style which would come to be known as “ballad opera,” a comedy interlaced with songs whose melodies were those of well-known ballad airs, rather than melodies composed specifically for the play. While the tunes would have been familiar to all (both rich and poor), Gay wrote entirely new lyrics for them. This was a re-visioning of the operatic form; more so, it was a jab at it. What runs through the entire play is a sense of transgression, a deliberate attempt to puncture the expectations of the elitist opera form. By calling his work - which details quite unattractive characters on the lowest rungs of of society - an opera but refusing to use anything but the most popular melodies, Gay was both telling a new type of story and implicitly making a social statement.
The audience would have known immediately that something was amiss from the Introduction. Here, the Beggar takes great pains to insist that this story would honor the expectations of the wildly popular, imported Italian opera. There is significant irony in this declaration. First, it is a professed beggar who introduces the story, one who unabashedly defends his low class as a virtue. By embracing his roots but insisting he will honor the elitist expectations of a high-class audience, he suggests a type of snobbery that had gripped the London theatergoer, who had become seduced by the affectations of an overly-ornamented vocal style and a hyper-sentimentalized storyline. The degree of his protestations unmistakably alert the audience that they are set for a dose of heavy irony, since it was entirely antithetical to the form that a beggar (rather than an esteemed Italian composer) would have crafted the entertainment.
Further, the music would have served as a jab to those snobbish expectations. Gay, a life-long lyric writer who also played the flute, lifted ballad singing and ironically placed it in the more grandiose context of opera. By framing the opera around a beggar, Gay reminded his audience that the street was right outside the theatre, that this new context did not transform the common nature of the ballads nearly as much as the ballads transformed the stage. He brought the street into the theatre, but suggested we not forget that the theatre would do nothing for the street. All in all, these levels of irony led to the formation of the “Newgate pastoral” — a phrase coined by Jonathan Swift in a letter to Gay.
However, more transgressive than the music is the nature of the characters, almost all of whom are no-good, scheming, and utterly self-interested. Foremost among these ludicrously vicious figures is Peachum, whose name (think “impeach him”), suggests his trade. Peachum’s wealth and status have been built entirely upon the business of betrayal; he runs a gang of highwaymen, pickpockets and prostitutes, and easily turns them over to their deaths when they have outgrown their use. He is, in other words, a professional informer with a truly impressive business model. The mechanisms of the double-cross animate Peachum’s entire worldview, represented in the air he sings when we first meet him on stage:
Through all the employments of life/Each neighbour abuses his brother;/Whore and rogue they call husband and wife:/All professions be-rogue one another./The priest calls the lawyer a cheat,/The lawyer be-knaves the divine;/ And the statesman, because he’s so great,/Thinks his trade as honest as mine. (p. 5).
In this sentiment lies the heart of the play's irony. What is most transgressive about The Beggar's Opera is not that the characters are low and immoral, but that Gay refuses to judge them for it. Instead, we are meant to revel in their depravities. Or put another way, we are not supposed to hear in Peachum's air a rationalization of his trade, but rather a certain pointed truth. By bringing the street into the vaulted form of opera, Gay means to suggest that all men are hypocritical enough to potentially relate to the street. What is different about the latter is simply that it is honest about its low nature.
In the air, the statesman comes off most poorly of all. This is fitting, as Gay intended Peachum to call to mind England’s most powerful statesman, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, of the Whig party. Walpole was widely disparaged for capitalizing on his office to amass a personal fortune. At the same time, he was also known for taking bribes. In this way, he reflects Peachum’s double-vector profiteering scheme. But Gay’s satire was not so sharply political as it was social. As seen in the lyric above, no person is faithful to anyone but himself. The enactment of this theme takes increasingly comical and absurd form throughout the play.
In fact, it is possible to consider that these characters are not immoral at all, but simply amoral. Because they live in such relative poverty, they have little use for morality, other than as a tool for manipulation. Peachum does not betray his employees from cruelty, but simply as a matter of mathematics. He does not wish them ill, but rather lets them die if it will benefit him financially. In many ways, this is a more damning depiction of mankind, since it avoids the simplistic dichotomy of heros and villains. Instead, a hero in this play is judged either by his charm or success, while just about everyone can be termed a villain for his or her inability to transcend self-interest. By framing this question about terribly poor people, Gay makes an implicit social critique that morality is a luxury available only to those who can afford it.
One rather impressive quality of this work is that Gay does not let his ideas overpower the entertainment, however. The Beggar's insistence that he will conform to the audience's expectations might be ironic, but it is also accurate. The first Act features a long argument about the nature of love and family, as well as many songs that wax poetic on these themes. All of these ideas would likely have been found in a popular opera, as they are likely to be found in a popular film today. Most notable is the love story between Polly and Macheath, which we thus far have no reason to doubt. Their final scene - which has more airs than any other single scene - certainly serves as a traditional scene of love and parting.
However, nothing is without its contradiction in The Beggar's Opera, and even the most melodramatic of moments is colored by a certain transgressive glee. Consider Mrs. Peachum's reaction to Polly's marriage. She faints and protests as we might expect a Victorian woman to do over her daughter, but her motivations are quite impure. She merely laments Polly's marriage, and not the girl's sexual activity. Meanwhile, the father grows angry that his daughter would marry a scoundrel, but his motivations center around her potential earnings as a seductress for him. Their parental concerns are entirely honest and true - their reasons, however, are entirely self-interested. This depiction is particularly interesting to imagine in the play's historical context, since such unfiltered sexuality - both in terms of the talk and implied practice - would have been alien to most theatergoers. Especially because the sex is discussed in practical, profitable terms, rather than in moral terms, it is yet another level of transgression that Gay employs.
The big question this poses, then, is how pure Polly and Macheath's love for one another is. Similar to the skewed emotions of the parents, Macheath's feelings will be shown to be both honest and yet quite open to compromise when he is against the wall. Meanwhile, though Polly is arguably the most innocent figure in the play, she shows a great talent for subterfuge and trickery right away. Even innocence is hard to maintain, and takes just as much double-crossing as depravity does.