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THE BEGGAR'S OPERA

The following article is reprinted from A Dictionary of the Drama. W. Davenport Adams. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904.

A dramatic piece in three acts, written by John Gay in prose, with sixty-nine brief lyrics, adapted (by Dr. Pepusch) to popular airs. Offered to and rejected by Cibber (for Drury Lane), it was accepted for production by John Rich, and first performed at Lincoln's Inn Fields on January 29, 1728, with Chapman as the Beggar, who is supposed to be the author of the piece, and Milward as the Player, with whom, in the introduction, he holds colloquy; with Hippisley as Peachum (a receiver of stolen goods), Mrs. Martin as Mrs. Peachum (his wife), and Miss Lavinia Fenton as Polly (their daughter); Hall as Lockit (a jailor), and Mrs. Egleton as Lucy Lockit (his daughter); and Walker as Macheath (captain of a gang of robbers). The robbers themselves were represented thus--Filch, by Clark; Jemmy Twitcher, by H. Bullock; Robin of Bagshot, by Lacy; Mat of the Mint, by Spiller; Ben Budge, by Morgan. Of the "women of the town" who complete the personae, Mrs. Martin was Diana Trapes; Mrs. Holiday was Mrs. Coaxer; Mrs. Rice was Mrs. Vixen; Mrs. Clarke was Jenny Diver; and Mrs. Morgan was Mrs. Slammekin.

The piece was intended both as a "skit" upon the methods of Italian opera and as a social and political satire. In the introduction the Beggar says: "I have introduced the similes that are in all your celebrated operas: the Swallow, the Moth, the Bee, the Ship, the Flower, etc. Besides, I have a prison scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic. As to the parts, I have observed such a nice impartiality to our two ladies, that it is impossible for either of them to take offence [an allusion to the feud between Cuzzoni and Faustina in 1727].... I hope I may be forgiven that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural like those in vogue; for I have no recitative. Throughout the whole piece you may observe such a similitude of manners in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen." "No one," says one of Gay's editors (1893), "could fail to see that Robin of Bagshot was designed to represent Sir Robert Walpole's unrefined manners, convivial habits, and alleged robbery of the public. Macheath was provided with both a wife and a mistress, to indicate to the public that Lady Walpole had a rival in Miss Skerrett."

In Spence's Anecdotes, Pope is represented as giving the following account of the original piece: "Dr. Swift had been observing once to Mr. Gay what an odd pretty sort of thing a Newgate Pastoral might make. Gay was inclined to try such a thing for some time; but afterwards thought it would be better to write a comedy on the same plan. This was what gave rise to The Beggar's Opera. He began on it; and when he first mentioned it to Swift, the doctor did not much like the project. As he carried it on, he showed what he wrote to both of us, and we now and then gave a correction or a word or two of advice, but it was wholly of his own writing."

"Quin," says Genest, "had so happy an ear for music, and was so famous for singing with ease a common ballad or catch, that Gay was persuaded to offer him the part of Macheath; but after a short trial he gave it up, from despair of acquitting himself with the dissolute gaiety and bold vigour of deportment necessary to the character. It was then given to Walker; and the ease and gaiety with which he acted Macheath established his reputation."

At the first representation "everybody concerned was in fear as to the ultimate fate of the play. Quin afterwards said that it was long in a dubious state; that there was a disposition to damn it, and that it was saved by the song, 'Oh, ponder well! be not severe.'" In one of the notes to The Dunciad we read: "It was acted in London sixty-three [sixty-two] days uninterrupted [save for actors' benefit performances], and received the next season with equal applause. It spread into all the great towns of England.... It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.... The ladies carried about with them the favourite songs of it in fans, and houses were furnished with it in screens. The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town. Furthermore, it drove out of England (for that season) the Italian opera, which had carried all before it for ten years."

"The total sum realized by the initial set of performances was," says one of Gay's editors, "£5351 15s. Of this Gay received for four author's nights--the third, sixth, ninth, and fifteenth--£693 13s. 6d. He sold the copyright of the opera (together with that of the Fables) for ninety guineas, and consequently made in all nearly eight hundred pounds." It was said of the piece that it had made "Gay rich and Rich gay." Rich might well be jubilant, for his profits amounted to £4000." A burlesque of the play, written by Hubert Jay Morice and called The Beggar's Uproar, was brought out at the Surrey Theatre, London, in May, 1870.

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