I love political satire, no matter when it was written, especially that which ridicules the wealthy, powerful, and high
and mighty. This delightful, hilarious, and bawdy ballad opera first opened in 1728. Quoted from the opening Note in the Dover edition, it "satirized the
corruption of Prime Minister Robert Walpole's administration, lampooned then-very-popular Italian Opera, and showed the moral degradation of society by depicting a pervasive underworld of
thieves, prostitutes and robbers—some of whom appeared to be quite respectable." It is also noted that this work ran for 62 performances—more than
any other work known up to that time.
The characters have names that describe their role, such as Lockit, the jail keeper; Dolly Trull (means prostitute); Betty Doxy (means slut); and the servant Filch (to pilfer or steal).
It begins with Peachum, who controls who gets the gallows, and is also a receiver of stolen goods, from which he makes a tidy profit. He bases his sentences on how valuable each thief has been for him personally, and those who have served him well avoid the gallows, at least temporarily. Mrs. Peachum enters, and declares that Macheath and their daughter Polly have become fond of each other. Macheath and his gang are useful to Peachum, but when he discovers that he and Polly have secretly married, he is enraged, as Mrs. Peachum sings the air "Our Polly is a sad slut."
Peachum then has Macheath captured as he is cavorting with a band of prostitutes. While Macheath is in jail, he is approached by Lucy Lockit, who is quite pregnant, and angry over the rumors that Macheath has married Polly. He denies it, of course, and promises to make an honest woman out of her if she helps him escape, which she does.
Meanwhile, she pretend to make amends with Polly, but she is actually planning to poison her. Macheath is recaptured, but since this opera must have a happy ending, he is set free, and chooses Polly, who actually is his wife.
That is the plot of the opera, but it is the dialogue that is so deliciously funny. Other than their standing in society, it is impossible to tell who are the good guys, and who are the bad, because they are all so corrupt. And there is no subtlety here, for certain! All the thievery, prostitution, bribery, greed and lust is right out in the open to make us laugh aloud.
Here are a few lines to tantalize you. First, a conversation between Peachum, Lockit, and Mrs. Diana Trapes, who keeps the prostitutes in finery. . .
Peach: Dear Mrs. Dye, your servant—one may know by your kiss, that your gin is excellent.
Trapes: I was always very curious in my liquors.
Lock: There is no perfumed breath like it—I have been long acquainted with the flavor of those lips—han't I, Mrs. Dye?
And here is one between Lockit and a very worn-out Filch. . .
Lock: Why, boy, thou lookest as if thou wert half-starved; like a shotten herring.
Filch: One had need have the constitution of a horse to go through the business—Since the favorite child-getter was disabled by a mishap, I have picked up a little money by helping the ladies to a pregnancy against their being called down to sentence. But if a man cannot get an honest livelihood any easier way, I am sure, 'tis what I can't undertake for another session.
And at the end, the Beggar (who is the author of the play):
Through 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. Had the play remained as I first intended, it would have carried a most excellent moral. 'Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich; and they are punished for them.
And remember, this is an opera, so there is music, and exquisite music it is. Johann Christoph Pepusch arranged and scored it,
using familiar folk songs and ballads of the time, with new lyrics written by John Gay. Pepusch also composed the overture
I searched the internet to find this work performed with original music and script. I was not able to find one with audio and video, but here is a wonderful YouTube of the entire work, including the gorgeous late-Baroque music of Pepusch with period instruments—very authentic recording. Unfortunately it is audio only, but it is still the best, by far, that I was able to find online. I read the entire work once through, then followed along while listening to the recording. I was amazed how much of the humor I had missed, but after hearing it performed, understood it so much better! I suggest you do the same.
Here is the recording, directed by Jeremy Barlow: The Beggar's Opera
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