The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay

(Note: This is a longish post. I apologize that I could not shorten it further, but I haven’t the time.)

Those in the know will note that I specified only John Gay, and not the composer Pepusch: I’m working on getting hold of a copy of the opera–the 1983 staging, supposedly with the original music, aired by the BBC–but for the moment I just have the public domain etext from Project Gutenberg.

It’d be an understatement to say that The Beggar’s Opera was kind of a big deal during and after its first staging in Haymarket back in 1728. Better to think of it as the theater world’s equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike on the hegemon of the scene, which was then G.F. Handel (yeah, that Handel)  and his “Italian” operas.

And it was a successful one: the librettist/playwright John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch may not have single-handedly invented the modern English musical–the best characterization I’ve seen of the thing is that it’s more like “a play with karaoke”–but they did change musical theater in England, for one thing making people aware that there was a market for productions that strayed beyond the exotic finery of Italian opera, and told stories set in London, that poked fun at both the lowest and the highest of famous English folk, and that entertained people outside the upper class (and those bent on imitating the upper class).

As for the music, well, all I can say is that while some of the tunes are enduring and lovely,that has nothing to do with the composer involved. Nearly none of the music in the play is new, after all. Aside from the overture, what Pepusch did ought to be considered arrangements, rather than composing, since Gay used the tunes of a number of popular melodies (and selections from collections of folktunes). That might remind you of the [redacted] known as Mamma Mia!,  but bear one thing in mind: at least Gay wrote new lyrics, instead of warping his plot to fit the tunes in their original form.

(Yes, yes, despite my dislike of most musicals, I do know about Mamma Mia!… I once endured an unabridged amateur staging of it by students at a talent night. I failed my SAN check during the proceedings but that’s another story.)

William Hogarth’s famous painting of Act III of The Beggar’s Opera.

But anyway, at the moment I’m reading it, not watching it as a performance. What that is like… well, imagine reading a script for a Broadway musical The Sopranos, as written by someone channeling Jonathan Swift, with all the song lyrics set to other peoples’ songs. Seriously. Or, you know, what you might get if you took, I don’t know, Fielding, locked him up with a staff writer of prostitutes and cutpurses and gin-sots, and made him supervise them rewriting Breaking Bad for Georgian England, with songs thrown in…. but insisting they drink at least a liter or two of gin a day per person while they work.

Theatrically, it was like an alien ship landing in London, and it made precisely that kind of a splash. Here’s a (very) quick nutshell summary of the plot, courtesy of Adam Stevenson:

In other words, the opera sort of boils down about two thirds of the wonderful stuff discussed in Rictor Norton’s The Georgian Underworld into a few hours’ entertainment with musical accompaniment.

But also:

Holy misogyny, Batman.

Okay, that’s really not much of a newsflash: the thing is three hundred years old. Being shocked at that would be like being surprised by fish in the sea. But this is to a degree that makes other contemporary texts I’ve seen look downright radical feminist.

For me, the question ends up being: why is it so extreme, and what do we do with it as readers?

We could suppose that it’s so on-the-surface and brutish because this is supposed to be a damning description of the effects of poverty on the lowest class. One cannot depict the horrors of poverty if the poor act like people in some pastoral shepherd pageant, after all. Certainly other influential London storytellers working in various media–Hogarth, Fielding, Defoe–tended to lay the blame for London’s criminal underclass at the feet of inborn character defect. But they also seem to have sometimes blamed the crime rate and the gin-soddenness on poverty, if not quite on the oppression of the rich.

Even so, it’s kind of, well, overwhelming. One of the most often-used words in the play is “slut” and, as far as I can tell, yes, it meant then what it does now. Early on, the Peachum (a thief-catcher; he basically both thieves and sells out his compatriots for a living) and his “wife” (see below) discover that their daughter has married a particular highwayman, and ruined their plans for her happy and sane future making lots of money off her by whoring her out for as long as they can by using her to seduce and monetarily milk rich fellas. (Among other things… it seems to be partly about the usefulness to the family Polly retains as long as she’s a virgin, but also about how, if Polly has married Macheath, that gives the man power over Peachum.)

Notably, the horror isn’t the premarital sex–which, Mrs. Peacham notes, even high-class girls sometimes are tempted into–but the marriage. It’s when she admits to marrying Macheath that she’s suddenly called “Slut!” “Hussy!” and “Jade!” and, most interestingly, “Baggage!” And from then on, those words crop up in practically every sentence throughout Act I.

There are all kinds of ways to read this, of course:

1. It’s just ambient misogyny, and yes, Londoners in 1728 were brutes, more or less. This isn’t such an untenable reading, really: even today, there’s plenty enough misogyny in society and in our entertainment to support the idea that sexism was recognized to varying degrees (including not at all) by different people.

Still, one must be careful in generalizing about early Georgian London. There was obviously a serious degree of ambient sexism, but the play seems to exaggerate in this somewhat; after all, these are criminals whose behaviour seems extreme in other ways, and the play is satirical along so many axes that it seems overly-simplistic to assume it’s a realistic representation along this one axis… as overly-simplistic as it would be to only discuss the misogyny in a reading of the play.

2. It’s partly down to the satirical approach of The Beggar’s Opera. That is, the exaggerated misogyny of the play is part of its harsh satire, which hinges on the lower-class characters brutishly aping the upper class in such a way that they simultaneously invert the public script of the upper class, while actually enacting the hypocritical realities (the private transcript) of the same upper class.

Examples of this abound: Peachum grouses about the relative respectability of his (ignoble) profession, and even the fashionability of murder:

Peachum. What a dickens is the Woman always a whimpring about Murder for? No Gentleman is ever look’d upon the worse for killing a Man in his own Defence; and if Business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a Gentleman do?

Mrs. Peachum. If I am in the wrong, my Dear, you must excuse me, for no body can help the Frailty of an over-scrupulous Conscience.

Peachum. Murder is as fashionable a Crime as a Man can be guilty of. How many fine Gentlemen have we inNewgate every Year, purely upon that Article! If they have wherewithal to persuade the Jury to bring it in Manslaughter, what are they the worse for it? So, my Dear, have done upon this Subject. Was CaptainMacheath here this Morning, for the Bank-Notes he left with you last Week?

One passage that brings out this inversion in bold relief is when Polly is asked how she plans to live with a highwayman as a husband, and she replies that he will support her, since he’s a successful highwaymen. Her parents scold her as a fool:

Peachum. And how do you propose to live, Child?

Polly. Like other Women, Sir, upon the Industry of my Husband.

Mrs. Peachum. What, is the Wench turn’d Fool? A Highwayman’s Wife, like a Soldier’s, hath as little of his Pay, as of his Company.

Peachum. And had not you the common Views of a Gentlewoman in your Marriage, Polly?

Polly. I don’t know what you mean, Sir.

Peachum. Of a Jointure, and of being a Widow.

Polly. But I love him, Sir; how then could I have Thoughts of parting with him?

Peachum. Parting with him! Why, this is the whole Scheme and Intention of all Marriage-Articles. The comfortable Estate of Widowhood, is the only Hope that keeps up a Wife’s Spirits. Where is the Woman who would scruple to be a Wife, if she had it in her Power to be a Widow, whenever she pleas’d? If you have any Views of this sort, Polly, I shall think the Match not so very unreasonable.

Women who live off their husbands’ industry? Marriage, to a woman, as anything but the prelude to lucrative widowhood? All of that’s an inversion, but an inversion of public morals, of the accepted, acceptable transcript. Never mind that plenty of women probably really did, secretly, feel this way (and were encouraged to do so)… and not just in the poorer classes. Right after a tune that opens with the line, “Our Polly is a sad slut!” old Peachum attributes the success of his relationship with Polly’s mother directly to the fact that they’re not married:

Peachum. Married! the Captain is a bold Man, and will risk any thing for Money; to be sure he believes her a Fortune. Do you think your Mother and I should have liv’d comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married? Baggage!

That trick is a pretty astonishing one: getting the characters simultaneously to invert the public moral transcript of the upper class (while being seen to imitate it), and also enact publicly the same hypocritical private social transcript that was common in high society.


Likewise, Polly’s mother advises a young pickpocket (“Filch”) to study his catechism because there’s nothing more embarrassing than a convict who cannot answer religious questions of his examiner (a reference to newspaper accounts of such cases, doubtless, as well as to the fact that quoting the Bible could prove literacy and help in getting a less-severe punishment in a court case).  When Polly speaks of her “love” for Macheath, this is how the conversation goes:

Mrs. Peachum. What, is the Fool in Love in earnest then? I hate thee for being particular: Why, Wench, thou art a Shame to thy very Sex.

Polly. But hear me, Mother.–If you ever lov’d–

Mrs. Peachum. Those cursed Play-Books she reads have been her Ruin. One Word more, Hussy, and I shall knock your Brains out, if you have any.

… a passage that echoes the sense of anxiety about the negative effects of fiction (so recognizable in later English fiction, like Austen’s Northanger Abbey), except that the crazy idea Polly has bought into isn’t the prince charming, or the gothic villain, but instead the idea of love as a real thing, instead of just as claptrap put into play-books for fantasy’s sake.

Macheath, like a lot of highwaymen of the time, is very invested in being perceived as a “gentleman of the road” and not a common robber… he even has a long talk with his thief buddies about how, despite the logistics dictating he take time off from robbing, is is an injury to his honor to be thought to do so for any more cowardly reason, but he is unapologetic for his crimes in general. And once he sends his buddies off, he has a chat with his harem of, ahem, “sluts.”

And, I mean, really, they are his “sluts”: every one of them seems to be named some euphemism for a prostitute: “Doxy,” “Brazen,” and so on.

The Beggar's Opera performed at The Open Air Theatre Regents Park
Promo still from a 2011 performance of the play somewhere in the UK.

But there are other ways of reading this, too.

3. It’s a sort of exercise in audacity, that is–the misogyny may have been pervasive in London, but to come out and call one’s daughter “slut” fifty times in a half hour was, for the standards of the day, so ridiculously over-the-top as to achieve comic proportions. This is how comedy works even today: it relies on people breaking the rules of social decorum, and raunch often has something to do with that, too. Consider these examples from Monty Python and Vermilion Pleasure Night:

… or made parts of Vermilion Pleasure Night so funny to its first audience, presumably even more so given their exposure to cheap, crappy TV English “lessons”?

That’s not to say that there’s no misogyny there, but that maybe it’s so extreme for a reason other than that extreme misogyny was socially acceptable among the lower classes at the time. Maybe it’s not realist and also not all predicated on intelligent satire, but also on pandering to the audience’s own prejudices.

Still, for me, there’s a fourth approach that seems necessary, though:

4. The misogyny is part of an overall debased social order; it occurs in a context from which is is inseparable, and in which, while women might be the biggest losers, they are far from the only losers. Which is to say, the misogyny is part of a whole complex of bigotries, oppressions, and dehumanizations which characterized London society at the time.  The first air in the play indeed seems to make this claim:

Through all the employments of life
Each neighbor 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,
Think his trade as honest as mine.

That is to say, in a capitalist, early-industrializing urban society, everyone is basically screwed everyone else over on a constant basis. Your beer may be adulterated with poisonous additives (and your gin very likely is); your food may kill you, and the person selling you knows that but needs to make a buck; marriage is about money more often than it’s about anything else–and that’s true in every social class; and respected men may work productively, but just as often (as in the case of the priest, the lawyer, and the statesman) survive by means much more parasitic in nature–just as women survive parastically on their husbands, or husbands do on their wives.

None of that erases the extremity of the misogyny, of course: it just places it in a context. And that, at least, reminds me of my own struggle to differentiate the underlying causes of various forms of nastiness I either experienced or witnessed in contemporary Seoul–the city that most reminds me of 1730s London.


Personally, I must admit that in The Beggar’s Opera I do honestly find the audacity sometimes turns humorously ridiculous at times, but not in a way I feel entirely comfortable with. It’s sort of like watching a staging of The Mikado:

… and finding the tunes hummable, and the comedy surprising, but being haunted by this that nagging feeling one maybe shouldn’t really enjoy it too muchI imagine it’s a lot easier not to be offended, or overly concerned about what it is that’s amusing or diverting you, if you’re a white Westerner. A large proportion of the posts I see online praising and dissecting The Beggar’s Opera are by men. It seems a lot easier to focus on reasons to excuse the misogyny, or minimize it, or explain it away, if you’ve never had to face misogyny in your life. (Just as it’s easier to just enjoy The Mikado if you’ve never, or only rarely, had to sit through the performance of racist caricature of your own group.)

More interesting to me, though, is the question of how Londoners in that original audience felt about it–how much of the popularity of the piece stems from laughing at the play (in its ridiculousness, or its audacious mockery of famous and powerful people), rather than laughing along with it at low-lifes and “sluts,” that is. I imagine it was probably a mix of all of that. Living in a society where prostitution and purse-cutting were as common as they were, where the celebrity culture elevated highwaymen the way ours elevates movie actors, where the sex trade was massive and most of the women involved in it were thieves; where the most addictive drug on the market (Gin) had an obviously feminine identity (Madam Geneva)… it’s hard to find one’s bearings, it’s hard to be sure what people were thinking collectively, though one can be sure that misogyny was surely part of it. But as any student of literature knows, sexism in old books is nothing new, even if it is something we wrangle over a lot. 

The perils of the tavern; "cleaner" men went to male-only cafes to avoid the whores and criminals.
The perils of taverns; “respectable” men (like Hogarth) went to male-only cafes to avoid the whores and criminals.

Of course, I’ve been reading The Beggar’s Opera as research for my own writing–since it was still getting performed, and talked about, at the time when my story is set–and in that context, it’s really interesting to think about.  There are plenty of interesting dilemmas as to how to apply what I’ve learned here to my own fictive depiction of early Georgian society in London.

It’s certainly interesting (and important) to consider how to balance realism with restraint. Anything approaching straight realism would probably, I think, come off as either overbearingly sexist, or else as overbearingly politicized to the point of being distracting from the storyline (as well as from the character’s perceptions and attitudes)… but to skip over it too much risks pretending that the sexism wasn’t pervasive and powerful. Likewise, one doesn’t want to just slip in occasional moments where the misogyny shines through.

On top of that, point of view matters: if a world is filtered through the perceptions of someone from the society, well… he (or she, but especially he) might not perceive sexism in some situations where it is blazingly obvious to us. (As with a number of characters in Mad Men, or even most of us today: I mean, most of the time when we look at our sweatshop-manufactured clothes, we see a brand name rather than the horrors of the dark satanic mills, right?) Likewise, an English POV character in a slave market full of Africans might perceive racist oppression–some such people surely did recognize it for what it was–but he might not allow himself consciously do so (or allow himself to do so), or he might justify it in ways that render it more invisible to him. There’s a lot of potential for unconscious undermining of the character’s POV, for having characters notice things but block them out, for having characters self-contradict or justify or just not see what we, or the reader, unmistakably recognizes.

(Just as actual English writers in those times both saw and didn’t see the horror of the world they lived in: read Aphra Behn’s Oronooko if you want an example of a white English woman writing about Africans slavery, and having no major problems with slavery, but also at the same time being eager to praise and legitimize royalty–including a “regal,” if not technically royal, African slave. The self-contradiction causes her fewer problems than you might think, just like people today who worry about global warming but drive gas-guzzling cars or eat whole kilograms of meat every week out of preference alone.)

And while it’s certainly also obvious from other accounts–those of Olaudah Equiano/Gustavus Vassa and Frederick Douglass come to mind–that an oppressed person can perceive oppression even when it is the pervasive social norm, I’m afraid that experience suggests plenty of people who are used to being oppressed, and who live in a society where that oppression is normalized, do not perceive it because they internalize it. I remember asking students in Korea to watch an episode or two from early in the first season of Mad Men–specifically, scenes like the one where this joke is spoken in the company of wives:

… and that scene in Episode 1 where Pete Campbell assesses Peggy’s looks the first time they meet, in insulting detail, as excerpted in this trailer:

… or the infamous visit to the gynecologist, from the same pilot episode:

I’ll just say that there were a fair number of students in my classes who–since their media treated such scenes as normal, since they had had a lot of experiences like those in real life–didn’t get that these were supposed to be shocking moments of misogyny laid bare; that the show, in other words, was being critical of sexism, and not just straightforwardly naturalist, in including these scenes. (In a typical [older] Korean melodrama, Peggy marrying Pete would be the obvious “happy ending,” given that first encounter.) So, while some people who are oppressed are aware of it, not everyone who is oppressed does. Lots of people–especially poorly educated ones–just end up accepting it as the way things (“inevitably”) are, and venting in whatever directions society enfranchises for them.

Still, it’s dangerous not to at least give some sense of awareness to some the more-oppressed characters when it’s appropriate. Not to do so runs the risk of suggesting implicitly that everyone accepted the way things were because it was how they ought to have been (as in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and besides, I like characters who are smart and interesting. We all do, I think. Smart, interesting characters usually have some perspective on the world around them. Walking the line is hard, especially given the stew of a world my characters are in… which is distant from the Austenian Regency world, not only in terms of time but also in terms of social class. There’s a definite walking-of-the-line necessary here.

As for a performance of The Beggar’s Opera, I’ve looked online can’t find a proper staging of it with period orchestration and adequate video quality for me to sit and watch it. There is a full length one from the 60s on Youtube, but it features the Benjamin Britten re-orchestration, no the original music:

And there’s one that looks lovely, and sounds good, but it’s in Italian:

Still the 1983 version, despite having a changed ending (MacHeath is hanged instead of being reprieved and transported), is the one I want to see, and that’s unfortunately not online anywhere, except in bits and pieces like this one, with the memorable tune “Over the Hills and Far Away”:

Though, I have to admit, the nicest version of that folksong (song and video both) I’ve seen online is this cover of the version used in the soundtracks for the ITV series of dramas collectively referred to as Sharpe, which apparently concern a British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. (I’ve never actually seen Sharpe, but the song and video are really good.)

4 thoughts on “The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay

  1. It’s a pity you’ve not seen Sharpe. It’s as good as the theme song. The air following “Over the hills”, “Oh what pain it is to part” is memorable too.

    1. Hopefully someday I’ll get the chance… I hadn’t even heard of it till writing this post, and the opportunity certainly hasn’t come up since, but I would look into it if I got the chance!

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