Gay’s ‘ballad opera’ set in eighteenth-century London’s underworld is at once a vigorous satire on the moral and financial corruption of a fast-growing commercial society, and a groundbreaking piece of theatre. Combining spoken dialogue with popular songs, The Beggar’s Opera is in effect the first musical. Witty, barbed and fast-moving, the play was a theatrical sensation when it opened in 1728 at the Theatre Royal, London, with the romance between the feisty innocent Polly and the rogue Macheath seizing the popular imagination.
Polly Peachum, daughter of a fence and a thief-taker, has secretly married the notorious highwayman Macheath. Horrified at their daughter throwing herself a way on such a man, Mr and Mrs Peachum plot to extricate Polly from the marriage, as well as to profit by it, by turning in their son-in-law, collecting the reward for doing so, and seeing him hanged. The besotted Polly helps Macheath escape, but he is betrayed by a group of whores and taken to Newgate prison, where he is once again helped to escape, this time by Lucy Lockit, daughter of the prison-keeper, who is pregnant by and betrothed to him. Through their eternal love triangle, Gay explores the pleasures and dangers of romantic and social aspiration, while the double-dealing Mr Peachum embodies the ruthless self-interest of his age and the fine line between respectability and criminality.