The Beggar's Operaby John Gay
The great lords and powerful public officials of early 18th century England are represented as highwaymen and thieves in this deliciously satirical ballad opera. In addition to its burlesque of the contemporary vogue for Italian operatic styles, John Gay's 1728 masterpiece ridicules a broad spectrum of political figures and social conventions — marriage,
The great lords and powerful public officials of early 18th century England are represented as highwaymen and thieves in this deliciously satirical ballad opera. In addition to its burlesque of the contemporary vogue for Italian operatic styles, John Gay's 1728 masterpiece ridicules a broad spectrum of political figures and social conventions — marriage, lawyers, trade, and even Walpole, the prime minister. Depicting crime and vice at every level of society, The Beggar's Opera offers a witty and powerful indictment of greed, hypocrisy, and corruption in all social classes. When Peachum, a receiver of stolen goods, discovers that a notorious highwayman has eloped with his daughter, the wily old villain turns informer and collects the reward money as his prospective son-in-law is hauled off to prison. Events take an increasingly absurd turn as the dashing outlaw romances the jailer's daughter and effects an escape, only to return to the shadow of the gallows for a farcical climax that parodies the sentimental tragedy of the day.
The Beggar's Opera is in the satirical tradition of Swift and Pope. Its enduring relevance was recognized two centuries later by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, who used it as the basis for their landmark musical, The Threepenny Opera. This attractive, inexpensive edition of an influential comic gem will be applauded by theater lovers, students of literature and history, and other readers.
“Offers a useful performance history of the satirical ballad-opera...the New Mermaids [edition] includes music as well as words for the songs.” Plays International
Offers a useful performance history of the satirical ballad-opera...the New Mermaids [edition] includes music as well as words for the songs.
Read an Excerpt
The Beggar's Opera
By JOHN GAY
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Scene I PEACHUM'S HOUSE.
PEACHUM sitting at a table with a large book of accounts before him.
AIR I — An old woman clothed in gray, etc.
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,
Thinks his trade as honest as mine.
A lawyer is an honest employment, so is mine. Like me, too, he acts in a double capacity, both against rogues and for 'em; for 'tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage cheats, since we live by them.
Scene II PEACHUM, FILCH.
FILCH. Sir, Black Moll hath sent word her trial comes on in the afternoon, and she hopes you will order matters so as to bring her off.
PEACH. Why, she may plead her belly at worst; to my knowledge she hath taken care of that security. But as the wench is very active and industrious, you may satisfy her that I'll soften the evidence.
FILCH. Tom Gagg, Sir, is found guilty.
PEACH. A lazy dog! When I took him the time before, I told him what he would come to if he did not mend his hand. This is death without reprieve. I may venture to book him. [writes.] For Tom Gagg, forty pounds. Let Betty Sly know that I'll save her from transportation, for I can get more by her staying in England.
FILCH. Betty hath brought more goods into our lock to-year, than any five of the gang; and in truth, 'tis a pity to lose so good a customer.
PEACH. If none of the gang take her off, she may, in the common course of business, live a twelve-month longer. I love to let women scape. A good sportsman always lets the hen partridges fly, because the breed of the game depends upon them. Besides, here the law allows us no reward; there is nothing to be got by the death of women — except our wives.
FILCH. Without dispute, she is a fine woman! 'Twas to her I was obliged for my education, and (to say a bold word) she had trained up more young fellows to the business than the gaming-table.
PEACH. Truly, Filch, thy observation is right. We and the surgeons are more beholden to women than all the professions besides.
AIR II — The bonny gray-eyed morn, etc.
'Tis woman that seduces all mankind,
By her we first were taught the wheedling arts;
Her very eyes can cheat; when most she's kind,
She tricks us of our money with our hearts.
For her, like wolves by night we roam for prey,
And practise ev'ry fraud to bribe her charms;
For suits of love, like law, are won by pay,
And beauty must be fee'd into our arms.
PEACH. But make haste to Newgate, boy, and let my friends know what I intend; for I love to make them easy one way or other.
FILCH. When a gentleman is long kept in suspense, penitence may break his spirit ever after. Besides, certainty gives a man a good air upon his trial, and makes him risk another without fear or scruple. But I'll away, for 'tis a pleasure to be the messenger of comfort to friends in affliction.
Scene III PEACHUM.
PEACH. But 'tis now high time to look about me for a decent execution against next sessions. I hate a lazy rogue, by whom one can get nothing till he is hanged. A register of the gang, [reading] "Crook-fingered Jack. A year and a half in the service." Let me see how much the stock owes to his industry; one, two, three, four, five gold watches, and seven silver ones. A mighty clean-handed fellow! Sixteen snuff-boxes, five of them of true gold. Six dozen of handkerchiefs, four silver-hilted swords, half a dozen of shirts, three tie-periwigs, and a piece of broadcloth. Considering these are only the fruits of his leisure hours, I don't know a prettier fellow, for no man alive hath a more engaging presence of mind upon the road. "Wat Dreary, alias Brown Will" — an irregular dog, who hath an underhand way of disposing of his goods. I'll try him only for a sessions or two longer upon his good behavior. "Harry Padington" — a poor petty-larceny rascal, without the least genius; that fellow, though he were to live these six months, will never come to the gallows with any credit. "Slippery Sam" — he goes off the next sessions, for the villain hath the impudence to have views of following his trade as a tailor, which he calls an honest employment. "Matt of the Mint" — listed not above a month ago, a promising sturdy fellow, and diligent in his way: somewhat too bold and hasty, and may raise good contributions on the public, if he does not cut himself short by murder. "Tom Tipple" — a guzzling soaking sot, who is always too drunk to stand himself, or to make others stand. A cart is absolutely necessary for him. "Robin of Bagshot, alias Gorgon, alias Bob Bluff, alias Carbuncle, alias Bob Booty."
Scene IV PEACHUM, MRS. PEACHUM.
MRS. PEACH. What of Bob Booty, husband? I hope nothing bad hath betided him? You know, my dear, he's a favorite customer of mine. 'Twas he made me a present of this ring.
PEACH. I have set his name down in the black list, that's all, my dear; he spends his life among women, and as soon as his money is gone, one or other of the ladies will hang him for the reward, and there's forty pound lost to us for ever.
MRS. PEACH. You know, my dear, I never meddle in matters of death; I always leave those affairs to you. Women indeed are bitter bad judges in these cases, for they are so partial to the brave, that they think every man handsome who is going to the camp or the gallows.
AIR III — Cold and raw, etc.
If any wench Venus's girdle wear,
Though she be never so ugly;
Lilies and roses will quickly appear,
And her face look wond'rous smugly.
Beneath the left ear so fit but a cord,
(A rope so charming a zone is!)
The youth in his cart hath the air of a lord,
And we cry, There dies an Adonis!
But really, husband, you should not be too hard-hearted, for you never had a finer, braver set of men than at present. We have not had a murder among them all, these seven months. And truly, my dear, that is a great blessing.
PEACH. What a dickens is the woman always a-whimp'ring about murder for? No gentleman is ever looked 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. PEACH. If I am in the wrong, my dear, you must excuse me, for nobody can help the frailty of an over-scrupulous conscience.
PEACH. Murder is as fashionable a crime as a man can be guilty of. How many fine gentlemen have we in Newgate 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 Captain Macheath here this morning, for the bank-notes he left with you last week?
MRS. PEACH. Yes, my dear; and though the bank has stopt payment, he was so cheerful and so agreeable! Sure there is not a finer gentleman upon the road than the captain! If he comes from Bagshot at any reasonable hour he hath promised to make one with Polly and me, and Bob Booty, at a party of quadrille. Pray, my dear, is the captain rich?
PEACH. The captain keeps too good company ever to grow rich. Marybone and the chocolate-houses are his undoing. The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be trained up to it from his youth.
MRS. PEACH. Really, I am sorry upon Polly's account the captain hath not more discretion. What business hath he to keep company with lords and gentlemen? he should leave them to prey upon one another.
PEACH. Upon Polly's account! What, a plague, does the woman mean? — Upon Polly's account!
MRS. PEACH. Captain Macheath is very fond of the girl.
PEACH. And what then?
MRS. PEACH. If I have any skill in the ways of women, I am sure Polly thinks him a very pretty man.
PEACH. And what then? You would not be so mad to have the wench marry him! Gamesters and highwaymen are generally very good to their whores, but they are very devils to their wives.
MRS. PEACH. But if Polly should be in love, how should we help her, or how can she help herself? Poor girl, I am in the utmost concern about her.
AIR IV — Why is your faithful slave disdained? etc.
If love the virgin's heart invade,
How, like a moth, the simple maid
Still plays about the flame!
If soon she be not made a wife,
Her honor's singed, and then, for life,
She's — what I dare not name.
PEACH. Look ye, wife. A handsome wench in our way of business is as profitable as at the bar of a Temple coffee-house, who looks upon it as her livelihood to grant every liberty but one. You see I would indulge the girl as far as prudently we can — in any thing but marriage! After that, my dear, how shall we be safe? Are we not then in her husband's power? For a husband hath the absolute power over all a wife's secrets but her own. If the girl had the discretion of a court lady, who can have a dozen young fellows at her ear without complying with one, I should not matter it; but Polly is tinder, and a spark will at once set her on a flame. Married! If the wench does not know her own profit, sure she knows her own pleasure better than to make herself a property! My daughter to me should be, like a court lady to a minister of state, a key to the whole gang. Married! if the affair is not already done, I'll terrify her from it, by the example of our neighbors.
MRS. PEACH. Mayhap, my dear, you may injure the girl. She loves to imitate the fine ladies, and she may only allow the captain liberties in the view of interest.
PEACH. But 'tis your duty, my dear, to warn the girl against her ruin, and to instruct her how to make the most of her beauty. I'll go to her this moment, and sift her. In the meantime, wife, rip out the coronets and marks of these dozen of cambric handkerchiefs, for I can dispose of them this afternoon to a chap in the city.
Scene V MRS. PEACHUM.
MRS. PEACH. Never was a man more out of the way in an argument than my husband! Why must our Polly, forsooth, differ from her sex, and love only her husband? And why must Polly's marriage, contrary to all observation, make her the less followed by other men? All men are thieves in love, and like a woman the better for being another's property.
AIR V — Of all the simple things we do, etc.
A maid is like the golden ore,
Which hath guineas intrinsical in't
Whose worth is never known, before
It is tried and imprest in the mint.
A wife's like a guinea in gold,
Stampt with the name of her spouse;
Now here, now there; is bought, or is sold;
And is current in every house.
Scene VI MRS. PEACHUM, FILCH.
MRS. PEACH. Come hither, Filch. I am as fond of this child, as though my mind misgave me he were my own. He hath as fine a hand at picking a pocket as a woman, and is as nimble-fingered as a juggler. If an unlucky session does not cut the rope of thy life, I pronounce, boy, thou wilt be a great man in history. Where was your post last night, my boy?
FILCH. I plied at the opera, madam; and considering 'twas neither dark nor rainy, so that there was no great hurry in getting chairs and coaches, made a tolerable hand on't. These seven handkerchiefs, madam.
MRS. PEACH. Colored ones, I see. They are of sure sale from our warehouse at Redriff among the seamen.
FILCH. And this snuff-box.
MRS. PEACH. Set in gold! A pretty encouragement this to a young beginner.
FILCH. I had a fair tug at a charming gold watch. Pox take the tailors for making the fobs so deep and narrow! It stuck by the way, and I was forced to make my escape under a coach. Really, madam, I fear, I shall be cut off in the flower of my youth, so that every now and then (since I was pumpt) I have thoughts of taking up and going to sea.
MRS. PEACH. You should go to Hockley in the Hole and to Marybone, child, to learn valor. These are the schools that have bred so many brave men. I thought, boy, by this time, thou hadst lost fear as well as shame. Poor lad! how little does he know as yet of the Old Bailey! For the first fact I'll insure thee from being hanged; and going to sea, Filch, will come time enough upon a sentence of transportation. But now, since you have nothing better to do, ev'n go to your book, and learn your catechism; for really a man makes but an ill figure in the ordinary's paper, who cannot give a satisfactory answer to his questions. But, hark you, my lad. Don't tell me a lie; for you know I hate a liar. Do you know of anything that hath past between Captain Macheath and our Polly?
FILCH. I beg you, madam, don't ask me; for I must either tell a lie to you or to Miss Polly; for I promised her I would not tell.
MRS. PEACH. But when the honor of our family is concerned — FILCH. I shall lead a sad life with Miss Polly, if ever she come to know that I told you. Besides, I would not willingly forfeit my own honor by betraying anybody.
MRS. PEACH. Yonder comes my husband and Polly. Come, Filch, you shall go with me into my own room, and tell me the whole story. I'll give thee a most delicious glass of a cordial that I keep for my own drinking.
Scene VII PEACHUM, POLLY.
POLLY. I know as well as any of the fine ladies how to make the most of myself and of my man too. A woman knows how to be mercenary, though she hath never been in a court or at an assembly. We have it in our natures, papa. If I allow Captain Macheath some trifling liberties, I have this watch and other visible marks of his favor to show for it. A girl who cannot grant some things, and refuse what is most material, will make but a poor hand of her beauty, and soon be thrown upon the common.
AIR VI — What shall I do to show how much I love her, etc.
Virgins are like the fair flower in its lustre,
Which in the garden enamels the ground;
Near it the bees in play flutter and cluster,
And gaudy butterflies frolic around.
But, when once plucked, 'tis no longer alluring,
To Covent-garden 'tis sent, (as yet sweet),
There fades, and shrinks, and grows past all enduring,
Rots, stinks, and dies, and is trod under feet.
PEACH. You know, Polly, I am not against your toying and trifling with a customer in the way of business, or to get out a secret, or so. But if I find out that you have played the fool and are married, you jade you, I'll cut your throat, hussy. Now you know my mind.
Scene VIII PEACHUM, POLLY, MRS. PEACHUM.
AIR VII — Oh London is a fine town.
MRS. PEACHUM in a very great passion.
Our Polly is a sad slut! nor heeds what we taught her.
I wonder any man alive will ever rear a daughter!
For she must have both hoods and gowns, and hoops to swell her pride,
With scarfs and stays, and gloves and lace; and she will have men beside;
And when she's dressed with care and cost, all-tempting, fine and gay,
As men should serve a cucumber, she flings herself away.
Our Polly is a sad slut (etc.)
You baggage, you hussy! you inconsiderate jade! had you been hanged, it would not have vexed me, for that might have been your misfortune; but to do such a mad thing by choice! The wench is married, husband.
PEACH. Married! The captain is a bold man, and will risk anything for money; to be sure he believes her a fortune. Do you think your mother and I should have lived comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married? Baggage!
MRS. PEACH. I knew she was always a proud slut; and now the wench has played the fool and married, because forsooth she would do like the gentry. Can you support the expense of a husband, hussy, in gaming, drinking and whoring? have you money enough to carry on the daily quarrels of man and wife about who shall squander most? There are not many husbands and wives, who can bear the charges of plaguing one another in a handsome way. If you must be married, could you introduce nobody into our family but a highwayman? Why, thou foolish jade, thou wilt be as ill used, and as much neglected, as if thou had'st married a lord!
PEACH. Let not your anger, my dear, break through the rules of decency, for the captain looks upon himself in the military capacity, as a gentleman by his profession. Besides what he hath already, I know he is in a fair way of getting, or of dying; and both these ways, let me tell you, are most excellent chances for a wife. Tell me, hussy, are you ruined or no?
MRS. PEACH. With Polly's fortune, she might very well have gone off to a person of distinction. Yes, that you might, you pouting slut!
PEACH. What, is the wench dumb? Speak, or I'll make you plead by squeezing out an answer from you. Are you really bound wife to him, or are you only upon liking?
MRS. PEACH. How the mother is to be pitied who hath handsome daughters! Locks, bolts, bars, and lectures of morality are nothing to them; they break through them all. They have as much pleasure in cheating a father and mother, as in cheating at cards.
PEACH. Why, Polly, I shall soon know if you are married, by Macheath's keeping from our house.
Excerpted from The Beggar's Opera by JOHN GAY. Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author
Born in Devon in 1685, John Gay was apprentice to a silk mercer in London for a short time but returned to his family and began to write verse. The Shepherd's Week (1714) was the first to demonstrate his ability. He became known to Alexander Pope and the Scriblerus circle then forming, and with Pope and Arbuthnot wrote the satire Three Hours after Marriage, first performed in 1717. With the income from his Poems he invested in the South Sea and lost a great deal of money, but in 1727 he published Fables, which were very popular and fifty editions of them appeared by 1800, assuring his reputation as a poet. Seeking a regular income, Gay became secreatry to the Duchess of Monmouth in 1712 and was helped by various patrons, becoming an inmate in the household of the Duke of Queensberry, whose wife was his particular champion. His real success came in 1728 with The Beggar's Opera, a political satire and a serious statement about human nature. This was followed by Polly, which was banned by Walpole and became a financial success for Gay. Gay also wrote librettos for Handel's Acis and Galatea and Achilles. A popular and genial man, Gay was always beset by financial difficulties and died in 1732. He is buried in Westminster Abbey beneath his own epitaph: "Life is a jest and all things show it, / I thought it once, and now I know it."
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