The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay

In a metatheatrical interlude towards the end of the play, the author discusses with one of the players his original ending, which he is being forced by audience expectation to change:

Had the play remained, as I at 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 that they are punished for them.

This is the finest joke in the play – though perhaps it is not as amusing out of context – and is a useful quote to demonstrate that here we’re in the mirrored world of parody. The trouble for us moderns, however, is that the original being parodied here is the c18th vogue for Italian opera – and this may explain why an entertainment which was perhaps the single most popular artistic work of c18th England, should seem to my more modern mind curiously lacking in so many things: it has a derivative plot, uninteresting scenes and dialogue, is not satisfyingly constructed etc.

But for all its artistic failure, in my view, there is something overwhelmingly fascinating about it: and that is the world it portrays. Because Gay’s opera is an opera based on London’s criminal underworld, the world of pick-pockets and fences, loyalty and impeachment, jails and hanging – and it’s filled with many marvellous historical details. In fact, this is one instance I found – reading the Penguin Classics edition – that the notes at the bottom of the page were far more interesting than the play itself. FOr instance, here is a scene between a common thief and the jailer (you can perhaps guess which is which from their names):

Lockit: 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 favourite 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.
Lockit: Truly, if that great man should tip off, ‘twould be an irreparable loss. The vigour and the prowess of a knight-errant never saved half the ladies in distress that he hath done.

All of which is explained by the note: “as women convicted of capital crimes could not be hung if they could prove that they were pregnant, it was clearly in the interests of females awaiting trial in Newgate to become so”.

The entire play is filled with such details, jargon and forgotten law; and forms a fascinating vision of how a society – how a whole world – worked. A world which, of course, attracted other writers: – the central character of Peachum is based on a real historical figure you may have heard of from another literary source, a London underworld kingpin called Jonathan Wild. And I’m sure it’s not happenstance that Peachum – the fence, the organiser of crime – and his relation to his pickpockets is remarkably similar to Fagin and his later artful dodgers; and even, though there are more dissimilarities, that there is something of Bill Sykes in Macheath.

Worth it then, as a historical curiosity.


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