John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera”

Although Jonathan Swift suggested that John Gay write a pastoral or neo-pastoral poem satirizing events in England at the time, especially Newsgate, and although Gay had such an intention in mind, the final product was neither a pastoral poem or prose nor a neo-pastoral prose or poem. What resulted was a farce, a deep belly shaking hysterical operatic drama. Sven Armens admits that Gay often attempted numerous times but failed to write in the traditional (neo-pastoral or pastoral) style that required propagation of serious thought. However, Armens concedes that Gay succeeded admiraby in “distorting this genre for his own purpose” (Armens 6).

Therefore, Gay may have intended to create a serious piece of work to revolutionize events in England and elsewhere, but what he ended up revolutionizing was the genre of opera. He created a new genre far from the traditional allegorical pastoral of the time. Incidentally, the drama, The Beggar’s Opera begins and ends with the Beggar and the Player commiserating on the play, on follies, and on the logistics of how the play should be presented. The Player presents the argument that an opera ends happily; if the Beggar should truly hang Macheath, then it would not be an opera indeed because the audience requires a happy ending.

An opera is a privilege for the wealthy. The title alone gives one the impetus to ponder at the audacity of a beggar hosting an opera. Therein begins the satire and compounds with all sorts of human follies that Gay brings to light. All the characters are flawed. All normal morals and norms are turned upside down, a reversal. Gay borrows liberally two types of satiric tones: Juvenalian (biting sarcasm) and Horatian (gentle teasing). He also takes the play to the extreme of absurdity.

Gay employs several devices of sarcasm: irony, exaggeration, incongruity, parody, and reversal. The Beggar frequents the slum and is proud of his association with the men there. He is welcome to dine and has a room there whenever he visits. While the Beggar’s opera is a farce, he mocks the established form of opera and has the temerity to castigate tradition. In defense of his opera, he informs the audience that his own show employs life and natural events and is real, unlike the real one which is now the fake one (Gay 1).

Gay fills his play with the names of Peachum’s band of thieves and other colorful and satirized characters: Peachum—to tell on others’ secrets or impeach him; Filch—to steal; Tom Gagg—(with one ‘g’) means a court order to stifle a person’s freedom of speech; Betty Sly—skilled in deception; and Black Moll—the girlfriend of a gangster. The other gang members are Jemmy Twitcher, Bob Booty, Crook-finger’d Jack, Wat Dreary, Robin of Bagshot, Nimming Ned, Henry Paddington, Matt of the Mint, and Ben Budge.

Gay lays out countless contradictions/contrasts and binaries: husband versus wife, priest/divine against the lawyer, the naïve against the hussy/slut, the good against the wicked, the norm against the abnormal (Gay 5). Gay’s satirical depiction turns societal norms against themselves. Marriage, that fine institution of morality that has saved the human race is ridiculed, debased, and is purported to be the downfall of the Peachum familily.

Whereas “slut” is used on loose women who choose not to get married, Gay reverses the situation and Polly Peachum is splattered with lewd names for getting married. By getting married, Polly has been ruined. “You know, Polly… If I find out that you have play’d the Fool and are married…I’ll cut your throat… Our Polly is a sad slut. You Baggage! you Hussy! you inconsiderate jade! Had you been hang’d, it would not have vex’d me” (5). Whereupon Mr. and Mrs. Peachum hatch a plan to ensure Polly’s widowhood; such is a better condition than staying married, they agree.

The perversity of the marriage situation is satirized further when one finds out that Mr. Peachum who condemns Polly’s husband, Captain Macheath, is himself a highwayman. It gets more ludicrous when it is exposed that Mr. Peachum runs a business of stolen goods brought to him by a large band of thieves who scrounge around town and steal other people’s belongings, even possessions from burning buildings.
It is evident that John Gay’s groundbreaking and trendsetting satire provided the impetus for hundreds of satirical musicals such as “Chicago” and others coming centuries later. It is a work of sheer genius, one that is yet to be paralleled or exceeded.