The Beggar's Opera

On this day in 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera opened in London. The musical's satire and singability made it a first-run sellout, a cultural craze across England, the most produced play of the eighteenth century, and the original "ballad opera," first in the Gilbert and Sullivan line. Within the first week one London paper was reporting "a very general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it hath made Rich [the theater manager] very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich." The politicians smarted at being portrayed as highwaymen and pickpockets deserving of confinement in Newgate Prison; the public bought playing cards, fans, and parlor screens imprinted with scenes or lyrics of the dashing MacHeath and of Polly Peachum's gallows love for him. The craze went beyond kitsch when William Hogarth, a friend of Gay's, painted an Act V scene from the play. The painting is now in the Tate; a detail from it appearss on the cover of Daniel Snowman's The Gilded Stage (2010).

Over the centuries, enthrallment with The Beggar's Opera has never waned. A 1920 London production ran for 1,463 performances, inspiring Brecht and Weill to remake it as The Threepenny Opera, which made Lotte Lenya a star and eventually gave Bobby Darin his signature tune: "Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear / And he shows them pearly white.…"

Snowman's book, subtitled "A Social History of the Opera," explains how much of the popularity of The Beggar's Opera derived from its reformist agenda. Jonathan Swift, another of Gay's famous friends, first proposed the idea of a lowlife opera. Swift was composing A Modest Proposal about this time, taking his own slap at a ruling class so lost in privilege that they took seriously his plan to improve social conditions by selling the children of the poor. Gay added another level, making his satire a slap at both privileged politics and Italian opera -- the kind of music the upper classes enjoyed, or enjoyed being seen at. The street life and street tunes in The Beggar's Opera represented a music hall revolt against pervasive snobbery.

The Beggar's Opera became the first documented musical performed in New York. The 1750 show ran for months, indicating that its message played well in pre-Revolutionary America.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at


Kenneth Calhoun (Black Moon) and Lysely Tenorio (Monstress) of the Discover Great New Writers program on B-movies, heritage, and finales.

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
A Private Venus

Dubbed "the Italian Simenon," Giorgio Scerbanenco (1911-1969) began his crime-writing career with books set in the USA, but quickly shifted scene closer to home, the city of Milan.  In this adventure, appearing in English for the first time, his underdog hero Dr. Duca Lamberti finds himself in the middle of a seedy, scantily clad criminal racket, where the presence of an outsider could result in death.

The Promise of Hope

Killed last year in the infamous terror attack at Nairobi's Westgate mall, Kofi Awoonor was a national treasure in his native Ghana.  His career began in 1964 with Rediscovery, and this magnum opus serves as a tribute to his entire long journey charting his beloved nation's course through his accomplished poetry.

Winter Mythologies and Abbots

A pair of linked stories finds that, as translator Ann Jefferson relates, "[Pierre] Michon's great theme is the precarious balance between belief and imposture, and the way the greatest aspirations can be complicated by physical desire or the equally urgent desire for what he calls glory."