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"The Beggar's Opera," a ballad opera John Gay, combines comedy and political satire in prose interspersed with songs set to contemporary and traditional English, Irish, Scottish, and French tunes. In it, Gay portrays the lives of a group of thieves and prostitutes in 18th-century London. The action centers on Peachum, a fence for stolen goods; Polly, his daughter; and Macheath, a highwayman. Gay caricatures the government, fashionable society, marriage, and Italian operatic style. The tale of Peachum, thief-taker and informer, conspiring to send the dashing and promiscuous highwayman Macheath to the gallows, became the theatrical sensation of the eighteenth century. In "Beggar's Opera", John Gay turned conventions of Italian opera riotously upside-down, instead using traditional popular ballads and street tunes, while also indulging in political satire at the expense of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Gay's highly original depiction of the thieves, informers, prostitutes and highwaymen thronging the slums and prisons of the corrupt London underworld proved brilliantly successful in exposing the dark side of a corrupt and jaded society. From its first performance in 1728 "The Beggar's Opera" was an absolute success. In that period a box office hit might be continued for four or five nights. Remarkably, The Beggar's Opera ran sixty-two nights in London, and was produced nearly every year thereafter to 1886. Its popularity quickly spread to Wales and Scotland, France and Germany, and even to the New England colonies (and became a favorite of George Washington).
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John Gay (1685–1732) was an English poet and dramatist. He is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera (1728), set to music by Johann Christoph Pepusch. The characters, including Captain Macheath and Polly Peachum, became household names. John Gay did nothing to curry the favor of the government by The Beggar's Opera, in which Sir Robert Walpole was caricatured. This famous piece, which was said to have made "Rich gay and Gay rich", was an innovation in many respects. The satire of the play has a double allegory. The characters of Peachum and Macheath represent the famous highwayman and gangster Jonathan Wild and the cockney housebreaker Jack Sheppard. At the same time, Jonathan Wild was understood to represent Robert Walpole, whose government had been tolerant of Wild's thievery and the South Sea directors' escape from punishment. Under cover of the thieves and highwaymen who figured in it was disguised a satire on society, for Gay made it plain that in describing the moral code of his characters he had in mind the corruptions of the governing class. Part of the success of The Beggar's Opera may have been due to the acting of Lavinia Fenton, afterwards Duchess of Bolton, in the part of Polly Peachum.
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