The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728 by John Gay, is the story of Peachum, a fence and thief-catcher, and his family. His daughter, Polly, has married the highwayman Macheath, and the diapproving Peachum sets out to try and kill Macheath and regain his use of Polly for his dubious business. With this work, Gay invented a new form, the ballad opera, and the daring mixture of caustic political satire, well-loved popular tunes, and a story of crime and betrayal set in the urban underworld of prostitutes and thieves was an overnight sensation.In this podcast, Hal Gladfelder discusses Gay’s career, the plot of The Beggar’s Opera and the sequel Polly, the reaction of Robert Walpole to his being satirized in the play, and the work’s enduring success.
Hal Gladfelder is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. His books include Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (2001) and Fanny Hill in Bombay: The Making and Unmaking of John Cleland (2012), as well as the Broadview edition of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Coxcomb (2005) and the Oxford World’s Classics edition of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Polly (2013). He has also written for OUPblog about The Beggar’s Opera as the first jukebox musical.
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Image credit: A scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.