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The Beggar’s Opera: How One Work Feeds Many Reinventions

Hogarth's Paiting of The Beggar's Opera - The Yorck Project
Like body part transplants, ideas get recycled. One 18th century play with music inspired other art forms in entertainment history, and still speaks today.

On the principle that in life nothing is ever wasted, no experience is too insignificant that some creative can’t turn it into a novel, play, movie, painting or song, The Beggar’s Opera is a study in how the arts feed off each other. It also shows how later work can be far more ‘original’ than the first works.

The Beggar’s Opera

First hitting the London stage in 1728, John Gay’s piece was an immediate success being performed more than any other work in the whole century. It was original in the sense that it broke from contemporary Italian operatic conventions: it used dialogue and music to push plot that was taken neither from myths nor royalty, but the criminal dark side of life.

Gritty and realistic, dealing with prostitutes and hangings, it was nonetheless, a comedy, satirising Britain’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, among others. Gay borrowed tunes wherever he could find them, including some from Handel. He wrote his own lyrics to fit his narrative. Of the sixty-nine airs in the piece, forty-one were contemporary broadside ballads.

A beggar told the tale of a highwayman Macheath and his marriages to Polly, daughter of a criminal fence and Lucy, the jailer’s pregnant daughter. Macheath was betrayed by his obsession with whores and sentenced to hang. Faced on the scaffold with four further wives and offspring, he said he was ready to die, but the author/beggar was persuaded to change the ending to a happy one.

So far, it’s the kind of plot that would readily later inspire literature and film in abundance. A love triangle, with an appealing outlaw, betrayal, innocent girls, escape and capture and a dark, seedy setting. However, it was Bertolt Brecht who made it his own, but kept the happy ending.

Into The Threepenny Opera

Brecht gave the world theatrical concepts that continue to influence theatre writers and actors, film directors and stage creatives. His verfremsdungseffekt (v-effekt, or alienation technique or ‘making strange), detached emotional bonds between actors and their parts, and audience with characters, so the unmistakable (political) message of the play could be grasped unimpeded.

His actors were ‘demonstrators’. He used role play instead of characterisation: ‘be a policeman, be a villain, be a fool’. Emphasis on parody and comedy meant extreme body language was required. Audiences were invited to praise or blame characters. This was epic theatre; gestus was gesture by a character plus the actor’s attitude to the role.

Brechtian audiences take nothing for granted, but presented with something familiar, are asked to reassess it. In that sense, The Beggar’s Opera was ideal material. He worked in montages of scenes and took sung elements, direct address to audience, announcements opening each scene telling audience what they will see; clear language with no frills.

He studied how human relations are affected by economic forces. He said that in a choice between bread and morality, it would be bread every time. Stylistically, the best renditions of the play use performers who move from acting, playing music and singing.

According to Tim Baker, director of the British National Theatre’s 2002 touring production, Brecht saw in Stanislavskian naturalistic theatre spectators who had simply and solely to accept the inevitable conclusion of plot. He wanted a theatre where the audience imaginations were utilised too, so they left determined to face the issues/problems they had shared.

His Threepenny Opera, taking The Beggar’s Opera almost wholesale but with a crueler, more sinister Macheath (murderer, rapist, bigamist, thief), premiered in 1928. This coincided largely with movie ‘talkies’, which brought about a drastic reassessment of theatre/entertainment. What make it so relevant today, especially for young people and future audiences, are parallels with technology of computers in graphics, film and theatre-making that leaves less to the imagination.

The Music and Song

Music by respected musician Kurt Weill was an essential feature of success. While not a trained musician, Brecht, according to his biographer John Willett in The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (1977), ‘poetically and dramatically seemed to think in near-musical terms’. The play was scored for eight musicians, coming from the worlds of acting and cabaret rather than opera. The music punctuates, underlines the words.

The single song that has had the most lasting impact, is Mac the Knife. The first popularising of it beyond the play was Louis Armstrong’s 1956 version, but the 1958 cover by Bobby Darin which made Number One the following year, established its appeal to the rock, jazz, ballads, mainstream markets equally.

Since then, there have been instrumental versions (like Bill Haley and His Comets), some covering the original German as either straight or satirical and pure pop. Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Dave Van Ronk, The Doors, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra had significant sales. Sting, Psychedelic Furs, Ute Lemper, Roger Daltry and Lyle Lovett also found success with it.

British singer Robbie Williams released a swing version on his critically acclaimed album, Swing When You’re Winning (2001). The fact that it turns into so many musical styles, interpreted by groups and solos from every end of the musical spectrum, means more than that listeners may not know who ‘Suky Tawdry’ or ‘Jenny Towler’ were. Nor possibly, that the song glorifies a criminal.

But that is the way the arts work: rediscovered, reinterpreted and revisualised. It’s unlikely that John Gay turns in his grave when some fresh borrowing from his piece emerges; he might only wish he had lived to enjoy the fruits longer.

First published on Suite 101, 18 February 2011.

Photo: Hogarth’s Paiting of The Beggar’s Opera – The Yorck Project

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