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John Gay
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John Gay

The Beggar’s Opera written by John Gay was the forerunner of today’s musicals. It was the first musical show to mix dialogue with songs. The Beggar’s Opera opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 28th January 1728. It ran for 62 performances over the season – a record for the time.

John Rich, the manager of the theatre (who had been reluctant to stage the play), made so much money from the production that he was able to build a new theatre in Covent Garden. This was the forerunner of today’s Royal Opera House.

The Beggar's Opera burlesqued
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The Beggar's Opera burlesqued

The popularity of The Beggar’s Opera was due both to the clever use of familiar tunes and because the main characters were ordinary people with whom the audience could identify. Gay borrowed all the music from popular songs of the time, including broadside ballads, folk tunes and well-known arias by composers like Handel. The play was a satire on politics, poverty and injustice. It also satirised Italian Dramatic Opera which was popular in London at that time. The central moral of the play was that corruption permeates all walks of society.

The Beggar's Opera Design
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The Beggar's Opera Design

The Beggar's Opera
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The Beggar's Opera

Actress Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly Peachum, became a big star and a substantial trade in mementoes and souvenirs grew up around her. In 1729, at the peak of her career, she ran off with the Duke of Bolton. They did not marry until after the death of his first wife 23 years later.

The Beggar's Opera Costume Design
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The Beggar's Opera Costume Design

Listen to two songs from The Beggar's Opera

Embedded audio: "‘Turtle Dove’"


‘Turtle Dove’ [DownloadDownload icon]

Embedded audio: "‘Fill Every Glass’"


‘Fill Every Glass’ [DownloadDownload icon]


Audio Tip

To listen to sound clips you will need Windows Media Player or QuickTime installed on your computer


     

Satire/Satirised

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Criticism of society's vices and follies through ridicule. Satire can take the form of an image, a piece of writing, or a drama.