The Beggar's Opera: The Original Threepenny Opera
The Beggar’s Opera has enormous significance as an opera of the people, and it is only natural that Brecht would choose such a political and accessible work to adapt to portray his Germany. The Beggar’s Opera author, John Gay, enjoyed quite surprising success with the opera when premiered at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1728. The show ran for 62 consecutive performances, the longest run in British theatre history at that time, and in 1920, it began an astounding run of 1,463 performances at the Lyric Theatre in London, proving that Gay’s opera transcends era and genre. Set to music by Johann Christoph Pepusch and a ballad opera by nature, the piece satirised the government, well-known British figures, and the popular Italian opera. Most of the songs in the opera were based on popular tunes, so the common people in the audience could identify with characters and sing along to the songs. This gave the play a real political edge; it had great artistic merit, yet was accessible to all the people of London.
The character of Peachum was famously based on Jonathon Wild, the Thief Taker of London and Ireland, but stands in the drama for Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of London. In his adaptation, Brecht has taken quite a creative license; he has given his Macheath some of Peachum’s dialogue, plus Peachum’s friendship with Lockit (Brown in The Threepenny Opera) is also given to Mac. Polly and Lucy’s fight, however, remains very similar in text, with some of The Beggar’s Opera text going straight into the adaptation. This adaptation raises a few questions; are Peachum and Macheath more similar than different? One is openly a criminal; the other performs criminal acts under the guise of business. Keep this in mind when watching this production, as it may have some interesting results!
Research questions for teachers and students
- What are the similarities between the Victorian Era in England and 1920’s Germany? How are these shown in The Beggar’s Opera and The Threepenny Opera?
- How does the character of Macheath differ between The Beggar’s Opera and The Threepenny Opera? What changes are made and why?