Gay rich and Rich gay

Monday, 21 May, 2012

The Beggar's Opera What became England’s most popular musical of the 18th century, “The Beggar’s Opera“, was written by John Gay and produced by John Rich. The success of their long-running co-operation was said at the time to have made “Gay rich and Rich gay“.

With its nursery-rhyme structure, the “How D’You Do” song from “The Beggar’s Opera” became a favourite with London audiences because the last two lines sound like a cock crowing, something that singers emphasized during their performances:

How D’You Do

Before the barn-door crowing
The cock by hens attended,
Her eyes around him throwing,
Stands for a while suspended:
Then one he singles from the crew
And cheers the happy hen,
With how do you do and how do you do,
And how do you do again.

John Gay (1685-1732)

“The Beggar’s Opera” is set in the London criminal underworld, and the idea was provided by Jonathan Swift, who suggested that the morals of the people in the infamous Newgate Prison did not differ so much from the rest of society. And if Swift were alive today, he’d feel justified in his view by contemporary events.

In “The Beggar’s Opera”, a receiver of stolen goods, Peachum, has a profitable business arrangement with Macheath, a highwayman. But when Peachum’s daughter, Polly, falls in love with the robber, the treacherous receiver informs against Macheath, who is then imprisoned in Newgate. There, the love-struck warden’s daughter, Lucy Lockit, helps him to escape and although he’s recaptured in a brothel, Macheath manages to avoid the gallows. “The Beggar’s Opera” was the basis for the 20th-century musical Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) by Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. In the hands of Brecht-Weill, however, the romantic highwayman Macheath became the cruel and sinister Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife. Marxist critiques of capitalism, even musical ones, are not known for their levity.

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