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 28 January 1728. It ran for 62 performances over the season – a record for the time.
John Gay, 1730s, engraved print
As the text with this portrait shows, John Gay, who was born in 1688, is most famous for his ballad opera,The Beggar's Opera, first produced in 1728. It wasn't his first attempt at writing for the stage. He had tried satire, comedy and pastoral, including The Mohocks in 1712 and The What d'ye Call It, 1715, and had also written some poetry. However, none of this had gone down particularly well with audiences. The Beggar's Opera took the town by storm. Gay himself seems to have been a charming man, but quite shy. He presented himself to the world as a simple countryman, but the modesty hid a sharp eye and a sly sense of humour. The portrait captures these qualities, as does the epitaph he wrote for himself. He worked with, and was friends with, many of the great writers of his day such as Alexander Pope, to whom this plate is dedicated.
William Hogarth, The Beggar's Opera, London, early to mid 18th century, engraved print, Museum no. S.259-2009, Harry R. Beard collection, given by Isobel Beard
This engraving by Hogarth shows a burlesque of John Gay's popular ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. The engraving shows the actors in the middle of one of the songs, sending up the characters by using animal masks. Gay's show, first produced in 1728, 'was acted for 63 days uninterrupted and renewed the next season with equal applause', in the words of fellow writer Alexander Pope. He goes on, 'The vast success of it was unprecedented and almost incredible'. It was popular in all the great towns of England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and as far afield as Minorca and Jamaica. It is not surprising that such a successful show inspired imitations of all kinds. Gay himself wrote a sequel, Polly. As the engraving shows, not every version was a friendly one. Hogarth hated the producer John Rich, who put on The Beggar's Opera, so the target may have been him rather than Gay or his show.
Claud Lovat Fraser, set design for John Gay's opera The Beggar's Opera, set model made by Victor Hembrow, Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 5 June 1920, height 32 cm x width 61cm x depth 33 cm. Museum no. S.1484-1936
This design by Claud Lovat Fraser was made for a revival of the 18th-century hit The Beggar’s Opera staged at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1920. Fraser had only produced designs for one large scale production before, but The Beggar’s Opera with its bright colours and stylised scenery immediately won him fame as a designer. The huge success of the production meant that the actors wearing Fraser’s costumes were in numerous magazines, songsheets and souvenir booklets over the next few months. Tragically, Fraser died in 1921 aged 31, before The Beggar’s Opera had even finished its run.