William Hogarth, The Beggar's Opera

William Hogarth, The Beggar's Opera

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.