The Beggar's Opera

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The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera[1] by John Gay (1685-1732)[2]

The original text

Based on the story of the infamous British thief and jailbreaker Jack Sheppard[3], the play is a musical comedy about the love triangle between the highwayman Macheath, his fence's daughter Polly and the jailer's daughter Lucy.

John Gay's text uses music consisting largely of poplar tunes of the day, to which Gay adapted his own words. In the original production these were arranged and orchestrated by Johann Christoph Pepusch (1667-1752)[4], who also composed the overture.

The original version was first produced in the Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre in London in 1728.

Translations and adaptations

There was a London revival at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, produced by Sir Nigel Playfair, for which the music was freely rearranged by Frederic Austin.

Since 1920 there had been several "rewrites" of The Beggar's Opera and it later formed the basis of Bertolt Brecht’s immensely popular The Threepenny Opera (1928)[].

In 1953 a Technicolor film version was made of Gay's opera, directed by Peter Brook and starring Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Tutin, Stanley Holloway and others.[5]

Louis Burke made a South African adaptation of Gay's play for the CAPAB production of 1965.

Performance history in South Africa

1922: Staged in Cape Town in 1922 at the Opera House by an overseas company under the direction of African Theatres Ltd.

1965: A production by CAPAB in 1965 was directed and choreographed by Louis Burke, with Joan Brickhill, David Holliday [6] and a large cast which included Fitz Morley, Paddy Canavan, Yvonne Bryceland, Frank Lazarus, Maggie Soboil. Musical direction was by Walter Swanson, decor by Bill Smuts, costumes by Joan Brickhill. This production was then taken to Johannesburg by Theatre International in 1966.

1966: Presented by PACOFS Opera.


The Beggar's Opera theatre programme, 1965.

Alexandra Xenia Sabina Mossolow. 2003. The career of South African soprano Nellie du Toit, born 1929. Unpublished Masters thesis. University of Stellenbosch.

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