there were fifty-nine performances at Lincoln's Inn Fields, including sixteen by a company of children. In the mean time the play was being given in the provinces and in Ireland.
The enthusiasm for The Beggar's Opera naturally begot imitations. Two other ballad operas by different authors were brought on the stage before the end of 1728. Twelve (not counting Gay's Polly) were produced or published in the following year, and the number of new imitations continued at a fairly steady rate thereafter until 1733, in the course of which year there were no fewer than twenty-two new ballad operas, among them Gay's posthumous Achilles. During the next ten years the number of new productions declined gradually, but sporadic examples appeared in the latter half of the century, and there are clear indications of the influence of ballad opera upon the English comic opera of later times.
None of the imitations of The Beggar's Opera approached it in popularity, although among the authors who attempted the form were Cibber, Fielding, and Lillo. This may be partly accounted for by the fact that Gay, the first in the field, had the advantage of novelty, and had, moreover, chosen the best of the available tunes. His imitators had either to use less catchy airs or to repeat those which, by association, were now regarded as belonging to the original opera. It is interesting to note that not all the ballad operas followed their prototype in adhering to the Restoration school of comedy: several of them belong to the sentimental tradition, among them Gay's Polly, the sequel to The Beggar's Opera. In this continuation Polly follows Macheath to the West Indies, to which he has been transported as a punishment for his crimes. He there disguises himself as a Negro, gathers about him a gang of European outlaws, and embarks upon a career of piracy against the English traders and their allies, the Indians. Polly, escaping in boy's clothes from the unwelcome attentions of one of the traders, falls into the hands of the pirates, but is rescued by a young Indian chief. Macheath is finally captured and executed, Polly learning his identity just too late to save him. There is a good deal of Gay's witty dialogue, but there is also much moralizing by the Indians upon the corruption of European civilization: 'European,' in their mouths, is the worst of insults. The young Indian chief, Cawwawkee, is the hero: he is an excellent example of the eighteenth century's conception of the 'noble savage.' At the end of the opera the audience is given to understand that he will be rewarded for his virtue with the hand of Polly.
Polly would probably not have been as successful as The Beggar's Opera, but the opportunity of proving this was not given. Walpole, the prime minister, enraged at hostile political references in the earlier work, ordered the lord chamberlain not to license the production of the sequel -- whether in a spirit of revenge or because of the political satire in Polly is not quite clear. However, Gay printed the play, the sales of which were certainly increased by the lord chamberlain's ban upon the performance. The opera was not played until 1777. Gay's final opera, Achilles, was brought upon the stage in 1733 for eighteen performances, but the general opinion of contemporary critics seems to have been that it was supported by the reputation of its author, who had died shortly after the completion of the text. Gay was therefore spared the disappointment of learning that he had been unable to follow up his first success.
A. E. C.
1913. Pearce, Charles E. 'Polly Peachum' . . . and 'The Beggar's Opera.'
1923. Schultz, William E. Gay's 'Beggar's Opera.' New Haven.
1928. Dent, Edward J. The Foundation of English Opera. Cambridge [England].
1929. Nicoll, Allardyce. A History of Early Eighteenth Century Drama, 1700-1750. Cambridge [England]. [Chapter IV.]
1937. Gagey, Edmond M. Ballad Opera. New York.