As many as eight ladies enter the stage, and Macheath greets and compliments each of them. He calls for a harper, quoting the opening line of Twelfth Night: “If music be the food of love, play on”. He and the ladies sing and dance about how one should enjoy life while you’re young. Then Macheath invites the ladies to sit down, asks to bring more wine and tells them to feel free to order gin if they want. Jenny Diver protests she only takes gin when she has the colic, to which he answers that “a lady of quality is never without the colic.” The conversation turns to the ladies’ recent successes in stealing. The conversation is a parody of those in “polite” society, with all the ladies complimenting each other excessively, not on their good looks or singing talents, but on their thieving skills. Macheath says that Jenny doesn’t seem to be as fond of him as she used to be, to which she answers that it’s not convenient to show her feelings in front of so many rivals, and it’s up to him to decide which one he likes. Then she sings a cheeky song about a cock who picks one hen and then “how do you do, and how do you do/And how do you do again”. Then the conversation turns to the other profession of the ladies, which is prostitution: have you ever been a kept mistress, who is the best “keeper” etc. One lady says she was once kept by a Jew and “to women they are a good sort of people”, Suky says old fellows are the best because they can’t get what they’ve paid for, but Mrs Vixen says young apprentices are the best because they spend money freely, and because of her at least two or three dozens of them were sentenced to transportation. Jenny asks Macheath if he is rich and he answers he makes a lot of money, but unfortunately spends much of it gambling. Jenny sings a song about how gamesters and lawyers ruin people and says a courageous man should never risk their money, only their life. She takes one of his pistols, and Suky takes the other, saying that it’s better for his hands than cards, because it’s not only his loss of money, but the women he could spend the money on lose, too. Then they both embrace him… all the better for Peachum and the constables to seize him.
Left alone, Macheath ruminates how much Polly is in love with him. He also reveals that monogamy is not really for him, since he loves women just like an avaricious man who loves gold and won’t be satisfied with one coin. He boasts that he is to Drury Lane (the popular haunts of prostitutes) what a recruiting officer is for the British army. He sings a song about relaxing properties of women and calls the drawer (not a piece of furniture but a barman) to ask whether the porter has gone to fetch all the ladies, as he asked. The drawer says he has, but he had to go a long way around London to fetch all of them. But hark, here they come! This post is extra short, because the next scene, with Macheath carousing with the prostitutes, is a bit longer and I don’t want to cut it in half. But you can supplement it by watching Roger Daltrey.
The second act takes place in an inn where Macheath’s gang gather. There is some small talk: Ben asks Matt what happened to his brother Tom, and Tom explains he had “an accident” (a euphemism for hanging), and unfortunately, since his brother was so well-proportioned, he couldn’t save him from surgeons (who used the bodies of executed criminals for training) and now the poor guy “is among the otamies” (anatomies). They also talk about how they are not really different from gentlemen. “‘Who is there here that would not die for his friend?’ ‘Who is there here that would not betray him for his interest?’ ‘Show me a gang of courtiers that can say as much'”. It’s for the lines like these that The Beggar’s Opera was called “Newgate pastoral”: both the pastoral and The Beggar’s Opera pick for their heroes the characters from the bottom of social ladder. The pastoral tried to present simple shepherds as morally much better and much happier than rich upper classes; Gay’s work says the courtiers are as bad, if not worse, than common criminals. The thieves divide the jobs for tonight and sing a song about the joys of drinking.
Macheath enters and is greeted warmly. Matt asks him in a very ceremonial way whether he is going to join him in tonight’s robbery. Macheath says he was going to take part, but – here he breaks off to ascertain that there is nobody who doubts his courage or commitment to his friends. There is none, so he explains he and Peachum “have had a slight difference”, so he has to keep a low profile for a week or so. The gang leave, singing a rousing song about how they are better than alchemists because their lead (in bullets) does turn into gold (also included in the clip above). While most songs in The Beggar’s Opera were written for various tunes popular at that time, arranged by Gay’s composer Pepusch, this one is set to a march from Haendel’s Rinaldo – another sly joke, because Rinaldo (the one with “Lascia che pianga”, the super-hit of baroque music) is about noble knights on a crusade, not thieves. But in scene 1 the thieves were talking about how their purpose is really very moral one, because all they try to do is a more equitable distribution of wealth, and it is actually hoarding that is deeply immoral. So I guess in their own eyes they are crusaders of sorts.
The Peachums, thinking that they are alone, agree that they have to inform on Macheath, even though Mr Peachum is very sorry to peach on one of his best thieves. They leave, and Polly, who’s been eavesdropping, delivers a monologue in which she imagines the melodramatic execution of her husband, with everybody crying, including the executioner himself. She decides, even though it’s heartbreaking for her, that Macheath has to run away and hide at least for a few weeks, until her parents relent. She brings him out of her room, where he’s been hiding. Macheath sings a song asking her about her faithfulness to him.
Polly asks whether he still loves her as much and he swears he does. Polly says she believes him because in the romance he lent her none of the heroes were ever false in love. Macheath sings another song about how his heart was free but now it’s Polly’s forever. Polly asks him whether he could part with her if he were sentenced to transportation. Impossible, says Macheath, you’d sooner tear a pension out of the hands of a courtier than me from you. They sing together a song about how they would be happy in Greenland or in tropics, provided they were together.
Polly then explains to him that he has to go into hiding and sings how painful it is too part. They part with mutual declarations of love and sing a song comparing the pain of their departure to the miser parting from his shilling or the boy seeing his pet sparrow flying away. And with that very musical note Act I ends.
When Polly leaves, the Peachums deliberate what to do. Mr Peachum tells his wife to calm down, but Mrs Peachum is afraid Macheath may have two or three wives already and when he hangs, Polly’s dowry may come into dispute. “That, indeed, is a point which ought to be considered”, says Mr Peachum and sings a song about how a fox may steal your hens, a prostitute your health and money etc., but a lawyer is going to steal everything from you. Polly returns, reporting about the loot Nimming Ned got from yesterday’s fire. Mr Peachum asks Polly how she is now going to support herself, and Polly says like all married women, she is going to be supported by her husband, but Mrs Peachum tells her it’s ridiculous. Mr Peachum suggests Polly might think about becoming a widow, since this is apparently the main object of all women marrying. So his plan is Polly should get everything Macheath has and then peach on him before the next sessions. Polly is appalled, but her father explains to her that since Macheath must hang sooner or later, he’d rather the money for informing on him go to his family than to strangers. Polly sings a sad stanza about how her life hangs on the same rope as her husband’s. Mrs Peachum says her first duty is to her parents, but Polly says she can’t survive him and sings a lyrical song about a turtledove dying after her mate’s death.
Her mother, again quite angry with her, tells her she is a shame to her sex and that “those cursed playbooks she reads” gave her these ideas about romantic love. Polly’s parents send her out of the room, telling her to consider what they tell her to do.
Mrs Peachum returns “in a very great passion” on stage, singing and talking about how Polly went and married Macheath. Mr Peachum is as angry. “Do you think your mother and I should have lived comfortably so long together, if ever we had been married?”, he asks. Hee-hee. Mrs Peachum foresees the sad future of Polly, whose husband is going to squander all her money. You are going to be as abused and neglected as if you had married a lord, she tells her. And with her fortune, Polly actually could marry “a person of distinction”. Polly, when pressed to speak, sings a sad song about how love doesn’t really listen to parental advice. Mr Peachum is afraid Macheath is going to hang them to get their fortune. Polly says her’s was not a deliberate and cool choice, as that of other people who marry for money. She loves Macheath. At the sound of the word “love” Mrs Peachum faints. Mr Peachum sends Polly to fetch some cordial. Polly advises him to give her mother a double dose. Mrs Peachum comes round and softens a bit seeing how solicitous Polly is. She sings another short duet with Polly, telling her that she could have toyed with men, keeping them on by keeping them off, and Polly again sings that she found Macheath so irresistible, she’s sure she did what her mother had done in her youth. But not with a highwayman, answers Mrs Peachum. Mr Peachum starts to hatch a plan. It’s not a new thing for a girl to marry without her parents’ consent, he tells his wife, because women are weak. His wife says that the first time a woman is weak, she should be more choosy, because then there is a chance to make her fortune. Once she loses her virginity, she may do what she wants, as long as she’s not found out. Finally the parents say they forgive Polly, and Polly sings a song about how she was like a ship in a storm, which however, couldn’t hide in a port because it was carrying contraband. But now the duties are paid, i.e. her secret was revealed, and she has nothing to be afraid off. Mr Peachum sends her offstage to deal with some customers.
Left alone, Mrs Peachum confides to the audience that she thinks Mr Peachum is wrong, because being married does not mean a woman should only love her husband; actually being married increases a woman’s value. She sings a song about how a virgin is like golden ore, but a married woman is like a coin, whose value is known, and she goes from hand to hand. Filch comes in and after some banter with him about his success as a thief, she asks him whether he knows anything about what has passed between Polly and Macheath. Filch demurs, saying that he can’t say anything, because he promised Polly not to and he gave his word of honour. Mrs Peachum invites him to her own room, promising him some excellent liquor. This scene below with the wonderful Patricia Routledge
Enter Peachum and Polly. Polly also tries to explain to her father that even if she hooks up with Macheath, it’s only for material advantage and she doesn’t mean to be exclusive with him. She sings a song about how virgins are like flowers growing in the garden, but once they are plucked, they are like the cut flowers sold in Covent Garden and they wither quickly. This has a nice double meaning, because Covent Garden was both a big produce market and also the place where prostitutes congregated. Peachum warns Polly that he doesn’t mind her hooking up with anybody if it’s for money or in order to learn his secrets, but if he finds out she married Macheath, he’ll cut her throat.