John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act I Scenes 3 and 4

Peachum returns to his books, looking for the criminals he can “peach on” before the next court sessions. The ones he picks are not only the unprofitable ones, but also the one who talks about quitting the life of crime and becoming an honest tailor, or one Bob Booty. At this Mrs Peachum enters and asks what about Bob Booty, because she is very fond of him. Peachum explains that Bob spends too much time with ladies and when his money is gone, one of them is going to inform on him sooner or later, thus cashing in the reward Peachum wants. Mrs Peachum says she defers in this matter to her husband’s judgement. Women are too biased in these matters, because they always think the criminal being sent to the gallows is so handsome. She sings a song about how the executioner’s rope is as effective in making a man desirable as the mythological girdle of Venus supposedly was for women. She says Peachum has no reason for complaining because there has not been a murder in his gang for seven months, but Peachum pooh-poohs her, saying murder is a very fashionable crime and you can find a lot of actual gentlemen in Newgate charged with it. He asks here whether Captain Macheath was here this morning, and Mrs Peachum says he was and he promised to try and join her and Polly for a card game in the evening. She asks Peachum whether Macheath is rich, but Peachum answers he is too fond of gambling for that, and to be good at gambling, you have to be born rich and train from the earliest years. Mrs Peachum says she is sorry that Captain Macheath likes the company of lords and gentlemen; “he should leave them to prey upon one another”, and she lets it drop that she is sorry about that because of their daughter Polly. This immediately raises Peachum’s hackles up and he asks what Polly has to do with Macheath. Mrs Peachum admits she thinks he and Polly may be in love. Peachum angrily says that’s no reason to marry him, because highwaymen are very good to their whores, but terrible to their wives. Mrs Peachum sings a sad song about how it can’t be helped and a virgin in love is like a moth around the flame, sure to be destroyed. Peachum says that in their trade it’s OK if Polly grants all sorts of liberties to the criminals, but marriage would be a disaster, because then she and everything she owns (and by extension, everything her parents own) is going to be the property of her husband. He wouldn’t mind if Polly were like fine ladies, who can seduce twelve men at the same time, without becoming emotionally involved, but she is too warm-hearted. He tells his wife to warn her and before that, he is going to see Polly and investigate how far her affair with Macheath has gone.

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