John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 10 and 11

Lucy returns with a bottle of liquor, insisting on Polly’s drinking it. Brandy is like men, she says, women like to take it, but pretend not to, and so they do it only in private Polly still demurs, even when she has a glass pressed into her hand. Fortunately for her, at this moment she seed Macheath brought in chains and drops the glass. Both she and Lucy throw themselves at Macheath, singing a duet imploring him to look at either of her. (A small snippet of this scene starts at 2:58)

Macheath says this affair will soon end with his death, so he really doesn’t need to choose one over the other, but Peachum points out his declaration may prevent litigation between the two widows. Macheath sings a song about how one wife is more than enough. Lucy and Polly then implore in speech and song their respective fathers not to deliver the evidence against Macheath. This is the moment depicted in the famous Hogarth painting.
William Hogarth 016

A choice morsel of gossip c. 1728: the actress playing Polly, Lavinia Fenton, may be acting pleading to her stage father, but she is really staring at Duke of Bolton, the man in blue sitting on the right. The Duke, unhappily married and Lavinia’s senior by 23 years, fell in love with her during the show. ICYMI, the sculpted satyr laughs and points down at the Duke. Lavinia’s meteoric career as an actress ended with her eloping with the Duke and becoming his longtime mistress and eventually wife when the Duke’s first wife died.

But both fathers are unrelenting: Lockit points out in a song that if they don’t hang Macheath, they may hang themselves, and Peachum advises Polly to look for a new husband. Macheath sings a defiant song about how his death was only to be expected, and at least his death will please both of his wives. Then he leaves with Peachum and Lockit. And here’s the whole scene with Laurence Olivier.


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