John Gay – “The Beggar’s Opera” Act III scenes 12 – 14


Polly sends Filch to observe Macheath’s trial. She hears some music and Lucy explains that it is the prisoners whose trials were put off until next Sessions celebrating. Polly says she usually loves music, but now she is too melancholy to listen to it. The two women, temporarily reconciled by the common misfortune, retire. In the next scene, Macheath in a condemned hold, sings a series of songs about how sorry he feels for himself and for his wives, how he finds comfort in drink, and ends with a defiant song sang to the tune of “Greensleeves” about how it is only poor people who end up punished, and if everybody, regardless of their status, were punished with the same severity of the law, it would lead to depopulation. The scene is rather brilliant and I imagine, quite demanding musically, because the song is a medley of quotations from various songs, some of them as short as one line. I cannot recommend anything better than watching Roger Daltrey perform this. Out of the many clips available on YT, this version is, I think, my favourite, as it strikes just the right balance between being historical and being modern. I don’t like my Beggar’s Opera to get too modern – if I wanted a modern version, I’d listen to Die Dreigroschenoper (which I love, by the way).

Macheath’s colleagues come to express their sympathy. Macheath informs them that as a jail-breaker, he is to be hanged. He is surprised that Jemmy Twitcher peached on him, but he attributes it to the general corruption of the world which has seeped down into the honest world of thieves. (So was it Jemmy or Mrs Trapes? Was Macheath misinformed? Or did Jemmy just stand as a witness during the trial?) He asks them to promise him that they are going to send Peachum and Lockit to the gallows before they end up there. The jailer announces Lucy and Polly.


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