In this section:
When John Gay brought his new ballad opera to Colley Cibber, the manager of the famous Drury Lane theater, he was turned away.53 Soon after, John Rich, the manager of another successful theater called Lincoln's Inn Fields, took a chance on The Beggar's Opera. The widespread popularity of Gay's ballad opera led Rich to build Covent Garden, today the most famous opera house in London.54
Before writing his ballad opera, John Gay was already a well-known writer of ballads. Gay was also very familiar with the Italian opera tradition; in fact, he actually wrote the libretto Handel's opera, Acis and Galatea in 1719.55 Ironically, John Gay directly satirizes opera and Handel, the greatest opera composer of the 18th century, in the ballad opera.
The opera was comprised of ballads and tunes from popular music. Gay's main source for the 69 songs (there were 68 in the original score with one added later by the third edition) in his opera was Thomas D'Urfey's collection of verses written mostly to folksongs and favorite melodies published in 1700 in a songbook entitled, Wit and Mirth or Pills to Purge Melancholy.56 Gay selected songs from this collection and wrote his own lyrics to fit his opera. In addition, Gay also borrowed tunes from his contemporary composers Eccles, Barrett, Purcell, Clarke, and Handel.57 Further, he used tunes from English, Scotch, and Irish folksongs. Music in ballad operas was collected and then arranged. The chosen songs included a range of popular styles, from jigs to hymn-like tunes. Dr. Pepusch also participated in the creation of the score, providing the overture and assisting in the orchestration of the opera.58
Miss Lavinia Fenton, who played the first Polly Peachum, received much acclaim. She became the "toast of the town."59 She became famous for her role in Gay's opera and many people began to call her Polly instead of her name! She received letters and poems from her admirers. Even Fenton's portrait in costume as Polly was widely sold.60 After Miss Fenton stopped playing the role of Polly, there was much competition for the part. In 1736, Kitty Clive, an actress who had previously played Polly, and Susannah Maria Cibber (the wife of the Colley Cibber) had a public fight over playing the role of Polly.61
From The Craftsman:63
February 3, 1728
"This Week a Dramatick Entertainment has been exhibited at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, entitled The Beggar's Opera, which has met with a general Applause, insomuch that the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich."
The reference to Rich above refers to John Rich, the manager of the Lincoln's Inn Fields theater.
February 17, 1728
"We hear that the British Opera, commonly called The Beggar's Opera, continues to be acted, at the Theatre in Lincoln's-Inn Fields with general Applause, to the great Mortification of the Performers and Admirers of the Outlandish Opera in the Haymarket."