Literary Daybook, Jan. 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 29, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 29, Mr. Moon of Bosworth Inc. has his first appointment with Lord Malquist.
-- "Lord Malquist & Mr Moon" (1968)
by Tom Stoppard

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1728, John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" opened in London. The satire and singability of this original "ballad opera" made it a first-run sellout, a cultural craze across England and the most successful play of the 18th century. Politicians smarted at being portrayed as highwaymen, fences, pickpockets and molls, but the public bought playing cards, fans and parlor screens imprinted with scenes of the dashing MacHeath, or with the lyrics of Polly Peachums true love:

"O ponder well! be not severe:
So save a wretched Wife!
For on the Rope that hangs my Dear
Depends poor Polly's Life."

One 1920 production of "The Beggar's Opera" ran in London for 1,463 performances, inspiring Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to remake it as "The Threepenny Opera" (and so giving Bobby Darin his signature tune):

"Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack knife has MacHeath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight ..."

Though not quite a one-hit wonder, "The Beggar's Opera" allowed John Gay to spend his remaining years in the best coffeehouses and castles, polishing quips and rhymed couplets with his friends Swift and Pope -- even the one used at wit's end, on his epitaph:

"Life is a jest; and all things show it.
I thought so once, but now I know it."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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