Cover image for The beggar's opera
The beggar's opera
Havel, Václav.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Žebrácká opera. English
Publication Information:
Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xxxi, 84 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
General Note:
Based on: The Beggar's opera by John Gay.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PG5039.18.A9 Z313 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



The Czech President Vaclav Havel, a force on behalf of international human rights and his country's most celebrated dissident, first gained prominence as a playwright. During the period when Havel was blacklisted by the Czechoslovakian government for his political activism, productions of his work in and around Prague were regarded as subversive acts. The Beggar's Opera is a free-wheeling, highly politicized adaptation of John Gay's well-known eighteenth-century work of the same name. The play, reminiscent of Havel's earlier Garden Party and The Memorandum, is up to his best satirical standard. Like the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera, Havel's play uses an underworld milieu to explore the intermingled themes of love, loyalty, and treachery.Paul Wilson's new English translation of The Beggar's Opera is lively, idiomatic, and sensitive to underlying linguistic and political issues. The Cornell edition contains an Introduction by Peter Steiner that details the November 1, 1976, premiere of the play in the Prague suburb of Horn Pocernice, the reaction of the Czech secret police, and the measures the government took to punish and discredit those involved in the production. Eleven photographs--of the playwright, the actors, the theatre, and the actual performance--enhance the texture of the book.

Author Notes

Considered one of the leading intellectual figures and moral forces in Eastern Europe today, Vaclav Havel was born into a well-to-do Prague family on October 5, 1936. Denied the right to attend the university college because of his "bourgeois" background, Havel instead studied at a technical college from 1955 to 1957, and then enlisted in the Czechoslovak Army.

Havel left the army in 1959 and began a career in writing. He took a job as a resident writer for the Prague Theatre on the Balustrade in 1960 and wrote his first play, The Garden City, three years later. Wanting to learn more about the craft that he now considered a full-time career, Havel enrolled in the Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 1967. Two years later Havel's passport was revoked because the government considered his writings to be subversive.

As an essayist, Havel has written the books Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdal; Living in the Truth; Open Letters: Selected Prose 1965-1990; and Temptation. From 1979 to 1982, while in prison for subversion, Havel wrote a number of letters to his wife, Olga Splichalova. In 1983 those correspondences formed Havel's book Letters to Olga.

On December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. He resigned in 1992, only to be elected the president of the newly formed Czech Republic in 1993. Havel has been the recipient of more than a dozen honorary degrees.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Written in the mid-'70s, a time when the Czech government forbade Havel to produce his own work, his wry translation of John Gay's eighteenth-century hit was created to circumvent the ban. In adapting the work, Havel borrowed a page from Brecht and emphasized the political subtext about the London underworld in Gay's play. Unlike Brecht in The Threepenny Opera, Havel did not follow Gay and use music in his version. Instead, he focused on the element of Gay's play that was most subversive in Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia--the tangled web of relations between the authorities and the criminal class. In Havel's witty version, translated into supple, graceful English by Wilson, every father is a pimp and a thief, every mother a madam, and every daughter a prostitute. No wonder the Czech authorities were not amused when they discovered who was behind this new version of Gay's classic. --Jack Helbig

Library Journal Review

Czech Republic President Havel's 1975 adaptation of British dramatist John Gay's 1728 political satire, The Beggar's Opera, and other subversive works made him a blacklisted dissenter in the Czech Communist regime. Translated here by Wilson, who has rendered many of Havel's works in English, the play's 14 quick scenes depart from Gay's original ballad in three ways: its style is colloquial, its tone is comic, and its subplots are different. The political overtones remain sharp, as the play satirizes collectivism, lack of individual identity and freedom, and the mistrust and corruption prevalent in Communist Czechoslovakia. The bigamous hero-rogue Captain Macheath saves his neck by joining the wheeling-and-dealing, double-crossing practices of the underworld, while pickpocket Havey Filch remains true to himself until death. In the introduction, Peter Stein (Univ. of Pennsylvania) provides an analysis of the play in its literary and political context. He also details the play's November 1, 1975 premier, which was secretly staged near Prague, and the consequent political persecution. Also included are 11 black-and-white photographs of the premier. Highly recommended for both academic and public libraries. Ming-ming Shen Kuo, Ball State Univ. Lib., Muncie, ID (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.