John Gay: "Tyburn Tree"

Just near the end of The Beggar's Opera, Macheath is in Newgate Prison where he sings a string of songs with no speech inbetween, seemingly in anxiety, or just passing the time. These contain one of the more famous of the songs in the opera, "Tyburn Tree", which is sung to the tune of "Greensleeves":

Since laws were made for every degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han't better company
Upon Tyburn Tree;

But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
'Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree!

We need not know about Walpole's administration and the scandals of the day to hear this plaint any clearer; it's directly the question of law and money which Brecht picked up and brought to the fore in his Threepenny Opera. The triangular gallows, the Tyburn Tree, also neatly points back to Swift's hint in a letter to Pope, "what think you, of a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there?"

Often the Beggar's Opera tunes seem designed to carry what would have been their more familiar words to lie beneath Gay's own in counterpoint; this is one song where those words are still well known, Alas, my love, you do me wrong... to let gold maintain degrees. In Jonathan Miller's TV production (1983) for the BBC, Roger Daltrey brings his rock star gloss to Macheath; in the prison scene he suddenly rages, looking up at and grabbing hold of the grille above him, "And if rich men like us were to swing..." Rather different to Laurence Olivier's rendering for the 1953 Peter Brook directed film, which comes towards the end of a tradition of comic-romantic productions, the mode which maintained the piece's popularity beyond the shock of its first political context. As angrily lucid as Daltrey, the Sussex folk singer Shirley Collins recorded "Tyburn Tree", not energised but in lament, slowed, beaten down by the degrees, which stay.

The Prime Minister should swing: perhaps the lyric still can shock. Jonathan Miller decides to break the Beggar's frame, and his Macheath, like Arthur in the defining TV ballad opera Pennies from Heaven, does swing.

Melissa Flores-Bórquez

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