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by Bamber Gascoigne

John Gay (1685-1732)


English poet and dramatist, friend of Pope and Swift. John Gay is remembered for his play The Beggar's Opera (1728). It became highly successful and enabled Gay to spent more money on gambling and drinking. The sequel,  Polly (1729), was supposedly suppressed by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who thus only incited people to buy its printed version. Kurt Weil's and Bertolt Brecht's Die Dreigroschenoper (1928, The Threepenny Opera), a runaway hit in Weimar Germany, was a reworking of Gay's play and has had a profound influence on musical theater since its New York revival in the 1950s.

Let us drink and sport to-day,
--Ours is not to-morrow:
Love with youth flies swift away,
--Age is naught but sorrow.
---Dance and sing,
---Time's on the wing,
Life never knows the return of spring.

(from The Beggar's Opera)

John Gay was born at Barnstaple in Devon, the youngest son of William Gay. Orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by his uncle, the Reverend John Hammer. Gay was educated at the local Barnstable Grammar School. Because there was no money to send him to university, Gay started as an apprentice to a silk merchant in London upon finishing school. He disliked the work, and broke off his apprenticeship.

After a period in Devon, Gay went back to London.  A genial person, he soon found his way to the literary and social circles. With other young writers he collaborated on Aaron Hill's journal The British Apollo. Hill was his former Barnstable schoolmate.

From 1712 gto 1714 Gay worked as secretary and steward in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth. He then became secretary to Lord Clarendon, Tory envoy to Hanover, but with the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tory government Gay was again left to his own resources. For some periods, his patron was Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, who probable helped him to get appointed Commissioner of the State Lottery. Burlington and James Brydges subscribed Gay's Poems on Several Occasions (1720), a very profitable publication.

In his last years Gay lived mainly with two of his patrons, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry in Wiltshire. In 1732 he returned to London, where he died on December 4. Gay was buried in Westminster Abbey. In his own epitaph the writer did not give up his humour: "Life is a jest, and all things show it; / I thought so once, and now I know it." His grave was marked by a monument sculpted by John Michael Rysbrack. When medieval paintings were discovered behind the wall, it was removed.

In 1708 Gay published 'Wine', a poem to celebrate the Act of Union between England and Scotland and in 1711 he gave out the pamphlet The Present State of Wit. During these years he met Pope and began to visit the fashionable coffee-houses. Both Gay and Pope were founding members of a literary group calling itself the Scriblerus Club. In London Gay supported himself by working as a journalist. His first important poem, The Rural Sports (1713), dedicated to Pope, glorifies descriptions of hunting and fishing.

The Mohocks (1712) was turned down by theatre managers in fear that it would offend some people; this was possibly Gay's first encounter with censorship. The What D'ye Call It (1715) was Gay's first theatrical success, which he finished at the age of 30. The one-act piece was subtitled "A Tragi-Comi-Pastoral Farce".

The Beggar's Opera (not made for beggars but the writer is named the "Beggar") was first performed when Gay was 43. It was staged at Theatre Royal, Lincoln's Inn Fields, by the theatre's manager John Rich. John Christopher Pepusch, a German musician, wrote the songs, including an overture. The story of highwaymen and corrupt law-keepers is still performed. Before the opening night, Alexander Pope wrote to Jonathan Swift, "whether it succeeds or not, it will make a great noise, but whether of Claps or Hisses I know not." ('Introduction,' in The Beggar's Opera; and, Polly, edited with an introduction and notes by Hal Gladfelder, 2013, p. vii) As it turned out,  Beggar's Opera became the most popular play of the whole century. The London Craftsman joked that "the Waggs say it hath made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich". (John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, 1728-2004: Adaptations and Re-writings, edited by Uwe Böker, Ines Detmers, Anna-Christina Giovanopoulos, 2006, p. 9)

The  sequel, Polly (1729), which takes Polly and Macheath to the West Indies, was published with the help of the Duchess of Queensberry. Macheath attempts to evade his fate by wearing a blackface. Polly was banned, but as an entrepreneurial writer Gay paid for the printing – 10,500 copies printed in excellent paper – at his own expense. Writing to Swift, he said that Duchess of Marlborough "hath given me a hundred pound for one Copy." (Writing and Censorship in Britain, edited by Paul Hyland and Neil Sammells, 1992) Gay netted much more money than The Beggar's Opera had earned him, although  pirated editions were sold on the street and Gay had to defend his copyright in the court. Most likely Gay had the character and policies of the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole in mind, when he depicted an organized underworld and its deal-making and opportunism. A contemporary of Gay said that Walpole "rather than suffer himself to be prodeced for thirty nights together upon the stage in the person of a highwayman . . . put a stop to the representation of it." (Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, with Critical Observations on Their Works by Samuel Johnson, Complete in Two Volumes, Vol. II, 1861, p. 72)

The Beggar's Opera was the earliest of the "ballad operas", which were meant as entertainment as opposed to the serious Italian operas. In this type of play the action in conveyed in prose interspersed with songs. Gay's satire of corrupt government partly attacked the ruling party and Robert Walpole, who restricted activities of the theatre. Like Henry Fielding's satirical novel The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743), Gay's work was a mock heroic, set in the London criminal underworld, where the characters speak like the upper classes. The idea for the play was provided by Swift, who suggested that the morals of the people in Newgate prison did not differ so much from the rest of society.

In the story the receiver of stolen goods, Peachum, has a profitable business arrangement with Macheath, a highwayman and gang leader. Only men like he, Macheath declares, have "honour enough to break through the corruption of the world." Peachum's daughter Polly falls in love with the eloquent outlaw. Peachum informs against Macheath, who is imprisoned in Newgate, in order to collect the reward and to get rid of his son-in-law. The warden's daughter Lucy Lockit also falls for him. Macheath takes his opportunity to escape. Recaptured in a brothel, Macheath is saved again from the gallows – now his release is demanded on behalf of the audience by one of the players.

BEGGAR. Through the whole Piece you may observe such a Similitude of Manners in high and low Life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable Vices) the fine Gentlemen imitate the Gentlemen of the Road, or the Gentlemen of the Road, the fine Gentlemen. -- -- Had the Play remain'd, as I at first intended, it would have carried a most excellent Moral. 'Twould have shown that the lower sort of People have their Vices in a degree as well as the Rich: And that they are punish'd for them. (from The Beggar's Opera)

Among Gay's other works are his finest poem: Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), a survey of the conditions of life in the capital, The Shepherd's Weeks  (1714), a series of mock-classical poems in pastoral settings, and Fables (1727-38), brief moral tales modelled on those of La Fontain and such classical writers as the Roman Paedrus.

For George Friedric Händel, who knew well many of the members of the Scriblerus Club, Gay wrote the libretto for Acis and Galatea, which included work of Pope and John Hughes too. With Poems on Several Occasions (1720) Gay enjoyed financial success for a short time. He invested the money in the South Sea Company, which promised to bring in huge profits from new trade routes to South America. When the "Bubble" burst, Gay was temporarily ruined. In 1727 Gay wrote the Fifty-One Fables in Verse, which he dedicated to six-year-old Prince William. His reward was the post as Gentleman Usher to the two-year-old princess Louisa – Gay declined.

In his own time Gay's poems and plays were subject to critique and for a long period literary historians worried about his character and the subversive nature of his work. Samuel Johnson found in Gay a "poet of a lower order." Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil brought in 1928 to Berlin their  Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera), which drew from Elisabeth Hauptmann's German translation of Gay's play. It opened 200 years after the first season of Gay's play.

Both of Gay's Beggar's Opera plays had been performed in London in the early 1920s with considerable success. Nigel Playfair's production at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, ran for over three years. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn made a musical version of the original, Beggar's Holiday (1946), book and lyrics by John Latouche. Reviews were mixed. Macheath was turned into "a pin-stripe-suited mobster, a singing, dancing Bugsy Siegel." ('Duke Ellington's Long-lost 'Holiday' by Richatrd Harrington, The Washington Post, Febriuary 1, 1992) Václav Havel's Zebrácká Opera (The Beggar's Opera) was suppressed after the first performance in 1975 due to Havel's political criticism of the regime. An Africanized version of The Three Penny Opera by Wole Soyinka, Opera Wonyosi,  was staged at the University of Ife, Oduduwa Hal, in 1977. Alan Ayckbourn's A Chorus Disapproval (1984) resituated Gay's characters in Margaret Thatcher's England.

For further reading: Lives of the Poets by S. Johnson (first edition 1781); The Life and Letters of John Gay by L. Melville (1921); Mr. Gay by O. Sherwin (1929); John Gay by P.F. Gaye (1938); John Gay: Favorite of the Wits by W.H. Irving (1940); Mr. Gay's London by A.P. Herbert (1948); John Gay, Social Critic by S.M. Armens (1954); John Gay, Favorite of the Wits by W.H. Irving (1962); John Gay by P.M. Spacks (1965); John Gay and the London Theatre by Calhoun Winton (1993); John Gay: A Profession  of Friedship by David Nokes (1995); Deep Play: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity by Dianne Dugaw (2001); Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay by John Richardson (2004); John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, 1728-2004: Adaptations and Re-writings, edited by Uwe Böker, Ines Detmers, Anna-Christina Giovanopoulos (2006); The Beggar's 'Children': How John Gay Changed the Course of England's Musical Theatre by Madeline Smith Atkins (2006); 'Introduction,' in The Beggar's Opera; and, Polly, edited with an introduction and notes by Hal Gladfelder (2013)  

Selected works:

  • Wine; A Poem, 1708, 1918
  • The Mohocks: A Tragi-Comical Farce, 1712
  • Rural Sports: A Poem, 1713
  • The Wife of Bath: A Comedy,1713
  • The Fan: A Poem
  • The Shepherd's Week in Six Pastorals, 1714
  • The What D'ye Call It: A Tragi-Comi-Pastoral Farce, 1715
  • Two Epistles; One to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington; The Other, to a Lady, 1716
  • Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London RIVIA, 1716
  • Three Hours After Marriage: A Comedy, 1717 (with Alexaner Pope and John Arbuthnot)
  • The Story of Arachne, from the Beginning of the Sixth Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1720 (translator; Miscellaneous poems and Translations)
  • Poems on Several Occasions, 1720
  • My Lodging is on the Cold Ground, 1720
  • Dione, 1720
  • An Epistle to Her Grace Henrietta, Dutchess of Marlborough, 1722
  • The Captives: A Tragedy, 1724
  • To a Lady on Her Passion for Old China, 1725
  • The Toilet, 1726
  • Molly Mog: or, The Fair Maid of the Inn, 1726
  • Fables, 1727-38
  • The Beggar's Opera, 1728
    - film 1953, prod. Herbert Wilcox Productions, dir. Peter Brook, libretto by John Gay, screenplay by Denis Cannan and Christopher Fry, starring Laurence Olivier (as Captain MacHeath), Hugh Griffith (as The Beggar), Dorothy Tutin (as Polly Peachum), Daphne Anderson, Stanley Holloway, George Rose
  • Poetical Miscellanies: Consisting of Original Poems and Translations, 1729
  • Polly: An Opera, Being the Second part of the Beggar’s Opera 1729
  • The Female Faction: or, The Gay Subscribers: A Poem, 1729
  • The Banish'd Beauty: or, a Fair Face in Disgrace: A Poem, 1729
  • Poems on Several Occasions, 1730
  • Acis and Galatea, 1732 
  • Achilles: An Opera, 1733
  • Fabels: Second Series, 1738
  • The Distress'd Wife: A Comedy, 1743
  • The Rehearsal of Goatham, 1754
  • Plays Written by Mr John Gay, 1760
  • Achilles in Petticoats, 1774
  • Miniature Pictures, 1781 (third edition)
  • The Poetical works of John Gay, 1783 (3 vols.)
  • The Poems of John Gay, 1790
  • Fables, with a Life of the Author, and Embellished with Seventy Plates, 1793 (2 vols.)  
  • The Poetical Works of John Gay, 1806 (3 vols., collated with the best editions by Thomas Park)
  • The Poetical Works of John Gay. With a Life of the Author by Dr. Johnson, 1854 (2 vols.)
  • The Fables of John Gay, 1889 (edited by W H Kearley)
  • The Poetical Works of John Gay, 1893 (2 vols., ed. with a life and notes by John Underhill)
  • A Collection of Gay's letters, 1714-32, 1921
  • The Plays of John Gay, 1923 (2 vols., illustrated by Martin Travers)
  • Dramatic Works, 1983-84 (2 vols., edited by John Fuller)
  • The Poetical Works of John Gay, 1926 (ed. by G. C. Faber)
  • The Letters of John Gay, 1966 (edited by C.F. Burgess)
  • Poetry and Prose of John Gay, 1975 (edited by Vinton A. Dearing with the assistance of Charles E. Beckwith)
  • Selected Poems, 1979 (edited by Marcus Walsh)
  • John Gay, Dramatic Works, 1983 (2 vols., edited by John Fuller)
  • John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, 1988 (edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom)
  • The Fables of John Gay, 2008 (illustrated by Dandi Palmer)
  • The Beggar's Opera; and, Polly, 2013 (edited with an introduction and notes by Hal Gladfelder)

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