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||John Gay (1685-1732)|
English poet and dramatist, friend of Pope and Swift. 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,
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 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. People joked that that it made "Rich gay and Gay rich".
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 printed the play at his own expense and netted much more money than The Beggar's Opera had earned him. 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."
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); John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, 1728-2004: Adaptations and Re-writings, edited by Uwe Böker, Ines Detmers, Anna-Christina Giovanopoulos (2006) ; 'Introduction,' in The Beggar's Opera; and, Polly, edited with an introduction and notes by Hal Gladfelder (2013)