John Gay, by Francis Kyte, published by John Heney, after William Aikman mezzotint, 1728, National Portrait Gallery, London NPG D19056

Gay’s Life & Work

John Gay was born on June 30, 1685, in Barnstaple, north Devon (here’s an image of the local Guildhall  from that era), the youngest of five children.  His parents died when he was ten and he was put under the care of his uncles.  His family had been prominent in the political and economic life of the town but its fortunes had declined by the time of his birth.  It is perhaps for this reason that he did not go to university after his education at the local grammar school but was instead apprenticed to a London silk mercer (i. e., merchant), John Willet.  Mercers were among the most prosperous tradesman in London, and their guild was first in order of precedence among the many there.  So while earning money through trade was not understood to be a ‘gentlemanly’ profession, this would have been the next best thing open to someone in Gay’s position, since his parents’ property would have gone to the eldest son.

Evidence of his early years in London is scant.  But it appears that he did not pursue drapery with much success, turning his hand instead to poetry and the stage, passions nurtured by his grammar schoolmaster, Robert Luck.  His first recorded poem is Wine, published in 1709, which follows John Phillips’ mock-heroic parody of Milton, The Splendid Shilling, which adapted the soaring verse of Paradise Lost to the mundane search for funds in modern London.  It is fitting that Gay’s first published piece is a parody, since he excelled throughout his career in echoing authors and parodying genres for comic effect, especially in taking high forms and re-filling them with popular voices, themes, and attitudes.  The force of the resulting juxtaposition is less about exposing the vices of the modern world or the pretensions of those on the lower end—though it does that—than the delusions and pretensions of the elite audience familiar with high authors and genres, though Gay typically does so in a way that implicates him in the same critique.  We can see something similar at work in The Fan (1713), a mock-heroic ode to this essential tool of coquetry that in covering women’s face and breasts seems also to invite the male gaze. 

During these early years as an author, he also contributed to The British Apollo, a periodical edited by his Barnstaple schoolmate, Aaron Hill.  His success in finding a place in the strife-filled world of London wits is reflected in the dedication to his first play, mock-Miltonic farce, The Mohocks (1712).  The dedicatee is John Dennis, the well-known critic and controversialist who had elicited the wrath of Gay’s new friend, Alexander Pope, in his response to Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1711).  Gay mocks Dennis’ pretensions as a critic and his failures as a dramatist, among other qualities. Although The Mohocks was designed for the press rather than the stage, The Wife of Bath, Gay’s modern take on one of Chaucer’s best-known tales, did make it to the stage, but it ran for no more than three nights (the records, as David Nokes notes in his very useful entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, are unclear). 

During this time, Gay, needing income, entered the service of the elderly Duchess of Monmouth as secretary and steward.  He reflected ruefully on having to wear livery in The Shepherd’s Week (1714), a brilliant parody of Edmund Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar (1579) that comments wryly on disputes in Gay’s time over pastoral [link toPastoralin Contexts]. The poem was a volley in the so-called ‘Pastoral War’ between Pope and his allies on one side, arguing that pastoral was a knowingly-artificial construct of a Golden Age, and Richard Steele, Joseph Addison, Thomas Tickell, and others, who called for a more ‘realistic’ pastoral set among English flora and fauna.  Gay’s approach in this conflict was, characteristically, to parody his opponents’ position, illustrating what follows if one showed how real country people talk and act, their uncouth language and lusty desires annotated in a mock-scholarly apparatus that poked fun at the afflatus of modern commentators.  But, in doing so, he also departed from Pope, et. al. in finding real emotive power in the country, both its scenery and its people. We will see a similar complexity and inability to wring pathos even in the lowest and most ironized characters in The Beggar’s Opera.

The fellowship Gay found in Pope’s circle was increased with the formation of The Scriblerus Club in 1714—among its luminaries were Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot (physician to the Queen), and Robert Harley, Lord Oxford, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (i. e., the Treasury) and the leader of the Tory party.  Gay seems to have found a place in a circle at the heart of literary and political power, but as often happened in his career, disappointment soon followed.  The death of Queen Anne in 1714 and the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty with the coronation of George I meant the end of Tory power for decades; Oxford himself was imprisoned in 1715 under suspicion of correspondence with James Stuart (“the Old Pretender” for those backing the Hanoverians). More on this can be found in the section on the [Politics of State]

However,  this political reversal did not stop Gay’s literary creativity.  After again failing to gain royal patronage, he wrote, an afterpiece, The What D’ye Call It:  A Tragi-Comi-Pastoral Farce (1716), his most successful play to date.  As the name suggests, it is an olio of different genres, a play-within-a-play set in a country landowner’s hall, with intrigues crossing the fourth wall, as the marriage staged within the play turns out to be a binding union between the squire’s son and the steward’s daughter. 

Gay’s next work, Trivia (1716), is one of his most masterful.  Adapting Virgil’s Georgics—poems that offer advice on farming but also take in many other larger issues—it gives guidance to the walker of the streets of London, day and night. (Trivia here meaning “crossroads”—tri-via—although there is also the resonance of “trivial”—the noun was not in use—and the plural of the trivium, that is, the three most basic subjects of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.)  The narrator finds much to warn the reader about in his perambulations, but there is also a productive, rude energy in the streets worth celebrating, most remarkably in the story of the orphan, whose mother Cloacina, goddess of the sewers, saves him from starvation by giving him the ‘arms’ of a bootblack. 

Gay returned to the stage the next year with Three Hours After Marriage.  Though it was well-received by audiences, it ended up being driven from the stage by a tide of pamphlets, alleging that it was actually Pope’s work (not the last time that allegation would be leveled) and that it was obscene. 

Gay’s next decade was spent peripatetically, staying in the houses of various patrons and friends, both in France and England, trying to scrape together a living from patronage and writing projects.  Among them was the libretto for Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, telling of the love between a sea-nymph and a mortal, threatened by a jealous cyclops.  It was first performed at the Duke of Chandos’ estate, Cannons, in 1718.  It attests to Gay’s familiarity with and respect for opera, complicating any sense that The Beggar’s Opera is a straightforward rejection of the art form.

Another significant event during this time was his investment in The South Sea Company of the proceeds of his successful Poems on Several Occasions (1720), which attracted subscriptions from many wealthy aristocrats and others.  But his dreams of multiplying wealth, shared by so many investors, evaporated once the share price dropped precipitously in The South Sea Bubble; his £1000 investment dwindled to 400l.  The upshot was a satirical and rueful poem to Thomas Snow, a wealthy goldsmith who somehow emerged unscathed from the crash.

Gay’s fortunes did improve with his finally winning a government post.  In 1722, he was made a Commissioner of the State Lottery, established in 1698 to help raise government funds (though the Crown ran a lottery as early as Queen Elizabeth I’s reign).  The job paid 150l. a year and brought him free lodgings at Whitehall; it also pointed to the rise of the same speculative economy for which the South Sea Bubble a cautionary tale, though a government lottery is, of course, a more stable instrument for raising funds.  His financial situation was improved further by the success of his play The Captives (1724). 

Gay’s next project was his Fables (1727).   Drawing from various sources and featuring illustrations of the animals in these moral tales, they were dedicated to the third son of George II, later Duke of Cumberland.  But although his re-telling would go through countless reprintings, it did not earn Gay the offer he had hoped for but rather that of gentleman usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa.  This infuriated Gay and he declared to Swift he was done with pursuing patronage, mentioning in the same letter that he was working on The Beggar’s Opera.  It is fitting that Swift may have been the first to hear of the opera since he had a decade before suggested to Parnell that Gay write “a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there” [link to pastoral]

The sources of the play are various, as the other Contexts essays attest—pastoral, the criminal underworld and the literature it spawned, the South Sea Bubble, political corruption, the fad for opera.  The remarkable and enduring power of this three-act mock-opera comes from his brewing together of these various elements–perhaps above all, his ingenious substitution of melodies largely derived from ballads [pick song], cheap songs that could be purchased for a penny, and having them sung by “whores and thieves” who imagine themselves as heroes and heroines.   After being rejected from Drury Lane, it was staged at John Rich’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields on January 29, 1729 [link to something on Stage/Page] and was a smash hit, running for an unheard-of 62 nights and sparking everything from ballads to Polly Peachum to denunciatory sermons to Beggar’s Opera playing cards. As reported in the Opposition periodical, The Craftsman, “the Waggs say it has made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich” (February 3, 1728).

The controversy sparked by the play was not limited to clergymen disturbed by its alleged immorality.  By targeting those running the state, likening them to petty criminals like Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, Gay earned their enmity.  There is an often-repeated story that Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, attended the opera and calling for an encore for the pointed Air 30, “Be cautious and sage, when you censure the Age.”  But, whether or not this occurred, Walpole would not stand for further provocation, using governmental power to suppress Gay’s sequel, Polly.  Set in the West Indies, it tells of Polly’s pursuit of Macheath, who again proves faithless and absconds to pursue piracy—while wearing blackface and bearing the name Morano—in the company of Jenny Diver.  Along the way, Polly, herself disguised in man’s clothes to discourage sexual assault, comes into contact with noble Native Americans who capture and execute Macheath, ending with the prince, Cawwawkee, professing his love for Polly once her gender is revealed.  Blocked from staging the play, Gay published it as his own expense.  This was a gamble that paid off, as the controversy around the play led to healthy sales. 

However, this success did not come without a cost.  Now clearly associated with the Opposition, as those standing against Walpole were called—this is a very early moment in the rise of party politics—Gay was banished from his rooms at Whitehall.  His recourse was to spend the rest of his life with the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry, the latter of whom was herself banished from Court for her support for Gay.  He continued to write for the stage, including a revised Wife of Bath (which had a disappointing run on stage) and Achilles, The Distressed Wife, and The Rehearsal at Goatham, though he made no real effort to get them on stage and they were not published until after his death.  That death came on December 4, 1732, shortly after he caught a fever.  He left a substantial estate of approximately £6000 (over £700,000 in today’s money).  Gay never married, and so his fortune was bequeathed in equal shares to Gay’s two sisters, Katherine Baller and Joanna Fortescue.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey, and his monument there includes a couplet of his own composition:  “Life is a jest; and all things show it,/I thought so once; but now I know it.”

For stimulating readings of Gay’s life, see David Nokes, John Gay:  A Profession of Friendship (Oxford University Press, 1995) and Dianne Dugaw, ‘Deep Play’:  John Gay and the Invention of Modernity (University of Delaware Press, 2001).