John Gay Essay - Critical Essays

John Gay Drama Analysis

John Gay’s reputation rests primarily on The Beggar’s Opera, to the extent that the rest of his work has gone largely unappreciated. Although none of his plays is as successful as The Beggar’s Opera, a number of them show, in experimental form, the same characteristics that give Gay’s masterpiece its unique form and spirit. Throughout his work, Gay is concerned with the emptiness and corruption of society, and his plays are distinguished by the innovative strategies he developed to present this theme: the use of pastoral forms to achieve a comparison between high and low classes, the inclusion of songs set to popular tunes, the use of literary satire and burlesque side by side with scenes of sincere feeling, the grafting of heroic qualities onto low characters, the use of carefully observed realistic detail, and the blending of several literary forms into a cohesive work. In those plays, principally the later ones, in which Gay is less innovative and more single-minded in purpose, there is a considerable loss of power. Gay’s best plays—The Beggar’s Opera and some of the earlier works—are characterized by a complex and original use of multiple dramatic forms that gives them a unique power and a surprisingly modern flavor.

Gay’s greatest achievement lies in his experimentation with traditional forms. This formal exploration, which gives even his less successful plays great complexity and vitality, led to the creation of a new dramatic form, the ballad opera, and one brilliant play which has had an important place in the English theatrical repertory for more than two hundred years.

The Mohocks and The Wife of Bath

Gay’s interest in experimentation can be seen in his first two plays, The Mohocks and The Wife of Bath. Both plays have a clear literary ancestry, the first from Shakespearean comedy and the second from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). Described as a “tragi-comical farce,” The Mohocks satirizes a group of bullies who roam London at night terrorizing the citizens. The aristocratic men of the gang are confronted by a group of watchmen strongly reminiscent of Dogberry’s crew in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599). The Wife of Bath imagines the further adventures of Chaucer and some of the Canterbury pilgrims at a stop along their route. Both plays are essentially comic in form, ending in reconciliation and appropriate marriages. The Mohocks contains a great deal of literary burlesque, while The Wife of Bath gently mocks both Chaucer and the eighteenth century society from which its characters are drawn by a process of deflation, a technique Gay used in a more serious and sophisticated way in The Beggar’s Opera. Both plays, with their combination of literary burlesque, topical satire, and farce and with their use of songs set to popular music, show Gay experimenting with techniques he later blended more effectively in The Beggar’s Opera.

The What D’ye Call It

Perhaps the most complex and interesting of Gay’s early plays is The What D’ye Call It. The play mystified its audience at first but eventually became a success. Its title, which recalls Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600) or Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602), leads one to expect literary parody, but that is only a part of the play’s complex effect. Gay works here with the technique, also reminiscent of Shakespeare, of the play-within-a-play. A group of rustics are performing a tragedy, especially created for the occasion, before a country lord and his friends. The couplet verse and excessive sentiment of the tragedy are deflated by being delivered by the simple rustics. At the same time, the real problems and emotions of the lower-class characters are given a measure of dignity through their expression in poetic form. Gay uses the exaggeration of farce to create a blend of laughter and sympathy, an effect not unlike that of modern tragicomedy or Theater of the Absurd. This complex combination disorients the audience and destroys any idea it may have about the proper hierarchy or use of dramatic forms. At the same time, Gay resolves both inner and outer plays through a marriage that cuts across class lines and fittingly caps the play’s social comment. With its combination of social satire and literary burlesque, its use of ballads, and its ability to contain and evoke genuine feelings, The What D’ye Call It was a major step on Gay’s path toward The Beggar’s Opera.


In and The Captives his two verse tragedies, Dione and The Captives, Gay abandoned his experiments with literary form to work in a single literary mode without questioning its conventions. Both plays are concerned with fidelity in love, a theme that also appears in The Beggar’s Opera. They also examine the social conditions that affect fidelity and independence. In Dione, the shallowness and infidelity of Evander and the unhappiness of court life are contrasted to the fidelity of Dione and the simple goodness of the pastoral life. This contrast is developed more fully in The Captives, in which the imprisoned prince and princess, who have lost all wealth and power, remain faithful to each other and to those who have befriended them in the midst of a court characterized by lust, bribery, and political intrigue. The scheming queen, who uses the king’s devotion and wealth to maintain her power, is not far removed from those characters in The Beggar’s Opera who thrive on a system of bribes and payoffs.

The Beggar’s Opera

In The Beggar’s Opera, Gay brought to fulfillment both his experiments with dramatic form and his increasingly serious criticism of society. Although it may be true that the initial idea for The Beggar’s Opera lay in Swift’s often...

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