John Gay 1685-1732
English poet, dramatist, and essayist
Despite an uneven, often controversial writing career, Gay was both beloved and admired by some of the greatest minds of his time. He secured his place in literary history with one of the most original dramatic works ever written, The Beggar's Opera, and ended his career by writing some of the least memorable plays of the era. Although Gay's reputation now rests mainly on the success of the Opera, he had long before achieved popular success with his poetry. His own works and collaborations with some of the best-known writers of his age brought him nearly unparalleled acclaim. Had he been more careful financially, he would have made more money than any other poet at that time. Gay, however, experienced many financial, personal, and professional disappointments.
Gay was born in 1685 in the Devonshire town of Barnstaple. As a younger son in a large family, Gay was destined to apprenticeship in a trade. He left Barnstaple as a teenager, after receiving a basic grammar school education, and became an apprentice to a silk-mercer named Willet in London. He returned home in 1706, earlier than expected; his early release from his apprenticeship is often interpreted as a failure at trade. He began writing shortly afterwards, publishing his first poem, Wine, in 1708 (the year in which he met Alexander Pope), and a short essay on the flourishing trade in literary periodicals, The Present State of Wit, in 1711. Around 1708, he began working for Aaron Hill, a playwright and editor; by 1712, his first play, The Mohocks, was published. In 1713, Gay formed an association with a group of writers knows as the Scriblerians. Members of the Scriblerus Club included Dr. Arbuthnot, Bishop Atterbury, the dramatist William Congreve, Lord Oxford, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Parnell, and Pope. The same year, Gay obtained a position as secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth; after the death of Queen Anne in 1714, he found a job in the George I's Hanoverian court as secretary to Lord Clarendon. During his early years with the Scriblerians, Gay developed the literary and political preoccupations that would mark his brief career, toying with the pastoral in Rural Sports (1713), The Shepherd's Week (1714), and...
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Gay's most famous work by far is his Beggar's Opera, whose place in the literary canon was confirmed by Bertold Brecht's twentieth-century adaptation, The Threepenny Opera. Gay's most important early works were poems that adapted the pastoral tone. His earliest works—Wine, Rural Sports, The Fan—were quickly forgotten, but his pastoral satire The Shepherd's Week demonstrated more of his promise. The poem is likely Gay's commentary on a dispute between poet Ambrose Phillips and Gay's friend Pope over the pastoral genre, but both in its realism and in its respect for rural life Gay's collection of eclogues surpasses mere parody. His next major poem, Trivia, uses the pastoral form, especially allusions to Virgil's Georgics, to draw a satiric picture of London city life. In vivid detail, Gay portrays the highest and lowest of city scenes, often juxtaposed for ironic effect. His most famous poetry, however, is his first collection of fifty Fables, another literary form that offered Gay the potent combination of rustic innocence and sharp satire. In them, Gay uses animal stories to highlight the misguided self-importance of man; yet although the work is satirical, it reflects the Augustan sensibility that the universe was ordered and coherent. Among his early plays, the so-called "Tragi-Comi-Pastroal Farce" The What D'Ye Call It most clearly indicates Gay's development as a dramatist, with its odd...
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During his lifetime, Gay was widely considered one of the most gifted writers of his era. He was greatly admired by his friends Pope and Swift, and later eighteenth-century authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and Tobias Smollett spoke warmly of his "genius." Not long after his death, however, his reputation began to suffer. In particular, Samuel Johnson's characterization of him in The Lives of the English Poets (1779) as a poet "of a lower order" seems to have dogged his posthumous career through the twentieth century. The moralism of nineteenth-century criticism further darkened his reputation because of his tendency to depict the lowest realms of society. Only in the mid-twentieth century did scholars begin again to agree that Gay's works had a place among those of his Scriblerian friends, long considered "major" authors while Gay was nearly forgotten. In 1938, Phoebe Fenwick Gaye renewed the investigation into Gay's rightful place in the eighteenth-century literary canon, placing him on more of an equal footing with the authors such as Pope and Swift who were his contemporaries and friends. Later book-length studies by Adina Forsgren (1964) and Patricia Meyer Spacks (1965) further advanced Gay's cause, stressing Gay's skill as a poet and not allowing The Beggar's Opera to overshadow his other artistic and popular achievements. Many recent scholars have focused on Gay's blending of forms and his mixed use of classical and popular allusion,...
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Wine [anonymous] (poem) 1708
To the Learned Ingenious Author of Licentia Poetica Discuss'd (poem) 1709
The Present State of Wit [anonymous] (essay) 1711 An Argument proving that the present Mohocks and Hawkubites are the Gog and Magog mention'd in the Revelation (satire) 1712
The Mohocks (drama) 1712
Rural Sports (poem) 1713
The Wife of Bath (drama) 1713; revised and altered edition, 1730
Reproof and Flattery [in the periodical The Guardian] (essay) 1713
The Fan (poem) 1714
The Shepherd's Week (poem) 1714
A Letter to a Lady (poem) 1714
The What D'ye Call It (drama) 1715
Two Epistles; One, to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington; The Other, to a Lady (poems) 1715
Trivia: or; The Art of Walking the Streets of London (poem) 1716
Three Hours after Marriage (drama) 1717
Acis and Galatea (libretto) 1719; first published 1732*
Poems on Several Occasions (poems, drama) 1720
A Panegyrical Epistle to Mr. Thomas Snow [anonymous] (poem) 1721
The Captives (drama) 1724
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SOURCE: "The Doubtful or Disputed Poems" in The Poetical Works of John Gay, edited by G. C. Faber, Oxford University Press, 1926, pp. xxiii-xxxiv.
[In the following essay, Faber outlines his reasons for including or excluding several poems from his collection of Gay's work. His analysis of the problem of authorship offers a concise overview of Gay's publishing history, his literary connections, and his literary style.]
By far the most embarrassing problem, with which a conscientious editor of an eighteenth-century poet is confronted, is the problem of determining what he is to include as his author's. It is an embarrassing problem, and yet the labour spent upon it is for the most part unremunerative; for the pieces in doubt are generally of minor, if not of trifling, importance. However, a decision has to be made and supported; and this kind of detective work is not altogether without interest.
In order to clear the ground, we will begin by excluding from immediate consideration the following: (1) Wine; (2) pieces not hitherto printed in any collection of Gay's poems (of which more below); (3) the 'Gulliver' verses (discussed on p. xxxiv); (4) the Poems from Gay's Chair, which I have no doubt are deliberate forgeries,1 (5) the Prologues to the Three Hours after Marriage and Achilles, which must needs be printed with the plays for which they were...
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SOURCE: "Chapter 18" and "Chapter 19," in John Gay: His Place in the Eighteenth Century, Collins, 1938, pp. 301-19; 320-45.
[In the following excerpt, Fenwick Gaye focuses on the years 1727 and 1728, when Gay wrote and then premiered The Beggar's Opera. She pays particular attention to Gay's influential relationships with fellow Scriblerians Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and to Gay's difficult relationship with the English court and government, including Prime Minister Robert Walpole.]
"Amidst our hopes, Fate strikes the sudden wound."
GAY: 'A THOUGHT ON ETERNITY'
Early in , Swift began to put into action his plans for coming to England. He had Irish plaids to discuss with Mrs. Howard, and medals to discuss with the Queen, the Miscellany of poems to discuss with the other Scriblerians—and all sorts of delicious prospects. He was sensible enough to know by now that plaids and medals were about as far as he could reasonably hope to go in Court favour. The Tale of a Tub had done its work too effectively for him to think that there was any longer a chance of his being transferred to an English Deanery. Even Gulliver's success could not atone for that. He knew, also, that Walpole had summed him up, after that unhappy dinner, and had decided not to bother with him further. Not...
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SOURCE: Introduction to "The Present State of Wit" by John Gay, Augustan Reprint Society, Ser. I, No. 3, May 1947, pp. 1-5.
[In the following essay, Bond discusses the possible political biases revealed in Gay's review of the periodicals circulating in London coffeehouses of the early eighteenth century. With some attention to Gay's treatment of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Bond suggests that this early work may indicate Whig leanings that predate Gay's association with the more Torysympathetic Swift and Pope.]
Gay's concern in his survey of The Present State of Wit is with the productions of wit which were circulating among the coffee-houses of 1711, specifically the large numbers of periodical essays which were perhaps the most distinctive kind of "wit" produced in the "four last years" of Queen Anne's reign. His little pamphlet makes no pretence at an analysis of true and false wit or a refining of critical distinctions with regard to wit in its relations to fancy and judgment. Addressed to "a friend in the country," it surveys in a rapid and engaging manner the productions of Isaac Bickerstaff and his followers which are engrossing the interest of London. In other words it is an early example of a popular eighteenth-century form, of which Goldsmith's more extended Inquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning is the best known instance.…
Gay is writing, he...
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SOURCE: "John Gay: A Satirist's Progress," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1964, pp. 156-70.
[In the following essay, Spacks considers the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's satiric efforts, concentrating on his satiric epistles and the Fables. Comparing Gay primarily to Pope, Spacks suggests that Gay's recognition of his own feelings may have blunted the point of some of his satire.]
Several years ago, in 'The Muse of Satire', Maynard Mack, reminding us that 'all good satire … exhibits an appreciable degree of fictionality', isolated three distinguishable 'voices' characteristic of the personae in Pope's formal satires: those of the satirist 'as vir bonus, the plain good private citizen', as ingénu, and as hero, or public defender. The 'total dramatic development of any one of [Pope's] formal satires is', Mr. Mack concluded, 'to a large extent determined by the way they [the voices] succeed one another, modulate and qualify one another, and occasionally fuse with one another'.1
The illumination of satiric technique in Mr. Mack's essay also clarifies, indirectly, the achievement and limitations of other eighteenth-century satirists. A case in point is John Gay, who has been considered, apart from his triumph in The Beggar's Opera, merely a second- or third-rate Pope. Ian Jack barely mentions Gay in his book on Augustan satire; James...
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SOURCE: "The Shepherd's Week," in John Gay: Poet "Of a Lower Order," Natur Och Kultur; Broderna Lagerstrom AB, 1964, pp. 105-167.
[In the following excerpt, Forsgren. examines Gay's pastoral poems in both their political and their literary contexts, discussing The Shepherd's Week's connections not only to classical antecedents, but to Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar and his peer Pope's pastorals, including "Windsor Forest." Forsgren maintains that the period of peace following the treaty of Utrecht during the reign of the Stuart Queen Anne was an important influence in the revival of pastoral poetry during the early eighteenth century.]
The Shepherd's Week contains elements which would justify its place not only in this volume. But as its quality of a political Gelegenheitsgedicht has hitherto been overlooked by critics, the poem will be treated of in this context.
Gay's Eclogues pay homage to the period of peace after Utrecht and to those who were responsible for it, by picturing Queen Anne's Tory millennium. The poet thereby facetiously made use of the expression Golden Age both as a term of criticism of pastoral poetry and as a notion which in its conventional sense was alien to "modern" doctrines of progress and cyclic changes, in particular adhered to by Whig Augustans.
The famous Guardian rules for serious English pastoral poetry...
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SOURCE: "Early Masks and Models" in John Gay, Twayne Publishers; Inc., 1965, pp. 17-40.
[In the following excerpt, Spacks examines Gay's earliest poetry, demonstrating how the poet developed both his voice and his major artistic concerns. Although his early work is uneven, Spacks argues, it prefigures his more successful efforts at marrying the pastoral form with a more sophisticated tone, and adapting traditional genres to new uses.]
Not until 1713, when he was twenty-eight years old, did John Gay begin to discover models which made extended poetic expression possible for him. He then described himself, in the first version of Rural Sports, as having "courted Bus'ness with successless Pain,/And in Attendance wasted Years in vain." For about eleven years he had struggled to make his way in London, having come from the provinces (Barnstaple, in Devon) as an apprentice to a silk mercer. When, around 1708, he became secretary to Aaron Hill, a minor playwright and magazine editor who briefly managed Drury Lane theater, he entered for the first time the literary world he yearned to be part of. Before 1713, however, he had published only one long poem, Wine (a work apparently too poor, in his opinion, to include in the collected poems seven years later), and a farcical play, The Mohocks, which he had been unable to get produced.
His vision of success, then as later, had...
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SOURCE: "The Beggar's Triumph," in John Gay, Twayne Publishers; Inc., 1965, pp. 145-61.
[In the following excerpt, Spacks suggests that in The Beggar's Opera Gay developed a dramatic form that ideally suited both his artistic voice and his political concerns. Spacks also looks at the Opera's less successful sequel, Polly, to illuminate the reasons for the Opera's popular and critical acclaim, in both the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.]
It is, of course, for The Beggar's Opera that Gay is remembered in the twentieth century, even among people with no particular interest in eighteenth-century poetry or drama. The play was revived in a rather romanticized London production with great success in 1926; its music was later adapted and presented by Benjamin Britten; in 1963 the Royal Shakespeare Company produced it once more, with great attention to realistic detail, and with a vivid sense of the play's topicality in modern England, once more riddled with scandal in high places. Made into a movie starring Laurence Olivier, The Beggar's Opera still returns to art theaters; it has been reissued in formats ranging from an inexpensive student paperback to a splendid reproduction of the 1729 edition; a new recording recently presented all its music and much of its speech.
Probably nothing, however, has brought Gay's work so much to popular attention as...
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SOURCE: "Menalcas' Song: The Meaning of Art and Artifice in Gay's Poetry," in JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. LXV, 1966, pp. 662-79.
[In the following essay, Battestin calls for a new understanding of Gay's use of the pastoral in his poetry, suggesting that Gay's skill with form and artifice reflect an Augustan aesthetic akin to that of Pope.]
For Gay, no less than Pater, art was necessary because life was deficient in form. This is the essential point, not only about the manner of Gay's verse—that "delicate and sophisticated craftsmanship," as Professor Sutherland has remarked, producing objets as precious and frail as Chelsea china1—but about Gay's meaning as well. His best known poems—the Fables, The Shepherd's Week, Rural Sports, Trivia—are characteristically witty and finely wrought, apparently frivolous and fragile. It is perhaps not surprising that Dr. Johnson should dismiss their author as lacking the "mens divinior, the dignity of genius,"2 or that this estimate should have survived through nearly two centuries. One of the very best of modern critics, though delighting in what he calls Gay's "artistic coquetry," regrets that he wanted "the moral earnestness" of his friends Swift and Pope, that his goodness is that of "a witty child … who has read about or even seen the world, the flesh, and the devil, without ever...
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SOURCE: "The Beggar's View of Courtly Love," in John Gay: Social Critic, Octagon Books, 1966, pp. 128-54.
[In the following excerpt, Armens considers Gay's view of relationships between men and women in the context of Restoration and early eighteenth-century stereotypes of feminine vanity and the expectation of marital infidelity. Armens focuses on The Beggar's Opera and Achilles, but connects Gay's dramatic work to his earlier pastoral poems. Armens also discusses Gay's relationships with particular women.]
Love, usually considered the most basic of the passions, offers a good measure for examination and judgment of a society. Attitudes toward sex and the ideals of relationship between men and women are necessarily basic fodder for the satirist and the social commentator. Of them Gay makes good use. Much of his thought was devoted to such examination, and his judgments on sex conduct and love are expressed in all his works.
It is fair to assume that Gay was an expert in the psychology of the feminine mind, for it is certainly true that he had gained the allegiance of many women, including the noblest duchesses of the court. When the performance of Polly (later published in 1729) was suppressed, the ladies showed their response to his appeal by rallying to his support. An anonymous friend made the matter the subject of a mocking poem entitled The Female Faction;...
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SOURCE: "Handel, Walpole, and Gay: The Aims of The Beggar's Opera," in Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 75, No. 4, Summer, 1974, pp. 415-33.
[In the following essay, McIntosh disputes commonly held assumptions about Gay's satiric targets in The Beggar's Opera. McIntosh suggests that Gay's cordial relationship with Handel and his treatment of music in his own work contradicts the notion that Gay was attacking Italian opera, and that evidence of specific, personal attacks on Walpole is very weak. Instead, he proposes that the object of Gay's satire is society itself.]
I have deferr'd writing to you from time to time till I could give you an account of the Beggar's Opera. It is acted at the Playhouse in Lincoln's Inn fields, with such success that the Playhouse hath been crowded every night; to night is the fifteenth time of Acting, and 'tis thought it will run a fortnight longer.
John Gay, 17281
Gay's Letter to Swift, written some two weeks after The Beggar's Opera opened on 29 January 1728,2 might have seemed to some an extraordinary boast. The expectation that his play would equal its already unprecedented run was, however, well founded. At a time when a dozen consecutive performances of a play were all but unheard of, The Beggar's Opera was produced without interruption no...
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SOURCE: "The Beggar's Opera as Opera and Anti-Opera," in John Gay: "The Beggar's Opera," Edward Arnold, 1976, pp. 8-23.
[In the following excerpt, Lewis connects Gay's opera to concurrent developments in the Italian opera then performed in London, demonstrating specific sources from several operas, including those of Handel. Lewis concludes that Gay's approach to The Beggar's Opera reflects concern with the popularity of foreign opera, but does not indicate a condemnation of the genre itself.]
Today The Beggar's Opera is usually regarded as one of the very few great English plays of the eighteenth century and as one of the major literary works of the Augustan period; yet the title asserts unequivocally that it is an opera. This apparent discrepancy poses the question—what kind of opera? To Gay's contemporaries, the title of his work would at first have seemed as incongruous (although for a slightly different reason) as those of the mock-heroic poems, The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, by his friend Pope. Writing for an elite educated in the classics, Pope knew that the words 'The Rape of would bring to mind 'The Rape of Leda' or 'The Rape of Helen' or 'The Rape of Lucretia', myths and stories about events that had wide-ranging reprecussions of epic proportions, such as the Trojan War. 'The Rape of produces expectations that are dashed by the rest of Pope's title...
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SOURCE: "The Significance of Gay's Drama," in English 'Drama: Forms and Development-Essays in Honor of Muriel Clara Bradbrook, edited by Marie Axton and Raymond Williams, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 142-63.
[In the following essay, Erskine-Hill considers the whole of Gay's dramatic corpus to illuminate Gay's experimentalism and the development of his most famous work, The Beggar's Opera. Erskine-Hill focuses on Gay's tendency to mix and subvert familiar generic forms to create entirely new types of theatre.]
John Gay's comedy The Distress'd Wife is the last and least-known of his full-length plays. Among those but once reprinted since the eighteenth century, it is a useful vantage-point from which to view Gay's dramatic achievement. The great original success of The Beggar's Opera, and continuing attention paid it in our time, have obscured the interest of the other plays, the relation of these to the Opera, and the larger significance of the canon.1 I want to consider these matters, and to convey to the reader the experimental combination of forms, idioms and attitudes, and the humour and humanity, to be found in most of Gay's work for the theatre.
Gay wrote just two plays which espoused the formal dramatic orthodoxies of his time: his blank verse tragedy The Captives (1724) and The Distress'd Wife (written but probably not...
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SOURCE: "Gay's Trivia and the Art of Allusion," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXV, No. 2, 1978, pp. 199-222.
[In the following essay, Ames makes a case for Gay's often-unrecognized skill with classical allusion, comparing his Trivia with John Dryden's translation of Virgil's Georgics. Ames argues that Gay's burlesque, with its unassuming tone, better approximates the classical originals.]
Few studies of John Gay's poetry accord him the full praise he merits as a master of the poetry of classical allusion. Recently, in "John Gay: Lightweight or Heavyweight?" (Scriblerian, VIII ), Arthur Sherbo has even indicated that in the last five years there has, in fact, been an hiatus in Gay scholarship altogether. And yet, Sherbo's 1970 essay, "Virgil, Dryden, Gay, and Matters Trivial" (PMLA, LXXXV), like Martin Battestin's earlier "Menalcas' Song: The Meaning of Art and Artifice in Gay's Poetry" (JEGP, LXV ), had made a compelling plea for our recognition of Gay's emulation—in Trivia— of Vergil's Georgics. These claims for Gay I should like to extend by enlarging upon the poet's complementary powers as an allusive poet and as a satirist of the decline of culture. For, when read closely, Gay's Trivia discloses an advocacy of Scriblerian causes quite as fervent as Pope's or Swift's.1 Indeed, some readers may even become...
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SOURCE: "The Languages of Gay's Trivia," Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. X, No. 3, October, 1986, pp. 27-43.
[In the following essay, Beckwith considers the classical antecedents of Gay's Trivia, including Virgil's Georgics, to explicate Gay's "mock" effects. Beckwith finds that despite its pointed satire, the poem's mock tone makes possible an overall sense of positivity about the dynamic nature of city life.]
You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.
In Gay's Trivia (1716; II, 99-220 added in Poems on Several Occasions, 1720) a number of possible "meanings"—mock georgic, satire, moral didacticism, straight reportage of journalism, pastoral yearnings, apocalyptic vision—have attracted one reader or another;' but I think it might better be read as a game of languages, that is a game with meaning itself. Such a way of reading has the initial advantage of equalizing the lines of the poem at one starting point, so that we will not be too readily seduced by heightened or apparently insistent statements, or those that seem to cluster around some theme, or the literal and predicative; and mock work is especially susceptible to such seduction toward atomistic treatment. We get the hang of the work right...
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SOURCE: "The Migrant Muses: A Study of Gay's Later Drama," in John Gay and the Scriblerians, edited by Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood, Vision Press; St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 163-83.
[In the following essay, Williams examines Gay's depictions of women in light of the works of other Scriblerians, especially Pope and Swift. Williams suggests that the unevenness of Gay's later works in part stems from his attempts to translate into dramatic representations topics better addressed in prose or poetry.]
One of Pope's epitaphs on Gay tells only half the truth:
Favourite of the muses,
He was led by them to every elegant art:
Refined in taste,
And fraught with graces all his own:
In various kinds of poetry
Superior to many,
Inferior to none.1
The muses were, in fact, cruelly capricious in their favours, alternately wafting Gay to pinnacles of brilliance and leaving him to flounder through a slough of well-intentioned tedium. They decreed that his masterpieces should be inimitable—even by Gay himself. Most exasperating of all was their habit of slipping away without letting him know they had gone: the man who could proudly offer Polly as a sequel to The Beggar's Opera, or follow Fables II,...
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SOURCE: "Sex and Gender in Gay's 'Achilles,'" in John Gay and the Scriblerians, edited by Peter Lewis and Nigel Wood, Vision Press; St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 184-215.
[In the following essay, Noble argues that Gay's later drama registers the paradoxical position of women in a patriarchal society, with an emphasis on contemporary constructions of rape. Noble concludes that while Gay was not necessarily 'feminist," his work nonetheless reflects the voice of the oppressed.]
At a time of unparalleled academic interest in the relationship (which is to say, discrepancy) between sex and gender, John Gay emerges as an extremely interesting writer, distinctively conscious and candid, able through his characteristic duple forms and modes to render the simultaneous state of authenticity and inauthenticity in which those who do not embody the norm are condemned to dwell. Little interested in party politics, uninterested in social theory, Gay was acutely aware of the transactions of oppression between individuals; he is able through these duple forms and modes to force those who would be intractable to preaching to take account of the unvoiced suffering even in their own circle. Gay's last work, the seemingly frivolous ballad opera Achilles, confronts in this way the serious issue of rape.
Achilles, which had just gone into rehearsal when Gay died, features its hero throughout...
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SOURCE: "The Beggar's Opera in Theatre History" and "The Opera as Work of Art," in John Gay and the London Theatre, University Press of Kentucky, 1993, pp. 87-108; 109-27.
[In the following excerpts, Winton examines the history of the writing and reception of The Beggar's Opera, focusing on Gay's close relationships with Pope and Swift. Winton suggests that Gay's innovative use of both classical works and English popular ballads created a uniquely English genre from the then-popular Italian opera.]
Hearing of Stella's illness, Swift had departed for Dublin in September 1727. Before he left he had read scenes from The Beggar's Opera, which was finished, if we can trust the text and dating of Gay's letter to him,' by late October 1727. How long had it been in active preparation, one may ask, actually in the stage of composition, and what influenced Gay in writing it?
Many years before, in the Scriblerian days of 1716, Swift had written to Pope about what Gay might do: "what think you of a Newgate pastoral, among the whores and thieves there?"2 Swift presumably meant a pastoral poem, a comic urban pastoral of the sort he himself wrote in "Description of the Morning." Trivia itself is close to a Newgate pastoral poem at times; the scene in that work quoted earlier of the apprentices' football game is a kind of Shepherd's Week episode in...
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SOURCE: "Dangerous Sissy: Gendered 'Lives,' John Gay and the Literary Canon," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 339-60.
[In the following essay, Dugaw asserts that late-eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century notions of class and literary propriety led to a reluctance on the part of Gay's contemporaries to consider him a significant contributor to the literary culture of his era.]
John Gay's reputation tumbled as literary criticism metamorphosed in the eighteenth century from a descriptive project to a determinant of taste and values. His own era judged him a prominant figure, an author who sparked controversy and emulation. By the nineteenth century Gay's "official" stature shrank. At the same time, English literary historiography took the form it still holds today. The two phenomena are not unconnected. The changing narratives that successively represented Gay's "life" and his "character" disclose the social, moral, and ideological imperatives that have shaped the valuing of authors and texts from the satiric sensibility of the early Georgian age to the Modernism of the twentieth century. Critiques of Gay open a window onto the historiography of English letters. Analysis of them shows how ideas about gender have shaped the authorial canon of English literary history with patterns of exclusion as well as of "excellence."
Samuel Johnson, moralist of his age,...
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Price, Cecil. "Gay, Goldsmith, Sheridan, and Other Eighteenth-Century Dramatists." In English Drama (excluding Shakespeare). Select Bibliographical Guides, edited by Stanley Wells, pp. 199-212. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Bibliographic essay provides a short overview of earlier works on Gay; includes citations for general reference.
Dearing, Vinton A. "The Life of Gay." In his John Gay: Poetry and Prose, pp. 1-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Dearing follows Gay's literary and court career, connecting events in his personal life to the works he was writing when they occurred.
Irving, William Henry. John Gay: Favorite of the Wits. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940, 317 p.
The first important modern biography of Gay. Attempts to distance Gay from his earlier reputation as a second-class writer.
Melville, Lewis [pseudonym for Benjamin, Lewis S.]. Life and Letters of John Gay (1685-1732), Author of "The Beggar's Opera." London: Daniel O'Connor, 1921, 163 P.
This biography of Gay focuses on his friendships with Swift and Pope and his relationship with various ladies at court, in the context of his major works.
Nokes, David. John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. Oxford: Oxford...
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