In addition to his plays, John Gay is well known for his poetry, principally Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), the two series of Fables (1727 and 1738), and numerous songs and ballads. All of these writings are available in the 1926 edition of Gay’s poetic works, edited by G. C. Faber, which also includes most of the plays, or in the two-volume John Gay: Poetry and Prose (1974), edited by Vinton A. Dearing with the assistance of Charles E. Beckwith. The entire canon, including all of Gay’s dramatic works, is contained in the six-volume Poetical, Dramatic, and Miscellaneous Works of John Gay (1795, reprinted 1970). The poet’s correspondence is collected in The Letters of John Gay, edited by C. F. Burgess (1966).
John Gay’s abilities and significance as a dramatist have often been underestimated. Overshadowed by his more famous friends and sometime collaborators Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift , Gay has generally been designated, as he was by Samuel Johnson, a poet of a “lower order.” Although his dramatic work may be uneven, it is generally well crafted and interesting. At its best, it displays originality, dramatic power, and a serious social concern. Gay’s central theme is the corruption of English society, but while his criticism is often severe, his satire is more gentle and good-humored than that of his more famous literary friends. His work is also marked by a willingness to explore and reevaluate traditional forms, a practice that results sometimes in literary satire and burlesque and other times in experimentation and innovation. His experiments with mixed forms led him to the creation of a new dramatic type, the balled opera, of which his masterpiece, The Beggar’s Opera, is the first and finest example. Although Gay’s reputation rests principally on this unique work, his other plays abound with the same originality, good-natured satire, gifted lyric expression, and genuine comic spirit that have made The Beggar’s Opera one of the few plays outside the Shakespearean canon to find a permanent place in the English theatrical repertory.
John Gay’s early reputation was based on his poetry, but he produced several dramatic pieces of note between 1712 and 1731. In fact, three of his plays were not published until after his death. His claim to lasting fame, however, was The Beggar’s Opera, which opened at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, on the night of January 29, 1728. It ran for sixty-two performances between January and June of that year, thirty-two of which were consecutive. Produced under the direction of John Rich, manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the play supposedly made “Gay rich and Rich gay.” Financial success aside, the piece wove together a number of popular modes: sarcasm against Italian opera, political satire, and social criticism that dared to compare the court circle with the then-current underworld network. There is some evidence to support the contention that the opera was prompted by Jonathan Swift’s suggestion to Alexander Pope (by way of a letter dated August 11, 1716) that Gay should write a series of “Newgate pastorals”—burlesques of the pastoral tradition that had succeeded so well in The Shepherd’s Week. The problem with that theory, however, is that it seems unreasonable that Gay would have allowed the suggestion to remain in limbo for twelve years. Perhaps a more plausible source for The Beggar’s Opera is the career of the famous highwayman Jonathan Wild, who died at Tyburn Hill on May 4, 1725. Certainly,...
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John Gay’s prominent stature within the literary and social circles of eighteenth century England requires no complex explanation. Indeed, his associations with his literary peers, especially among the outspoken Tory satirists of the early years of Walpole’s ministry, were far deeper than mere political or professional ties. Pope, Swift, and John Arbuthnot regarded him with the utmost love and respect. Even Walpole, whom he attacked, appointed him to the post of commissioner of lotteries, granted him an apartment at Whitehall Palace, and influenced Queen Caroline to offer him a household post. Lewis Melville, who fairly early in the twentieth century compiled a collection of Gay’s letters and surrounded it with biographical bits and pieces, maintained that Gay’s friends—Lord Burlington, Lady Suffolk (Henrietta Howard), the duke and duchess of Queensberry—all placed their houses and their purses at the poet’s disposal in an effort to compete for the pleasure of his company. Never, noted Melville, was a man of letters so pampered and petted.
Gay was, however, more to the Augustans than simply another social ornament or intellectual gadfly with a superficial talent for conversation and letters. Consider the degree to which his works held the interest of English readers and English theater audiences after his death in 1732. There were productions and revivals of his operas and recurrent editions of the Poems on Several Occasions, the Fables, Trivia, The Shepherd’s Week, and even The What D’ye Call It (pr., pb. 1715). Throughout the century, readers of his poems and plays realized the timelessness of his social criticism. What those same readers may have...
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Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Interpretations: “The Beggar’s Opera.” New York: Chelsea House, 1988. An important collection of critical essays on The Beggar’s Opera. The essay by William Empson focuses on this opera as a fine example of the mock pastoral form. The introduction discusses Gay’s sense of the absurd, combined with his sense of “potential punishment.”
Dobrée, Bonamy. William Congreve: A Conversation Between Swift and Gay. 1929. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Press, 1969. A conversation between Jonathan Swift and Gay recorded at the house of the duke of Queensberry near London in 1730. They discuss Congreve’s work with vigor, forthrightness, and wit. Of interest to scholars of both Gay and Swift.
Dugaw, Dianne. Deep Play: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2001. A critical and historical analysis of Gay’s works. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Lewis, Peter, and Nigel Wood, eds. John Gay and the Scriblerians. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. These ten essays, the result of the tercentenary of Gay’s birth, are important in presenting later trends in the analysis and criticism of Gay’s work. They focus on the dichotomies found in Gay’s life and writings, the perplexing...
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