These letters record the friendship between two of the most celebrated authors of the 18th century – John Gay and Jonathan Swift. They also reveal Gay’s reactions to the public commotion surrounding his sensational hit The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and its sequel Polly (1729).
The Scriblerus Club
Gay and Swift were two founding members of the lively Scriblerus Club ‒ a close-knit group of writers and wits that included Alexander Pope, the Irish poet Thomas Parnell and the royal physician John Arbuthnot. They met around 1713‒14 and ‒ using the persona of the fictional hack-writer Martin Scriblerus ‒ mercilessly satirised the pretensions of contemporary literature.
Letters between friends: Gay and Swift
Gay and Swift exchanged many letters, swapping gossip and literary projects, describing their various ailments and arranging their next meetings. They also updated each other about their elite friends and patrons, including Henrietta Howard (King George II’s mistress) and the Duchess of Queensberry.
The Beggar’s Opera
It may have been Swift who first prompted Gay to write The Beggar’s Opera, his riotous blend of bawdy comedy and political satire, popular tunes and high art, which revolves around Newgate Prison. In 1716, Swift had written to Pope suggesting that ‘our friend Gay’ should write ‘a Newgate pastoral’ set ‘among the whores and thieves there’.
15 February 1728: Out-doing Italian opera
On 29 January 1728, The Beggar’s Opera opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, and, after 15 nights, Gay wrote to Swift, bursting to share his success. The playhouse was constantly crowded, and he hoped to make £600‒700. (In the end, the show ran for 62 nights and Gay made thousands of pounds.)
Gay was aware that he might cause offence with his new paradoxical genre, an ‘opera’ for ‘beggars’. At that time, it would have been daring to use and adapt this high art form to explore London’s corrupt lowlife. But Gay’s work soon became more successful than elite Italian opera, and he feared he would get complaints from ‘the Royal Academy of Musick’ for poaching their audiences.
20 March 1728: Rich gets rich
After 36 nights, The Beggar’s Opera was still sensationally popular. Viewers demanded to see it even when it was due to be cancelled because of an actress’s illness. The theatre manager, John Rich had already ‘clear’d’ nearly £4,000. And Lavinia Fenton, who played Polly Peachum, was gaining celebrity status, with her portrait being published as a ‘Mezzo-tinto print’.
18 March 1729: Polly is banned
A year later, Gay was staying with the Duchess of Queensberry and recovering from an illness so severe that he had only just ‘escap’d death’. The second part of The Beggar’s Opera – a work entitled Polly ‒ had been banned from performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. This was probably because Robert Walpole, the leader of the Whig party, suspected that Gay’s cut-throat rogues were comments on his notorious corruption. However, Gay insisted that he was only writing ‘in the cause of Virtue and against the fashionable vices’.
Gay then went ahead and published 10,000 copies of Polly at his ‘own expence’. The loyal Duchess was banished from court for soliciting subscribers for Gay’s book. Yet he shrewdly predicted that the scandal would ‘turn’ to his ‘advantage’ and he was right: the book became a best-seller and Gay made £1,200.
 Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. by Harold Williams, 5 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963‒64), pp. 11, 215 (30 August 1716).
 In Swift’s notes on these letters the date is marked 1727‒28. This is because according to the Julian calendar used at that time in England the legal New Year did not begin until 25 March.
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 crouded every night; to night is the fifteenth time of Acting, and 'tis
thought it will run a fortnight longer. I have order'd Motte to send the Play to you
the first opportunity. I made no interest either for approbation or money nor
hath any body been prest to take tickets for my Benefit, notwithstanding which,
I think I shall make an addition to my fortune of between six and seven
hundred pounds. I know this account will give you pleasure, as I have push'd
through this precarious Affair without servility or flattery. As to any
favours from Great men I am in the same state you left me; but I am
a great deal happier as I have no expectations. The Dutchess of Queens-
-berry hath signaliz'd her friendship to me upon this occasion in such a
most conspicuous manner, that I hope (for her sake) you will take care
to put your fork to all its proper uses, and suffer nobody for the [future]
to put their knives in their mouths. Lord Cobham says that I should [have]
printed it Italian over against the English, that the Ladys might have
understood what they read. The outlandish ˄ (as they now call it) Opera hath been so thin of
late that some have call'd at the Beggars Opera, & if the run conti-
-nues, I fear I shall have XXXX remonstrances drawn up against me by
the Royal Academy of Musick. As none of us have heard from you of Late
every one of us are in concern about your health. I beg we may hear
from you soon. By my constant attendance on this affair I have almost
worried myself into an ill state of health, but I intend in five or six
days to go to our Country seat at Twickenham for a little air. Mr Pope
is very seldom in town. Mrs Howard frequently asks after you, & desires
her compliments to you; Mr George Arbuthnot, the Doctor's Brother is
married to Mrs Peggy Robinson. I would write more, but as to night
is for my Benefit, I am in a hurry to go out about business.
I am Dear Sr
Yr most affectionate
& obedient Servt
Febr. 15. 1727/8
My Service to Dr Delany
Feb. 22d. 1727-8
Ansd. May. 11th. 1728.
The Reverend Dr Swift
Dean of St Patricks in
[Upside down at bottom of page]
I am extreamly sorry that your disorder
is return'd, but as you have a medicine which hath twice remov'd
you, I hope by this time, have again found the good effects of it.
I have seen Dr Delany at my Lodgings, but as I have been for a
few days with Mr Pulteney at Cashioberry I have not yet return'd
his visit, I went with him to wait upon Lord Bathurst & Lord Bo-
-lingbroke both of whom desire me to make you their compliments.
Lady Boling broke was very much out of order, and with my Lord is
now at Doyley; she expects a letter from you. Mrs Howard would
gladly have the receipt you have found so much benefit by: she is
happier than I have seen her ever since you left us, for she is free
as to her conjugal affairs by articles of agreement. The Beggar's
Opera hath now been acted thirty six times. and was as full the
last night as the first, and as yet there is not the least probabi-
-lity of a thin audience; though there is a discourse about the town
that the Directors of the Royal Academy of Musick are design
to sollicite against it's being play'd on the outlandish Opera
days, as it is now call'd. On the Benefit day of one of the
Actresse's last week one of the players falling sick they were
oblig'd to give out another play or dismiss the Audience, A Play
was given out, but the people call'd out for the Beggar's Opera, &
they were forc'd to play it, or the Audience would not have stayd.
I have got by all this success between seven & eight hundred
pounds, and Rich, (deducting the whole charges of the House)
hath clear'd already near four thousand pounds. In about a
month I am going to the Bath with the Dutchess of Marlborough
and Mr Congreve, for I am have no expectations of receiving any
favours from the Court. The Dutchess of Queensberry is in Wiltshire,
where she hath had the small pox in so favourable a way, that
she had not above seven or eight in her face; she is now perfect-
-ly recover'd. There is a Mezzo-tinto Print publish'd to day
of Polly, the Heroine of the Beggar's Opera, who was before
unknown, & is now in so high vogue, that I am in doubt, whether
her fame does surpass that of the Opera itself. I would not
have talk'd much upon this subject, or upon any thing that re-
-gards self but to you; but as I know you interest yourself so
sincerly in every thing that concerns me, I believe you would have
blam'd me if I had said less. Your Singer owes Dr Arbuthnot
some money, I have forgot the sum; I think it two Guineas; the
Dr desir’d me to let you know it. I saw him last night with Mr
Lewis at Sr William Wyndham's, who if he had not the Gout would
have answer'd your Letter you sent him a year & a half ago; he
said this to me a week since, but he is now pretty well again, &
so may forget to write, for which reason, I ought to do him justice
and tell you that I think him a sincere well wisher of yours.
I have not seen Mr Pope lately, but have heard that both he
& Mrs Pope are very well. I intend to see him at Twickenham
on sunday next. I have not drunk out the Gutheridge Cyder
yet, but I have not so much as a single pint of Port in my
Cellar. I have bought two pair of Sheets against your coming
to town, so that we need not send any more to Jervas upon that
ac[count.] I really miss you every day, and I would be content th[at]
yo[u shoul]d have one whole window to yourself, & half [another]
to have you again. I am
Dear Sr Yrs most affectionately.
You have a half years interest due
at Lady-day, & now 'tis March. 20th.1727/8.
To Mr Gay. Mar. 20. 1727–8
Answd. Mar. 28
The Reverend Dr Swift
Dean of St Patrick's in
I have writ to you several times, and having heard nothing from you
Makes me fear my Letters have miscarries; Mr Pope’s Letter in some degree hath
taken off my concern in some degree, but I hope good weather will entirely re-
-establish you in your health. I am but just recover'd from the corerest fit of
sickness that ever any body had who escap'd death. I was several times gi-
-ven up by the Physicians and every body that attended me; and upon my reco-
-very was indo'd to be in so ill a condition that I should be miserable for the
remainder of my life, but contrary to all expectation Lam perfectly reco-
-ver'd, and have no remainders of the distempers that attack'd me, which
were at the same time, Feaver, Asthma & Pleuresie. I am now in the Duke
of Queensberry's house, and have been so ever since I left Hampstead, where
I was carried at a time that it was thought I could not live a day. Since my
coming to town, I have been very little abroad, the weather has been so severe:
I must acquaint you, (because I know 'twill please you) that during my Sick-
-ness I had many of the kindest proofs of friendship, particularly from
the Duke & Dutchess of Queensberry, who, if I had been their nearest rela-
-tion and nearest friend could not have treated me with more constant atten-
-dance then, and they continue the same to me now.
You must undoubtedly have heard that the Dutchess took up my defence
with the King and Queen in the cause of my Play, and that she hath been for-
-bid the Court for interesting herself to increase my fortune for the public-
-cation of it without being acted; the Duke too hath given up his employment
which he would have done, if the Dutchess had not met this treatment, upon
account of ill usage from the Ministers; but this hasten'd him in what he had
determin'd. The Play is now almost printed with the Musick, words & Basses
engrav'd on 31 Copper plates, wch by my friends assistance hath a probabi-
-lity to turn greatly to my advantage. The Dutchess of Marlborough hath gi-
-ven me a hundred pound for one Copy, & others have contributed very handsomely
but as my account is not yet settled I cannot tell you particulars.
For writing in the cause of Virtue and against the fashionable vices, I
am look'd upon at present as the most obnoxious person almost in England,
Mr Pulteney tells me I have got the start of him. Mr Pope tells me that
I am dead and that this obnoxiousness is the reward for my inoffensive-
-ness in my former life. I wish I had a Book ready to send you, but I
believe I shall not be able to compleat the work 'till the latter end of
next week. Your Money is still in Lord Bathurst's hands, but I believe I
shall receive it soon; I wish to receive your orders how to dispose of it.
I am impatient to finish my work, for I want the country air, not that I
am ill, but to recover my strength, and I cannot leave my work till it is
finish'd. While I am writing this, I am [in] the room next to our dining room
with sheets all-round it, and two people from the Binder folding sheets.
I print the Book at my own expence in Quarto, which is to be sold for
six shillings with the Musick. You see I dont want industry, and I hope
you will allow that I have not the worst Oeconomy. Mrs Howard hath declar'd
herself strongly both to the King & Queen as my advocate. The Dutchess of
Queensberry is allow'd to have shown, more Spirit, more honour, and more
goodness than was thought possible in our times; I should have added too
more understanding and good sense. You see my fortune (as I hope my Virtue
will) incrasese increases by oppression. I go to no courts, I drink no wine,
and am calumniated even by Ministers of State, and yet am in good Spirits.
Most of the Courtiers, though otherways my friends, refuse to contribute to my
undertaking, but the City, and the people of England take my part very
warmly, and I am told the best of the Citizens will give me proofs of it by
their contributions. I could talk to you a great deal more, but I am afraid
I shall writ too much for you, and for myself; I have not wish so much together
Since my sickness. I cannot omit telling you the Dr Arbuthnot’s attendance
And care of me show’d him the best of friends; Dr Hollings though entirely
A stranger to me was join’d with him & us'd me the kindest and most
handsome manner. Mr ˄ & Mrs Pulteney was greatly concern’d for me, visited me
and show'd me the strongest proofs of friendship; when I see you, I will
tell you of others as of Mr Pope, Mrs Blount, Mr and Mrs Rollinson,
Lord and Lady Bolingbroke &c I think they are all your friends &
well Wishers I hope you will love them the better upon my account, but
do not forget Mr Lewis nor Lord Bathurst, Sr W. Wyndham & Lord
Gower, and Lord Oxford among the number.
From the Duke of Queensberry's
in Burlington Gardens.
March 18, 1728/9.
My service to Dr Delany &
Mr Gay. Marc 18
Mr Gay. Mar. 18. 1728–9
See No 115 The Dutchess XXXX Royal Message
- Article by:
- Moira Goff
- Satire and humour, Theatre and entertainment
The Beggar's Opera was an instant hit and became the most performed play of the 18th century. Moira Goff explores the elements that made up John Gay's work, from its popular tunes and dances to its satirical targets and depiction of a criminal underworld.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Satire and humour, Travel, colonialism and slavery, Politics and religion, Rise of the novel
Jonathan Swift initially did his best to conceal the fact that he was the author of Gulliver's Travels. John Mullan explores how Swift constructed the work to operate as an elaborate game, parodying travel literature, pretending to be an autobiography and containing obviously false facts presented by a deeply unreliable narrator.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Satire and humour, Theatre and entertainment
Andrew Dickson introduces The Beggar's Opera and its many satirical targets, including the court of George I, the politician Robert Walpole, the British legal system and Italian opera.
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