Early career as a journalist and writer
Best known today for The Beggar’s Opera, the English poet and dramatist John Gay was born in Devon in 1685.
As a young man Gay spent some time apprenticed to a silk mercer in London, but he eventually turned to journalism. He became friends with the poet, dramatist and essayist Aaron Hill, and helped him and Eustace Budgell in the production of The British Apollo, a popular journal of the day.
From 1712 to 1714 Gay was steward in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth. This gave him the opportunity – and the financial security – required to write. Gay developed a close friendship with the satirist Alexander Pope – Gay dedicated his first major poem Rural Sports (1713) to him – and Pope encouraged Gay to write the pastoral pastiche, The Shepherd’s Week. While Pope was a clear influence on him, Gay’s style was good humoured rather than acidic. The poem Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) is regarded as one of his finest works.
Along with Pope and Jonathan Swift, Gay was a member of the Scriblerus Club, a group whose chief aim was to ridicule pedantry. His literary friends contributed to two of his satirical plays: The What D’ye Call It (1715) and Three Hours After Marriage (1717).
The Beggar’s Opera
Gay used the ballad opera – a fusion of opera with folk tunes and the broadsheet ballads of the street – to tell the stories of ordinary lives, of thieves and thief-takers, prison breakers and prostitutes. Although the form was widely popular in the 18th century, The Beggar’s Opera is one of the only ballad operas that is still performed with any frequency today.
John Rich first produced The Beggar’s Opera in 1728. Its satirical targets included Whig statesman Robert Walpole, politicians in general and the Italian operas of which the upper classes were so fond. While it proved divisive, it was popular enough for it to be said that it had made ‘Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich’. With its charismatic anti-hero Macheath, it was accused of encouraging violence in men who wanted to emulate him.
In 1729, Gay wrote a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera called Polly, which continued the adventures of Polly Peachum in the West Indies. Its lampooning of Walpole was even more overt, and as a result of this the production was forbidden by the Lord Chamberlain.
Later life and death
Later in life, Gay would lose his fortune after investing, against advice, in South Sea Company stocks. He died in 1732 and is buried in Westminster Abbey, with an epitaph written by Alexander Pope.
Further information about the life of John Gay can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.