BORN: 1685, Devon, England
DIED: 1732, London
GENRE: Drama, poetry
The Shepherd’s Week (1714)
Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716)
The Beggar’s Opera (1728)
John Gay. Gay, John, photograph. The Library of Congress.
John Gay is best known as the author of the satire The Beggar’s Opera. It was his greatest popular and critical success, and because of it, many people do not realize that he also excelled at poetry and musical lyrics. Gay’s poetry questions the same things it asserts, telling the truth from behind a whole series of shifting, elusive masks. Both during his life and after his death, Gay was overshadowed by his friends Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, and his authorship has sometimes been questioned because of the influence these two men had on his work. Unlike Swift and Pope, however, Gay was a man of the theater whose main talent was his ability to unite words and music.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From the Country to the City. John Gay was born in rural Barnstaple on the North Devon coast of England about June 30, 1685. Barnstaple was an important port, and Gay’s family included tradesmen, clergymen, and soldiers. Because Gay was exposed to a broad range of people while growing up, he was well prepared to write about people of different occupations and social classes. After the death of his parents, William and Katherine Hanmer Gay, when he was ten, Gay lived with his uncle, Thomas Gay. He attended the local grammar school and was apprenticed to a silk merchant in London around 1702. His rural origins combined with this urban experience would prove significant, since he used both his knowledge of the English countryside and his understanding of the criminal side of London in his writings. Possibly because of poor health, Gay negotiated an end to his apprenticeship in 1706.
After a brief return to Barnstaple, Gay moved back to London and gained a position as secretary to Aaron Hill, a friend from school. Since Hill was involved in various literary projects, Gay began to make acquaintances in Hill’s literary circles. He anonymously published his first poem during this time, a blank-verse parody of John Milton entitled Wine (1708), complete with drunken shifts in tone. Entertaining and lively, the poem alternates between ridicule and praise, foreshadowing some of his later poetry. Also during these years, Gay became lifelong friends with satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift and met the composer George Frideric Handel.
In December 1712, Gay was appointed domestic steward and secretary to the duchess of Monmouth, widow of the duke executed in 1685 for an unsuccessful attempt at seizing the throne. Partly because of this position, Gay became known as an amiable hanger-on to the aristocracy. Published in January 1713, the first edition of Rural Sports, ‘‘Inscrib’d to Mr. POPE” mentions Gay’s efforts to promote himself at court and to recommend himself to wealthy patrons. Gay called Rural Sports a georgic, suggesting a connection between this- poem about country sports and Virgil’s Georgies, a four-volume work about cultivating the land, growing vines and fruit trees, breeding animals, and keeping bees.
First Successes. Gay’s comedy The Wife of Bath was performed in May 1713. It was not a success, but one of its songs became popular. in fact, several lyrics and ballads from Gay’s plays were successful, even if the plays themselves were less so. Gay’s long poem, The Shepherd’s Week, appeared in April 1714 and brought him the literary praise he had not yet received with his plays. Critic Peter Lawis calls this work ‘‘probably the most important Augustan contribution to the genre of pastoral.’’ Augustan writers of the eighteenth century admired Roman literature from the time of the emperor Augustus (reigned 27 BCE-14 CE) and imitated the works of such writers as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid, often drawing parallels between the two ages. Shortly after The Shepherd’s Week was published, Gay left the household of the duchess of Monmouth to become secretary to Lord Clarendon.
Success—But Whose? Gay described his The What D’Ye Calllt (1714) as a ‘‘tragi-comi-pastoral farce.’’ With this work, Gay established himself as a satirical comedian and lyricist of formidable ability. Unfortunately, rumors began circulating that the work was written in part—or even principally—by Pope and John Arbuthnot, fellow satirist and physician to the royal court.
In an advertisement to the printed version of his next play, Three Hours after Marriage (1716), Gay acknowledged ‘‘the Assistance I have receiv’d in this Piece from two of my Friends,’’ and the assumption has always been that he is referring to Arbuthnot and Pope. This association was no doubt good for the play’s quality, but it provoked a severe reaction from Pope’s enemies and in the long run damaged the play and Gay’s reputation for originality.
Music and Lyrics. Around 1718, Gay and Handel collaborated to create the work Acis and Galatea, Gay writing the libretto, Handel the music. The concept of integrating words and music, of allowing the words to play against the music and the music against the words, is a difficult one for most writers to accept, much less master. It was performed privately at the palace of Handel’s patron, the Duke of Chandos, in 1718, but did not receive a public performance until 1731.
Although Gay held various court appointments through the years as his literary reputation grew, he never achieved success at court. He finally gained financial independence with the success of The Beggar’s Opera. It was performed sixty-two times, probably a record run in London at that time. Gay drew on English and French theatrical traditions, on the Italian comedy, on the folklore and slang of the London underworld for his drama, and on popular and formal music wherever he found it for his songs. Musical comedy in the form of ballad opera had arrived, allowing Gay to offer a mocking alternative to Italian opera.
He was prolific in his final years, writing a sequel to The Beggar’s Opera entitled Polly (1729), which was suppressed for political reasons, and leaving three unfinished plays upon his death from fever on December 4, 1732, at the age of forty-seven. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to Geoffrey Chaucer’s tomb. Observing the world around him with a most discerning eye, Gay had composed his own epitaph: ‘‘Life’s a jest; and all things show it. / I thought this once; but now I know it.’’
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Gay's famous contemporaries include:
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): A German composer, Bach was better known as an organist during his lifetime; his masterpieces include the Brandenburg Concertos, the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Goldberg Variations.
Anne Bonney (1698-1782): Bonney was an Irish pirate who left her husband and disguised herself as a man to join ''Calico Jack'' Rackham's crew in the Caribbean.
George Handel (1685-1759): This German composer is best known for Water Music and the choral work Messiah.
Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer
(1661-1724): English statesman and patron of the arts, Harley befriended Gay, Pope, Swift, and others.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744): Pope was an English poet and satirist whose literary satire earned him both fame and enemies.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): An Anglo-Irish satirist and poet, Swift horrified the public with ''A Modest Proposal," which suggested that the Irish poor should solve their financial problems by selling their children as food for the rich.
James Stuart (1688-1766): The son of the deposed King James II of England, Prince James tried unsuccessfully to claim the throne for himself. He was known as ''the Old Pretender.''
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Although he had a gentler tone than some of his contemporaries, Gay satirized the government and society of his day. Here are more satirical works by other authors:
The Great Dictator (1940), a film directed by Charlie Chaplin. Released well before the United States entered World War II, this movie, starring Charlie Chaplin as ''Adenoid Hinkel,'' satirizes Nazism and Adolf Hitler.
The Satires (first and second centuries CE), a collection of poems by Juvenal. The poems in these five books critique perceived threats to the Roman upper classes.
Utopia (1516), a novel by Thomas More. This novel, originally written in Latin, describes an ''ideal'' society that is rigid and totalitarian, where all challenges to uniformity are seen as threat.
Works in Literary Context
Rather than laughing at trivialities by describing them in epic language as Pope does, Gay shows that high seriousness is not something completely different from the familiar and commonplace. Rather than using the language of mock epic to show how inappropriate some subjects are for epic treatment, Gay suggests that trivial things can be centrally important and that prestige alone is not a sufficient indicator of virtue or enduring value.
Country and City Life. Gay’s experience with both country and city life is apparent in much of his work. His rural background is especially evident in The Shepherd’s Week, a pastoral farce that mocks the native pastoral as practiced by Ambrose Philips and criticized by Pope. Gay’s major poem Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London is a mock-georgic. Although some scholars assert that Trivia may owe something to Jonathan Swift’s ‘‘Morning’’ and ‘‘A Description of a City Shower,’’ Gay’s work is far more than mere imitation or derivative: it demonstrates wit, vivid description, and complex play with the conventions of pastoral, georgic, and epic poetry.
Modeled after Virgil’s Georgies, Trivia is a georgic in the sense that it is a poem about how to do something. In addition to demonstrating the elements of the classical georgic form, which in this case is used to tell the reader how to survive in the city, Trivia is also an urban pastoral, the town poet’s answer to the country poet of The Shepherd’s Week. While The Shepherd’s Week introduced the urban reader to country lore, Trivia turns the urban walker’s experience into similar lore, applying pastoral elements of georgic work to an urban context. Undoubtedly, Gay applied the knowledge of urban life he gained while working as an apprentice in London.
Ballad Opera. The idea for The Beggar’s Opera seems to have been suggested by Swift, but Gay definitely proved his originality within the play. His lyrical talents, which he had been developing throughout his career, came to fruition, and an entirely new form of musical theater grew out of this work, the ballad opera. Ballad opera combines social satire, political satire, and literary burlesque just as Pope was combining the same ingredients in the first version of The Duneiad and Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Though the three works are seemingly completely different, they also are recognizably related.
Sven Armen states: ‘‘The Beggar’s Opera is one of the masterpieces of rogue literature, and it shares with [Robert] Greene’s pamphlets, [Ben] Jonson’s London plays, and the novels of [Henry] Fielding, [Tobias] Smollett, and [Charles] Dickens an intimate knowledge of the methods and practices of the London underworld.’’
Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s great variation on Gay’s theme, The Threepenny Opera, is certainly one of the most important pieces in twentieth-century musical theater—arguably the most important, but it has not displaced The Beggar’s Opera. Gay’s opera, furthermore, has an important relationship to Handel’s ‘‘Italian’’ operas. Yvonne Noble has argued that it represents the rebirth of a specifically English opera tradition.
Works in Critical Context
The traditional view of John Gay is that he was a poet whose personal virtues worked against his public success. Because he lacked the savage indignation of Swift or the sustained energy of Pope, he has often been regarded as the friend of great poets, but hardly as more than a secondary figure. Recently, scholars and critics have recognized Gay’s expertise at lyric poetry at a time when epic and satire were most prominent and have begun to value his inventiveness. The habit of ascribing his work to others goes back to Gay’s own time and is especially hard to combat because some of his works were, in fact, collaborative.
The Beggar’s Opera. Bertrand Bronson calls The Beggar’s Opera ‘‘a social commentary which, for all its surface playfulness, fulfills some of the profoundest ends of comedy. ... He is simultaneously ridiculing a low society by decking them in all this borrowed finery. For burlesque has a two-edged blade, though both edges need not be equally sharp.’’ According to Sven Armens, ‘‘The Beggar’s Opera, in addition to being aesthetic criticism in its burlesque of the fashionable Italian opera, is also the social criticism of the poor man as artist. . . . Money thus forms the basis of social liberty and moral independence; its constant misuse in the town results in the distressing separation of human beings into economic abstracts of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots.’’’ He continues, ‘‘Gay’s satire on the professions is more concerned with the problems of honor and self-interest than the companion problems of justice and money. The point which Gay wishes to make is that just as the go-betweens, the bawd and the fence, should be the most reliable and dependable persons for their sort of business, so should professional men, such as lawyers responsible for justice, priests responsible for general morality, and statesmen responsible for the welfare of the whole society, be the most conscientious guardians of both the individual and the state entrusted to their care. But are they?’’
Responses to Literature
1. John Gay was a gifted collaborator. Have you ever collaborated with someone on a project or assignment? How did you make sure that your own voice was heard, and that the work and the credit were equally assigned? Would you do things differently another time?
2. John Gay gained a reputation as a ‘‘hanger-on’’ because he relied on other people’s help to support himself financially. Do you think an artist should take a ‘‘day job’’ to be financially secure, even if that leaves less time to create art? Or do you think it is better for them to rely on other people for financial assistance if that means they have more time to create?
3. Gay collaborated with Handel, widely seen as one of the great Baroque composers. If you could collaborate with any musician today, who would it be? Write an essay explaining whom you would choose and why.
Armens, Sven. John Gay: Social Critic. New York: Octagon Books, 1970.
Bronson, Bertrand. Facets of the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Lewis, Peter. Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991.
Noble, Yvonne, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Beggar’s Opera. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975.