Or: Dr. Johnson didn't think much of him

John Gay was one among many playwrights who struck fame on the stage in 18th Century England. Though scarcely remembered today, at the time his work was some of the most popular, and his experimentations with form and the mixing of genres ruffled quite a few literary feathers.

If you know him, it's probably because of The Beggar's Opera, his claim to stardom even 200+ years ago. So Bertold Brecht stole from the best.

Act I

Once again, strife is poured into the recipe that makes an artist. Gay's childhood wasn't the happiest.

Act II

Before the age of fifteen, Gay had made his way to London, and gotten himself apprenticed to a silk merchant. He didn't care for the work, but Samuel Johnson suggests he didn't mind the ladies who came into the shop.

Apparently, he was something of a charmer. After a couple years of chatting up the customers, Gay grew weary of the honest but exceedindly dry labor and sought upward mobility the old-fashioned way: by cozying up to the rich.


Good times, bad times, and why are there Germans in Buckingham Palace?

Subject to both unfounded optimism and deep depression, the latter of which was intensfied by failure on the stage, Gay's friends decided to pay his way through several years' worth of working holidays. They must have thought it best to get him out of London, and he spent much of the next three years in more rural settings.

The publication in 1720 of his Poems earned him a thousand pounds, which you'd think was a hefty chunk of change. And it was. But think how much more it could be if you take this great opportunity to invest in the South Sea Company...which he did.

You may be familiar with their Bubble.

When it did as bubbles do, Gay was financially in the soup again, and decided to align his pen with his life: he wrote tragedy.

Act IV

Five act structure, you see. Time for a little triumph over adversity in the form of The Beggar's Opera, which came to theatres near you in 1728, and was the most explosively successful play to date.

Part play, part opera, this was the earliest of the ballad operas, dialogue interspersed with song, a sort of 18th Century version of the modern musical, with less (read none) dancing. It's still satirical in nature--best to go with your strength--lampooning the current government under Walpole in the character of MacHeath, the leader of a gang of disloyal criminals.

Swift saw early drafts, and told him to leave off; Congreve told him it would either be his greatest triumph or final shame, and Pope wasn't sure to what to make of it at all.

But they were all there--plus Samuel Johnson--on opening night, where the Duke of Argyll led the room in successive roaring rounds of applause upon its close.

Pope's Dunciad records this on the subject:

This piece was received with greater applause than was ever known. Besides being acted in London sixty-three days without interruption, and renewed the next season with equal applause, it spread into all the great towns of England; was played in many places to the thirtieth and fortieth time; at Bath and Bristol fifty, &c. It made its progress into Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, where it was performed twenty-four days successively. The ladies carried about with them the favourite songs of it in fans, and houses were furnished with it in screens. The fame of it was not confined to the author only. The person who acted Polly, till then obscure, became all at once the favourite of the town; her pictures were engraved, and sold in great numbers; her Life written, books of letters and verses to her published, and pamphlets made even of her sayings and jests. Furthermore, it drove out of England (for that season) the Italian Opera, which had carried all before it for ten years.

Two thumbs up, then.

Morally, the play caused a bit of a fuss. The head thief earns a reprieve without redemption, and his daughter's virtue is nothing less than a plaything. The government wasn't smiling about it, and Johnson himself thought it was particularly reprehensible. Gangs of highwaymen were said to increase following its performance.

Thus, the sequel, Polly, was banned from the stage in 1729 and got the Dutchess of Queensberry, who helped produce it, in trouble with the Crown.

Of course, that just made the printed version more desirable, and Gay made a small fortune off it.

Act V

That fortune was watched over by the Duke of Queensberry, who took Gay into his home and managed his money for him. It seems that with this set of characters--Polly, MacHeath, etc.--Gay accomplished what he had set out to do and could therefore do no more.

The old fits of melancholy that had always been with him returned, and he died in the Duke's home only four years after the summit of his popularity, in 1732, at the age of 47.

You can visit him at Westminster Abbey.

Dedications to:
Johnson, Samuel. The Life of John Gay . The Penn State Archive of Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Ed. Kathleen Nulton Kemmerer. 1 September 2000.

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