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John Gay

John Gay

The English playwright and poet John Gay (1685-1732) is best known for "The Beggar's Opera," a skillful blend of literary, political, social, and musical satire.

John Gay was born on June 30, 1685, in Barnstaple, Devonshire. Orphaned at age 10, he was sent to the local grammar school until, aged about 17, he was apprenticed to a silk dealer in London. Possibly because of illness, he was released from this apprenticeship in 1706 and returned to Barnstaple. In 1708 he became Aaron Hill's secretary, helping especially with Hill's question-and-answer periodical paper, the British Apollo. That year Gay published his first poem, Wine; his first published prose, The Present State of Wit, a critical account of all the current journals, appeared in 1711.

Gay was domestic steward in the household of the Duchess of Monmouth from 1712 to 1714. Something between a secretary and a wit in residence, Gay gained financial security and freedom to write without loss of independence. As a result, 1713 was a most productive year for him, with the publication of six poems, at least two essays, and a play. The play, The Wife of Bath, was a failure; one poem, The Fan, was popular enough to establish a poetic fad.

The Shepherd's Week (1714) is a set of six pastorals in which English rural life is realistically portrayed. Gay's literary burlesque The What D'ye Call It (1715) was moderately successful. His wonderful three-book poem Trivia: or, theArt of Walking the Streets of London, published by subscription in 1716 to much acclaim and to the financial relief of the unemployed Gay, was deservedly praised for its originality, humor, and vivid accuracy.

Another play, Three Hours after Marriage, was produced in 1716 without great success. The next few years were marked by the successful publication of his collection Poems (1720), the libretto for G. F. Handel's Acis and Galatea (1722), and a tragedy, The Captives (1724). Gay's Fables (1727) was long popular with both adults and children.

The Beggar's Opera opened on Jan. 29, 1728, and ran for 62 nights—an unprecedented number—in its first season. This ballad opera, with music by John Pepusch, is a satirical picture of life among London's pickpockets, prostitutes, and highwaymen. Though the sequel, Polly (1729), also with music by Pepusch, was banned from performance, its publication brought Gay £ 1,000. Plagued by ill health, he died on Dec. 4, 1732.

Further Reading

Henry Lee, ed., Gay's Chair (1820), contains some spurious early poems but a genuine memoir by Gay's nephew, Joseph Buller. William E. Schultz, Gay's Beggar's Opera: Its Content, History, and Influence (1923), is the definitive study of that work. The fullest biography is William H. Irving, John Gay, Favorite of the Wits (1962). Patricia M. Spack John Gay (1965), is a convenient and reliable critical study, and Sven Armens, John Gay, Social Critic (1966), has the emphasis its title suggests.

Additional Sources

Melville, Lewis, Life and letters of John Gay (1685-1732), author of "The beggar's opera,", Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1975.

Melville, Lewis, Life and letters of John Gay (1685-1732), author of "The beggar's opera", Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Nokes, David, John Gay, a profession of friendship, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. □

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Gay, John

Gay, John (1685–1732). One of the leading members of the remarkable group of authors in the early 18th cent., Gay was on close terms with Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot. Of Devon dissenting stock, he moved to London, soon abandoned the silk trade, and established himself as a minor poet. Though he had a succession of patrons, he chafed under the system: ‘they wonder at each other’, he wrote to Swift in 1727, ‘for not providing for me, and I wonder at them all.’ His enormous success, The Beggar's Opera, was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields by John Rich in 1728 and was said to have ‘made Gay rich and Rich gay’. He followed in 1729 with a sequel, Polly, which, though banned from the stage by the Lord Chamberlain, sold well. He wrote the libretto for Handel's opera Acis and Galatea, including the aria ‘O ruddier than the cherry’. Gay suffered poor health from asthma and died early. Johnson wrote of him in the Lives of the Poets that he was ‘the general favourite of the whole association of wits, but they regarded him as a playfellow rather than a partner, and treated him with more fondness than respect’.

J. A. Cannon

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Gay, John

John Gay, 1685–1732, English playwright and poet, b. Barnstaple, Devon. Educated at the local grammar school, he was apprenticed to a silk mercer for a brief time before commencing his literary career in London. The first of his writings to have any real merit were the mock pastoral, The Shepherd's Week (1714), and Trivia (1716), an amusing description of London life. He is remembered chiefly today for his ballad opera, The Beggar's Opera (1728), a lighthearted story of highwaymen and thieves, which satirizes both the corruption of contemporary genteel society and the then current fashion for Italian opera. Its sequel, Polly, written the following year, was suppressed by Sir Robert Walpole since it (like The Beggar's Opera) ridiculed his government. Gay was also the author of two books of verse called Fables (1727, 1738), which were very popular in his generation.

See his poetical works edited by G. C. Faber (1926, repr. 1969); study by P. A. Spacks (1965).

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Gay, John

Gay, John (1685–1732) English poet and dramatist. His verse includes The Shepherd's Week (1714) and Trivia (1716). His best-known work is the ballad-opera The Beggar's Opera (1728), a political satire and burlesque of Italian opera.

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Gay, John

Gay, John (b Barnstaple, 1685; d London, 1732). Eng. poet, playwright, and theatre manager. Wrote lib. for Handel's Acis and Galatea, and for The Beggar's Opera (1728) and its sequel Polly (1729). Built first CG th., 1732.

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"Gay, John." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. 28 Apr. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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