Born: September, 1685; Barnstaple, Devon, England
Died: December 4, 1732; London, England
John Gay would probably be remembered today as a minor English poet were it not for The Beggar's Opera. Scathingly satiric, groundbreakingly original, and inordinately popular, it instantly made Gay one of the most famous composers of his day. Even today, Gay is best remembered for The Beggar's Opera, and that masterwork still retains all its power.
Gay attended grammar school as soon as he was old enough, but his parents had both diedRead more by 1695, and an uncle took him in until 1702. His poetic gift did not manifest itself immediately, as he apprenticed to a silk merchant in London, returned home briefly and returned to London to work as a secretary. In 1708, however, Gay met Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of his day, and began publishing. Soon he was a member of a famous clique of satirists, the "Martinus Scriblerus Club," comprising not only Gay and Pope, but Jonathan Swift and Dr. John Arbuthnot as well. While most of Gay's output was in the form of satiric poems and essays, he wrote stage works and ballads as well. He found himself involved with London's operatic community when no less a composer than Georg Friederic Handel wrote Acis and Galatea using Gay's libretto; it was Handel's first score for an English libretto.
Yet The Beggar's Opera still seemed to have come out of nowhere. Gay had invented the "ballad opera" form, in which spoken dialogue is combined with popular melodies, and at the same time produced an outrageous satire in which criminality and vice are celebrated, perhaps not wholly ironically. Even Gay's friends were not sure of its merit, and Gay had difficulty in getting it staged. Finally, John Rich at Lincoln's Inns Fields (one of the two major theaters) reluctantly decided to risk production. The Beggar's Opera was first performed on January 29, 1728, and Gay was soon a very famous and rich man. Audiences flocked to hear tales of real inhabitants of the underworld, rather than the two-dimensional figures which populated most operas. These audiences also appreciated the arias, which set words they could understand to tunes they knew. The opera contained attacks on opera itself (Handel's opera Rinaldo was raided for a heroic march which the thieves sing just before setting out for an evening of robbery), English jurisprudence, and conventional ideas of morality; Gay's not-very-subtle attacks on Horace Walpole and his government, however, were what caused Walpole to ban Gay's sequel to The Beggar's Opera, Polly. Polly was unperformed until 1779, when audiences were bewildered by the then-topical references in the text. It never achieved the renown of The Beggar's Opera. Gay composed one more ballad opera, Achilles, but it too was unsuccessful commercially and artistically.
Still, Gay had become a major figure in English literature on the basis of his one stunning success, and when he died, he was buried in the Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. Even after Gay's death, however, the ballad opera form he invented lived on, influencing the development of the singspiel of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the much later genre of the American musical. The playright Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill paid Gay the ultimate compliment by using his plot and most of his characters in their update of Gay's work, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera). Read less