Gay, John

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Gay, John (1685-1732): English, Poet and Dramatist.

John Gay was one of the foremost satirists of the English Augustan Age, a member of the Scriblerus Club with Pope, Alexander, John Arbuthnot, Thomas Parnell and Lord Oxford from 1714, when Swift, Jonathan founded it. Born to Dissenting parents in Barnstaple, Devon, he was orphaned at age ten and subsequently apprenticed in London at Willet's Drapery Shop. His first poem Wine appeared in 1708, his first play The Wife of Bath in 1711. He never married and there is no consensus among scholars concerning his sexual orientation. Strong ambivalence marks almost all of Gay's work, arising often from the tension between the values of his self-reliant mercantile background and those of the royal court whose preferment he deferentially sought for much of his adult life. Gay's ambivalence typically expressed itself in novel hybrid literary forms that effectively mingle aggression and self-disguise, the latter so successfully that Gay's writings were often attributed to the pen of his chief mentor, Pope.

In works such as the georgic Rural Sports (1713), The Shepherd's Week (1714), the farce What D'ye Call It (1715) and Fables (1727), Gay displayed his virtuoso capacity to mimic and mix, both straightforwardly and parodically, the conventions of established genres. For the mock-georgic Trivia (1716), a pedestrian guide to the filthy and dangerous streets of London, Gay adopted the surprising persona of a walker. Georgic, the kind to which Trivia makes most consistent reference, usually thematizes labour; a mere walker performs little useful labour, hence stands aloof from the life of the working classes. Yet clearly the walker lacks the wealth as well as the will to hire or own a carriage. He is neither commendably industrious nor arrogantly idle. Such a figure, ambivalently marginal and central, detached and sociable, sardonic and confidential, partakes at once of the heroic and the banal in a way characteristic of Augustan satire. At the same time, Gay's walker, who subjects an uncontrollable metropolis to the discipline of form and rule, anticipates the aesthetic of the flâneur as articulated by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

In 1728, Gay experienced his greatest and most enduring success with The Beggar's Opera. Twelve years before, Swift had suggested that Gay try his hand at a "Newgate pastoral," a bucolic piece set in prison. Gay's musical drama, a ballad-opera, brought to perfection many of his characteristic strengths, conveying his uneasy insights into "business" and "money," two terms that recur obsessively in the course of The Beggar's Opera, dissolving partitions between high life and low life, love and merchandise, honour and trade, aristocrat, account-keeper and criminal so persuasively that Robert Walpole's Whig government suppressed Gay's sequel Polly before it was ever performed. Inspired by such real-life examples as the treacherous thief-taker Jonathan Wild, the rival divas Faustina and Cuzzoni and Walpole himself, Gay created characters–Peachum, Lockit, Polly, Lucy and Macheath–sufficiently durable that they inspired Bertolt Brecht's 1928 Die Dreigroschenoper.

Further Reading:

David Nokes, John Gay: A Profession of Friendship, 1995.

Eric Miller