The Contemplator's Short History of

John Gay and the Beggar's Opera
The background music is A Soldier and a Sailor
Sequenced by Lesley Nelson-Burns

Life is a jest, and all things show it.
I thought it once, and now I know it.

(John Gay's self-written epitaph)

John Gay was born in Devon in 1685. He died in 1732 and was buried in Westminster. He was briefly an apprentice to a silk merchant in London. As an apprentice he became familiar with London. Although he disliked it, his years as an apprentice provided him with much of the material for his success. When his apprenticeship was complete, he returned to Devon. To pursue success as a writer he once again went to London in 1707 or 1708.

Gay worked for a time as a secretary for Arthur Hill, a friend from Barnstable Grammar School. Hill was very interested in the theatre and became manager of a company owned by William Collier, then a Tory member of Parliament. Although the job lasted only two years, Gay - as Hill's secretary - gained invaluable experience.

Writers of the time were dependent upon wealthy patrons to support them and their works. Gay inherited a small sum from his brother and in 1712 obtained a position with the Duchess of Monmouth. Through this position he became acquainted with those who would later become his patrons, most importantly, the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. By this time he had also come to the attention of Alexander Pope and the Scriblerus circle. Although he produced two plays, the Mohocks (which was never staged due to politics) and The Wife of Bath, he achieved his first major succes with The Shepherd's Week in 1714.

Gay did not confine his efforts to the stage. In 1727 Gay wrote Fables, a set of beast fables that proved extremely popular and established his reputation as a poet. In the last volume (50) Gay wrote of his own situation in having to rely on patrons for favor:

John Gay was to achieve his greatest success with The Beggar's Opera. The Beggar's Opera debuted in 1728 in London. It was an immediate success, breaking all previous records and was performed more than any other play during the 18th century.(1) It was a complete departure from the popular Italian operas of its time. Beggar's Opera used both dialogue and music to further the story. Gay took music from whereever he could find them. Forty-one of the sixty-nine airs were broadside ballads of the time. The other tunes were borrowed from contemporary composers (including Handel). To these tunes he wrote lyrics to fit his play. Instead of taking his plot from myth he wrote a story focused on the underbelly of society - thieves, whores, fences and jailers. The world of the Beggar's opera is gritty and real, it's end optimistic only because of the popular insistence that Operas must end happily.

Despite its grim reality, The Beggar's Opera is a comedy. It is a period romp that comments with brilliant satire on life. It's satire was on both society and politics. The populace and critics of the time understood Walpole to be the subject of many of the scenes, and his play Polly was banned by Walpole for the fact.

The Beggar's Opera is so-called because The Beggar - the author of the tale - introduces the play. It tells the story of a love triangle between the highwayman Macheath, his fence's daughter Polly and the jailer's daughter Lucy (who is pregnant with his child). Upon discovering the marriage of Macheath and his daughter, Peachum, the fence, determines to have Macheath sent to Newgate. Polly warns him but Macheath is betrayed by the whores he frolics with and is confined to Newgate. Lucy finds him there and being assured by MacHeath that the marriage was all in Polly's mind, helps him to escape. Macheath is again captured and is sentenced to be hung. As he is to be hung the jailor brings in four other wives - "with a child apiece." Macheath pronounces it too much and says he is ready to be hanged. At this point, in a scene aside, the author (the Beggar) is persuaded to change the ending from a hanging to a happy ending. Accordingly Macheath has to settle on one wife only (Polly).

Gay followed The Beggar's Opera with a sequel, Polly, in which Macheath is transported to the West Indes and becomes a pirate. He is in the company of Jenny Diver, the prostitute who betrayed him in The Beggar's Opera and living bigamously. Polly goes to the West Indes looking for Macheath. By the end of the play Macheath is executed and Polly marries the Indian prince Cawwawkee when her mourning is over.

Polly was not produced on stage during Gay's lifetime. Robert Walpole - who had been the butt of satire in The Beggar's Opera, this time found the satire more blatent and strong. He banned its production. Although it was not produced, Gay made a great deal of money from Polly's written publication.

Gay wrote other plays, but none achieved the great success of The Beggar's Opera. Throughout the eighteenth century The Beggar's Opera was staged "just about everywhere in the English speaking world where room could be found to put up a stage."(1)


(1)Calhoun Winton, John Gay and the London Theatre, The University of Kentucky Press, Lexington, KY., 1993, 169.
John Gay (edited by Bryan Loughrey and T.O. Treadwell), The Beggar's Opera, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.

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These are some of the tunes that appeared in The Beggar's Opera
(though not always with the words on these pages)

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