John Gay 1685–1732
A native of Barnstaple, Gay first made his name as a poet: The Shepherd’s Week (1714) is a series of modern pastorals ironically based on classical models; Trivia (1716) offers sketches of London street life. A member of the Scriblerus group of Tory satirists, he collaborated with Pope and Arbuthnot in the comedy Three Hours after Marriage (1717), and was dear to them and to Swift, who gave a hint for his ‘Newgate pastoral’ The Beggar’s Opera (1728); this combines well-known tunes, literary parody, satire of Italian opera, and an ironic reflection of Walpole’s political corruption in the world of thieves. A huge success, it is still performed, as is the Brecht-Weill modern adaptation, The Threepenny Opera. Performance of the sequel, Polly, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. Gay also wrote librettos for musical works, notably Handel’s Acis and Galatea. His lively verse Fables appeared in 1727 and 1738. His persistent financial difficulties were partly relieved by the Duke and Duchess of Queensberry. Much of Gay’s best work depends on playing off varying levels of subject-matter and style: Polly’s romantic notions are set in a thieves’ world which yet parallels the ‘normal’.
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