John Gay was born in Barnstaple, Devon, England on June 30, 1685. At the age of 10, Gay was orphaned and his uncle, the Reverend John Hammer, agreed to take care of him. After finishing his education at the Barnstable Grammar School, Gay went to London to be an apprentice to a silk merchant. Disliking the work, Gay left the merchant to work briefly for Arthur Hill, who became manager of a theater company.
In 1713, Gay published the poem "Rural Sports," a comic description of hunting and fishing, and inscribed it to Alexander Pope, a prominent writer of the time. Pope appreciated the honor and soon became acquainted with Gay. Pope and Gay became lifelong friends and colleagues. Gay also became close with the writer Jonathon Swift; Pope and Swift both encouraged Gay to continue writing and publishing his work. Gay studied with Georg Frideric Handel, the greatest opera composer at the time in London.
During his last illness he was resident at the Duke of Queensberry’s house and died unmarried on 4 December 1732. His sisters Catherine (Baller) and Joan (Fortescue) administered to his estate.
Gay’s poetry was much influenced by that of Alexander Pope, who was a contemporary and close friend. Gay was a member, together with Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Arbuthnot, of the Scriblerus Club, a literary group that aimed to ridicule pedantry. These friends contributed to two of Gay’s satirical plays: <i>The What D’ye Call It</i> (1715) and <i>Three Hours After Marriage</i> (1717).
He had already published several works when he became secretary to the Duchess of Monmouth and he went on to be secretary to the Earl of Clarendon in Hanover. His most famous work, <i>The Beggar’s Opera</i>, opened in London in 1728 to great success, and is still performed to this day.
At its London premiere on 29 January 1728, <i>The Beggar’s Opera</i> triumphed as an immediate success. In his comic operetta, John Gay parodied both government corruption and the vogue for Italian opera. The arias were popular ballads with new lyrics by Gay, and the characters were pickpockets and prostitutes.
The production of its sequel, <i>Polly</i>, was forbidden by the lord chamberlain (doubtless on Walpole’s instructions); but the ban was an excellent advertisement for the piece, and subscriptions for copies of the printed edition made more than £1,000 profit for the author.
"The question as to whether Gay intentionally satirized Italian opera in <i>The Beggar's Opera</i> has long remained the subject of controversy among musicographers."
"Among the inhabitants of this world, as Gay presents them, the metonymic capacity - that is, the capacity to separate and to distinguish between items and levels of experience - and the tendency to equate and to substitute - that is, the metaphoric tendency - runs wild."
"Since laws were made, for every degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree.
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men, like us, were to swing,
’Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn tree."