John Gay, English poet and dramatist, was born on 30 June 1685.
He owes his fame chiefly to ‘The Beggar’s Opera‘ (1728), a ballad opera in three acts with music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It was first performed in London, in 1728 and produced by John Rich, an important theatre director. It was a great success and it was said that the piece made “Rich gay and Gay rich”.
For many years Gay had attempted to earn a place in the court of both George I and George II. He was a successful and respected writer, so he expected to receive patronage, as many of his contemporaries had.
Therefore he dedicated his Fables, published in 1725, to the infant son of the Prince of Wales (soon to be George II), hoping to improve his position at court. He also printed the volume in a richly illustrated edition, “a gift fit for a king”, but when George II ascended to the throne he offered him the post of Gentleman-Usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa. It was a minor position and Gay considered the appointment an insulting humiliation
Frustrated and embittered he refused the post and continued working on his Opera, whose theme had been suggested by his friend Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels), who thought it would be interesting to write a pastoral about Newgate prison.
It was the world’s first satirical opera and England’s longest-running production of its time, with 62 consecutive performances following the London premiere.
Combining comedy and political satire in prose interspersed with songs, Gay intended it primarily as a political statement, a comment on both the royal court that had disappointed him and rewarded only hypocrisy and moral decay, and statesmen in general.
It was also a parody of the Italian melodrama and its English imitations: he substituted its unrealistic plot, difficult language, and traditional ancient heroes, or shepherds and shepherdesses with thieves and harlots-
The piece also satirised politics, fashionable society, poverty and injustice, focusing on the theme of corruption at all levels of society.
The audiences had no trouble recognizing the similarities between its main characters and top political figures, above all Robert Walpole, who was also in attendance for the play’s opening night.
Obviously Walpole hated it, but he was alone in his dislike.
The thieves and prostitutes portrayed in the play ( Peachum, the powerful leader of criminals, Polly, his daughter; and Macheath, the captain of gang of robbers) have become household names.
All of the characters in ‘The Beggar’s Opera‘ are hypocrites. In so doing, Gay was suggesting that all those in politics got there not by their virtue or capability, but by hypocrisy.
The piece inspired numerous imitations and parodies, and was adapted by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht into ‘Die Dreigroschenoper’ (The Threepenny Opera) exactly two hundred years later, in 1928.
(To be continued)