Biography of John Gay

Dramatist and poet John Gay had a prolific and successful writing career in 18th century London, but is best known for his tour-de-force satirical play, The Beggar's Opera.

Gay was born to a prominent Devonshire family in 1685. In 1707, he moved to London to work as secretary to the dramatist Aaron Hill. Through Hill, Gay was exposed to London’s literary circles, where he made the acquaintance of such celebrated writers as Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, William Congreve and Dr. Arbuthnot.

Gay began his writing career as a poet and ballad-lyric writer. His first published work was the burlesque poem Wine. Though his first play, The Mohawks, was never produced, his second play, The Wife of Bath, was produced at Drury Lane, London's most important theatre at the time, in 1713.

However, Gay's first real success came with the 1714 play, The Shepherd’s Week. His relationship with Drury Lane continued with the run of The What D’ye Call It, a “Tragi-Comi-Pastoral Farce.” In 1716, Gay collaborated with Pope and Arbuthnot on an unsuccessful farce, Three Hours After Marriage. In 1720, he published a collection of miscellaneous works, Poems on Several Occasions, and his first tragedy, The Captives, ran at Drury Lane in 1724.

In 1726, Gay shared his home in London's Whitehall district with Jonathan Swift. During this period, Gay began writing his Fables, the first volume of which was published in 1727.

Gay's most celebrated work, The Beggar's Opera, premiered at The Theatre Royal in January of 1728 and eventually ran for 62 performances, at the time the longest run ever recorded in the British theatre. Night after night, The Beggars Opera lampooned the King’s government and his chief ministers. In response, when Gay’s 1729 sequel Polly appeared, Robert Walpole, the King’s Chief Minister, had it banned from the stage.

Gay’s final work was the pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, in 1731. Gay died in 1732, and was buried in the Poets’ Corner of Westminister Abbey.

Study Guides on Works by John Gay

Though The Beggar's Opera has earned a reputation for its ironically rambunctious exploration of amoral characters, crime syndicates, and overt sexuality, John Gay originally intended it primarily as a political statement, a comment on both the...