John Gay (1685-1732)

English poet and dramatist, born in Barnstaple, Devon. Gay earned more than 1,000 pounds through the publication of Poems on Several Occasions in 1720, and he invested all his money in the South Sea stock, losing everything by the end of the notorious ‘South Sea Bubble’. He was helped, however, by various patrons, and friends like Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the latter of whom recommended Gay to write some ‘Newgate pastoral’, resulting in The Beggar’s Opera
(1728). John Rich (?1692-1761) was the owner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, the stage of the first performance, and this famous opera was said to have made “Rich gay and Gay rich”.

A beggar states in a preliminary statement of the opera:

This piece I own was originally writ for the celebrating [of] the marriage of James Chanter and Moll Lay, two most excellent ballad-singers. [. . .] I hope I may be forgiven that I have not made my opera throughout unnatural, like those in vogue; for I have no recitative; excepting this, as I have consented to have neither Prologue nor Epilogue, it must be allowed an opera in all its forms. [Eighteenth-Century Plays, selected with an Introduction by John Hampden (London, 1928) 111]

Friedman makes the following comment on the contribution of Gay’s ‘ballad opera’: “One certain result of the ballad opera’s popularity was the removal of some of the opprobrium that attached to the term ‘ballad” [Albert B. Friedman, The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influence of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (Chicago, 1961) 167]. Gay’s ‘naturalness’ to be found in the ballad opera against the ‘unnatural’ Italian opera in vogue points to his great prescience, to be followed by the ballad revival initiated by William Wordsworth and other Romantic poets towards the end of the century. (M. Y.)


1.The Country Ballad-singer
2.Molly Mog: or, the Fair Maid of the Inn
3.Newgate's Garland: Being a New Ballad
4.Sweet William’s Farewell to Black-Ey’d Susan
5.A Ballad ('Twas when the seas were roaring)