British and Irish Literature John Gay
Emrys Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0113


John Gay (b. 1685–d. 1732) was a playwright and poet best known for his 1728 work, The Beggar’s Opera, and for his membership of the Scriblerus Club, a group of Tory-sympathizing writers that included Gay’s close friends, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Gay’s career provides a useful window onto the opportunities and constraints of the literary marketplace in the early 18th century. His oeuvre is characterized by generic diversity and experimentation with established forms, sometimes—as with The Beggar’s Opera—resulting in huge financial success. Responsible for the rise of “ballad opera” as a popular theatrical genre, the play took inspiration from contemporary interest in London’s criminal underworld, encouraging audiences to find in its cutthroat milieu a provocative depiction of the reigning political class. In its blending of high and low culture, and of indigenous and continental influences, the play was consistent with Gay’s practice elsewhere in his career. His 1715 play, The What d’ye Call It, was self-consciously promoted on the grounds of its generic hybridity; in poetic works such as Wine (1708), The Shepherd’s Week (1714) and Trivia; or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716), Gay produced parodies of classical forms (principally, the eclogue and the georgic). For the most part such parodies were tender and affectionate, respectful of classical tradition though aware of the potential absurdity in its contemporary application. Despite the commercial success of The Beggar’s Opera and of certain other works, discussion of Gay’s career has often been dominated by a sense that he was unfairly neglected, his genius underappreciated and insufficiently rewarded by the authorities of his time. This image was in part cultivated by Gay himself, and hinges on a particular interpretation of certain events in his career: for instance, the theatrical suppression of Polly (1729), sequel to The Beggar’s Opera; and the court’s offer (perceived by the poet as an affront) to appoint Gay as Gentleman Usher to the young Princess Louisa in 1727. While it is true that Gay faced financial hardship at points in his career, this was at least partly due to his ill-advised investments—he suffered greatly in the South Sea crisis of 1720. Moreover, modern scholarship (for instance, Nokes 1995, cited under Biographies) has emphasized Gay’s social skills within the literary world and his command of important aristocratic patrons, correcting to some extent the simplistic narrative of misfortune and mistreatment that had too often prevailed previously.

General Overviews and Introductory Works

Sutherland 1949 epitomizes traditional appreciations of Gay, dwelling on his supposed innocence and lack of moral or satirical seriousness. Much of the critical work on Gay from the 1950s onward has in one way or another been concerned with correcting this evaluation. Armens 1954 and Spacks 1965 remain the most thorough and accessible book-length introductions to the author, covering both his poetic and his dramatic output. Other monographs devoted to Gay have tended to offer more specialized approaches, while still making observations relevant to his career as a whole. Forsgren 1964–1971 is primarily concerned with Gay as poet, Winton 1993 with Gay as dramatist. Both explore the author’s ideological stance and political allegiances as part of the overviews they provide. Dugaw 2001 adopts a more theory-informed methodology, in keeping with more recent critical trends, arguing for the significance of Gay’s works in their mapping of an emerging capitalist modernity. Undergraduate students looking for a comprehensive but concise introduction to key issues are advised to consult Nokes 1987, which reflects usefully on questions of ambiguity and generic hybridity, while again offering a nuanced counterpoint to the slighter Sutherland 1949. Like Winton 1993, Boas 1953 provides an overview of Gay’s dramatic works and may prove useful as an introduction.

  • Armens, Sven. John Gay, Social Critic. New York: King’s Crown, 1954.

    One of the first major works to insist upon Gay as a consistent moralist. Overview structured through thoughts on town-country divide. Reluctant to embrace idea of Gay’s double allegiance, seeing him ultimately as a defender of rural values. Some problematic assumptions regarding Gay’s love life, but much here is still useful for modern readers.

  • Boas, Frederick S. An Introduction to Eighteenth-Century Drama, 1700–1780. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953.

    Chapter dedicated to Gay (pp. 167–190) is useful insofar as it touches upon most of his dramatic works, though it is of its time in the dismissive tone it sometimes adopts. Helpful as a summary.

  • Dugaw, Dianne. “Deep Play”: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001.

    A study rich in contextual information. Illustrations, musical examples, and dance diagrams help to connect Gay’s work to the wider culture of his time. Considerations of class, colonialism, and sexuality as presented in his writings build the case for Gay as channeling modern capitalist dynamics.

  • Forsgren, Adina. John Gay: Poet “of a Lower Order.” 2 vols. Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1964–1971.

    Two volumes published seven years apart, concerned with rural and urban poetry, respectively. A potentially awkward reference point for students and scholars due to its complicated ordering of chapters. Conveys breadth of Gay’s career through discussion of ideological contexts and recurring tropes. Conspicuously defensive in its claims for the author’s moral and artistic integrity.

  • Nokes, David. Raillery and Rage: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Satire. Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1987.

    Chapter on Gay (pp. 122–149) divided into sections on “Shepherds and Chimeras,” examining pastoral basis for Gay’s work, and “Businessman, Beggar-man, Thief,” exploring The Beggar’s Opera in particular. Valuable in demonstrating continuities in Gay’s career. Emphasizes importance of hybridity. An accessible introduction for students and others.

  • Spacks, Patricia Meyer. John Gay. New York: Twayne, 1965.

    More willing than Armens 1954 to identify contradiction and inconsistency in Gay’s work. Sometimes unhelpfully judgmental in analysis of his writing and his character, but there are valuable thoughts on sympathy as both a virtue and a destabilizing force for Gay. Shorter treatments of plays other than The Beggar’s Opera and Polly.

  • Sutherland, James. “John Gay.” In Pope and His Contemporaries: Essays Presented to George Sherburn. Edited by James L. Clifford and Louis A. Landa, 130–143. Oxford: Clarendon, 1949.

    Important in its time for establishing Gay as an author worthy of critical attention. Focuses on craftsmanship rather than ideas, and is probably best known for much-disputed claims about Gay’s fundamental childishness. Arguments should be treated with some wariness and set alongside more recent scholarship.

  • Winton, Calhoun. John Gay and the London Theatre. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1993.

    A more expansive and generous assessment of Gay’s dramatic output than was possible in Armens 1954 or Spacks 1965. Offers compelling reassessments of minor works such as The Mohocks (1712). Discussion of The Beggar’s Opera mainly concerned with Gay’s engagement with musical culture, perhaps unhelpfully identifying him as a forefather of modern musical theater.

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