Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With The Beggar’s Opera, John Gay established a new genre, the English ballad opera, replacing the previous British passion for Italian opera with a new appreciation of native folk songs. His work paved the way for the light operas of the nineteenth century, notably the works of Sir W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, and for the twentieth century musical.

Summary of Event

Of all the Tory writers who organized the Scriblerus Club Scriblerus Club in 1714, only John Gay had no reliable source of income. Jonathan Swift and Thomas Parnell were clergymen, John Arbuthnot was a prominent physician, and the father of Alexander Pope was a prosperous merchant. By contrast, after quitting an apprenticeship to a London mercer in 1706, Gay had to seek out wealthy patrons among the nobility who would be willing to take him in or otherwise to support him until he could realize enough profits from his writing to provide for himself. [kw]Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera (Jan. 29, 1728) [kw]Opera, Gay Produces the First Ballad (Jan. 29, 1728) [kw]Ballad Opera, Gay Produces the First (Jan. 29, 1728) [kw]First Ballad Opera, Gay Produces the (Jan. 29, 1728) Beggar’s Opera, The (Gay) Opera;ballad Ballad operas [g]England;Jan. 29, 1728: Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera[0720] [c]Theater;Jan. 29, 1728: Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera[0720] [c]Music;Jan. 29, 1728: Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera[0720] Gay, John Swift, Jonathan Pope, Alexander Rich, John Fenton, Lavinia

Thus, in 1712, Gay became a domestic steward in the household of the duchess of Monmouth. In 1714, he acted as secretary to Lord Clarendon on a diplomatic mission, but when Queen Anne died and the Tories were ousted from power, Gay lost that appointment. During the years that followed, he continued to cultivate connections with members of the nobility, hoping for preferment, but he was never offered a post that would pay even the expenses he incurred in the company of his potential patrons. Ironically, when he did make a considerable profit from the publication of Poems on Several Occasions (1720, 1731), Gay lost most of it in the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. It is probable that it was Gay whom Swift had in mind when he wrote to Pope in 1725 that among his friends were some “beggars.” None of Gay’s friends in the mid-1720’s could have had any idea how drastically his life was about to change.

When Swift suggested in 1716 that Gay write a “Newgate pastoral,” he was evidently thinking of a poem, not a dramatic production. However, several years later, Gay was inspired to write a ballad entitled “Newgate’s Garland: Being a New Ballad, Shewing How Mr. Jonathan Wild’s Throat was Cut, from Ear to Ear, with a Penknife by Mr. Blake, alias Blueskin, the Bold Highwayman, as He Stood at His Trial in the Old-Bailey” "Newgate’s Garland" (Gay)[Newgates Garland] (pr. 1724). Jonathan Wild was a real person, a notorious fence, and he had evidently “peached” Blake, or turned him in for a reward.

In 1724, the ballad was included in a pantomime performed at Drury Lane Theatre. The Newgate setting, the characters, and the situation all suggest the direction in which Gay’s mind was moving at that time. It is not known when he began writing The Beggar’s Opera (pr., pb. 1728), but he reported in the fall of 1727 that it was complete. However, at that time he still had hopes of a lucrative appointment, for the former prince and princess of Wales, whom he considered his patrons, were now king and queen of England. Again, Gay was disappointed: He was offered only a minimal post as gentleman usher to the two-year-old Princess Louisa. After declining the appointment, he wrote Swift that now nothing lay in his way, and he could devote all his energies to getting The Beggar’s Opera produced.

The first three theater managers Gay consulted turned down the work, evidently feeling that the public would not accept the odd combination of spoken words, popular music, folk tunes, and motifs from operas, of cant and high sentiments, of operatic arias sung by characters from low life. However, the duke and duchess of Queensbury, who would be lifelong friends of the playwright, evidently intervened with John Rich, the manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Company. They may well have served as financial guarantors for the production. In any case, the play went into rehearsal.

Lavinia Fenton, a beautiful but inexperienced young singer and actress, was cast as Polly Peachum, and after the role of Macheath was rejected by James Quin, who was the leading actor in Rich’s company, Thomas Walker was given the part. The music was in good hands: The overture had been composed and the tunes arranged by a well-known musician, John Christopher Pepusch. However, when the curtain went up on Monday night, January 29, 1728, Rich remained uncertain of the work’s success, and Gay’s friends sitting out front were just as skeptical. It was not until the second act that the actors begin to sense approval in the audience. By the end of the performance, everyone knew that what they called “the English opera” was a hit.

Interestingly, it was a couple of weeks before anyone began seeing in The Beggar’s Opera an attack on the Whig government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Walpole, Sir Robert but spectators were delighted with the idea that the work contained references to specific politicians who might well be found sitting in the audience. There were, of course, moralists who criticized the work as encouraging depravity, and opera lovers bitterly resented what they saw as a satire of Italian opera and an attempt to replace it with an inferior sort of entertainment.

How little attention most Londoners paid to such criticisms is evident because in its opening season, The Beggar’s Opera had an amazing run of sixty-two nights. Lavinia Fenton, as Polly, was so popular that her portrait appeared on playing cards, fans, and screens. On the final night of the run, however, another actress appeared in the part of Polly, and all of London soon discovered that Fenton had run off with the duke of Bolton, who had long been estranged from his wife. The duke and Fenton lived together happily, producing three sons. After his wife’s death in 1751, the duke married his mistress, and the former Polly Peachum became the duchess of Bolton.

The production was immensely profitable for John Rich, and though John Gay did not realize as much from it, he had gained both a prestige and a financial security that he had never known before. Even the fact that the Walpole government refused to allow Gay’s sequel, Polly Polly (Gay) (pb. 1729), to be performed in public did not result in financial losses for the writer. Gay realized a large sum from the publication of Polly in 1729.

The Beggar’s Opera caused a rift between Gay and his longtime patron, the earl of Burlington, who blamed Gay for the decline of attendance at performances of Italian opera and the resulting demise of the Royal Academy of Music. Royal Academy of Music, London However, when the chief composer at the Royal Academy, George Frideric Handel, abandoned the opera in favor of the oratorio, he was unknowingly establishing his future reputation: It is not for the operas he wrote but for oratorios like Messiah (1742) that Handel is now best known.


The Beggar’s Opera was performed in London at least once a year throughout the remaining years of the eighteenth century and often in the nineteenth. Renewed interest in the work was stimulated by Nigel Playfair’s 1926 revival at the Lyric Theatre in London, and since that time it has frequently been performed. It has also been reworked as a contemporary satire. In 1928, with the Nazis coming into power in Germany, the writer Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill collaborated on Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928, pb. 1929; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), an adaptation of Gay’s libretto. Similarly, in 1975, the Czechoslovakian writer and anti-Communist activist Václav Havel wrote Žebrácká opera (pr. 1975, pb. 1977; The Beggar’s Opera, 1976), and in 1984, the British writer Alan Ayckbourn staged A Chorus of Disapproval (pr. 1984, pb. 1985), satirizing Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.

Although the success of The Beggar’s Opera led immediately to the writing of inferior imitations, later in the eighteenth century the new form of ballad opera attracted respected composers like Charles Dibdin, Thomas Arne, and Stephen Storace. It also influenced the German Singspiel, a form that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart utilized in 1782 for Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1926?). Late in the nineteenth century, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan drew upon the ballad opera tradition for their popular light operas, which in turn inspired the modern musical.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brückmann, Patricia Carr. A Manner of Correspondence: A Study of the Scriblerus Club. Montreal, Que.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Notes how the works of this group reflected their shared attitudes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dugaw, Dianne.“Deep Play”: John Gay and the Invention of Modernity. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001. Focuses on Gay’s use of popular forms. Includes illustrations, musical examples, and dance diagrams.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, Peter, and Nigel Wood, eds. John Gay and the Scriblerians. London: Vision Press, 1988. An important collection of critical essays. Chronology and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nicholson, Colin. Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century. Reprint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Shows how writers like Gay reveal their ambivalence toward the new capitalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nokes, David. John Gay: A Profession of Friendship. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A full-length biography, based on extensive research. Annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearce, Charles E. Polly Peachum: The Story of Lavinia Fenton and “The Beggar’s Opera.” Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1968. A detailed theatrical history. Contains more than forty full-page illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Winton, Calhoun. John Gay and the London Theatre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993. The standard work on Gay’s theatrical career.

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Queen Anne; George II; George Frideric Handel; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Alexander Pope; Jonathan Swift; Robert Walpole. Beggar’s Opera, The (Gay) Opera;ballad Ballad operas

Categories: History