Gay is never straight. Happy 331st Birthday John.
John Gay is 331 years old today. One of the funniest authors of his age, he penned the most successful original theatrical entertainment of the Anglophone eighteenth-century, creating something that has a claim to be regarded as the world’s first hit musical. And he wrote a bunch of other interesting stuff as well.
Like other early eighteenth-century writers, he’s depicted wearing a turban rather than the full-bottomed wig that made people look like Brian May.
The turban denotes a kind a domestic intimacy, a disengagement from public life, a life unbuttoned and focused on more rarefied pursuits.
The upwardly urgent son of a silk mercer, John Gay was anxious to belong to an elite of some kind and nervous about his status. Gay was also, of course, a Scriblerian. The Scriblerian Club of self important Augustan authors were like the Travelling Wilburies of the early eighteenth-century – so oddly less than the sum of their parts. The effort of figuring out the extent to which the Scriblerian Club was a functioning authorial project has exercised the talents of people like me (but not me) for a very long time.
That remarkably messy and enjoyable farce Three Hours After Marriage was mostly Gay with Scriblerian input. Complete with a hilarious scene set in a room full of Egyptian antiquities, with nervous lovers disguised as mummies and crocodiles moving around at the back and freezing, this adult pantomime would have been fought over a bit more had it done better with the critics and with the box office.
But it’s The Beggar’s Opera which, of course, secures his immortality. A ballad opera, this so-called (Swift-called?) “Newgate Pastoral” has songs that people can already sing on the way in rather than the way out – making it the eerie precursor to such lamentable non-musicals as Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You. Unlike these opportunistic collages, however, The Beggar’s Opera is all about subverting expectations – finding inappropriate words to well known melodies. Centuries before Chicago, Beggar’s Opera is the world’s first death-row musical – yet he deliberately undermines yet exploits any incipient generic expectations by tagging on a deliberately ludicrous happy ending that is satisfying and yet unsettling in equal measure and reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player.
Because Gay can’t even think straight. Just about every other writer you can think of, will sometime bowl a straight ball – will sometimes say exactly what’s on their mind, will produce something that isn’t a parody or a subversion. But whether he’s writing about pastoral (and he’s usually writing about pastoral) or about urban romance (which is itself a version of pastoral), he is determined to travesty. He bounces back and forth between burlesque and mock heroic and retains a peculiar integrity by so doing. Never being serious is a kind of serious business – a kind of dogged and heroic professional and existential obligation.
Go see the birthday boy in Westminster Abbey. Self-Penned Epitaph.
“Life is a jest; and all things show it, I thought so once; but now I know it”.