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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 12. The Beggar’s Opera and Polly

Whenever he was off duty with the Queensberrys, Gay—always “inoffensive”—sought the society of Congreve, Prior, Arbuthnot and, above all, of Swift. To Swift’s visit to England in 1736 was, in part, due Gay’s next venture, The Beggar’s Opera, which—unless an exception be made in favour of Lillo’s London Merchant (1731)—may be described as the first popular success of the modern English stage. It ran for the unprecedented, though not uninterrupted, space of sixty-two days, beginning 29 January, 1728, and continued a triumphant career in Bath, Bristol and other towns in the country, and even in the colonies. Like not a few jeux d’esprit of the day, it sprang from a saying of Swift, who observed to Gay that a Newgate pastoral might make “an odd pretty sort of thing”; and Gay wrote most of it at Twickenham when in the same house with Pope and Swift, whose opinion was that it was either very bad or very good. As often in comic opera, it was one of the numbers,

  • O ponder well! be not severe
  • that turned the scale and made the play an irresistible success, out of which Gay gleaned about £800.

    Polly became the town darling, her songs were painted on fans and the actress who performed the part captured a duke for life. The factions of the day recognised Walpole (who led the applause on the first night) and Townshend in Peachum and Lockit. The Beggar’s Opera, it was said, made Gay rich, and Rich (the manager) gay. Its literary value is very small, except historically as a link between the masque and the vaudeville. For the time, it superseded French and Italian opera, and made a new opening for English lyric on the stage. A sequel was prohibited by the lord chamberlain, and was promptly printed, the fortunate author making £1200 by Polly (as it was called), to which the duchess of Marlborough contributed £100 for a single copy.